Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Regency Research..."too much information"

Whew...just experienced living proof of the old adage "the more I learn the less I know". I've put together a wee article for a lovely local heritage paper on my favourite topic, the Regency Cottage. As I have written about this style before, for a paper for my course, a pitch to a magazine, and in several blogposts, I got stuck for awhile because a)I had written so much timeless prose on the topic that 'impossible to improve' inertia was setting in, and b) I keep reading about the style and find so many architecture experts with slightly different viewpoints about Regency so I'm reluctant to make a statement without footnoting, which results in too many words for my editor, and likely too much information for my reader.
Writing that article was a bit like making a speech instead of having a conversation, which is how I like to write, and why blogging works for me. Undisciplined I know. I'll never be a pro. I remember the feeling of intense boredom I felt once in uni when faced with the reveal of 'the' exam question on a take-home prepare-in-advance format course. "I've already written this and I can't improve on it!" And then there's my recent read of "Eats Shoots and Leaves" which has me cross-examining every comma! of the things I love about Regency cottages is that the proportions are the key to identification today, and that even in the era when they were built, there was a wide variation of style and detail. There is an overlap in what defines Regency cottage and Ontario cottage (even the names are interchangeable, according to some writers.) At the moment, I am rereading John Blumenson and Marion Macrae on the topic to part the mists.
Last night in the winter dusk of a cloudy day, I drove through the Old East Hill to take photos of three little homes with Regency roots. I found their descriptions in a local reference work in our library - Heritage Buildings East of the Moira River was published by Heritage Belleville in 1991. It was researched by my heritage friend Lois Foster and her colleagues on the HCHS Building Research team, with consulting support by Roger Grieg of ACO. It is a tattered, spiral bound locally printed work with many hand-written addenda, and it is priceless.
L: 278 Ann Street "symmetry recalls Regency cottage style of 30 years earlier"
R: 290 George Street "an excellent example of a Regency cottage". It's dated 1880, that's late for Regency.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Woodstock wanderings

With military precision, my engineer husband grasped the Woodstock Historical Walking Tour booklet and led us on a forced march in the oppressive heat and humidity of a muggy late St. John River post-rain afternoon, up and down the not insignificant hills of the first incorporated town in the province of New Brunswick. I lagged behind with my camera, placing blame for my slow pace not on the blisters forming on my heels, nor the heat, nor friendly folks who wanted to supply details about the buildings I was snapping, but on the appreciation of the classical wonders of yet another fine maritime frame house which hadn't made it into the guidebook.
Woodstock N.B. was settled by Loyalists in the late 1700's, built up along its two rivers, suffered two fires, saw its milling and industrial eras come and go, changed with the coming of the railway, and endured all the the ebbs and flows of political power common to evolving towns. It has a place in my own personal history as the hometown of a work friend met in the 70's in North Vancouver and as the location of her family's warm maritime hospitality shown to both me and my brother at various times. It is a lovely leafy front-porch kind of town.
L: Charles Connell House (1839 - National Historic Site) - Greek Revival style
R: George Connell House (1868) - reportedly Woodstock's best example of high Victorian style

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It's a Lunenburg thing

You see it in Lunenburg Nova Scotia.
You can see some of them in nearby Mahone Bay.
I expect there are examples all around that seafaring province, as influences do tend to spread.
But I doubt you'll see it in Ontario (unless the builder were from downeast and very homesick).
What is it?
Why, the Lunenburg Bump.
As the year draws to a close, I am looking back over this year's travels with old buildings, and my mind inevitably goes to our wander through the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Lunenburg old town. While researching on-line in preparation for the summer camp trip, I read about the Lunenburg Bump and was prepared for this practical but to my eyes rather unlovely maritime invention.
The Lunenburg Bump is "a projection from the centre of the house, over the door, comprised essentially of an enlarged, extended and overhanging dormer, most commonly of the five sided Scottish type. Cantilevered out from the wall or supported by decorative carved brackets, the Bump resembles the Oriel windows of late Gothic and Tudor architecture". I have used the words of Bill Plaskett, Development Officer, Lunenburg County District Planning Commission because, hey, he's from there, but mostly to salute the incredibly far-sighted citizens and municipal politicians who preserved and are now showcasing their built heritage to the world. Plaskett's book, Understanding Lunenburg's Architecture was published in 1979 out of a thorough five-year review of the heritage area and careful forward-thinking plans for it!
The pink house on the left above is the Morash House (1888). Plaskett concedes that it is "to some extent, top heavy from the abundance of decorative Victoriana" but comments on its picturesque symmetry, "striking and even beautiful once one accepts its essential "Bumpness"". Bumpness, I love it!
I picked up one or two other interesting facts about the well-crafted houses of Lunenburg. Not surprisingly, the houses were built in large part by shipbuilders and woodcrafters, who used the winter months to showcase their skills by creating elaborate and original homes. Some of the grand houses of ship-owners were painted in the colours of their fleet.
The influences they brought to bear are French, German, Swiss, New England and British - all these traditions show up somewhere in the nineteenth century streetscapes. Vaguely British, somewhat New England, as Alan Gowans stated in 1962, but neither. Just Lunenburg.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Regency Rescue

