Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Wallflowers

Johnson house c.1835
Frequent reader Mark suggested a post idea some time ago. He mentioned houses that had stood the test of time (and avoided detection and demolition) while a city grew up around them. They were likely isolated on a farm or estate when they were built. Now the city flows around their old-fashioned setbacks, large trees and lawns (like rushing water parting to get past a rock in the stream); they create an invitation to time-travel for those of us who stop to look.

I've been searching, but the best I can come up with are these two curious houses in Picton. While they are still surrounded by lovely neighbourhoods of well-kept heritage homes, they are distinguished by their orientation to the street, as they were built before their part of the new town was subdivided.

Both houses face Main Street East. Although infill housing over the last century has diluted the effect,  I suspect at the time they had a clear line of sight to the edge of the bluff overlooking the all-important harbour. What's unique about them is that the street does not run past the front of the house anymore, which rather dilutes the effect of their impressive front entrances.
In the case of the house at top, you can travel along its side elevation (which was also oriented to this important street/road, thanks to two entrances in the kitchen tail) on Johnson Street. Prestigious Flemish bond brickwork, stylish eaves returns and splayed stone lintels, and a gorgeous doorcase with finely patterned sidelights and transom (alas, not shown in my photo, but described in Settler's Dream.) make it worth a closer look. The lovely verandah replaces an earlier trellis verandah.
Washburn House c.1835

The wonderfully parapet walled, corbelled, massive four-chimneyed house at Main Street East is in an even odder predicament. Facing Main Street, yes, like its peers along that prestigious old street. But the house now sits behind and slightly to the right of St. Mary Magdalene Church (1913) which is planted as it were in the front lawn. I only got to know the house up close, while singing in a choir group which met at the church hall, and parked behind. In the Streetview photo, if you let your eye follow the driveway back toward a pink flowering shrub and a grey car, you can spot one window and a warm glow of red brick. Think of that house rising on open farmland, back around 1835.
Stokes and Cruikshank (Settler's Dream) deem it "one of the best in the village...closest comparisons that can be made are with the house of William Macaulay." The deep cornice boasts the Greek key geometric pattern, and the portico with pediment has dentils along the raking cornice. SD mentions the paired modillions below the soffit, though my photo doesn't show any of those. Time to creep back to that church parking lot to admire this beauty.

As a postscript to this post, and in deference to Mark's original idea, I just revisited this story about a wonderful stone house in Kingston that would qualify as an early structure well and truly overtaken by the city! And surviving beautifully thanks to good owners.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Grover's Tavern

The first settlers arrived just before 1800.
They weren't first generation UEL.
They weren't from the British Isles (those folks arrived some 20 years later.)
They were from the new United States, coming to Upper Canada for land and new prospects.
(Or perhaps, I've read, some folks didn't care for that new republic so much after all. )
Some were second generation UEL, migrating from their family's original land grant.

And they all lived at Grover's Tavern.
That is, they all lived in the area around the tavern operated by John Grover (arrived 1798) until 1832, when the growing village took the name of Grafton.



It appears that  Grover's hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts inspired the change. (Facts from the self-guided walking tour guide produced by Heritage Alnwick/Haldimand.



A copy of the guide was presented to me by Pat, owner of my favourite building of this wonderful historic village.)



More details to come. Just wanted to share the place with you.















Strut your stuff

Wicklow Beach
I spent yesterday in and around Grafton, one of those many areas to which I've long promised myself a day-trip. Sure, we've been to Barnum House several times over the years, but my acquaintanceship with the other great early houses along the King's Highway was more on the order of "oh, look at that!" as we passed by. Promises of next time.




Yesterday that changed.  A day of lovely chats. One very special one,  with the owner of an 1812 commercial building in town. Pat's been around town a long time, and has the backstory on many historic buildings. And is happy to share. Then there was the short drive along the "unassumed" portion of the old Danforth Road. Those bits of historic geography make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up - so much resonance. Ghosts.

Then time spent in several old cemeteries, studying memorial artwork on the crusty old stones.That final turn on the way toward Lakeport, pulling out of the trees and farms to Wicklow beach, and the serene expanse of Lake Ontario.


Rested my full brain, listening to the waves lap. Or was it the first settlers murmuring stories? Then the long way home, via Shelter Valley road through Vernonville.

One chat stood out. At the western end of Grafton, I parked on Brimley sideroad, the better to look at a stately brick Georgian with lots of history. I took some shots from the front, marvelling at the massive old trees on the property, and enjoying the sight of a healthy cornfield just across highway 2. Noticing the boutique signage. The 'For Sale' sign.

The owner invited me in, and the next half-hour or more was spent marvelling at - the house, the inventory (because the house is currently home to Strut boutique, the most eclectic and appealing fashion collection I have seen in a long time. Even made this non-shopper wish for a bigger budget!) Here's a link to Strut Fashion Boutique..



The interior details of fireplace mantels, architectural arches, simple wide early staircase, and finally the owner's own story, made up for my regret at my impecunious state.


Over the years Chris has moved, dismantled and rebuilt, and otherwise restored a number of old homes in the area (he showed me Harrowsmith and Century Home articles written about his projects.)

