Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Early houses, early book

I did some research and writing about Dr. Eric Ross Arthur recently. In that post I mentioned two of his books, The Barn and Toronto, No Mean City. The vast difference in the study topics, the range of interests of this pioneer of heritage awareness was astonishing.

As I scanned the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, I came upon two other papers written by Eric Arthur in the 1930s. And of course, I found I needed them. This 1938 publication was referred to by Anthony Adamson, in the 'first word' to Ancestral Roofs by Marion MacRae and himself, published in 1963. This co-writer on what was the first work on Ontario architecture ("in the first book on any subject, certain matters have to be overlooked") credits Dr. Arthur "the author of the only published monographs on early Ontario buildings..." with the beginnings of the passion so many of us have for our built heritage, and its preservation.

Just holding the slim volume is time-travel. This plain brown wrapper with its formal blue type-face, the simply composed black and white photos, the exquisitely detailed measured drawings are architectural history itself. I found it incredibly moving to study these photos taken in 1938 of buildings which still stand (as do many of those Dr. Arthur mentions) and to read words like this, words of passionate appreciation of the buildings of 1810 to 1840, written long decades before the rest of us 'caught on:' "The old buildings of Ontario were designed simply as dwellings. They were unostentatious, yet dignified, compact in plan without being dull. Indeed they had all the qualities which in the sixteenth century Sir Henry Wotton required of a building - Commodity (the proper arrangement of rooms,) Firmness (structural stability) and Delight, which is the pleasure we have in seeing it." (Page Thirteen)

Not surprisingly, one of the buildings photographed for the essay is Barnum House, Grafton. Now if you had a chance to read the October 31, 2017 post to which I invited you in the first line, you will understand why I find the austere black and white photo of this "house of  weathered  pine, [its] composition, detail and ornament well handled" from 80 years ago so moving. So much began when that man saw this house.

The black and white photo  which appears in the un-copyrighted (how simple the world once was) eighty year old monograph, shows the silvery weathered pine flushboard cladding. The plain language caption reads: "This house of weathered pine is well-known to the traveller on the Kingston Highway. Composition, detail and ornament are well-handled. The architect's name is not known but it is certain he was a person of considerable experience. The boarding is flush and in spite of exposure to the weather [sic] during 120 years, shows few cracks between the boards. The interior is not interesting but the exterior is worthy of the closest study."

It is a tribute to this great man Arthur that we are privileged to stand before this great house today; the sapling before it has also stood the test of time.

Another worthy house featuring prominently in The Early Buildings of Ontario is The Bluestone House of Port Hope.. This fine Georgian home with Greek Revival detailing has received a lot of attention over many years. Here's Ontario's Historic Places' take on this wonderful place. In 1938 Eric Arthur's contribution to the conversation is seen below.

One of the astonishing features of the monograph are several reproductions of the measured drawings done on location by students of Professor Arthur's students in the School of Architecture at UofT. I've included one at left.Speaks for itself.

The paper includes sections on history, location and features of early Ontario houses, on doorways, windows and mantels. It  concludes with a "List of Buildings already Photographed or Measured" which includes 4 Picton structures, one in Bloomfield and Belleville, and two in Brighton, one of which, the Butler house, I hope to meet in the spring.

A dozen black and white photos complete the monograph. Some I do not know (and wonder if we'll meet in this life.) Others grace towns and villages today, as if their keepers had early risen to the challenge posed by Dr. Eric Arthur. His province-wide survey of historic buildings in the 1930s is his legacy.

St. Andrew's Church, Niagara on the Lake 

"House at Perth" (Inge-Va , 1824) 

Of the Perth residence now known as Inge Va, Dr. Arthur wrote: "...a delightful house with well-proportioned windows and a handsome doorway..." His 1938 photo included a neat white painted railing along the front porch. Mercifully, nothing else appears to have changed.

Osgoode Hall, west wing, 1829
No fan of the Romanesque Revival and other later Victorian styles, Eric Arthur said of Osgoode Hall: "The dignity and simplicity of this building may be compared with the ostentation and crudity of civic buildings built at the close of the century (City Hall, Parliament Buildings, etc.)

Dr. Eric Ross Arthur. The kind of gentleman to whom one grants the last word.

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