I'm going through all my books today, reading about Regency cottages and looking at some photos of wonderful examples of this rather elusive style. I call it elusive as Regency is a style of 'Ontario cottage' which by its very nature has disappeared over the years - unlike stalwart Georgians or simple Gothic inspired Ontario farmhouses, which are so evident across our province. Now what do I mean by elusive...I did a lot of research on the subject for an Ontario architecture course last winter and came to believe that the Regency cottage was just not practical, and lost its identity through modifications over time.
The aesthetic and the inspiration for the Regency Cottage was transplanted from sunniest parts of the Empire around the end of the Napoleonic wars: pensioned officers retired to adventure in 'the colonies' with their land grants and their sophisticated tastes. The style was inspired by the exotic tastes of the Prince Regent in England from 1811,who enjoyed a famously indulgent lifestyle while his dad George III was going spectacularly mad. The Prince Regent (who became George IV) was the fellow who redid Brighton Pavilion as his summer place - emblematic of the exhuberance and taste of the age.
The Regency cottage was romantic - it was situated on a height of land overlooking water or a picturesque landscape. The cottage was designed to allow for a flow between the indoors and the beautifully landscaped gardens. Imposing doorways of earlier styles were replaced by simpler doors and a series of French windows which opened onto verandahs with charming awning roofs and treillage. Chimneys were tall and exotic.
The typical Regency cottage profile is low to the ground, so practical features such as bedrooms were under the eaves, and kitchens and servant quarters were at basement level. The Regency cottage was simple but interior detailing was elegantly based on classical motifs.
Unfortunately, the Regency cottage was a bit of a slave to fashion, and as time went on folks tired of cramped but elegant spaces, and added wings, extra storeys and dormers which changed the look. The delicate verandahs eventually deteriorated and were unsympathetically replaced if at all. It sometimes takes a good eye to spot the Regency profile, and an informed and dedicated owner to do justice to a Regency cottage. Fortunately we have a goodly number of them in Ontario.
My prof Shannon Kyles is one of those folks. Last spring in Ancaster, she and a team of students dismantled a delightful 1840's Regency cottage slated for demolition. All of the wonderful bits that could be salvaged were carefully stored and are waiting reassembly on a new foundation on a rural property near Lake Consecon in Prince Edward County. If that house has any feelings at all they would be of eternal gratitude, like an abandoned beagle puppy adopted from the pound (though perhaps the canine metaphor would complete better with an adopted Borzoi or greyhound).
1. the archival photo of The Grove, Shannon's project is from The Governor's Road by Byers and McBurney
2. dashed Regency hopes, Hastings County

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Old Stones of Kingston

During the past few weeks, I have spent time in Kingston, while my buddy attended appointments and spent some time in the care of the good folk at KGH. Admittedly, most of the time I had with 'the old stones of Kingston' was spent driving past them looking for a *#@@##*!! parking place, but I was reminded of the richness of Kingston's built heritage and drawn to explore some of its history on my return to my study carrel at Belleville Public Library. At the moment I am browsing online resources by Jennifer McKendry while from the library I am enjoying Margaret Angus' The Old Stones of Kingston published back in 1966. I was delighted to read the following in her acknowledgements: "Anthony Adamson and Marion MacRae are responsible for my interest in architectural history but not for any errors I may have made in judgment or fact..." Ditto.

The Old Stones of Kingston salutes the buildings before 1867. Fortunately, enough of them still survived in 1966 to make the book worth the undertaking! ...and well worth seeking out through my favourite used bookseller. I am almost apprehensive about tossing the book and my camera into the back seat and heading back to Kingston to search them out today - will they still be there, solid and dour?

The house above is in old Cataraqui village - if you have old house instincts you can still feel the old village among the car dealers, mall sprawl and 6 lane commuter roads....I had to stand in the middle of a busy street in front of a Tim Horton's to get even this not very satisfactory shot of a fine old ashlar stone home (with its not so sympathetic redwood addition..)

McBurney and Byers show the above old photo of the house in Homesteads (1979). The house was reported to have been built in 1859 for William Beamish, who may have been a doctor at the penitentiary. The house was built of stone quarried in Collins Bay by convicts, through the 'prison worker contract system'. In fact, many old stones in Kingston, Portsmouth especially, were built by convict labour. The famous Church of the Good Thief is one of them. I shall return with more photos in spring when my friend Brenda and I plan a day-trip.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Graham House

When I was growing up, homes and farms were commonly referred to as "the old [insert original family name here] place. This happened in spite of how many subsequent owners there may had been and how extended their tenure.
I discovered that this tendency was still alive when I interviewed a local heritage expert regarding this wonderful property which captured my eye and my heart when first I saw it. She referred to the place as the Old Graham House.
The home is a classic Colonial Revival style. Shannon Kyles, in the outstanding on-line resource, provides a tongue-in-cheek checklist for identifying these homes. One of the qualifiers is: "if the house looks like it has just been placed there temporarily and really belongs in Mississippi, it is Colonial Revival." Check. She goes on to point out that many homes built in this style make spectacular inns; that is true of this mansion which is run as a very successful inn and tea room. I have seen some exquisite wedding parties being photographed on this lawn.
So, whose "old place" was it? Who built it and when? I have learned that this home was built about 1918 as a summer home by the wealthy Belleville entrepreneur, philanthropist and three-time mayor R.J.Graham as a present for his wife Grace Roblin. (The family home in the city still stands, and is an impressive eclectic Second Empire which I will write about one day, the Potts-Graham-Bone house, 1878). The country home was called "Montrose" after the Duke of Montrose in Scotland who was a distant relative. The house remained in the family trust until about ten years ago.
So there the history ends, until friend Brenda and I manage to go there for tea.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bath - phoenix rises