He bought this wonderful old house a few years back, changed the zoning to commercial (oh, I could see a prestigious law office or consulting firm based in this heaven, a work at home solution close to Toronto via the 4 lane solution.) Now the family's priorities have changed, and they want to pass this historic house on to new owners (with or without the boutique inventory.)
There is still much to be done. That's waiting for the new owners. Here's the Century 21 listing.

Here's what McBurney and Byers have to say about this house in the 1971 old-house classic Homesteads:

They deem it, along with Spalding's c.1835 inn next door as "two of  the finest nineteenth-century brick buildings in the province" and go on to describe its owners:

..."the Steele house, the home of Thomas Spalding's daughter Mary and her husband John Steele of Colborne."

Mrs. Steele ran a girl's boarding school in the home in the 1840's according to the authors, and it later served as a retirement home for retired Hudson's Bay factor John Dougald Cameron. Wonder what the next owner will do?

House detectives

In my wanders around towns and villages, exploring our built heritage, I occasionally run into people who engage me in conversation about their old homes and their restoration plans. I'm always struck by the crazy amount of work and dedication that goes into rescuing a house with a long history - a history which includes unsympathetic changes over the years, made for practical reasons like a need for space, for insulating against winter cold, or replacing old elements that have worn out (always facing the exigencies of budget and time.)

Last June, while brother Eric was undergoing a knee procedure at Trenton hospital, I had an opportunity finally to wander some of the old residential streets of Trenton. I don't know much of the history of this often maligned city, but clearly it was a city of some wealth and taste in its day. Its lumbering and shipping industries created wealth for a few, work for many. Although many of the fine old houses are poorly maintained, and/or divided into apartments rented by folks who don't clearly appreciate their heritage by owners who maybe can't afford to care, these places all tell their story.

And here and there is a fine old house, loved and preserved by knowledgeable owners.

 I met a great couple, Angela and Brian, on my walkabout. As I stopped to capture a nice eaves return and mouldings that appealed to me, their owner appeared, and a sidewalk conversation turned into a pleasant visit. Long story short, Angela was summoned from her home office, and we toured the house together, inside and out, the couple sharing the discoveries they'd been making as they peeled back the layers  while working on rescuing the house from its fixer-upper state. Layers, literally, as many of the clues they've uncovered as to the age of the house, additions, and updates have been gleaned from newspapers in the walls! Painting. Retaining as many elements as they can. Sourcing missing bits, like a fireplace insert which they found online, salvaged from a demolished home.

The owners have tried to find out more of the home's history. Documentation suggests it was built about 1874. Detective work in the garage wing revealed its origins in the late 1880's. It likely started out as a farmhouse on the edge of the village - Trenton was incorporated in 1853 (says Wiki )

Great floors, mantel, interior millwork. A unique porch. And the best thing about the house - great hard-working owners interested in the story it tells.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Train time is any time

'Train time is any time' warns the sign at the entrance to a trestle in Belleville, advising walkers not to take that road less travelled.

 I recall  those words going unheeded by a teacher colleague in rural B.C. a lifetime ago, when he led his hiking Grade 4 class across the local trestle, just as the train required it. Lots of scrambling and screaming. No injuries. No lawsuits. No suspension. Bragging rights. Doubt the event would have passed quite so smoothly these litigious days.

1920 wooden caboose
'Train time is any time' could well have been the rallying cry for the great crowd who assembled in Brighton yesterday, at the site of the 1856 Grand Trunk/CN railway station (it's railway in Canada, railroad in the US, my train friend Larry reminds me.)

There must have been 50 trains hooting by during the afternoon, CN and CP, freight and passenger, at elbow's distance from the fence ("do not touch the fence.") I'm told they were hooting in honour of the event taking place. As well they might.

 For yesterday was a celebration of the vision, the tenacity, the dedication - and the outstanding heritage train station museum - of Ralph and Eugenia Bangay. The event was put together by a group of dedicated followers, in a bit over 3 weeks. Here's a link to their Facebook page.

view from the caboose steps
Because the time was right. The couple aren't getting any younger. They've been amassing and protecting this collection of train station buildings, rolling stock and local railway memorabilia since that day in 1995 when Ralph raced to Toronto to save the historic station from the wrecker's ball. They've had some discouraging vandalism. They haven't yet been successful in finding an organization to take over the project, to continue telling us our railway history, when they take their richly deserved retirement.

Celebrate and protect, the watchword for the group. A challenge to all of us.

The 3+ acres contain enough displays to keep a history buff or train geek busy for days. The original waiting room, ticket agent's office, freight shed filled with artifacts, photographs, ephemera and so much more...and did I mention a great gift shop? Picked up Ron Brown's The Last Stop (about heritage railway stations)   as I'd been threatening to do all summer.
1906 steam locomotive - but wait for Brad Denoon's photos


The Memory Junction website explains that the station is one of only nine remaining of the 32 built to service the fledgling Grand Trunk Railway connecting Toronto to Montreal in 1856. Pretty important bit of history to retain . As Eugenia said "the Grand Trunk Railway opened up our country."


