Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Long Live the Queen!

On a drive in the country the other day I came upon this incredible vernacular frame Queen Anne style home in a riverside location. The lady is definitely showing signs of age - an aging dowager in genteel poverty. Although there is a conservation area to one side protecting the natural setting, a widened intersection has encroached on the property, detracting from the presence that the property must once have had. I had to take a number of photographs just to "take in" all the detail! The obligatory Queen Anne verandah...check. Actually, I counted five. Tower...check. Or two, if you count the very unusual 'bump' in the center to the left of the gable end.
Eclectic....check. There's a Mansard roof on the tower, and a truncated one with a dormer effect in the square wing at the left in this photo. There's a lancet arch window under the central porch. There are the expected large paned mostly rectangular windows, with some stained glass transoms. And the woodwork is eccentric to say the least. I have never seen anything like the surround on the large plate glass window. And the awning style hoods above the windows in the tower are unusual too. And the front door...and the gable vergeboarding....and the stick balustrades on the verandahs....and the paint....and then there I was sitting in the spring sunshine with my fancy-work, listening for the sounds of an eagerly awaited horse and buggy, on one of the two decorated verandahs looking over the sparkling river. Shiny new traffic lights, curbs, filter lanes, crosswalk signs and bossy traffic - all gone. Thanks your majesty, for a lovely bit of time travel.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Stoned again!

We spent some time in the Harrowsmith area yesterday. Fell in love with some heart-breakingly beautiful stone houses; my neck's still recovering from all the head-turning as we travelled the backroads and villages looking at all that beauty and history.
I spoke to the fellows who are renovating the house pictured at left and reluctantly declined their invitation for a tour due to time constraints. Inside are all the original fittings, including built-in hutches, original floors and woodwork, stone fireplaces and a brick bake oven. The main house dates from 1843; the wing to the right in this photo was the original settlers' home, built in 1811. The windows look to be the original 12 over 12 sash, the panelled door and sidelights appear likewise. The lads told me that Harrowsmith magazine did an article about the house some time back, so I will have to try to find it.
The refined and imposing Georgian in ashlar finished stone at the right sits above the mill-pond of a hamlet we explored on our way home. Exquisite. We reminded each other that at one time in our lives we'd each wanted an old stone house - he in England, me on the upper St. Lawrence. Glad in so many ways that we didn't tie ourselves to the life's work that loving such a house would have been. This way we can flit promiscuously from one limestone beauty to another. Or flirt with river-washed cobblestones. Or cut-granite fieldstones.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Things to do with Bricks

I am always amazed at the variation in brick craftsmanship that reveals itself when I look closely at old buildings. So many details capture the eye first - applied stone or cast iron cornices, dichromatic effects, flamboyant vergeboarding........ But a close look under the eaves, or at the corners, or close to the top of a facade of many brick structures offers up countless variations on a brick on brick theme. I imagine local builders solving construction problems while showing off their signature style (it pays to advertise), working in less than ideal conditions with basic tools, referring to pattern books perhaps, or just drawing on experience. The end result is a legacy for us to enjoy over a century later in warm, rich, enduring red clay brick (no suburban cement versions here)

A nod to the Classical,
and a Medieval touch


I have intense memories of several months spent in a tidy neighbourhood like this one, comprised of hundreds of houses just like these when I was just five years old. Coming from a large farm and a rambling old farmhouse, I found the uniformity and density of the neighbourhood overwhelming. Shy and introvert, I found the hundreds of kids and their boisterous social ease disconcerting. Although I had longed to go to school, the city kindergarten where I spent two months with my cousin Terry was full of unexplained terrors. My lovely English war-bride aunt and my Hasty P's veteran uncle had their own troubles but they took me in nevertheless, while my mother was pregnant and very ill. I spent three months with them and by the time I returned home my little brother had arrived and stolen their hearts.
Neighbourhoods such as this were created after WWII for returning military men and their families, through the Veteran's Land Act. The houses were prefabricated, neat one-and-a-half storey clapboard, with steep roofs, shallow eaves, multi-paned sash windows and no dormers. The busy neighbourhoods had street names like Montgomery and Victory. Life changed with the building of these little homes; the working class now had its own home. Suburban living had begun.
Someone once told me that the homes in one of the Victory neighbourhoods in our city were finished in surplus aircraft aluminum - unpainted I assume, as she tells me the area was called Tintown! Must check into that.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