This wonderful house sits on a lot at the northern limits of Bath, Ontario. The ample lawn is shadowy beneath aged locust trees: massive old trees are always an invitation to look more closely at the age of the house they shelter. I believe that this is the house that was built in 1819 by Peter Davy, son of a prominent family in the village. McBurney and Byers in 'Homesteads' (1979) mention a house in neoclassical style that was built by Davy, on the north side of Academy Street. They reported that the house was "empty and desolate" though once "undoubtedly the finest in the village". Last night as I browsed yet another library find, 'Rural Ontario' (1969) by Blake and Greenhill, I viewed with dismay a black and white photo of this very house, with its fine lines still evident, its exquisite woodwork bare and weather bleached, its roof rough with moss and neglect.
Who were the visionary heritage-minded folks who saved this house from oblivion and in the process saved for all of us an irreplaceable piece of our history? I would love to know their story - and to personally thank them for the plot twist in this once tragic and all too familiar story.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Intriguing Odessa

Why did the sawmill, gristmill and woolen milling families who established this village choose the exotic name of a Russian city for their new settlement on the old stage route between Kingston and York? And why did Philip, scion of the Booth family, choose this refined and fashionable Regency style for the home built on the mill stream? Just look at this place! What a huge change from the stolid and symmetrical Georgians favoured by the captains of industry a generation ago! Like all architectural styles, Regency had a message to communicate about its owner. Regency style communicated "man of the world". Many Regency homes were built by military men who retired to the colonies after completing their service in exotic locales. They were influenced by the lifestyle they experienced in the tropics and sought (perhaps unrealistically) to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed in the Upper Canada of the 1820's - 1860's.

This beautifully preserved 1830's Regency cottage demonstrates the characteristic low profile, the hipped "cottage" roof, tall chimneys and awning-roofed verandahs with treillage. The importance of the front entrance was downplayed in favour of emphasis on the french windows that permitted an elegant flow from indoors to the picturesque gardens beside the brook. Lovely in the summer, but perhaps the style was not the most practical for the Canadian winters!

Next stop...Glanmore

Today I jumped off the edge - another adventure for the dedicated lifelong learner. I called the curator of Glanmore House, a local National Historic Site and signed up to volunteer as guide or researcher. She was most welcoming - sounds like they are doing some succession planning in that area and would do a lot of volunteer development before they would turn me loose on tour groups. That would suit me 'down to the ground' as someone near and dear says.
I'm looking forward to learning more about this Second Empire house and the family who lived in it from the 1880's to its designation and purchase. Somehow SE houses always look like socially conscious matrons to me. The degree of decoration and detail in their architecture matches the exquisitely turned out Victorian mistress of the house - fortunately there was no shortage of domestic servants in their day to keep everything shining and starched! I may have to review my jeans and down vest wardrobe.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good Bones

We took a drive through Consecon on Sunday. My husband, long accustomed to my pleas to "stop the car I need that one", was most patient while I leapt out to snap yet another house (always rehearsing my lines lest some angry soul on witness protection comes charging out to hurt me and my offending camera).
We had been admiring some beautifully preserved homes in brick and stone, and I almost let these two get away. But there was something about the proportions and hints of former fine detail that made me look again. And there they are - the monitor gracing the Ontario cottage form in the photo on the left below, and the pilastered doorcase and symmetry of the tiny house on the right, clues beneath the modern siding that point to their origins in 1845 and 1834 respectively.
I've just had a look at photos of these houses taken in 1930 by Eric Arthur, legendary professor of architecture at U of T. The photos in my tattered copy of Settler's Dream are lovely. Proof that good bones will always show.
(Incidentally, Arthur's magnificent No Mean City is a great favourite - it's a look at the Toronto we've lost).

