Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

another deposed monarch

This afternoon I've started reading Leslie Maitland's scholarly but accessible book, The Queen Anne Revival Style. It's reminding me how much I like the style - a little bit Gothic a little bit classical a little bit Tudor a little bit English rural life-ish. Big clues you have a Queen Anne? Dark red brick with white trim, terra cotta panels, bay windows, variety of window types, stained or frosted glass, irregular roofline, verandah with classical columns, corner tower, L-shaped plan with large gables at each end, deep brackets and vergeboard, interesting chimneys.

Maitland's detailed descriptions of the interiors of some of these homes, and of the social history that created them, is really evocative. I'm thinking baronial dark-wood-panelled splendour, pater familias uninterrupted by the fireplace , well-behaved women and children, lots of Victorian clutter...hmmm, some places I'd rather not time-travel to.

Enjoying this book is also reminding me that the house in these photos is the first building I ever really studied closely. I wrote a paper on it for Shannon Kyle's Ontario Architecture course, and later converted it (the paper) into a little article for Outlook, the journal of our wonderful local historical society. The neatest part about the research was the story of the tower - no, don't look up, it's gone. Interesting how often these third storey stories pop up - several houses I've explored since are missing towers. Notice the slight tilt to the building? In the case of this house, the tower was removed because it was too heavy for the shifty sandy soil beneath the foundation, and was causing structural problems...had to go! Third verandah, ditto.

Nowadays, the house is broken up into apartments, lacking the touch of a dedicated in-house preservationist. Mops on the porch, rubbish on the grass, and just recently someone has decided to paint the capitals on the porch columns bright brick-orange. Oh dear - still a grand house though. It's on my walk downtown through the leafy East Hill area, and I look forward to reconnecting with it every time I'm in the neighbourhood.

It's a sickness...

It's a sickness, but a good one.

Any enthusiasm - showing wolfhounds, building replica vintage and historic motorcycle frames, collecting early Heathkit sets or fine guitars - they are all intensely absorbing and very rewarding. They also lead to interesting connections with others who share the bug.

A gentleman I have just met through this blog has developed a Field Guide to old house styles he calls A Field Guide to Building Watching. It's at
Massive amount of work and research. Great photos and checklists for identification. A project I once had in mind - glad Ted got to it first, it's a big job! It will be a regular stop from now on.

Another contact researches Eaton's houses (those mail-order homes sold in kits or as plans in the early decades of the 20th century) and is anxious to hear from anyone in Ontario who knows of examples in this province. If you know of any, please contact me at the email on this blog and I will get in touch with her.

Must go. Feeling poorly. Need an infusion of the latest issue of Heritage Matters. Or maybe I'll work some more on my blog. Or perhaps a few more pages of Leslie Maitland. Then there are the minutes from Thursday's municipal heritage meeting to write up. Or I could work on my photo files for the ACO tour in October. Or my article on Glanmore house for Umbrella. Oh dear. It IS a sickness, isn't it?

Left: in Belleville, adjacent to Corby Rose Garden
Right: Hochelaga Inn, Kingston

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Room at the Inn

I was talking the other day about how buildings go through transitions over the decades, centuries, leaving us with today's version, and only hints into what they were like before - bringing out the detective in all of us lovers of old buildings. Delving into the history of our local Clarion hotel, which is an historic building once called the Quinte Hotel, is a worthy exercise in time-travel.

The building was built in 1895 on the long-vacant site of the Dafoe Hotel, which burned in 1886. The Quinte Hotel itself was rebuilt after a disastous fire, in about 1909, adding a fourth storey in the process. It has seen many changes, has operated under several different hotel chains, losing a lot of its grandeur over the years. The Quinte Hotel was spoken of in superlatives in newspapers of its day. The Belleville Sun, in 1895, in the enthusiastic rhetoric of the time, reported that "there is no finer hotel to be found inthe province of Ontario than the Hotel Quinte". The hotel is associated with so many stories of Belleville, and of its illustrious citizens. Its a great story longing to be told.

