Hello from Ontario – Hospitality at
the Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast in Windsor
Finally it was time for another excursion. As a true architecture
buff, Detroit had been on my radar for a long time, and I definitely
wanted to explore this unique city in detail. So for the last few
weeks I had been working with Visitdetroit, the city's visitor and
convention office, to map out a detailed itinerary of the city that
would expose me to all sorts of unique facets of the Motor City.
The sun is setting behind the Ambassador Bridge
After a hectic day at the office on October 16, 2009 I finally
got going at about 2:30 pm and arrived in Windsor, on the Canadian
side of the Detroit River, shortly before 7 pm. I drove straight
to the waterfront to catch the last few rays of sunshine that still
lit up the skyline. Orange and purple hues formed the backdrop of
the Ambassador Bridge that connects Canada and the United States.
A stunning night-time skyline of Detroit was taking shape. Surrounded
by various historic and contemporary skyscrapers, the impressive
multi-tower headquarters of General Motors were glittering on the
other side of the river. The squeeling of the wheels of the Detroit
People Mover, an elevated light rapid transit system, could be heard
wafting across the water.
View from Windsor across the Detroit River
I checked in at the Argyle
Manor Bed and Breakfast, a historic Edwardian mansion built
in 1923, actually the former rectory of St. Anne's Church, in the
Walkerville area of Windsor. My hosts Dr. Paul and Kerri Thomas
welcomed me and showed me the entire mansion. Dr. Thomas filled
me in on many of the historic and architectural details. My accommodation
was in a beautiful suite that featured a private bathroom, a bedroom
and a spacious living room with fireplace.
My cozy bedroom at Argyle Manor B&B
My stomach was growling by now and my local experts gave me a few
ideas for dinner. Based on their suggestions I drove to Erie Street,
Windsor’s Little Italy, but it was very quiet there this Thursday
evening. Instead I made my way to the waterfront where I had a relaxing
meal at the Keg, a large casual restaurant that was packed with
people. My table was right in front of the panorama windows that
featured an impressively illuminated skyline of Detroit.
Detroit's brilliant night-time skyline
After a good night’s sleep I sat down to interview my hosts
and learn a bit more about them and their business. But first I
had breakfast, one of those really hearty breakfasts that you only
get at a bed and breakfast. My first course was a fruit salad that
was accompanied by freshly baked muffins made from self-rising flour
and ice cream (today’s flavour was double-churned strawberry)
as well as a “garbage bag omelette”. Naturally I had
to inquire about the unique name of this dish, and Dr. Thomas explained
that to produce a true “garbage bag omelette” all the
ingredients are placed in a clear plastic bag and boiled in hot
water. Accompanying the egg dish were different types of toast:
seven-grain, brown and white.
Ready for breakfast
Dr. Thomas went on to say that he prepares a wide variety of egg
dishes for his guests, including different types of omelettes and
Eggs Benedict. In his dry humour, he explained that, with the help
of his guests, he has done a double-blind study and scientifically
determined that brown eggs do indeed have a better taste. He also
uses Uncle Richards’ Maple Syrup and Barbecue Sauce, made
by a farmer from Priceville, Ontario, who arguably makes the best
Maple Syrup in the world (according to his own assessement anyway).
View across the Detroit River
Running a bed and breakfast always involves interesting guest stories,
and one of Argyle Manor's most interesting stories unfolded one
day when a French couple came to stay in April a few years ago.
Then the couple returned in July and asked if it was okay if they
could bring a newborn. Dr. Thomas and his wife were surprised since
the woman had not been pregnant during the couple’s stay three
months earlier. Finally it turned out that the couple had found
a surrogate mother in Windsor who gave birth to a baby in July,
six weeks prematurely. The couple stayed with the Thomas’s
for three weeks after the arrival of their newborn baby, much longer
than the average leisure traveler.
My breakfast is ready, including the garbage bag omelette
Quite frequently business travelers will also stay for extended
periods at Argyle Manor. Windsor, due to its location right next
to Detroit, is a big automotive manufacturing centre, and many business
travelers come into town for professional reasons. One time a couple
from Minnesota stayed with the Thomas’ for five months. The
husband was a millwright working in the automotive industry and
was here to install robots. His wife helped Kerri decorate the house,
and the two couples are still in touch. Sometimes guests turn into
friends in a bed and breakfast.
Inukshuk at the Windsor waterfront
Another celebrity, an artist by the name of Blake Richardson, also
stayed at Argyle
Manor B&B. Dr. Thomas explained that he is the type of artist
who sees hidden objects in everyday images. To demonstrate this
he showed me a calendar by the artist entitled “Images found
in nature”. Dozens of hidden objects were painted on an image
of Niagara Falls, all hidden images that the artist had seen in
the seemingly random patterns of the waterfall.
Origami art at the Argyle Manor Bed & Breakfast
One time a European couple, the husband was from Germany and his
wife from Poland, stayed at Argyle Manor, and neither one of them
spoke good English. As a result, the conversations were very limited.
But apparently these European travelers liked their abode since
the couple stayed for nine days. Due to language restrictions, the
interaction was essentially restricted to “thank you –
bye bye”. Nevertheless, a good time was had by all.