Regency Redux

I had a lovely research day at the library recently - fun to move into a cubicle beside a sunny window, set up one's belongings and get comfy with a pile of books. I felt familiar resonances of university life as I abandoned the book-nook occasionally for a tea break (our library is so equipped) and a gallery visit. As I researched I was delighted to tie together threads from two previous blog entries (and the lovely Madoc visits that inspired them.)
While browsing one of the local histories I'd pulled off the shelves, I came across an entry about this house. I'd commented on this place in one of my August entries. I was fairly sure the house style was Regency Cottage but a few add-ons had puzzled me. The book I found, Fabric of a Dream, by Brenda Hudson, chronicled the settlement story of Madoc and Elzevir Townships. And Brenda describes the house as "French Regency Style", noting the characteristic shuttered windows and French doors , and the picturesque garden setting which is SO Regency.
Then Brenda answers my August question about the inhabitants: the house was owned by the Coe family. The father of the home's owner was an Empire Builder - a mining speculator involved in railways and the settlement of the area, who amassed holdings of some 15,000 acres. The nearby settlement of Coe Hill takes his name. The son lived large in the Prince Regent-inspired way. He built this home as a "showpiece in grand living", with stables at the back for the thoroughbred horses he raised, and a deer park. And the house that he built still has a grandeur about it.
And the other thread my research revealed? The author of the book, Brenda Hudson, was the woman who invited my friend and me in from our Madoc stroll to visit her and her home, the former Madoc Courthouse.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Whose Home is it Anyway?

Until very recently, my childhood home in North Marysburgh, Prince Edward County, housed a lovely yoga retreat centre. (We were always somewhat grateful that we did not get to hear my late farmer father's inevitable derisive snorts). Wendy and Darin cherished the home and valued its history. The farmhouse has recently switched owners again - another layer in its old story - another family makes it their home.

As a very young child, I recall my grandparents and my then unmarried uncle still living in the west side of the double house, while our young family occupied the older east side. My brother and I grew up in this house, free as 1950's and 60's country kids could be - free to disappear 'til dinner, free to wander and create and just 'be'. Our hardworking farmer parents required minimal output with regard to chores, belying the very hard farmer's life that led to the pragmatic decision to sell in 1969 - there being a dearth of farmers to be found in the family by then.

The house was owned by one or more small farmers after that, until it was bought and extensively remodelled/preserved by two physicians 'from away'. Then the folks of 'Shanti Yoga' made it theirs. So many changes, and most of those in the past 40 years.

That 1969 sale marked the first time the farm had been owned outside the family since John Pierce (born 1832) farmed Bayside Lot 50. The place was home to John, wife Lydia and their 6 children, one of whom was my great-grandfather. I have a photography of John, son Levi and grandson Clarence - my grandfather - seated on the front verandah of the 'west part of the house'.

The old place looks pretty good still. So many families have made the old home, HOME.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

introducing the Sign of the Pineapple

It occurs to me that it would be fun to do a bit of a profile on my House of the Week. Last week when I started the feature I posted a photo of a wonderful house on Highway 2 in Belleville- I still have to do the research to be able to tell its story. But, the wonderful Sign of the Pineapple building at 16 Queen Street in Niagara on the Lake is well-documented. I have several books discussing this lovely place which dates from around 1830. Peter Stokes in his 1971 publication Old Niagara on the Lake was circumspect in his description of this timber framed commercial building's preservation. I am really unsure, after reading his description dozens of times, if he completely approves of the building's late Regency style preservation which replaced the original small-paned shop-front, and the conversion of the top floor storage loft with its centre door originally outfitted with a crane beam and hook . Katherine Ashenburg was less coy - she states that "the graceful Gothic revival glazing is a 1970's reproduction". Stokes does note with approval the amethyst grey cast of the front windows. Whatever its story, I think this building is a beauty - cute!!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thinking Mortar

Mortar...I'm thinking about mortar. It's inevitable - I'm doing some research and writing about cobblestone houses (detail at right is of one of the Belleville area's exquisite examples) in preparation for a wee article, and I am obsessing about the composition of the soft lime mortar that would make a pile of fist-sized rocks into a home that would last almost 200 years - it's all about sticking, folks. Today I ordered what looks to be an amazing book on the cobblestone buildings of western New York state (cousins of our Quinte and Paris Ontario cobblestone houses).The book, Cobblestone Quest by Rich and Sue Freeman, includes detailed car and bike trips of the area around Syracuse where 75% of the cobblestone buildings in that country are centred. Hmmm, road-trip?

Also studying the building materials section of T. McIlwraith's excellent book Looking for Old Ontario - tossing around delicious terms like post and beam, nogging, common bond and shale foundation blocks, with increasing understanding ...celebrating the resourcefulness and skill of our ancestors, and the enduring beauty they created.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Homage to Joni

I am doing a lot of thinking about what appear to be very different levels of will within communities to designate and preserve old buildings. I think I will put together an article on the topic, but 'til I get a chance for more in-depth research, here are some thoughts...
1. thinking about how emotional the response is when an old building is demolished (ref. Methodist church in Picton this summer) - I call it the 'don't know what you've got 'til it's gone' effect.
2. thinking about the article I read in CountyLive yesterday by Theresa Durning... wish I'd known about Cruikshank's visit -sounds like the event may lead to more active/proactive planning in Picton.
3. wondering how successful heritage activity gets going eg. thinking of Lunenburg's 1995 UNESCO World Heritage district designation, and how historic preservation planning has been taking place there since before 1978. Also, got a brochure about Heritage Oshawa when we did their Doors Open tour this fall - laying out what appears to be a transparent and invitational designation process (compare that to the empty heritage designation committee pages on the Belleville City Hall website!)
4. need to sort the difference between LCAC's and Heritage Advisory committees - which work, where are they working well.

