The Christmas House
Greetings! Welcome to the WRX Property Group website and blog. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be embarking on a special project.
As you may know, Kitchener-Waterloo has quite a few designated Heritage Sites and Heritage Properties – particularly in and around the Downtown and Uptown areas. We will be investigating some of these historic homes and properties, and sharing our findings with you!
There’s a fair bit of variety amongst these Heritage Sites and Properties, but today’s home bears a special distinction, and it is this special distinction that earns it the honour of ‘First Article’ in this brand new series. What is its special distinction? Why, it’s the Christmas House!
Turning Back the Clock
The Christmas House, which stands at 36 Young Street West in Waterloo, has been ‘the Christmas House’ for over half a century now. A familiar sight to anyone strolling north of Uptown Waterloo, it’s become widely admired throughout Kitchener-Waterloo over its decades as the Christmas House.
But the house’s overall history actually stretches even further back into the mists of time. So before we delve into the Christmas tradition that Waterluvians have come to love, let’s look at the story of this particular home.
Willing and Abe-le
If you’ve read many of our articles on Waterloo, then you may have noticed one name popping up regularly: Abraham Erb. Credited as the founder of Waterloo, good ol’ Abe Erb was the first of a wave of Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania to call what was to become Waterloo home (in 1806).
Among other things, Abe Erb kick-started local industry with a pair of mills, and fought for access to education. As a testament to his success, the top-ranked Abraham Erb Public School still bears his name, as does the popular Abe Erb restaurant and brewery.
Barnabas Devitt , son of Mary Martin and recent Irish immigrant to New Jersey Dennis Devitt (initially DeWit), came to Waterloo in 1817 to live on a farm. Orphaned (or, more likely, abandoned) at the age of 11, he ended up being adopted by Abraham Erb.
After Abraham’s death in 1830, Abe’s wife Magdalena granted over 300 acres of land to Barnabas.
Barnabas married a different woman named Magdalena (née Shoemaker, another prominent local family), and in 1849, they built a brand new home on their property: Devitt House, it was called.
The Devitt’s in the Details
It is a beautiful home. In contrast to the balanced regularity favoured by the Georgian-style homes nearby, Devitt had his home built in a Victorian Gothic style, with stylistic flourishes, ornamentation, and a façade that remains distinctive to this day.
As it turned out, the Devitts only lived here for a couple years. And for the next several decades, the Devitt House transitioned from one owner to the next, never quite settling on a particularly long-term owner. That is, until the mid-1940s, nearly a century after it was first built.
Dr. Voelker Walks in
Dr. Philip Voelker and his wife, Viva ‘Curly’ Voelker, both in their 20s, purchased the Devitt farm house in 1940. Over the decades, the chain of previous owners hadn’t prioritized the maintenance of this lovely property.
But that was no matter: the Voelkers set to work restoring and revitalizing the property, and after that initial work was done, maintaining it.
During World War II, Dr. Voelker served as a Squadron Leader in the Canadian Air Force, and then as Commanding Officer of the Convalescent Hospital. Viva Voelker was a Toronto General Hospital-educated RN, and served as Dr. Voelker’s nurse and secretary.
Dr. Voelker would also serve as Kitchener-Waterloo’s Medical Officer of Health for nearly thirty years.
When winter rolled around, as Dr. Voelker worked at the war rehabilitation hospital in Hamilton, he decided to erect a Christmas tree on the hospital’s second storey porch. Much to his delight, the patients absolutely loved it. And so, Dr. Voelker decided to do it at his home in Waterloo, too.
The Christmas House
Every year, the Voelkers would pull a ten-foot tall balsam fir – a Christmas tree – up to the ornate, second-floor porch of their house – the Christmas House.
And what a sight it was: the sage green of the tree stands out against the white façade of the home, and all is resplendently illuminated by dozens of lights.
The house stands in a rather prominent location, right at the corner of Young Street West and Albert Street. To the west is the entrance of beautiful Waterloo Park; to the south, Uptown Waterloo; and if you follow the street far enough to the north, you’ll reach the Wilfrid Laurier University campus. You can read more about the neighbourhood – MacGregor Albert – in our article on it.
For now, back to the house!
The Voelkers didn’t stop this tradition, and word spread quickly throughout Waterloo and even on to Kitchener. Much like the first robin signifying the first stirrings of spring, or the turning of the leaves calling attention to autumn’s arrival, the brightly-lit Christmas tree standing on the second-storey balcony meant Christmas was here in Waterloo.
The house – now known not simply as Devitt House, but rather Devitt-Voelker House, in honour of the work the Voelkers had put into restoring the property and creating a treasured, new tradition – was designated a Heritage Property in 1977.
As the Voelkers got older, having children and then grandchildren of their own, the task of bringing the tree all the way up to the second storey would be shared by friends and family alike. But whoever was doing the lifting, every year the tree was there.
Dr. Philip Voelker passed away in 1995, but Viva Voelker ensured the tradition carried on. The Voelker children would help out, and then the Voelker grandchildren. Viva lived to be 102 years old; she passed away in 2017.
O Christmas House
And now, the Christmas House – which, as we now know, is not just the Christmas House, but also the Devitt-Voelker House – has been put up for sale. What does this mean going forward? Well, it’s unclear.
What is clear is that, for the 55 years that the Voelkers lived in the Christmas House, the famous tree atop the second-storey balcony became a very special part of the season not just for the family, but also for the neighbourhood, and any Kitchener-Waterluvian who happened to pass it by.
Waterloo’s Christmas House has earned its place in the pantheon of Kitchener-Waterloo Heritage properties twice over.
And whether a tree pops up on its second storey balcony next year, or the year after, or perhaps not at all, the Christmas House can serve as a demonstration of the positive impact one family’s little tradition can have on the wider community.
Written by Will Kummer