When the Quinte Hotel was first built it is reported to have had many Romanesque Revival elements - that style said "we're important" in 1895. From what I can see in the photos I have viewed there were rusticated limestone foundation stones and piers for the prominent high porches (one removed in the 1960's, the other lowered and modernized), the deep red brick emulating the characteristic red sandstone, the round-headed arches and brick hood moulding above windows on the first floor and frontispiece on the Bridge Street side, rustication on the chunky pillars of the porches and the detailing at the top of the Bridge Street frontispiece, which all suggest Romanesque Revival. I can't see enough of the detail of the sun-room at the top, but it has a massive feel.

During the rebuilding after the fire around 1909, a brick fourth storey was added with a cornice separating it from the floors below, and classical features diluted some of the Romanesque Revival feel. The removal of the Bridge Street portico and the lowering and modernizing of the Pinnacle entrance were the biggest loss to its historical sense of style.

Today the hotel is a viable Clarion Hotel, much changed, but still the centre of downtown life, and mindful of its heritage. We should be proud of its longevity.

1.Top :(coloured postcard) Quinte Hotel (after 1909 rebuilding, note fourth storey above cornice.)
2. Left: Quinte Hotel (as originally built in 1895, note the sun-room on the roof)
3. Right: Dafoe Hotel (note the carriage-way into a central courtyard)
4. Bottom: Quinte Hotel (now the Clarion Hotel) as it is today.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Baby please don't go...

Another article in ACO's Acorn-on-line has me thinking. We so often use their term 'demolition by neglect'' to describe a situation where a building is left to deteriorate to a point where only the staunchest preservationist is left standing to defend it against the developers. This article coins a new term - 'developer's lightning' (hastily rescued from the tactless use of a now totally politically incorrect term by a local politician) - in connection with a fire, later found to be arson, which destroyed an important old hotel standing in the way of the Toronto developers.

The little house with the fine chimneys, above left, is the Billa Flint house (1835) in Belleville, built for this important local businessman and politician, who became a senator in 1867. Good pedigree this house has. Just recently the house was targeted by vandals who found the long-abandoned building just too tempting. Shame the owner doesn't find his stated plans for the place just as tempting. The clear and present danger for uninhabited heritage buildings is always further decay resulting in demolition. So often fire or other irreparable damage seems to have played into the hands of waiting developers (and the suspicious among us wonder aloud about collusion).

The house at top right is less famous - haven't been able to find anything about it so far. It sits on rural property north-east of Trenton. It's a lovely place, low regency profile with a line of tall windows and French doors with lovely cornices. Frame, stucco, gable roof. Lovely setting among trees on a country road. This house, unlike the Flint house, probably doesn't have anyone to speak up for it. Not famous. But this house would have a story. I hope it's been a happy one - family, success, tradition, love. Like we feel when a human life draws to its close: I hope life's been good to it. I hope all that can be done has been done. I hope this life will be remembered.

I hope to visit this little grey house a few more times before it goes.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

And now for something completely different...

Whew, too much research lately, need to lighten up. I've just recalled a thoroughly delightful day we spent last summer at the Albert County Museum in Hopewell Cape on the Fundy shore of New Brunswick. The museum is operated by the fine folks of the Albert County Historical Society. Albert County was founded in 1845. Hopewell Cape was the Shiretown and the structures on the site were the original Shiretown buildings in their original locations, spreading up a gentle slope from the shore.

Competing with more famous Hopewell Rocks, (which we kayaked in the afternoon), the Albert County Museum can hold its own historically. Hopewell Cape was the birthplace of Premier R.B.Bennett, who among other achievements, founded the CBC - and himself a Conservative!! - and the museum is proud to showcase his career, as well as the lives and work of the people of Albert County.

The museum complex features a fine exhibition hall of farming, fishing and social history displays, the original County Gaol with graffiti from prisoners preserved on the plaster walls, and the actual County Tax Office with files and space for researchers and genealogists. The Community Hall has a powerful display about R.B.Bennett and the Great Depression, which got us both interested in reading Boyco's new book about this complex man and his political times.

The building that most impressed us was the County Court House (rebuilt 1904 after a fire ). It is a solemn classically styled building at the top of the rise. The structure was designed by Watson Reid, a local architect, son of a carpenter. The interior of the building has exquisite woodwork.