In closing, the beautifully proportioned Georgian frame house, with neo-classical pilasters and capitals is in Bath. Suggest you have a look soon, while you can. It has fallen on hard times.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cool Man Cool

Now what do we have here? This house has intrigued me for years; I drove by it every day on my trips to and from work for 12 years. This is the kind of house I dreamed of as a teenager living in a perfectly respectable white frame Ontario farmhouse with its wide Gothic inspired Marysburgh gable. But this house is so California, so Sunset magazine, so cool. It asserts 'break with the past', modern and iconoclastic. Even the name we attach to the style is so hip - Contempo.
Some of the features that define Contempo are the low slope of the multi-level roofs - one accommodating an entry porch and garage overhang - the plate glass windows in a variety of shapes and levels with minimal surrounds , clerestory windows for privacy, plain doors without transoms or side-lights, the wide chimney signalling a massive fireplace in the centre of the living area, the 'pilotis' supporting the sloping garage overhang, the brick planter and landscaping with evergreens.
The split level design, no historicizing detail, little adornment, a combination of finishes - typical mid-century brick and siding- this house is in the Mid-Century Modern or Contempo style. And isn't it funny how old it looks? I love this style now - I can imagine what fun it would be to find period furnishings to complete the picture.
Think I'll go find my black turtle-neck and tights.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cottage Life

The simple one-and-a-half storey house with hip roof is found everywhere in Ontario. The 'generic' name for this type of house is the Ontario Cottage. Author Marion Macrae describes the evolution of this form in her scholarly 1963 work The Ancestral Roof. A stylized version of the basic cottage, with wide verandahs, treillage and large windows or french doors took its place in our built heritage between 1830 and 1860 as the Regency Cottage. (By the way, for an amazing story of heritage preservation - a rescue - visit Shannon Kyle's website, go to 'building styles' and check out 'Regency'. Shannon chronicles her adventures with dismantling a Regency gem. She's a preservation saint!! Follow this blog for more links to her rebuilding project in Consecon, Prince Edward County, or just Google her for an amazing story!

I photographed this lovely cottage yesterday, in a little old cul-de-sac neighbourhood west of the Moira in Belleville, an old industrial neighbourhood. Most of the houses are frame, and in pitiful condition, but with intriguing proportions suggesting their origins. This little beauty is in brick, with a rubble-stone kitchen tail with massive chimney and a delightfully crooked doorway at the back. There is a fine brick-work frieze under the eaves, which are supported with small brackets. The windows at the front are large and low - Regency pretensions? - with cut stone lintels and sills, while the side windows sport neat soldier lintels of brick. There is no porch of any kind. My, I would love to know this little house's history.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

1793 Lunenburg

It's not often in Canada that we can stand in front of a building that's 250 years old. This summer on a trip to Quebec City and Lunenburg Nova Scotia, we got several opportunities to do just that.

This worthy structure is the Knaut-Rhuland House in Lunenburg. It was designated a National Historic Site by HSMB (Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada) and is one of the best-preserved c18 houses in Canada. Isn't that cool? That makes it one of the very special buildings in an old town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its wonderfully preserved townscape.

The house was built around 1793 (!) and is considered a fine early example of British classicism, which is the formal refined architectural style based on ideas from classical Greece and Rome - those being harmony and proportion. We commonly know the style as Georgian - more elaborate later versions are called neoclassical. Georgian features include the small sash windows - of course, glass was a rare commodity and panes were necessarily small -the symmetrical five-bay front, the doorway with sidelights, transom and entablature above, the chimneys and steep gable roof. Of course, the house has touches of the local fine craftsmanship in wood - such as the brackets in the Lunenburg style at the upper corners. The house is refined by the placement of planks at the corners, between ground floor and basement, and at the eaves. You see this type of detailing later on in neoclassical styles - the flat planks become fluted to recall pillars and topped with capitals of one of the Greek orders. But in this case, the wood is unornamented, plain, and reserved.

I understand the interior is amazing - a centre-hall plan, refined wood detailing, high quality carpentry.

I did not spend long enough in Lunenburg - but then again, I'm not sure how long it would have taken...

Friday, October 29, 2010


I have been struck dumb...a late August trip around many heritage areas on the East Coast culminated in a day's walking tour around the UNESCO World Heritage designated old town of Lunenburg Nova Scotia, founded in 1753 - a heritage nut's idea of heaven. I have been revelling in my photographs and in lots of research and reading, and am only now beginning to process the amazing experience.
Lunenburg is one of the best preserved c19 streetscapes in all of North America. Walking Lunenburg's streets streets is like walking back in history. It feels British, it feels New England - not surprising given the influences on its growth. Serene Georgian symmetry, pragmatic Cape Cod cottages
exhuberant Victorian look-at-me's - all with that touch of the sea and ships. The shipbuilders and owners whose business was the sea all came home sometimes - to build families, businesses, communities and homes reflecting their status and skill. And somehow, somebody managed to preserve it!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Here today...gone tomorrow

