Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Angels in the details

Where on earth did the expression "the devil's in the details" originate?
Surely not among folk who appreciate architecture, and the riches to be found upon close examination of familiar forms.
Surely in architectural detail are many angels and good spirits.
I picked up a wonderful walking tour guide in Warkworth on the weekend.
That the photographs were taken by someone we know, or that the details he captured are especially appealing bits of a village we like a lot ...not the point.
The point for me was the reminder that the best architecture, usually that we consider heritage, is wonderful for the craftsmanship of its tiny details. It's often the artistry of the single individual in love with design, materials, tools. It's fine art or vernacular, whimsical , sometimes even a bit awkward, newly invented or fastidiously copied from pattern books, rooted in the classical or Gothic medieval tradition, or springing boldly forth as new expressions in Art Nouveau, Deco or even later. But after we react emotionally to a fine building, and get an overall impact, once we satisfy ourselves as to style and era, it's the details that entrance us and keep us coming back to our favourite buildings.
Should the weather ever turn spring-like, my bicycle, my camera and my roving eye will be checking out the details in the Old East Hill.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Neighbourly news..

Wasn't there once a friendly homespun segment on CBC radio's 'old look' Fresh Air called Neighbourly News? Back in the days of the Over 90 Birthday Club, and Bill McNeil and Cy Strange? I like the title anyway; it comes from somewhere back in my past, and has a warm folksy feel. It fits how I feel about an event we attended yesterday in Warkworth.

We made a neighbourly visit to good folks of the East Northumberland County ACO yesterday - to a super talk by Rob Mikel, writer of the beautiful and informative Ontario House Styles, and soon to be published book about the grand old summer homes of Cobourg, back when it was the Newport of the North, welcoming huge numbers of wealthy and well-connected society folk from the US. Stories of buildings, people, parties - great slides of archival photos, encyclopedic knowledge of the area and the times, and a wry wit. A wonderful time.

The social side of the meeting was most pleasant. My husband accompanied me, stepping outside his usual role as driver of the getaway car while I run along the boundaries of great properties with my camera, trying to do justice to yet another heart-breakingly beautiful old building. A fellow member of our Municipal Heritage committee came along - a lovely cultured gentleman and great conversationalist who made the drive through the lovely Northumberland hills a most pleasant one. Got some free stuff - a poster of Northumberland County barns which is living on my fridge door this morning, some Acorn back issues, a walking tour guide of Warkworth house details photographed by Gary Mulcahey, whom my husband knows through the vintage motorcycle fraternity. Great idea for a future ACO activity.

We had a most pleasant day, but one made poignant by the concerns of the group about the almost inevitable demolition of the 1915 Brighton Public School, a lovely classically detailed building made 'redundant' by the construction of a new school nearby. The building is reported to be in fine shape in and out, and sits on a very large property (surely there's enough space for the developers to make their millions and still spare our heritage). Informed pleas for preservation and adaptive reuse have failed to date.

ACO is a wonderful organization. The members are heroes of preservation battles everywhere. They have learned to live with great highs and gut-wrenching lows - have survived frantic campaigns for fine buildings saved and repurposed, and the loss of intact architectural treasures demolished for shabby reasons.

I neglected to bring a camera on a day which turned out to be wonderfully sunny, with ample time to capture this building. So for now, I am posting a photo found on-line; I thank the Architectural Conservancy for the loan of this place-holder photo. I'll change it when next I have the combination of wheels, sun and time to take my own photos - I understand that I had best move quickly.

PS Thanks to Nanci for the photo above right, taken in 1915, the year the school was built.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Seeking Refuge

At left is a photo of the Wellington County museum and archives, located between Fergus and Elora. I thank Michael G. whose Elora photo gallery I came upon in my search for a bright day photo of this most interesting of buildings. At right is an archival photo post-card of a long-gone building in Belleville, from a Mika publication. This august structure was demolished in 1976 to make way for a high-rise apartment building. The building at the left is exceptional in that it is one of a very few remaining of its type - these structures were Houses of Refuge, sometimes called Houses of Industry and Refuge.

The Houses of Industry and Refuge (a chillier sounding name could not be conjured this side of Charles Dickens) were called into being in the nineteenth century and early c20 by Ontario counties, to care for their homeless and destitute. The study of these buildings, the Victorian social policy/'Christian charity' which spawned them, and the attitudes, prejudices and myths surrounding poverty and the poor is worthy of some study.

Thanks to the fine folk in the reference department at BPL I reviewed a clipping file on the Hastings County House of Refuge. In the file was a tiny red book, the "Rules and Regulations to Govern the House of Refuge and Industrial Farm of the County of Hastings 1907".

Among the rules for the inmates was the strict segregation of the sexes, the forced removal by Children's Aid of children reaching the age of two, and the powers of the superintendent "to search for and bring back any inmate...who has absconded". Oh yes, 'refuge' might be a bit of a misnomer - once you were "compelled to become inmates of the institution*" you were committed (literally) and you did not leave, except to your daily work.