And now for something completely different, something many locals don't know! Watson Reid was one of three architect brothers whose impact ranged far beyond their little village. In 1888, in the seaside resort town of Coronado near San Diego, the hotel designed by the lads, the lavish Queen Ann style Hotel del Coronado, was opened. It stands today, with several additions, offering hospitality now, as it did then, to the world's rich and famous. It is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Small-town lad makes good.

Photo top right: Hotel del Coronado. Thanks to Wikipedia - and yes, I did send in my donation to Jimmy Wales.

It ain't necessarily so....

I'm taking a course on the history of Western architecture with Shannon Kyles through Mohawk College this winter. It's great fun, revisiting places I studied in my undergrad history of art courses - pulled out my old Janson History of Art text to work on an essay recently. Purchased it for a whopping $12.95 in my sophomore year! It's funny how the long-term memory works - terms and structures I studied in 1966 are etched in my mind...the names pop out almost without bidding - whereas the new ones take some serious work to fix in there.
I recall one of my big disappointments in my early study - it comes back even today. What I see in the photographs (or in real life in the case of some we've visited over the years) is not at all what people saw when the structures were new - as I write this I ask myself "what did you expect?" - but still,who knew...

-that Lincoln cathedral's exquisite early 14th century stone screen was originally brightly painted?
-that the statues and carvings in those brilliant white Greek ruins we see were once bright reds and blues?
-that the arches in triumphal Roman arches and coliseums were boarded up and used as public housing in the middle ages? Nicks in the walls show where roof supports were once anchored, and carved niches were used for fireplaces and dovecotes.
-that the Parthenon was originally covered with sculpture (poached by a British collector); that its 40' tall ivory and gold statue of the goddess Athena disappeared somewhere along the way, likely in a fire; that its romantic ruin today is in large part due to an explosion in 1687 when the temple was being used by the Turks as a munitions dump?
-that the marble, gold and bronze fronts of great buildings were removed and used in the building projects of kings and emperors of subsequent empires? (and popes were good at that too)
-that many of the wonderful stone houses in England were constructed of stone from nearby abbeys, disgraced and destroyed in 16th century, and that the romantic ruins we see today (think Tintern Abbey) were just the churchy bits that would be too obviously nicked to be useful?
-that stone structures like Stonehenge may only exist today because the stone was too heavy for subsequent civilizations to remove for building material?
-that the cathedrals of Europe and England were 'improved' over the centuries; Romanesque carving removed in favour of Gothic sophistication, new styles for old??
-that the brilliant palace of Knossos (how amazingly well-preserved I thought) built in 1900 to 1450 BC, was buried by an earthquake, rediscovered and rebuilt in early 1900's by Sir Arthur Evans? He did the best he could, but scholars have disputed its authenticity over time.
-that so much of what we see today is the result of passionate and painstaking preservation work by governments and individuals, and that for all that we see, there is so much more lost to us?

The fires, the earthquakes, the wars, the changes in taste - deliberate and accidental tragedies, the rich history of accomplishment and catastrophe that these structures represent - I've observed before in connection with old Ontario houses that old buildings are a portal to the past. I am experiencing this so powerfully in this course. Wouldn't care to guess how many European and British history books I have piling up around my desk?

Back to the Palace of Knossos for a minute. I recall my first visit to Minoan civilization in my sophomore year at Carleton (since Grade 9 mythology with Mrs. Ross), and the palaces of this peaceable artistic Mediterranean kingdom. The Palace of Knossos was rebuilt by Evans during a lifetime of work, using the knowledge and tools available to him in the early 1900's. And even he got it wrong, according to scholars. What remains is only a hint of the brilliance of that culture, an invitation into the history and the myth about this kingdom, its rulers, the palace, bronze age civilization.

The other day I made up a term for what happens when I see a ruin or a reconstruction and imagine it to be 'the real thing". (It's a great conceit to think it's original, but I haven't seen anyone else use it yet.) I call this the Knossos effect - reconstruction using modern materials, rebuilding based on what we know, what we wish, what we need (tourism leaps to mind). From ancient structures right up to c19 Ontario houses - all an invitation to do our research, do some time-travel. Because in the words of Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward....what we see today? "It ain't necessarily so".