Recent developments in Picton have set me musing about the fate of our heritage buildings, always in peril. An historic church has been demolished - partly demolished, actually, as the activity was stopped -temporarily- when it was discovered that not all the necessary permits had been obtained by a notorious local demolition artist. But it's only a stay of execution for the 1875 Methodist-Episcopal building. A photo in the local newspaper showed the building's west wall demolished, and the interior exposed, like a disemboweled body. Seems even more of a travesty given the day the surprise actions took place - Sunday. All this before the community could launch an effective campaign to preserve this structure, in a town valuing heritage but nevertheless seeing off a great number of worthy older buildings on Main Street in recent years. Council reportedly declined the local heritage advisory committee's recommendation for a heritage designation.
One has only to visit the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario's 'Buildings at Risk' pages to read countless similar stories. They use a phrase that chills my blood....demolition by neglect. That one's always angered me - buildings are left to deteriorate, deliberately it would seem, so that public outcry is muted when the ruin is finally demolished thus saving the developers no end of trouble and delay from heritage preservationists."Oh dear it's too run down to be worth saving" - convenient.
Am I mad? You bet I am, and sad.
But I must explain myself - it's pretty obvious that the photo above is not of the endangered Picton church. This image is, in fact, a source of optimism for me. The photo shows the 1835 home of one of Belleville's prominent businessmen, Billa Flint. Looming behind the little house (in front actually, and across the river from it) is the 1874 City Hall, much "grander", and certain to be preserved for years to come. In the photo's foreground is a long empty lot, the site of the Springer Lock Company buildings that I remember from my rare Belleville visits as a child. The Flint house was used as offices by the company. And this is where I get to the GOOD NEWS - a story of a narrow escape. Gerry Boyce, heritage expert and author, mentioned in passing one day that Lois Foster, a local historic structures expert with the Hastings County Historical Society, researched the house and saved it from certain demolition by discovering its links to an important figure in Belleville's history. Had she not done so, I suspect the crews currently preparing this area for construction would not be working around this fenced-off little Georgian house with its distinctive parapet gables and wide chimneys.
And could it be that the heritage awareness created by Lois' campaign, and those of countless others in communities around the country, was behind the legislation requiring archeological exploration of proposed development sites? One such dig took place last year at the site of one of the homes in this future construction area. This requirement has been in place in England for ages - a country that has a visible heritage,and protects it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

a house with nine lives

I still don't have Niagara-on-the-Lake out of my system. This house represents so many of the things I like about this town: heritage preservation, financially well supported, painstakingly and authentically carried out at 234 Johnson Street.
The Clench house was built in 1816. Ironically, despite all the claims made of houses surviving the devastating American burning of the town in 1813, only a few actually did. One of these survivors was a house owned by the Clench family, which survived only to burn down in a washday fire the following spring.The builder, Colonel Ralfe Clench of Butler's Rangers of the Lincoln militia was a prominent Loyalist and local dignitary, serving as town clerk, judge and member of provincial parliament.
The house is Georgian in its quietly imposing symmetry and Neo-classical in its elegant detailing - large sash windows, delicate elliptical fanlight, fluted pilasters topped with Ionian capitals, and a second floor Venetian window. The refined portico which is being restored in the project is a later addition which tends to obscure the fine doorway. The Clench house is listed as one of Canada's most significant pre-20th century homes in the town. The 2-acre sloping property on a creek is exquisite. I'm looking forward to revisiting to see how the restoration is going, and the use to which the property will be put.

history and historians - the local kind

Had a lovely walk around Madoc of an evening recently, with a friend who shares my love of old structures. We had a wander around the local churchyard, looking for the gaol, and surprised a sweet limestone Ontario Gothic cottage behind the church, surrounded by old-fashioned flowerbeds, demure behind a stone wall - the Manse, my friend presumed. Further along, a Victorian storefront housed a tearoom that invites one back both to admire the brick and rubble building with its unchanged storefront, and the collections it shelters.
As we wandered further along the street, ambling back and forth across the not-busy-at-all street to take photos, and just generally peer at people's gable treatments and gardens and porches, we began a debate about this building. I suggested municipal hall, my colleague argued on the side of a school building.
No argument was ever so pleasantly resolved as this one, when the door opened and a lovely British accent chirped 'wouldn't you like to come inside to see it'? So we did - had a grand tour of this court-house turned home/studio with its old beaded pine walls, and new painted murals. And along with the tour, we enjoyed our time with Brenda, an artist, teacher, writer, local historian, and intrepid community project volunteer . A lovely chat with a lovely lady, thanks to her noticing the two of us snooping and snapping photos, and taking the chance to invite us in.
Just proves that a building may be appealing from the outside - note the deft brick detailing - but the heart and soul of the inhabitant is what makes it special indeed.

