Architecture is about more than buildings. It's about the hopes and dreams of the people who live or work within their walls, and about the people who came before them. If you've ever walked by a beautiful old building and wished you could come inside and meet the owner, Doors Open Ontario can take you there. Hundreds of public buildings and private homes will be open for viewing in communities across Ontario between April and October. If you're in Muskoka, be sure to drop by and see architect Catherine Nasmith, shown in centre in black with short dark hair in this family reunion photo, taken at her heritage home in Windermere. (Photo courtesy Catherine Nasmith Architect)

Doors Open Ontario makes it fun and easy to discover
the beauty, inspiration in our built and natural heritage

The Colosseum. The Eiffel Tower. The Taj Mahal. The Great Pyramids. The Sistine Chapel. The Statue of Liberty. They are among the world’s most visited buildings and monuments, cherished as much for their beauty as for their history and sense of place. Most of us would be more than willing to strap ourselves into an airplane and travel halfway around the globe for the opportunity to view these architectural landmarks up close and personal, whatever the entrance fee.  

While Europe, with its centuries-old cathedrals and castles and museums, might be the most popular place to seek out beautiful built heritage, you need not travel far from home, or open your wallet, for a taste of inspiring architecture.  

From April to October, Doors Open Ontario invites you to come on in to experience firsthand some of this province’s hidden built and natural treasures, from Canada’s first underground railway tunnel in Brockville to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden to Inglis Falls in Owen Sound.  

“We live in an unbelievably beautiful land and we take a lot of it for granted,” says Catherine Nasmith, an architect who has fought to save Ontario’s built heritage from the wrecking ball for many years.  

Doors Open, she says, is a great opportunity to discover the beauty in our own backyard. “Open Doors can be very uplifting,” she tells “A lot of our everyday environment is not very nice. It’s not architecture — it doesn’t say much about our human spirit or what we care about. Doors Open makes people look again at where they live and why it’s so beautiful.”  

Doors Open Ontario, which evolved from a similar program introduced to Toronto by Nasmith in 2000 as a millennium project, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The program is coordinated by the Ontario Heritage Trust, which helps communities organize individual Doors Open events. Since 2002, heritage sites participating in Doors Open Ontario have had nearly four million visits.  

A boost to civic pride

“It has provided a means for communities to rediscover and re-evaluate their heritage through the efforts of local volunteers,” says Thomas Symons, chairman of the Ontario Heritage Trust. “It has also been highly successful in boosting civic pride, generating awareness of local heritage, increasing tourism and stimulating local economies.”  

According to Symons, visitors have left more than $13.5 million behind in participating communities.  Many of Ontario’s waterfront communities will be holding Doors Open events this year — some in the spring and early summer, others in late summer and fall — including several in Muskoka.   

This year, Nasmith is opening her own doors to the public once again, as part of Doors Open Muskoka — Bala, Port Carling and Windermere. Nasmith and her urban designer husband, Robert Allsop, will invite visitors to see their home and office in Windermere on June 25. Nasmith, who also lives in Toronto, converted Windermere’s former general store and post office into a residence and work space, paying particular attention to bringing back the building’s original character.  

Nasmith, who said the property’s renovation remains “a work in progress,” says she fell in love with the old general store, built in 1885, and just had to buy it. The Windermere Road property, which also includes an icehouse, stone root house and cottage up the hill — all of which will be open for viewing — happens to be located across the street from the hotel where she got married.  

The architect, who specializes in heritage research and restoration — she is the publisher of Built Heritage News — looks forward to opening her doors at Windermere.  “We learned a hell of a lot,” Nasmith chuckles as she remembers her first Doors Open a few years ago. “It had been a general store and a post office, so a lot of the local people who came in had ties to the place. They would tell us stories — we found out a whole lot about the building and who owned it.”  

For anyone who loves snooping in other people’s homes — and histories — Doors Open Ontario provides the perfect venue. There’s something for everyone, whether your interest is architecture, history, nature or all of the above.  

There are inns to visit — without having to rent a bed for the night! — cemeteries to browse through, stars to gaze at and a farm or two to give you a taste of country life. There are churches to admire, trains to touch and national historic sites to inspire you, all open without charge.  

“It’s great fun,” Nasmith says of Doors Open. “You can plan all your weekends and see something you’ve never seen before all spring and summer long, right into October.”  

An idea borrowed from Europe

Nasmith, winner of the 2010 Jane Jacobs Prize for her work in helping to build stronger communities, found her Doors Open inspiration in Scotland, after catching up with a distant cousin, also an architect. Promoting and protecting buildings runs in the family — Sir James Dunbar Nasmith has been knighted for his work in heritage conservation. Heritage tours have long been popular in Scotland, and have spread across Europe, where the first  Doors Open Day was held in France in 1984.  Doors Open-style European Heritage Days are now celebrated throughout Europe.  

As Nasmith sees it, the land and the environment is a gift and “we don’t have the right to demolish it.” Through programs like Doors Open, she says people’s eyes are opened to the beauty that is around us in our built and natural heritage. “It creates an appetite for more,” Nasmith says, adding that an appreciation for what we have is the first step in conservation.

To mark the 10th anniversary of Doors Open Ontario, the heritage trust is creating a scrapbook of testimonials and photographs from visitors. If you have any comments or photos to contribute to the scrapbook, you’re asked to send them to Select entries may also be published in the anniversary edition of the Doors Open Ontario 2011 Guide.  

What are you waiting for?  Snooping season is officially underway. There are several new communities on the Doors Open tour this year, including Deseronto-Napanee and Highlands East. Check out the Doors Open Ontario schedule online now and find out what’s happening in and around your community. — April 2011