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If wishes were houses...

There's a lot of interest in mail-order houses. I was doing some research on early catalogues recently for an article in a local arts newspaper. This all started when I rediscovered a facsimile edition of the 1910 Eaton's catalogue on my bookshelf, and spent an enjoyable few hours looking at merchandise that has long disappeared from our lives...automobile coats and bicycle skirts, cuspidors, mangles and two-horse harness. And houses.

I remembered a visit to several south Saskatchewan communities while we exploring 'the Big Muddy' from our base in the Coronach municipal campground few years ago. A local guide pointed out the house at the upper left - a weathered husk of a house, standing in a field of harvest-ready wheat. The house, going back into the earth, to nurture future crops? Our guide explained that this was an Eaton's mail-order house - whether local legend or not, the idea was new to me, and I was hooked.

Most sources suggest that the mail-order house, available from around 1910 to 1930, was a prairie phenomenon, necessary because of the shortage of timber for house lumber. Makes sense, looking at the countryside surrounding these little buildings. There were a number of companies: Eaton's and Aladdin were the two main ones. Lumber was shipped from B.C., and everything else needed to build a home - windows, hardware, nails, paper, optional plumbing and heating kits - arrived by boxcar from Winnipeg. Plans and material for barns, school-houses and other buildings were also available. Plans were available for those who had local access to building materials. Lots of homes in the East may have been built from the catalogue plans - that would be interesting to know.

I have come across some interesting websites in my research, created by community heritage associations or ranches. They contain all sorts of interesting images and stories. A visitor to this blog is looking for news of Eaton's houses in western Ontario - I am doing the same in eastern Ontario. Let me know what you know about mail-order homes!

The photo of the faded little yellow house with the red roof was taken near Sceptre, Saskatchewan, on a tour to find the Great Sand Hills. The little school-house photo is from a historic tour we took in South Saskatchewan, out of Coronach. My heart tells me they came in a kit from one of the mail-order companies. More houses with stories to tell.

Every winner has scars

Robert N.C. Nix said "every winner has scars." I'll admit to not knowing who Mr. Nix is, but I will agree that heritage buildings who have survived alterations, near demolitions and changes all around them are winners in my eyes. And they bear scars from their battle to survive.
I read the term 'roof scars' somewhere - wish I could recall where, so I could attibute this very apt term to its creator. Roof scars - traces of a previous roof line visible on a wall , showing up as discoloration, differences in material, intriguing lines. The Quebec city building on the left shows changes in the roofline of the structure which once stood beside it, as it grew, and the addition of another storey to itself. The limestone parapet wall in Kingston shows a brick fireplace and flue exposed by the demolition of its neighbour...quite a shock, like an elderly lady on the sidewalk in her nightgown.
I'll admit to a tendency over time to view an old building as if it had always been that way - forgetting of course that as we age, we change. Buildings that have stood for a century or more are very unlikely to be in their original condition - additions for practical reasons (a wing, dormers, repairs after fires, concrete basements under moved buildings), changes in fashion (producing add-ons and combinations of styles - harmonious or otherwise), inaccuracies due to lack of information (you could call it the Knossos effect), limited skill or resources (removal of Regency treillage, the vinyl siding compromise), myths about features of early buildings (a pet peeve of Miss MacRae), loss of associated heritage landscape (my favourite Glanmore property), and lots of other factors combine to make appreciation of old buildings an intriguing puzzle.

For many years my response to old buildings has been an emotional one - how lovely, how unusual, what about this building intrigues me so, what makes my heart ache? A global holistic approach. Now that my architectural knowledge is increasing, I am more analytical, and my appreciation of detail increases with my ability to name and describe it and place it in history.

