Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

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.