Of course, running a bed and breakfast is no easy task. Especially
when you buy an empty church rectory that still needs to be converted
into a functional hospitality establishment. Dr. Thomas explained
that even getting insurance for his building was initially a tough
challenge. The old house still had outdated knob and tube wiring
and galvanized plumbing. The insurance company would not cover the
property until the knob and tube wiring was replaced.
The Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast
Severing the rectory building from the rest of the church property
was another ordeal that took three to four months. Add to that three
to four more months for rezoning to make it an official bed and
breakfast property. The Thomas’ have a good friend, Wayne
Strong, the owner of the nearby Ye Olde Walkerville Bed and Breakfast,
who was already running a bed and breakfast in Windsor and provided
extremely helpful advice to the couple.
The fire code required that the entire property be hardwired with
a smoke alarm. Some of the building regulations contradicted one
another, causing additional delays in sorting them out. The back
stairway needed to be a second exit, otherwise the couple would
have had to install special metal self-closing doors. One of the
rooms by the back stairway is not allowed to have any furniture
in it for fire safety reasons. Dr. Paul and Kerri Thomas had to
deal with a lot of red tape to get this property converted into
a bed and breakfast.
Sculpture at the Windsor waterfront
Now that I knew more about the property I also wanted to find out
more about my hosts. I learned that Dr. Paul Thomas was a professor
and basketball coach at the University of Saskatchewan, San Fernando
Valley State College in California, and the University of Windsor.
He also coached Canada's basketball team at the Olympic Games and
the World University Games, and is in several Halls of Fame. As
an expert in human kinetics and ergonomics, Dr. Thomas offered consulting
services for many years to large corporate clients such as General
Motors and General Electric to implement more ergonomic work processes.
For a time he also had his own sports medicine clinic.
Dr. Paul and Kerri Thomas
Although he is officially retired, Dr. Thomas is now the athletic
director at a private school. He still coaches basketball and also
coached Canada’s Olympic basketball team. His daughter Misty
is also an Olympian, having played on Canada's Olympic Team in the
Los Angeles Olympics. Now, because of countless knee surgeries,
she is eligible to play wheelchair basketball and is on Canada's
national team and played in the Bejing Olympics. Misty is the first
athlete to have played in the regular olympics and the para-olympics.
Walkerville Collegiate Institute - just steps from Argyle Manor
His other children are actively involved in high level sports
as well. Athletics definitely run in the family: Dr. Thomas’s
older son Scott played basketball on his dad's teams and also played
pro-ball in Australia. His other son Brett is a volleyball coach.
Kerri Thomas herself is also an accomplished athlete. She is a human
kinetics graduate and plays elite level basketball, slo-pitch, floor
hockey and volleyball. She works as a sports medicine therapist
and loves her profession.
Another look at the Detroit skyline
After I finished breakfast I was ready to embark on some brief discoveries
of Windsor. Just before I headed out the couple gave me some special
tips on how to get rid of my plantar fasciitis that I had acquired
in one of this summer’s tennis games. Dr. Thomas also explained
various different pieces of physiotherapy equipment that are located
at the couple’s house. There was no doubt that I was dealing
with two experts of human kinetics here.
Historical townhouses in Walkerville
I had a couple of hours before my planned border crossing to Detroit,
so I took a walk in the surrounding Walkerville area, a historic
neighbourhood that was developed by Hiram Walker, the distillery
owner of Canadian Club Whiskey fame. The distillery started in 1856
and Walkerville was originally a housing development for workers
at his distillery. It also featured a number of upscale mansions
for managers at Hiram Walker. The workers’ townhouses were
built from 1858 onwards and are still in great shape today. The
entire neighbourhood features leafy historic streets with attractive
houses dating back to the Victorian times.
The grandeur of Willistead Manor
My stroll in the neighbourhood continued to Willistead Manor, the
original mansion of the Walker family that today is a city park.
The 36-room mansion was built between 1904 and 1906 and was designed
by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn. It is surrounded by coachhouses
and a large estate that is offen used for weddings, receptions and
special events. The parkland surrounding the mansion is a popular
destination for local joggers and dogwalkers.
Part of the Odette Sculpture Park at the Windsor waterfront
After my brief neighbourhood walk I picked up my suitcase and said
goodbye to my gracious hosts at the Argyle
Manor Bed & Breakfast. To indulge in a few more local explorations,
I briefly stopped at the Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery on the
banks of the Detroit River, east of downtown Windsor. The company
offers guided factory tours, but I did not have enough time to sample
one. Today Canadian Club Whisky Company is part of the Pernod Ricard
beverage empire and still going strong. Part of the expansive Hiram
Walker complex, the Heritage Centre is a gorgeous early 19th century
red brick Italianate building. This is also the starting point for
the guided tours of the Canadian Club facility.
The Hiram Walker Heritage Centre
With my tight schedule of course I had to move on since I still
wanted to see the waterfront and the Odette Sculpture Park which
features more than 31 large, internationally renowned contemporary
sculptures. On this gorgeous fall day, the views of the Ambassador
Bridge and of downtown Detroit from the Windsor waterfront were
simply astounding and made me curious to explore Detroit, the metropolis
on the other side of the river.
A brilliant fall view of downtown Detroit
Well, it was time to cross the border now. Punctually at noon I
rolled through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel to start my Detroit adventures.