A footnote on the Wellington County Museum and Archives: A dear friend Doug was once preparator and conservator; my childhood friend Allannah taught children's art classes there. My visits there took place during my 'wow this is an amazing place, it is so old and has such stories to tell' phase of architectural appreciation. Now I am looking at it again with the eyes of an architectural historian (amateur, but dedicated) and as a student of social history. And I am even more convinced that these buildings have stories to tell.

* Daily Intelligencer, December 7, 1907

Monday, March 14, 2011

...and she likes our Second Empires!

If Shannon Kyles had a Facebook page....I would "Like" it.
As it is, she goes it one better....she's developed a website that gets a million hits a month.

Folks who read this blog know that I am a fan. Shannon Kyles is a Mohawk College architecture prof who has developed two resources that are invaluable, free, authoritative sites for anyone researching, or just enjoying architectural history.

Shannon's web resource at is in development. It's a complete history of western architecture, containing historical background and detailed descriptions of 14 building styles. The site contains links to definitions of building terms containing hundreds of photographs, as well as a great section on building materials. Shannon says she has travelled 72 countries to take photos of buildings for the website, and the way she says it convinces me there are more trips in her future. The website is the online textbook for her Western Architecture course (AR173 if you're tempted.) It's a very exciting resource for anyone interested in architecture, and is a close cousin to her incredible which I have mentioned before.

Shannon has been invited to speak recently by both ACO Quinte and Belleville Public Library. At BPL she gave us a tour of her website. Its power as a learning tool (archi history, art history, social and political history, architectural dictionary) will be massive. It may replace textbooks on the subject. Something she said hit me like a brick - universities and colleges are beginning to clear library collections, in favour of online resources and other information technology (and wider food court choices she sardonically added). She recounted that she recently had to demand that her college library repurchase classic books on Ontario architecture required for her course. (Wonder if they relied on Abebooks like I do?)

So, a suggestion from a fellow bibliophile. Have favourite books at your library? Keep checking them out! That way they show up as active in the circulation stats and may be there the next time you want them! Keep them moving, as loiterers on the shelves of many libraries end up in the used bookstore, or the bin.

Shannon praised many Ontario towns for maintaining their heritage homes. She mentioned Woodstock and Dundas as doing especially well in this area (road trip!!). And Belleville, yes, Belleville. Shannon loves our Second Empires - as do we.

Photo: Bridge Street, Belleville

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Beautiful Craftsmanship

Oh I am so in love with this house! I pass it regularly on my walk up Dufferin Street on the way to volunteer at Glanmore National Historic Site. I finally brought my camera this week, and although the day was gloomy, the lovely house looked so at home in its wintry garden that I took a few shots and thought I'd share one.

I'm writing a paper for a history of western architecture course today- a house study. What's the style, etc. I selected this house - its style is Arts and Crafts inspired. There, that's out of the way. Time period 1890 - 1940. Arts and Crafts details that are in evidence on this lovely house (and I draw on my notes from my Ontario Architecture course at Mohawk College, not my own dodgy memory for details): steep roof pitch, earthy colours, recessed entrance to the side, tall slim proportions, broad chimney, asymmetrical facade, cruck-like timber detail in the south-facing porch that opens onto the gardens , craftsman style details in the solid wood exterior doors and the interior woodwork and mantel (I've seen a photo of the inside), small paned casement windows, lack of ostentation or historicizing detail. It's a plain and substantial home making no great show of wealth. It's graceful and elegant, a house that seems to grow organically from its lovely informal gardens. The ivy creeping up the chimney wall just 'belongs'.

But it's the back-story that I am so excited about. One day in the reference library I happened to flip open a book that someone had recommended, the memoirs of a woman who was beloved in the community and a long-time volunteer at Glanmore. The book fell open at a photo of this house - her house!! Coincidence. The house wanted me to know. The book, entitled 'The Girl with the Navy Blue Eyes', is a love story, a woman in love with life, with her husband, her daughters, her church, her community, her social justice and historical volunteer work...and her house. She calls herself "a lucky old lady." Sadly, she is gone now.

As I browsed the book, I picked up a number of details about the house. The young couple built it in 1936. The neighbourhood was just beginning to develop. At the time, Dufferin Street did not extend from Bridge to Dundas (one long block today) but was bisected by a creek which they crossed on a fallen log. There was a market garden on Dundas Street at Dufferin.

The couple chose the Arts and Crafts house design from a magazine. The Arts and Crafts movement in architecture and design emphasized the aesthetic of craftsmanship and the craftsman - a reaction to industrial mass-production in the late 1800's (think William Morris, Philip Webb). This thoughtful orientation was such a perfect fit for a cultured couple, a husband skilled at woodwork, a wife who gardened with curiosity and love.

Their house, this Arts and Crafts style structure, shows wonderful attention to quality, appreciation of detail, and, well...craftsmanship. The honest warm soft brick was recycled from an old school, the interior wood was harvested at the home of a grandfather. The young husband did much of the interior woodwork, carving an oak mantel. I wonder if he built the lovely exterior doors?

