Collingwood has its very own time machine, splendidly refurbished and sitting in the midst of the now vibrant corner of St. Paul and Simcoe streets. It is, of course, the newly re-opened Tremont House and its walls are ready to speak, with a little assistance from sisters Theresa Armitage and Nora (Armitage) Paisley, former residents of the once busy hotel.
In 1936, John (Jack) Armitage returned to Collingwood from Langham, Saskatchewan, with his wife, Kathleen, and three daughters, Mary, Nora and Theresa. Kathleen (Simmons), a Collingwood native, met Jack when he worked at the Collingwood shipyards. Having worked in the hotel business out west, Jack bought Tremont House, a once fine, but by then neglected three-storey, 24-room hotel.
Theresa recalls touring the dusty, vacant building while her father counted the dollars and cents needed to bring Tremont House back to life. The smell of burnt embers permeated the place, in spite of long-empty fireplaces; and with no heat in the building, the damp had crept in. A staircase just inside the front lobby led to the second floor, and through the back, another staircase led to both upper floors. Theresa remembers the fire-scarred banister—which she and her sisters slid down for years—and charred floor boards on the second floor. Jack Armitage was a shrewd and experienced hotelier. He knew the owner of Tremont House was selling under duress; his attempt to burn his building down deprived him of his right to property ownership.
Armitage purchased Tremont House for $4,000, half its previous purchase price 14 years earlier, and set to work restoring its reputation as a modest, well-appointed hotel and boarding house. There was little in the living and dining rooms on the main floor—they were gloriously decorated with wall murals painted by an artist known only by his signature, “R. Flude.” A spectacularly realistic waterfall greeted guests in the entrance hallway and visitors marvelled at Flude’s frescoes on the plaster walls. On the living room ceiling a reclining figure, heavily draped in the Renaissance style, suggests Flude may have been a classically trained artist. The Armitage girls learned from an early age to greet guests and help with chores, though they never learned to cook. The kitchen was the domain of professional chefs who were frequently brought in from Toronto, until Wilfred Sheffield retired from his job as a ships’ cook and contributed his cooking expertise to the Tremont’s fine amenities.
The time machine spins us back a few more decades, to an empty lot at Second and St. Paul streets.
The year is 1889 and the enterprising John J. McCormick, a 22-year-old Collingwood native is describing his grand plans for a finely-appointed hotel, with a fireplace in every room, large and well-furnished common areas and an excellent dining and beverage room. “Collingwood is poised to become a tourist magnet. We need only provide the right place of rest and respite, and they will come! By steamship, by rail, tourists and businessmen will step off the train and walk a few yards from the station to our front door,” enthuses McCormick. He is speaking with John Chamberlain, a local builder of good reputation; but Chamberlain shakes his head at McCormick’s planned opening date. “You’re asking the impossible!” he exclaims. “This is March. The ground is barely thawed and you’re talking of opening for summer guests!” McCormick tweeks his moustache, and, without hesitation shakes Chamberlain’s hand heartily. “Excellent, Chamberlain. I knew you were the right man!”
Chamberlain did accomplish the near-impossible, delivering McCormick’s dream in scarcely three months. On June 27, 1889, Tremont House opened its doors to much fanfare and for many years afterward, enjoyed brisk activity, earning the admiration and loyalty of well-heeled guests. In 1922, McCormick sold the property to Alfred Cook, but remained in residence next door until his death in 1938. His success in business had resulted in extensive holdings, including cattle and other livestock overseen by his manager, Andy Fawcett. Reportedly, Andy, a plain-speaking farmer, was the unwitting tutor of McCormick’s infamously potty-mouthed parrot.
The time machine beckons us forward to 1952. Jack Armitage, a widower and in failing health, left the hotel business behind that year. Tremont House was sold to Bill Dowling, who had for some time operated the hotel dining room independently as a restaurant. The Armitages took up residence on Elgin Street and ran their large, gracious home as a boarding house, managed primarily by Mary, while Theresa worked as a nurse for Drs. McKay and Storey, and Nora worked as a court reporter.
Returning to the present, it is September 17, 2010 and Nora and Theresa Armitage stand at the window that overlooks the former site of the railway station, where as children they watched travellers arrive and take the short jaunt to the popular Tremont House. “The Lexes have done a beautiful job with this building,“ they say. “Daddy would be so happy.”