Now I begin to see the need to become a detective! All good.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

...on my way to the Forum*

In my last post I mused about Greek Revival architectural style and how North America adopted it so readily for civic buildings. It was just what communities needed to enhance their image, affirm their their progress from log and frame settlements to successful villages, towns and cities, and create a dignified home for their institutions of peace and good government.
These photos illustrate the civic pride and aspirations of three communities of different size - with different resources. Upper left: Kingston City Hall (1833-34), Lower left: Napanee Town Hall (c. 1855), Right: Bath Town Hall (1861). Can't you just hear the public debate, the enthusiasm in the newspaper, the approval from the pulpit, the arguments in the tavern, the comments of the sidewalk superintendents?

Can you say, "dignified"?

* Point taken - forum was a Roman idea, but we were on our way there when we stopped for the flowering of Greek culture, right? I liked the quote...from the Stephen Sondheim musical I seem to recall.

Go on, impress me

Now where in the world are we?
Well, Nashville of course!
Who wouldn't associate this exact replica of the Parthenon with Music City?
But association is exactly what this is about.
This replica of the Parthenon was built in Nashville for the 1895 world's fair. Nashville had high aspirations - it wanted to lose its frontier wild west image and become an Athens of the west, a centre of culture and commerce. Like all of the other structures produced to wow the visitors, this building was meant to be temporary and to be demolished later, but there great resistance which resulted in its being rebuilt as permanent structure in 1920. And so it stands in a lovely park - on a hill - on the Nashville bus tour route.

But this Parthenon wasn't the real thing. Many government buildings of the nineteenth century in the United States and Canada adopted the Classical Revival (or Greek Revival) style, "applying Greek plans and proportions to civic buildings" (Shannon Kyles). The reasoning is the image and the association. In the nineteenth century, as new nations were defining themselves, the Greek culture was being carefully studied. Archeological study produced studies and plan books based on the sublime geometry of the Classical orders, and architecture was never the same.

The builders of the fledgling American republic harnessed their architectural wagon to the Greek revival star - with its associations fitting their ambitions. The style evokes the nobility and enlightenment of the Greek culture and the democratic ideals of the Greek republic. Its use in civic buildings communicated those lofty ideals - and order, authority and stability. Interestingly, New York state, an area of expansion at that time, also adopted many Greek place names (and Greek Revival style in civic and domestic building) for the same reasons. That's why we shop in Syracuse and tour Greek Revival cobblestone houses in towns like Greece and Cato, N.Y.

Interestingly, this replica of the Parthenon is not accurate. It purports to be the only full-size replica in existence, and well it may be. But today the actual Parthenon at the Acropolis in Rome is quite plain and a bit worn (well it was built by 432 BC). And we all remember Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who 'rescued' all the sculpture from the frieze and pediments to their new home in the British Museum in the nineteenth century. Such was the absolute chauvinistic audacity of the British Empire at its peak! It must be terrible to see that amazing work stripped of its context, removed from this hilltop in the bright Greek sun that has bathed its ancient culture for so long, and displayed like natural history museum butterflies pinned to velvet.

Ah, well. Must get on with my reading. The Architectural Conservancy newsletter has lots of new stories about demolitions of Ontario historic buildings. Hope they're saving the marble mantels.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gothic Survival

I'm not sure, but maybe it was significant that the sun disappeared and a massive cloud bank overtook the town of Picton this afternoon, just as I arrived to take a photo of this house. I haven't looked closely at the house in years - I used to think it was a castle when I was a little girl. The name of the house, "Grove Place" or the Downes house (I recall it as the Falconer house), has come up recently, as Picton recovers from the 'surprise' demolition of its 1875 Methodist Episcopal church, and begins to flex its heritage muscles. I notice that the house is up for lease; once at the leafy edge of town, it's now dead centre, surrounded by a commercial plaza, a bank and a magnetic local coffee shop. I expect it will succumb to development, unless the community rallies quickly to develop the commercial and tourism potential of an historic and quite lovely - though desperately needy - Gothic Revival style home.

According to my tattered 1984 edition of The Settler's Dream (reprinted recently to address increasing interest as a new crew of heritage nuts discovers the houses I grew up with...and in), the house was already losing ground (literally) 27 years ago when the "delightful grounds" were sold off for parking lots. The date of its construction is c.1858, and Cruikshank's litany of Gothic influences bears repeating - the porch gives a nod to Tudor styling with its buttresses and labelled doorway, the gable bargeboard suggests Elizabethan style, the oriel window recalls the Jacobean, and the complex chimney style is vaguely Tudor.

