Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Friday, January 28, 2011

Gables...artistry at the pointy end

I just picked up a great little book at the library - The Gaiety of Gables. It was published in 1974 (is it just me or do the 1970's seem to be the heyday of publishing about Ontario heritage architecture?). The book celebrates the decorative gable trims of the Gothic Revival farmhouses of Ontario. The author is Anthony Adamson who collaborated with Marion MacRae on The Ancestral Roof. The mostly black and white photographs were taken by John Willard, a devilish hirsute young fellow if we can go by the photo.(Today he likely looks as urbane and cultured as Adamson does in his dust-jacket photo). Adamson writes in a quirky style, folksy yet pompous. Fun to read. Trying for ironic erudition I think, in the fashion of the elegant Miss MacRae.

At any rate, I am loving the photographs. Many of them are of houses really showing their age; I wonder if they are still standing? Willard makes the point that he wants to honour these nineteenth century farmhouses because "preservation is all important, if only in book form." Sadly, his words were likely prophetic. These were simple farmhouses; nobody likely to go to the preservation wall for them.

As always, I am learning to "see" gable trim as I pore over the photographs, and read Adamson's text. I am picking up vocabulary for all of the wooden 'bits' and construction methods, and to my surprise am learning that there are three phases of gable trim or vergeboarding (bargeboarding also acceptable). Not gingerbread - at least not for the purists, I am told.

The first stage, according to Adamson was the pure form of vergeboarding, when the builders of the Gothic Revival style recreated medieval designs such as trefoils and quatrefoil shapes, scalloping and curvilinear forms recalling stone window tracery.
The example above of green-painted bargeboard on a stone gable is on the McIntosh Castle (c.1849) in Kingston.

A second step in the evolution occurred when local Ontario carvers used a wider variety of designs (from pattern books or their own whimsy) and coaxed a joyous folk art from the available 18" wide white pine boards. The house at the top with finials and iron cresting sports a 'scimitar and worm' pattern (my term) might be an example. This trim is inexpertly mounted, leading me to wonder if it's the real McCoy.

The final phase according to Adamson was the infilling of the peak of the gable with more and more elaborate trim. His tongue in cheek term is the "Inside Outside" gable for the fashion of exposing the interior roof supports - resulting in kingposts, finials, pendulums and eaves trim all gracing the same roof-line. Decoration moved to the peak of the gable and spread. A final development was the addition of brackets to hold the corners of the eaves, providing even more space for carving artistry. The red brick example with the dark blue trim above is from Newboro. Definitely worth a visit.

So many more reasons to look up, adding the joy of recognizing styles and rolling new vocabulary over the tongue to the sheer emotional pleasure of seeing something so old and so beautiful.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Milkstands!...and memories

I find it interesting how often we have to explain words and expressions that we use, to folk who are 30 and under. The world is changing so quickly that words just fall out of use. We of a certain age take it for granted that younger folk will always need to be explaining words to us - the fields of technology and entertainment are full of terminology that I will never comprehend, much less use.
My antidote to that fossil feeling? Milk-stand! There, that's got them! How many folk know what one is? Or what it is used for? I can remember that our milk-stand stood just inside the farm yard, and that weeds grew up beneath it to create a shelter where one summer I had a playhouse. I recall when I was about 10 that milkman Ken Henry would come to pick up the milk that had been placed in massive straight sided cans (cream was in curvy little cans with handles and lids like hats) and wrestled up onto the milkstand. I remember the circular roadway that curved around it, in front of the dairy barn. It seemed such a long walk then.
Today I found what is purported to be one of Sidney township's few remaining milk stands. It is very well maintained, as is the solid red barn with the stone foundation behind it, and the other farm buildings. It was great to see an old friend.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The beat goes on...

I read something in Built Heritage News, an online journal I subscribe to (
The item advertised a training course being put on by Parks Canada - National Historic Sites branch. The course is titled Conserving the Modern.
The point was made that more and more heritage buildings are "modern heritage" (1940-1980). As with our hundred-year and older heritage buildings, the issues will be awareness and preservation. Same old conundrum. If we do not know something, we cannot care for it. If we do not care, we will not work to preserve.
I love the buildings in these photos. The white house is found in a post-war subdivision in Belleville called the Golfdale area, built in the exuberant post-war era (you won't be surprised) on a golf club which was once on the edge of town. Most of the houses are the familiar Victory style, but the white house is designed in the Art Moderne or Machine Age or streamlined style. This style features flat roofs and banding to emphasize the horizontal lines. Buildings were streamlined and smooth, with elements reminiscent of the decks and smokestacks of ocean liners that were catching the popular imagination.
The yellow brick apartment building is not far from the subdivision. It has the same profile and several bands of brickwork.
There are a few more houses close by with some of the same stylistic features.
I want to "know" these buildings (I already love them), but cannot find any information about the architect or builder. Work continues...