Regency houses...and sympathetic restoration

This house has intrigued me since I first saw it, on a house-shopping mission with a friend some months ago. Charming, utterly charming at first glance. A rare Regency gem in the historic village of Madoc....or is it? I would love to know this house's history, and see an archival photograph. I suspect it has survived several reincarnations in the quest for space...not all of them sympathetic. The most attractive details, those which first catch the eye, are the Regency style awning-roofed verandah (shortened, I suspect, and not elegantly), the trelliswork (looks authentic to the period, but maybe a bit chunky?) and the 3 superb French windows with panelled dados across the front. The panelled door, also, is lovely with rectangular transom and sidelights. The setting also recalls Regency values - a close to the ground profile, beautifully terraced and treed property. The house has a gable roof instead of the typical hip roof.
Then the puzzling details - there is a gable-front central section, recalling the temple-front styles of classical revival domestic architecture.Was that the compromise to gain the much-needed space not always afforded by the Regency aesthetic? Must go back to my resources to check out temple-front houses - there are still some remnants in Demorestville, Prince Edward County.
Then there's the Victorian barge-boarding and finial. Was the central section just embellished, or is this the period of the addition? Then the second storey doorway with balconette. When did that appear? Did successive owners add on styles that appealed to them, as they renovated?
On our visit to the house we got to see some amazing interior panelling, deep pine baseboards, wide board floors and monumental door surrounds that speak to the Greek revival influence. What a huge job it would be to finish this house, address structural issues, properly winter-proof it, and furnish it in period style. And there are so many add-ons; the house seems to have become ungainly and in need of pruning.
A worthy house? Oh yes. Pray for a wise and wealthy soul to find it. A tempting purchase? Oh yes. A life-time of work and expense? Affirmative. My wise friend and I turned away reluctantly. That wise friend now lives in a perfectly charming maintenance-free back-split.

Monday, July 12, 2010

With All Due Respect

Despite the formatting promise in the 'compose' window of my last post, the published version disappointed with an overlapped photograph, leaving this exquisite Neoclassical (Federal if you speak American) home at 392 Mississauga Street in Niagara on the Lake, obscured. So by way of compensating, I quote Peter John Stokes (Old Niagara on the Lake, U of T Press, 1971):
"Perhaps the most resplendent doorway in Niagara graces this frame house, a much embroidered design bringing to mind those of the Federal period in New England. The builder of the house did not finish there, but pulled all the stops to employ that marvellous material, the native white pine, to decorate his exterior with fluted pilasters, crowned by Ionic capitals, with florid ramshorns and a modillion cornice carried along the eaves as a gutter and across the gable ends in a pediment feature. Some years ago, before the present owner started preservation of the house and the restoration of some of its essential features, the drabness of the exterior and neglected appearance concealed this masterpiece."

And the work continues....notice the painter's label on the front door!
This was a heart-breakingly beautiful corner property, an acre of old trees and shady lawns, the house uncharacteristically set well back, and surrounded by a white painted fence.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Willowbank - a preservation success story

Willowbank, in Queenston near Niagara on the Lake is a preservation success story. This majestic residence was built between 1834 and 1836 for one of the captains of industry in early c19 Ontario, Alexander Hamilton. A fine example of the Classical Revival style, with its imposing temple front and massive paired pillars with Ionian capitals, Willowbank was named for the willow trees that graced the hillside property which must at one time have ended, in a pictureque manner, at the river. The National Historic Site plaque considers Willowbank "one of the finest country estates of its type in Canada".

Willowbank looks to be in peril.....a first glance inside the front entrance (top photo) revealed broken plaster, exposed lathe, water damaged walls and ceilings, broken windows. Outside, bulging stone walls indicate serious (and expensive) structural problems. These are the very signs that encourage developers to plan ambitious 'executive cul-de-sacs' with names like, let's see, Willow Estates, once the historic structure inspiring the name is safely reduced to builder's rubble. The fact that we found only one (small, not majestic at all) willow on the property seemed prophetic. Indeed, there was at one time a demolition order for the house.

But those despair-inducing details do not deter Shelley Huson. As we peered into the front hall through the grand double doors, wondering whether it was safe (let alone permitted) to enter, Shelley, who turned out to be Director of School Programs, Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, invited us in with the pronouncement - this is a classroom. Where we saw structural issues and deteriorating decor, the folks at the school see an opportunity for their 'craft skills' students to work in stone, plaster, wood, metal, and glass, in an authentic preservation setting.

The Heritage Conservation Diploma Program is a three year program in conservation theory and practice, with two years based at Willowbank, and the third an independent study year - when we visited, a group of students had just headed to Italy to rebuild medieval stone villages. Shelley explained that entry to the program is open - they currently have PhD level students and college age kids in attendance. Wow, if I were 40 years younger! This would be a great opportunity for heritage-minded, 'learn by doing', hands-on types of students.

The attitudes conveyed at Willowbank are refreshing too. Their information package reveals them to be very 'green' in their preservation orientation ("the greenest building is the one that already exists") and inclusive and revolutionary in their thinking. Their mission statement explores the layering of history - heritage buildings and sites are not to be viewed as shrines to the past, but part of "the rich layers that make up our unique history". Shelley shared with us the layers that make up Willowbank's history: the first peoples' use of the land, the early traders' route through the ravine near the house, the stories of the families who built and changed the house over the 19th and 20th centuries, and its new evolution as a school, a National Historic Site and a Foundation.

To find out more about this wonderful place and the exciting activities taking place there, visit their website at

Converts make the Best Catholics

"Converts make the best Catholics,"someone once said to me. She observed that people who switch to a belief later in life tend to be more fervent in their convictions and can even demonstrate a tendency toward proselytizing.