A fairy tale castle to a little farm kid. I hope fairy tales do come true and someone comes to wake this sleeping beauty.

Barns of Hastings County

Recently I met a person who loves barns. I must admit to a certain pull myself, having grown up on a farm and owning hundreds of sensory memories of a proud old multi-generational barn on a working farm. I sense as much as recall a cathedral like space with dust motes from the hay floating in beams of sun shooting through the cracks between weathered boards, the massive creaking presence of draft horses in ancient stalls, the spring arrival of wobbly wet pink-nosed calves, the warm winter breath of dozens of contented cows, all the mysteries of things growing, work accomplished, the passage of the seasons marked by tasks of animal husbandry, field work, harvest. Oh my, I'm there this morning.
There was a much-panned movie a number of years ago - The Bridges of Madison County. I don't recall the story but I remember the film did a good job of creating a sense of loss (a bit soppy and maudlin, true, but the visceral sense that something is going and it hurts). I feel that way about barns. As I drive around Hastings (or any) County I see countless skeletal barns going back to the soil, themselves harvested for barn wood or whatever is left of value. So much earnest planning, such toil in the construction, immeasurable work accomplished for several generations, now irrelevant. Beautiful in their grief.
I draw comfort from this one thing, in my country drives - Hastings County has a fine and viable farming community still, and there are wonderfully well-kept and prosperous barns on those very same nostalgic drives. So I take some comfort in knowing that this way of life will continue in some form for some folks, because, as they say on the highway sign "If you ate today, (you) thank a farmer."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Strawberry Fields Forever

We all think we know what Gothic Revival style looks like - central pointy gable with a finial and/or pendulum and barge-boarding right? Lancet windows. Merrill Inn in Picton. Seymour House in Madoc. Much as I love those details, I like these two buildings because they display some of the other less common features brought into c19 Ontario from the English Gothic or medieval era - hood mouldings and carved label stops, trellis work buttresses, and oriel windows - so Romantic!! One home is symmetrical, the other delightfully irregular in profile.

The house on the left is one of my favourites in Belleville. According to the Hastings County Historical Society book Belleville's Heritage (1978) , the house was built in the 1850's for Adam Henry Wallbridge and passed on to family members. The house is stucco over stone, a lovely backdrop for the stately porch with its delicate sham buttresses. The oriel window with its cresting is so regal. This house has presence a neighbourhood of fine homes in outstanding condition, it has a certain something that sets it apart.

The building on the right is Elizabeth Cottage in Kingston. It is very difficult to photograph. A wide property snug against an unattractive neighbour, it is best appreciated (unfortunately) from the middle of a very busy and very slushy street (the day I visited recently). Outfitted with plaques as befits its stature and story, the home is definitely feeling its age - it's a retirement home with space to let, according to yet another sign around the corner. The right side was built about 1841-43 by Edward Horsey, who went on to become the architect of the Provincial Penitentiary and Frontenac County Court House (according to Margaret Angus, in The Old Stones of Kingston). The left side was a separate, later, cottage, joined elegantly to the original. Only the modern sun-room interloper between the sham buttresses spoils the Gothic whimsy. The unmarried grand-daughters of the original owner established the home as a residence for retired gentlewomen (conjures up the duchesses in "reduced circumstances" of English novels.)

After several generations of stern Georgian family homes rising in the wilderness, the Gothic revival must have been an exotic change. Championed by John Ruskin and his contemporaries, Gothic revival style sought to honour the work of craftsmen, and the spirit of Gothic churches. In some ways, we still feel that tingle of the eccentric, the theatrical, the spirit of the age when we stop to appreciate a Gothic Revival home or church.

According to my prof Shannon Kyles, Strawberry Hill, built in 1750 by Horace Walpole, was the first house to be called Gothic Revival. Situated in the London borough of Richmond, the house has just completed a 9 million pound restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust and is being reopened this April. I would love to visit but may have to satisfy myself with return visits to Or to my favourite house on Bridge Street.