Monday, January 17, 2011

"The stories this house could tell"

My Mom, to whom I attribute my early love of old houses, used to say, "the stories that house could tell" whenever we passed derelict homes and barns in our Prince Edward County drives. She started me thinking about the lives, the work, the dreams of the people who had once inhabited these old places. Today, whenever I see a barn standing derelict, with the wind blowing through gaps in the boards and doors hanging from rusty tracks, I hear the sounds of the community bee that raised that proud structure. I imagine the quiet pride felt by that settler family upon the completion of one more step in their journey toward prosperity and a more certain future for their sons.

How proud the builders of this brick house would have been. After several years of sheltering in a one-room log house while they cleared the forest and established cultivated fields, the family has achieved another milestone with the building of a solid brick house on a hill overlooking the farm. And it is a fine house with a door-case featuring a transom and sidelights, proud herringbone brick lintels above the windows, wide eight-over-eight sash windows, a second floor gable with a polychrome brick motif, two solid chimneys and a verandah from which to view the countryside in rare moments of leisure.

I snapped this house in the fading light of a January afternoon, on a sideroad off a concession road in Sidney township. I sought out the building because of a cryptic note printed on a map produced by the Quinte branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. The map and the typed pages which accompanied it outlined a tour of Sidney township in Hastings county. The tour was put together in 1990 for a bus trip of homes and the agricultural past, to honour that township's bicentennial.

The note on the map reads "purported to be the oldest brick house in Sidney." Wouldn't I love to ask this old place to tell me its stories?

Salvation? Of course.That's church business..

Not long ago, I obtained a copy of a lovely book titled Rural Ontario from my favourite out-of-print bookseller, AbeBooks. The evocative black and white photographs of Ralph Greenhill and the intelligent commentary by land and heritage preservationist Verschoyle Benson Blake affected me deeply, no more so than when the book (published in 1969) would highlight the beauty and history of a building that is now no more.

I felt a special heartache when I read the description accompanying plate 58. "The Stone Church, Sidney Township, Hastings County" according to the text, was "no longer in use and threatened with destruction". Oh no, another worthy building gone....and part of the rare cobblestone building history of this area.

About the same time, my house guru Lois provided me with a copy of an ACO Quinte tour itinerary of Sidney township done a decade ago, to help me with some cobblestone research, and I began driving and discovering. Much to my delight, as I crossed Wallbridge Road at Tucker's Corners, I found the church! A miracle! The church was saved! Despite the poor late-cloudy-day light, I stopped and took some photos. According to the tour leaflet, the cobblestone artistry can be attributed to a Mr. Wickett of Foxboro. Blake draws attention to the shaped stone arches around the windows and doors, superior to the "simply shaped holes in the wall" featured in many of the Paris Ontario cobblestones.

I photographed the church, stopped to admire the serene churchyard and studied the OHF plaque. I wondered about the cheery designs painted on the doors and windows, and the bird motif above the door.

A few weeks later I returned to the church, to try another photo in (slightly) better light. A gentleman pulled up beside me in the tiny parking lot to ask what I was about (how grand that the neighbourhood keeps an eye on the place, I thought). I explained that the local ACO had toured the area and visited the church in 1990 and showed him the tour itinerary.

It turns out I was in the man's driveway! He remembered that ACO tour well, having just become the owner of the church, since become his home and gallery! And so it was that Dennis Noble and I spent a jolly 10 minutes talking about cobblestones and heritage and cubism and Indian art. The owner of the church is a well-known artist, retired from the bright downtown gallery scene to establish this small art museum of his work. I recognized the significance of the designs as Leger-inspired, when Dennis brought me out a brochure about the collection and two postcards.

Coincidentally, Dennis also had just received a copy of the Blake/Greenhill book and we recalled the photo in the book and the writer's gloomy prediction. How inspiring that an artist recognized the artistry in the little stone church. How wonderful that another heritage building has been repurposed. How hopeful we are to hear more stories like this, in these days following the loss of the Empress/Edison hotel in Toronto.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Italian job

Wouldn't you just love to explore this house? I would love to see what it's like in the room above the front door, the one with the oriel window, that takes the place of a little balcony on many such houses. What's the entry like, inside the lovely double door with sidelights and fanlight. And of course, what's in the square Tuscan tower with the round-headed window and the bracketed eaves? I'd like to know if the left side of the house is earlier - it has a reserved classical 3-bay look, despite the off-centre veranda and window treatment. The offset placement of the two wings of the house, one with gable end to the street, creates the characteristic picturesque irregular roof-line. There are two verandahs from which to appreciate the expansive grounds. Their adornment is quite different, the right hand one has elaborate woodwork.

