Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

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.