I'll admit I'm a convert.

I used to lose my mind over Queen Anne confections, or over-the- top grandiose Second Empire buildings. Admittedly, I am still drawn to them, and appreciate more and more the craftsmanship that went into their exquisite details (and the time and expense that preservation-minded owners commit to their maintainance).

But my week in Niagara on the Lake area has made a convert of me - to the simple elegance of Loyalist/Georgian/Neoclassical or Adam style - the terms tend to overlap in this incredibly significant living history region of Ontario. There is an utter simplicity and serenity in these symmetrical clapboard and brick homes of Loyalists who imported the styles they knew from England, via their lives in the Thirteen colonies. They started life over in a harsh wilderness, then soon after were embroiled in the dreadful destructive war that resulted in the heart-breaking burning of most of Newark in December of 1813. (Newark was the town's original name; it functioned as the capital of Upper Canada under the Governor Simcoe, until keen perception of the obvious led him to seek a safer location for government at York in 1797.)

Two days of strolling and cycling leafy streets, sitting in the lakeside park on a humid summer evening overlooking a fort which once fired in anger upon this very spot, photographing house after achingly beautiful house, have made a convert of me. Niagara on the Lake has so many stories, and I will share more. And none of them will be about wineries or theatre or retail tourism. Sorry. No, not sorry.

centre: MacDougal-Harrison house, Queen Street, 1820's
left: The Whale Inn, King Street, 1830's
right: Breakenridge-Hawley House, Mississauga Street, 1818

For anyone interested in reading someone who really does justice to the houses of Niagara on the Lake, I recommend Peter John Stokes' Old Niagara on the Lake, 1971,with drawings (that rival any photograph, imho) by Robert Montgomery. I just obtained a copy from, my favourite used bookseller, for $1.00 plus $6.50 shipping.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Newark, Upper Canada

Two weeks ago I spent an outstanding two days walking and cycling the streets of Niagara-on-the- Lake, Ontario. Eschewing the obligatory ice-cream, and avoiding the siren song of the luxury trinket shops on Queen Street, I explored some of the old residential streets , agog at the sheer number of restored 1800's beauties. I armed myself with Katherine Ashenburg's Going to Town, and a fine local publication aptly titled Niagara-on-the-Lake Guidebook, by local historian John L. Field, to make the most of my short visit by honing in on heritage treasures (and avoiding being 'taken in' by countless fine and accurate Colonial Revival replicas built by the historically astute 20th century gentry).

I did, however, find myself completely absorbed with visits to several War of 1812 sites (shrines, dare I say?) and have spent the past few days engrossed in several volumes of Pierre Berton's descriptions of the battles, sidelining my intent to publish photos and generally enthuse about the older homes of this amazing town, upon my return to this desk. Having read every plaque on Queenston Heights, wandered the shady lawn outside Laura Secord's house, driven Lundy's Lane and Beaver Dams Road, and contemplated Fort Niagara (USA) from Queen's Royal Park I now have context for the sometimes tedious descriptions of tactics and blunders, and appreciate the gravity of this war between neighbours. As a fiercely proud Canadian, I honour the spirit of the British and Canadian soldiers, the first nations warriors and black troops, the local militia and the citizen settlers, who fought so hard for the territory, and the idea, of Canada.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The 'richly sculpted bulk' of Victoria Hall, Cobourg

Spent a lovely late afternoon wandering around Cobourg yesterday, with Katherine Ashenburg's excellent Going To Town tucked under my arm, camera in hand, reading/walking/looking/snapping photos (awkward but do-able). Ashenburg writes an especially useful preface to each walking tour of the 10 historic Ontario towns featured in the book. She describes "two Cobourgs" , one "a Tory town with great expectations and repeated frustrations" and the other, a summer retreat for wealthy nineteenth century American industrialists - a fascinating invitation into research on the social history of the town. We strolled the short boardwalk through a preserved beach ecosystem beside a placid Lake Ontario, prior to a dash around town to catch the fading afternoon sun on some of the buildings constructed when Cobourg's star was rising in the early and mid c19. Victoria Hall, designed in a style as grandiose as the aspirations for national importance held by the city fathers, was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1860. Shortly afterwards, the death-knell sounded - the Cobourg Peterborough Railway dream (and its bridge) collapsed and the town fell into decline. For another visit - Cobourg rises from the ashes as "Newport North."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Look, Jerry, look. Look and see!

Did anyone learn to read from the Alice and Jerry readers when they were in Grade one? Siblings Alice and Jerry prompted each other, albeit in a rather stilted language occasioned by the limited sight vocabulary of their readers, to look about themselves and see the world. A study of architecture makes one a looker, and a see-er of details. As an individual with a global-holistic style learning style, I have always experienced exquisite old houses in their entirety, and my response has has run to wonder, longing, a sense of loss, response has been deeply emotional. I've noticed that after a winter of study and revisiting my history of architecture library from as far back as my undergrad art history courses, my response is changing. It's no less emotional, but now it's supported by a rational checklist of ways to see ....what style, what roof, what doorway, what windows, what brick or stonework, what finish details....Look, look and see!