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October 17, 2008

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.

Upstairs bedroom

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 B&B

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.

Another view of Windsor's Odette Sculpture Park

Related Articles:

Hello from Windsor: Hospitality at Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast
Hello from Detroit: A Driving Tour & Riverfront Dining at Sindbad's Restaurant
Hello from Detroit: An Architectural Walking Tour
Hello from Detroit: A Brush Park Walking Tour & Dinner at the Ren Cen
Hello from Detroit: The Henry Ford, Greenfield Village & the Detroit Institute of Arts
Hello from Detroit: Urban Leadership - Sue Mosey & the Inn on Ferry Street
Hello from Detroit: The Westin Book Cadillac Shines Again
Hello from Detroit: A Biking Tour to Corktown and Mexicantown

Useful Links:

Tourism Windsor
Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast

Video Clips:

Arrival in Windsor

Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast - Main floor

Dining room at Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast

A night-time look at the Detroit Skyline

Upstairs room at the Argyle Manor Bed and Breakfast

Breakfast specialties at the Argyle Manor B&B

  Historic workers' townhouses in Walkerville neighbourhood

Willistead Manor in Windsor

Windsor Waterfront, featuring a great view of Detroit


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