Stratford Inn was home to inventor Thomas Edison: How We Live
By Alex Newman Living
Sat., July 1, 2017
Sometimes the search for an oasis leads down a path to an even busier life.
Bruce Whittaker, 53, and his partner Shawn Atlee, 45, found that out after adopting son Andrew in 2006. They were living in Toronto and, as new parents, hankered for a simpler lifestyle that was more connected to nature.
After making the decision to leave the city, they set their sights 150 kilometres westward — on Stratford: a city of about 35,000 people with a historic vibe emanating from heritage buildings that include the National Historic Site City Hall, and vibrant arts culture led by its renowned live Shakespearean theatre.
The couple had an initial housing budget of $450,000. But they soon realized it bought way too much house for what they had in mind to simplify their family life. So they lowered the budget to $200,000 and found the ideal house — small and close to the school.
Within a few years, they expanded their family by adopting Quintin, now 8, and Jayden, 11, brothers who had been living apart. With three children, life was suddenly full.
The kids are high-energy boys, with emotional and academic needs. It means much back and forth with the school, and spare time filled with soccer, baseball, Scouts, homework, cross-country running. While it sounds crazy busy, it’s also a framework of a solid structure for the youngsters.
Though not busy enough, it seems.
When a historic, two-storey property on Ontario St. went on the market — once an inn but with only its ground-floor coffee shop operating — Whittaker and Atlee snapped it up for $357,000. Their concept for an inn changed after taking the boys to India to expose them to a bigger world than small town Ontario. “It was a wonderful trip but overwhelming, taking three young boys, and the hotel became a sanctuary away from the non-stop sights, sounds, smells, general busy-ness,” says Whittaker, formerly an executive in the corporate world.
“That really impacted the way we developed the hotel, and wanted to create a similar kind of oasis.”
And Atlee, a registered nurse at a seniors’ facility, liked having a place apart from home where he could go on a Saturday morning with coffee and paper, sit on a bed overlooking the Avon River, and have an hour of quiet.
Left untouched for more than 70 years, the 1845-built structure was a mess. It required substantial plumbing, electrical and structural improvements. Their demolition crew appeared as if by magic from Toronto: all of them former members of inner city basketball team Whittaker had coached for eight years in Parkdale.
Contractors were hired to frame walls, update electrical and plumbing, and install drywall. Whittaker and Atlee tackled the decorative aspects: tiling, painting and sourcing lighting, bath fixtures and furniture from antique stores, local artisans and contemporary home stores.
They re-opened the café — newly named Edison’s from its former moniker Slave to the Grind. And its new name carries some significance: Thomas Edison lived in the building when he moved to Stratford briefly, at age 16 in 1863, for his first job as a telegrapher. In fact, a glass-fronted wall niche is filled with memorabilia — cartridges, voice recorder, and an excerpt from an 1863 Stratford Beacon Herald article. Locally commissioned artwork in the café depicts his inventions and various timelines.
On the upstairs floors of Edison’s Café Bar & Inn is another nod to the building’s history: A section of wall has been cut back to reveal layers of wallpaper used over the decades since the inn was built. Guest suites are themed — the Café Suite is directly connected to the shop downstairs; the Music Suite has books about music, vinyl albums and an oversized abstract art piece of Justin Bieber; the Chill-Out room includes games and selected novels to get lost in.
As well, each room has a connection to the outside world: pebbles from Lake Huron, headboards made of barnboard, twisted branches. There’s a historical connection through salvaged items: shutters made out of doors from the original post office; old joists used to make book shelves; original windows used as frames for photographs.
Modern convenience and technology plays a major role in relaxation, with turntables, large smart TVs, full range sound systems, very comfortable beds with high thread count sheets and luxurious towels.
Whittaker hopes the inn will provide the kind of respite for others as it does for them. To that end, they’ve eliminated a reservation desk and concierge — people book, pay and get the key code online. Next year, they’ll introduce road trips like antiques shopping, river rafting, biking the Goderich to Guelph Rail Trail, a Retro excursion with drive-in theatre and hot dogs, tours of the area’s Amish and Hutterite farms and market, and theatre at Blythe, Stratford and Grand Bend.
The inn also plays an important role for the family, and their time bonding as a family. It’s where they spend a weekend together — or all of March Break — sketching, reading, playing board games, watching Netflix, hanging out in the café.
Sometimes the boys go over to the inn on their own. “Edison’s is their oasis, too,” Whittaker says, “and a way to get away from the Dad. It also allows me to get some very interesting feedback.”
As well, another kind of structure has revealed itself to the family because “the house is never this clean or organized,” Atlee says. The irony, at least for now, is that he and Whittaker are the sole cleaning staff. Once the inn becomes more established, they plan to hire cleaning staff — but at the moment Atlee’s expert hospital corners will have to do.
6 months: Length of time Thomas Edison lived at the inn.
$25: Edison’s monthly income in 1863.
1, possibly 2: Things Edison invented while living at 46 Ontario St. One was a machine that would automatically send signals to train operators every hour after 9 p.m., allowing Edison to nap or do other things. The other invention, though not well documented, was the mouse trap which he neglected to patent.
15: Truckloads of renovation debris taken from the inn.
17: Artifacts found in the walls, including old newspapers and children’s story books.
Infinite: Ghosts at the inn, with a penchant for turning on lights