slate roofs and glass bridges

I have just spent an interesting hour looking at architecture blogs...found an amazing one at by Jackie Craven - 100's of photographs, and a very interesting 'guess the style' mini-course which runs for the next 10 days - readers get a daily challenge and dozens of photos of the style of the week - bungalow is 'it' this time. It's interesting to see how slightly different style terms are used between Canada and the U.S. - I notice that especially when I use Blumenson's Identifying American Architecture and then go back to his Ontario book (oh well, my British-born mate and I can't agree on what a robin really looks like, so...).
But when we add that international difference to the already-confusing blending of styles (I'm meant to say 'in those situations where style 1 "meets" style 2'), it's hard to name that style. Oh well nobody ever said it was birdwatching....well maybe like when you're looking at warblers...
Found two other exciting blogs on urban design and sustainability which I'll check for balance after I spend time with polychromatic roof slates and red bricks (I'm really into brickwork today, was checking out lots of potential photos from the bus today).
The two sites are A Daily Dose of Architecture and the other Planetizen. Archidose is showing the Webb Bridge in Melbourne Australia. Words fail...

Denton Corker Marshall, architect, 2004

Monday, April 12, 2010

oh so Contempo

An observation on 'history', with special reference to the history of architecture. There was a day when I thought this house style was tacky - too modern, too impermanent, too, well, not historical! No Queen Anne flamboyance, no Italianate elegance, no Georgian solemnity. No story. One great thing about Shannon's course is that it has brought 'history' up to NOW as we have looked at buildings of the 40's, 50's, 60's... right up to today's amazing work. I guess it's an inevitable error to forget that one's own time is 'history' time too.
This 'mid-century modern' or '50s Contempo' style house dates from that exciting and optimistic NEW DAY of functional middle-class homes where we could all live happy ever after in the post-war building boom. Style Plus! - a mix of finish materials like brick veneer or pebble dash and panels, asymmetrical sloping roofs and carports, exposed roof rafters, and windows - angled windows, sliding window panels, single-paned sidelight beside the front door, and that big picture window! No historical detail! Nobody's looking back. Contempo is about snug suburbs full of new schools and ball fields...moms in aprons and dads in suits or company uniforms, boys in striped jerseys and girls with skipping ropes. Herds of neighbourhood kids free and safe in the streets. Ozzie and Harriet and the boys.
There's an amazing '50s Contempo subdivision in Ottawa, a post-war cooperative community called Fairhaven Way- I want to go there some day and give these houses some attention.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kleinburg...have the years been good to you?

Spent the day at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, a treat for the eyes and the soul. Topped my gallery visit off with a ramble around the trails in the spring sunshine....squirrels and spring flowers along the Humber... Went time-travelling to the McMichaels' Tapawingo of 1950's ....the Group of Seven's Ontario in the 30's....On the way out, we drove through the village (now gentified and overdeveloped) - caught a glimpse of some very appealing old houses - and the humble storefront painted by A.J. Casson way before the town became a destination.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A place to start

Ancestral Roofs is my place to indulge my love of old houses in Ontario, to save photos and notes and perhaps, in time, to link with other enthusiasts.
The blog name pays homage to Marion MacRae, author of The Ancestral Roof, an early and most authoritative, charming and erudite work on Ontario architecture, published in 1963.The photo at left is my 'ancestral roof', the Ontario farmhouse where my childhood (and that of several generations before mine) was spent.

The idea to start a blog comes as I am finishing a course called History of Architecture, BLDG10043, offered on-line through Mohawk College. Shannon Kyles, the professor, has created a website for use as the web-text at It's an outstanding resource for anyone interested in architectural styles and the social history linked to them. The course has been such an opportunity to grow and learn that I just don't want it to stop! So I'll use this blog as a way to challenge myself to continue learning. I think there is a congruence between my decades-long interest in heritage buildings, my photography and pen&ink drawing (which tend to focus on the same subject), my love of writing, and my tendency to take a risk and try something new (often in the technology area, ably supported by a most clever brother).

So here we go - here's to old houses!