So much to be said about the building's history and structure - for another post. This one is about the party.
volunteers, good wishes and donations all welcome
The event was festive, the crowd supportive. Hope for the future of Memory Junction is strong.

Chatted with lots of friendly Brightonians, some special Hiltonians. All nice.

All but one. Bought my copy of local history guy Dan Buchanan's new book Murder in the Family
about his ancestor Dr. King who poisoned his inconvenient wife in 1858 and became Northumberland's first and only public hanging. A great history who dunnit, not spoiled a whit because we already know. Or do we?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Brownfield Blues


We recently received the mail-out announcing the upcoming ACO Quinte walks, from David Bentley, long-time organizer of these entertaining and informative Sunday afternoon events. On September 20, there will be a driving tour of Belleville's 'brownfields.'



Although I have long been fascinated by former industrial sites (for ecological, historical and yes, aesthetic reasons) I had never heard the term 'brownfields.' Here's the definition, from the ACO pamphlet:

"A brownfield is defined as a former industrial or commerical site where its future use is affected by the presence or the perceived presence of potentially harmful environmental contamination."



Although massive gas works installations and former spreading factory complexes have long since yielded to fields of grass, the possible cost of remediation often keeps developers circling warily at a distance, and leaves attractive spaces derelict. 




So often they are waterfront properties, as c19 industry adopted the locations, for trans-shipping of course, but for handy disposal of industrial waste, also. Now these lake and river sites are in high demand, but some are still in debate due to their dark past.



The ACO tour in Belleville will visit a few well-known sites which became pariahs due to their past history; some have been remediated. Belleville's huge Zwick's Park was once a garbage dump (I always felt a resonance from that description of industrial New Jersey in The Great Gatsby, as we drove through the marshy site on a rare trip to Belleville, from PEC.)

But unless you detect the mushroom shaped methane vents, you don't know the park's past, and can't celebrate its recovery.

I really like what Brockville has done to interpret their history for the passerby. When I was in town I spent a wonderful hour in Hardy Park. Two of the city's Historic Area stops interpreted the leafy beautiful St. Lawrence River site with plaques and photos of its former tenant, the sprawling Smart Foundry Complex (1862-1961.)

Brockville historian Doug Grant features some early photos of the industrial waterfront and Smart's Foundry on the site Old Brockville Photographs - click on the second photo to enlarge it, and you'll see a photo of the factory aggrandized in the etching above.

Smart's Foundry was in the news as recently as last year, when the final building of the complex was demolished. Good on you, Brockville, for keeping your history alive. Sometime soon I'll feature a few more of these plaques that I enjoyed on my walking tour of the city.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Light on Dark Corners

Point Traverse lighthouse 1881
Years and years ago I received, as a joke gift, a book entitled Light on Dark Corners. The volume was a Victorian manual purporting to introduce things sexual to the reader. In very veiled terms. Emphasis on purity.

No connection. But...

I've always loved the title.



Seemed apt for a post about our lighthouses, and the dark days they are facing, The Federal Government (Fisheries and Oceans Canada - DFO) has begun a process of stepping away from their lighthouses, a divestment which sees many local lighthouse preservation groups stepping up,  struggling to preserve this part of Canadian history. Other lighthouses, like my favourite Point Traverse, seem to be left to that handy solution, neglect. I've written about this in previous posts.





Earlier this summer I visited some great websites containing news about encouraging local preservation initiatives, so I want to share them. The Presqu'ile Point Lighthouse Preservation Society is holding regular events to raise funds to save the iconic deteriorating lighthouse that draws Provincial Park visitors like moths.







The website Lighthouse Friends offers photos, history, directions and GPS coordinates for an astonishing number of lighthouses in the US and Canada, and tries to keep up to date on lighthouse news. Here's a link to the Presqu'ile page on the Lighthouse Friends site.





Presqu'ile Lighthouse 1840


Ahh. A kayaker's view of Presqu'ile Point light ...













...and of Salmon (Wicked) Point lighthouse 
 Closer to home is Prince Edward County's  'Save our Lighthouses' website which provides a status report on each of that County's important old lights.

Wicked (Salmon) Point light 1871




Don't know how up to date the site is. I checked the status of Point Traverse (Prince Edward Point) lighthouse; appears there is (was?) a petition being circulated.




And in other (lighthouse) news.
I heard this spring from regular AR visitor Mark of a victory in Nova Scotia, in which he played a part as writer, researcher and general-duty enthusiast. 


A colleague from the Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society contacted him to share the news that Sambro Lighthouse (est.1758)  had been recognized as the oldest standing and operating lighthouse in the Americas. Its future seems secure.



And as a postscript, I share this. Mark sent an link to a massive online collection of old Toronto maps. Browse some of the early Toronto harbour maps. Imagine the HMS Speedy setting sail on its fateful last trip down Lake Ontario shore in October 1804, towards the never-to-materialize site of the new district town of Newcastle (near Presqu'ile Point) using just such a chart as one of these. 

That lighthouse was just 36 years too late.