Judge Mather Byles DesBrisay's Home, “Ivy Banks"

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55-59 Pleasant Street

On Pleasant St. stands a house which was once home to one of Bridgewater's most prominent historical figures: Judge Mather Byles DesBrisay. A politician, judge, curiosities collector and historian, DesBrisay's life is intricately woven into much of Bridgewater's history. His home, Ivy Banks (55-59 Pleasant St.), was notable for its unique architecture. Though the home has been extensively renovated, it still stands today.


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DesBrisay's Home: Ivy Banks


     The Ivy Banks house, as DesBrisay knew it, was a architectural masterpiece. The most notable feature is its shallow sloping, almost flat roof, gable end facing the sides, with a very slightly peaked dormer over the home's central bay. The moulding under the roof's eaves continued straight across the gable, itself peaking slightly underneath the dormer. Encompassed in the moulding was a peaked hood moulding of elaborate design, a Gothic Revival element. The moulding itself was tiered and the higher band protruded slightly. Dentils followed the line of the peak underneath the overhang. The bargeboard had an elaborate gingerbread pattern with diamond and strategically placed loop pendants hanging from the eave. The bargeboard, the peaked hood moulding, and the dentils were painted a light colour to compliment the darker moulding. The corner boards added eclecticism to the architecture and clashed with the Gothic Revival themed central peak.


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     The windows originally had two-over-two panes, with four windows located in a square pattern on each side. In the front, the left and right-hand bays each had similar windows on both storeys. While lacking hood mouldings or other designs, each window had its frame painted with both the darker trim and the lighter accent.

     The house had a large veranda. The stairs leading up to it had moulded steps and the two posts at the bottom were large columns with capitals and elaborate knobbed ends. The railing of the stairs and the porch had a railing supported by turned posts. The turned posts flared out at the tops, just underneath the railing, and arched over to each on either side, making the region under the railing resemble a colonnade of archways. Each spandrel was even accented with a small hole.

     Two columns framed the entryway from the stairs and were in the form of a round column encased in a rectangular one. The corners of the veranda roof were held up by a group of three square columns with capitals at the top. The roof was supported by arches between the columns, adding to the arched element of the porch's design. Above the stairs, the veranda roof and supporting arch protruded slightly to highlight the main entrance. The roof was slightly peaked and its eaves were adorned with scalloped bargeboards.

     Along the sidewalk there was a stone wall with paneled boards on top. It was customized with elaborate scrollwork finials and turned-post knobs. The main gates consisted of two square doors; each door had 20 spokes radiating from a central medallion. The original foundation of rough-hewn square blocks of stone could be seen and is even more visible today.


     Unlike his next-door-neighbour at 45 Pleasant Street, F. B. Wade, Judge DesBrisay chose not to alter his house too much while he lived there (from 1878 until his death in 1900). The only major renovation came in 1887 when he hired Robert Whitman. Whitman raised the almost-flat roof to a steeper pitch with the help of Mr. Beardsley and his sons. This renovation gave the house both Gothic Revival and contrasting Greek Revival elements. The front dormer was enlarged and became peaked steeply enough to be called a Gothic dormer and the steeper roof added to the Gothic-style appearance. DesBrisay's home also reflected the Greek Revival style with the addition of returned eaves on the gables. The higher roof also allowed for windows to be placed in the gables at attic-level. Two corbelled brick chimneys were added or at least made clearly visible, protruding from the roof and aligned with the left and right bays on the facade. The renovation also removed the original gingerbread bargeboard and dentils under the front eaves.ivy-banks-04

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     At some point between the September 1887 renovation and 1893 (when a courthouse was built on the other side of the street), a bay window was built over the bottom-window on the left-hand side of the facade. It does not appear in the 1887 photo, but a later photo showing it does not offer a glimpse of the Courthouse, thus dating it within this 6-year span. By 1906, when a town insurance map was drawn, the bay window was no longer present.

     In 1901, widow Ada DesBrisay sold Ivy Banks to Ella Dawson, daughter of wealthy merchant Robert Dawson Sr. After Ella's death in 1917, the home was finally sold by the Dawson family in 1919 to Fred Clark, operator of Clark's Hotel in the former Wade home. He owned Ivy Banks for 18 years. As of c. 1983, it still retained some aspects of its original architecture, though vinyl siding has masked its historical facade. Town insurance maps show that the single-storey wings in the back of the home were partially removed between 1906 and either 1924 or 1944. The home is no longer a single family dwelling; it has been converted into four apartments.



The Family of Judge DesBrisay

    Judge Mather Byles DesBrisay descended from a noble French family, with a long lost relative (Jacques Réné de Bresay) at one point being named Governor of  New France by King Louis XIV in 1685. DesBrisay's line, however, diverges from this noted figure. His ancestor Captain Theopile DesBrisay, a French Huguenot (or Protestant), left the staunchly Catholic France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Theopile eventually settled in Ireland and his family became prominent members of Dublin society.