The style of the house is Tuscan Villa. This house is the Bell-Riggs house, according to the Hastings County Historical Society booklet, Belleville's Heritage. The house was built about 1855, by John Bell who was the lawyer for the Grand Trunk Railway. There is a wonderful Italian Villa in Kingston. Bellevue House (1838-40), home of Sir John A. Macdonald at some point in his career, is a National Historic site. I'll have to go there to indulge my urge to explore Tuscan Villas.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Treasure in Tamworth

Not so long ago I travelled with a neighbour to her childhood haunts in Lennox and Addington county. She showed me places with personal significance for her in Napanee and Tamworth and rural spots between. It was a lovely day, and Elaine graciously indulged my need to snap photos of houses everywhere we went.

I was taking a few shots of this house. It is known as "the old Wheeler house." Someone has taken the time to create a home-made historic plaque, commemorating the house as the first frame house built in Tamworth, around 1832, by the village's founder, Calvin Wheeler. It has some Greek Revival roots in its gable end orientation to the street. I also noted the Regency inspired vernacular version of an awning roof. The plain white house was sided in wood, rather than the ubiquitous vinyl siding, which preserved the eaves returns and plain window surrounds. A woman appeared at the door, and asked if we would like to come in. I ran back to the car to collect my friend and prepare her for a treat. A few moments earlier Elaine had explained wistfully that this house was a place where she had spent many happy hours as a child.

We had a great visit. The woman was very heritage minded and was restoring the house on a budget, delighting in small discoveries (she was making a shadow box display from a number of door latches and other hardware). She and Elaine prowled through the house, upstairs and down. Elaine got to share many childhood memories, and I snapped away happily.

As Steven Leacock said, "History is everywhere". We all have some. Let's remember to celebrate and share it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl...

I read an appeal on the ACO Acorn blog the other day - reminding those of us who eat and sleep to patronize those of us who endeavour to maintain historic homes by converting them to inns and restaurants. That's a powerful challenge to those of us who say we value heritage yet dine at home or patronize roadhouse restaurant chains. The writer of the blog entry, Lloyd Alter, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, talked about staying in a "charmless and tacky seventies replacement" of the former Newfoundland Hotel which was a heritage structure on the order of Toronto's Royal York. I agree. We trudged the entire downtown of St. John's, to find the Newfoundland Hotel (okay, it wasn't a pilgrimage, I had a haircut appointment in their highly recommended salon). We climbed the impressive height of land on which the hotel stood, and found ourselves in Cleveland (well not Kansas, anyway). Alter concludes with this caution "unless we support the historic hotels and inns they will follow it." Yikes. Let's take our love of heritage out for lunch.

Queen Anne style homes, with their stately if overdecorated sense of style, tend to do well in the restaurant and inn business. Gananoque has a wonderful example. The Queen Anne grandeur also suits them well for other purposes. This beautifully maintained Queen Anne villa is in Napanee. It has everything - turret, balconies, dormers, encircling verandahs, picturesque irregular massing, rusticated stone sills, terra cotta inserts, an elaborate chimney, a grand variety of window styles, an acroterion, shingles, brick and fish scale has everything, including a future. It is well patronized by the folk of Napanee. It's the home of the local funeral parlour.

Of Elvis, Batawa and Mid (last)-century Modern

A website I follow,, is featuring 1950's and '60's homes. I think it may be in celebration of Elvis Presley's birthday that they have posted photos of his 'honeymoon house', a spectacular semi-circular house designed by Palm Springs builder Robert Alexander. To tour the slideshow of photos of this Desert Modernism style house is to understand why Look Magazine featured it as "the house of tomorrow". People my age understand the excitement that kind of phrase generated - we were living on the edge of the future in the late 50's. This was a revolutionary period in architecture as designers freed themselves from historicizing detail and invented a new aesthetic. They experimented with the new materials, new shapes and new functions needed by increasing post-war affluence - plate glass, textured materials, clerestory windows, sloping roofs and carports, minimalist shrubbery.

The mid-century modern houses in these photos are in Battawa Ontario. The owners of the house at top left have diluted its modernist purity with a retrofit door and a bump-out window. Battawa was a planned hamlet begun by Czech immigrant Thomas Bata, who arrived in the area in 1939 as events in Europe threatened the family's shoe manufacturing business. The Battawa shoe factory, opened in the 40's, was developed on the "commune" concept for manufacturing, creating the classic company town. The company owned the town, provided accommodation for its workers, many of them from Bata's native Czechoslovakia, and controlled most aspects of the village. The Bata shoe plant closed in the 80's due to pressures from cheaper imported goods, an all too common story. The modernist Bata shoe plant still stands in the village today.