     In 1769 Captain Thomas de la Cour DesBrisay, a descendant serving in the Royal Irish Artillery, became the British Lieutenant-Governor of St. John's Island (now Prince Edward Island). Captain DesBrisay, the Judge's great-great-grandfather, started the DesBrisay lineage in North America with his sixteen children. The captain's son General Thomas de la Cour DesBrisay Jr. was Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in Nova Scotia and was stationed in Halifax. Thomas Jr.'s son, Thomas the third, was a Captain in the Royal Artillery at the Halifax Garrison and married Sarah D. Byles, daughter of Dr. Mather Byles of Boston. This couple had a son Thomas Belcher DesBrisay. This fourth Thomas DesBrisay became a medical doctor and married Lucretia Bourdette Woodward, the daughter of a Halifax merchant. They were living in Chester, Nova Scotia, when Mather Byles DesBrisay (named after his great-grandfather) was born on March 19th, 1828.


The Life of Judge DesBrisay


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     M. B.·DesBrisay received his early schooling in Halifax and Dartmouth and he·articled as a law student with Judge·George Augustus Blanchard and Judge Alexander James of Halifax before being called to the Bar in April, 1851. He practiced law for the following twelve years in Halifax and later Chester. Meanwhile, DesBrisay also served as a secretary of Nova Scotia's first Provincial Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition in Halifax in 1854, alongside fellow lawyer Howard D. Steele. In 1863 after an unsuccessful bid at being elected in Provincial Parliament, he was appointed coroner for Lunenburg County.

     In 1865 DesBrisay moved his law practice to Bridgewater. Two years later he ran again for a seat in Provincial Parliament. A Liberal, and very much opposed to Nova Scotia's participation in Confederation, he succeeded in being elected in 1871 and 1874. DesBrisay was appointed Immigration Agent in 1872 and elected speaker in 1875. By his second term, he realized that Confederation was permanent and that the Liberals were as liable to corruption as their predecessors. He resigned as a Member of Provincial Parliament in 1876 to become the Judge of County Courts for District 2, including Lunenburg, Queens, and Shelburne counties. DesBrisay continued in this line of work until 1897.

    The early years of his life were also invested in editing the first version of his essay "History of the County of Lunenburg", which was runner up in the Thomas Beamish Aikins Historical essay contest at King's College. The essay was published in 1870, and a greatly expanded and revised version was republished in 1895.

     In 1876 he married Ada A. Harley in Dorchester, New Brunswick. Ada was the daughter of Colonel John Harley, the Collector of Customs in Bridgewater. In 1878, they moved into what is now 55-59 Pleasant Street; DesBrisay purchased the home from his father-in-law for $2,000. Harley's ownership of the house is mysterious, as he is recorded as having died 3 years prior and there is neither any indication of from whom he bought the land, nor who built the house. Throughout his adult life, DesBrisay was – as most Victorian gentlemen were – a collector of "curiosities". Though the original collection begun in 1860 was lost when his boarding house burned down, he quickly rebuilt his collection. By 1880, it began to attract the attention of the local citizens. The curiosities were installed in the house on Pleasant Street, which he called Ivy Banks. This street was fashionable at this point in the town's history and called "millionaire's row". Visitors were permitted to enter and view the artifacts, beginning in 1880. One might say this is when the·DesBrisay Museum began!  


     Judge DesBrisay died in 1900. After his death, his curio collection was sold by his wife Ada to the town of Bridgewater. The deal was brokered by then-mayor and lumber baron E. D. Davison Jr.


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Browne, John D. H. "Inscription in DesBrisay family Bible (593)." Knowledge, Society for Promoting Christian. The Book of Common Prayer. London: Cambridge University Press, n.d.

Church, Ambrose F. Bridgewater. A. F. Church & Co. Topographical Township Map of Lunenburg County Nova Scotia. Halifax, c.1883.

Dempster, Marrianna. "The DesBrisay Family." Wetmore ed., Donald and Cousins ed. Leone. The Huguenot Heritage of Some Families of Nova Scotia. Kingston, N.S.: Falcon Press, 1988. 37.

DesBrisay Museum. "DesBrisay Family Tree." Bridgewater.

DesBrisay, Ada. "Copy of letter found in museum, May 1951." To E. D. Davison Esq. from A. A. DesBrisay. Halifax, 20 March 1901.

Feindel, G. I. K. History of the DesBrisay Museum 1860-1975 Bridgewater, N.S. History. Bridgewater: DesBrisay Museum, 1975.

Harlow, Malcom. "About The Author." DesBrisay, Mather Byles. History of the County of Lunenburg. Bridgewater: The Bridgewater Bulletin Ltd., 1967.

MacKenzie, A. A. "DesBrisay, Mather Byles." Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XII, 1891-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto press, n.d. 250-251.

Real Estate Nova Scotia. "Real Estate on Nova Scotia's South Shore." July 2009. Sea Nova Scotia. July 2009 .

Selig, Gary and Bill Plaskett. Historical Perspectives on a Modern Town: A Tour of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Bridgewater: DesBrisay Museum National Exhibition Centre, 1985.

Town of Bridgewater. Inventory Site form - 45 Pleasant Street. Bridgewater: Nova Scotia Department of Culture, Recreation & Fitness, 1985.

—. Inventory Site Form - 55-59 Pleasant Street. Bridgewater: Nova Scotia Department of Culture, Recreation & Fitness, 1985.