I know many people who knew this lady, this family, this house. Wish I had been one of them. I guess I shall have to content myself with loving their house from the sidewalk's edge.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Queen Street Queen Anne

I love everything about this house....starting with its name. She introduces herself with a refined moue; a discrete etched glass window reads "Queen Ann Villa". She sits on Queen the corner of Anne Street. She is a Queen Anne Revival style home. Impeccably kept, aloof behind her prim iron fence and gate, approachable via a curved sidewalk, she sits on a leafy street in one of our leafiest neighbourhoods.

This house has the eclectic appeal of all Queen Anne Revival homes. It's built of red brick with white trim, and features black and red brick detailing at the top of an unusual two-storey blind arch at the front of the two storey bay. This section has paired windows on left and right sides, but not in the central section. The house sports a complex roof accommodating two gables and a hip centre section. There is a delightful oriel window on the west side of the house, and a round window in the attic storey in the south gable. The gables are deep with bargeboard and brackets. Lots more...roundheaded windows on the second floor, flat ones below, all headed with alternating red and black brick arches, a delicate porch with etched glass windows and iron cresting above the cornice. Above the porch is a double door topped by a round-headed fanlight. A lovely lovely spot.

Heritage Buildings East of the Moira (HCHS) dates the house as 1888. It's a treasure on a street of treasures - a favourite house on a favourite walk.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Making a grand entrance

Doors are endlessly fascinating. Heritage organizations often produce wonderful posters with a series of 6 or 8 door portraits - they are so appealing. Doors are the focal
point of any house facade, and the builder does his best work there. Doors put our best face forward.

Entrances say so much about who the
owner is, and about the welcome he wants to offer, the impression he wants to make.

Different architectural styles do doors so very differently. The austere Georgian doorcase differs from the elegant Neo-classical which follows. The imposing Greek Revival, the exotic Gothic Revival, the slightly pompous Victorian double door, the Edwardian Gibbs-surrounded entrance, the curvaceous Deco entry, the cave-like Frank Lloyd Wright inspiration. And there are so many more times and styles and statements I haven't mentioned!

And so many components - cornice, transom, sidelights, round-headed and elliptical fanlights, chinoiserie, colonettes and entablature, stained and bevelled glass, panelling, moulding, pilasters, columns, entablatures, height, width, porches, porticos and verandahs.

There is so much lore attached to front entrances.I find it very interesting, for example, that Loyalist/Georgian style door did not have an exterior latch or knob. The expectation was that anyone coming to the front door would be invited in by the lady of the house, or a servant. And then the Regency Cottage doorway - deliberately down-played from the stately impressive classically styled entrance to redirect attention to a series of French doors inviting a flow of traffic into the inviting landscaped gardens.

This line of thought is dragging me back through all my photographs and resources to focus on doors and what they tell me. And on the next sunny day, as I try to give my full attention to the doors in the neighbourhoods I travel, won't I be a threat on the road?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Extreme makeover edition...

While I was at our wonderful 'new' Belleville public library the other day (did I mention that it was the 2009 design excellence award-winner from the Ontario Association of Architects?) looking for a photograph of the old Quinte Hotel , I checked out a book called Historic Belleville. Sounded promising, I thought. Historic Belleville is a 1977 publication from the prolific Mika publishing empire. In this publication I found (along with a reproduction of a post card of the Quinte Hotel) an equally fine post card reprint of the Corby Library in its original form.

I had been a patron of the 'old' library, the Corby Library, since my return to the Quinte area and always wondered about the building's history. Bits and pieces had come to light over the years, but it wasn't until I saw the hand-coloured image of the library in this book, that I fell in love. I look back now on my flirtation with the mosaic floors, marble bits here and there, the huge stained glass window, the pillars with Ionic capitals, the high ceilings and wide archways, the nooks and crannies, all noted in passing while I was on the hunt for a book or other resource, and realize what I felt was puppy love, immature. I did not realize how my deeper feelings for the place would develop as I learned its architectural story.

Like many libraries in Ontario, the library grew out of a Mechanic's Institute begun in 1876. (Eric Arthur in No Mean City introduced me to this most democratic of early institutions devoted to the betterment of mankind). The former Corby library started life as the Merchants Bank of Canada in 1855, was purchased, remodelled and outfitted as a library by Senator Henry Corby and his wife, and presented to the people of Belleville in 1908. What a legacy!

For all the years I had known the Corby library, it had been living with an embarrassment, which admittedly, stood between us. As an enthusiast for heritage buildings, I must admit that I never appreciated that 1959 addition. Certainly, it provided much-needed space (a further addition was built in 1968, behind the building). The new addition was enthusiastically greeted by local press, the reading public and library legend Angus Mowat (yup, Farley's dad). But to my mind, that self-consciously modern rectangle was a carbuncle on the pure and serene Renaissance Revival building, its boldness emblematic of the demolish-and- build-boxes-go-modern-or-go-home attitude that was beginning to gain ascendancy in Belleville in the early 1960's.

And as an aside:
Mea culpa. As a more recent apologist for mid-century modern and later styles, I kind of like the 1959 addition now - the glass blocks, ribbon windows and bold banding, and the grey which did try to coordinate with the ashlar stone of the original structure.

I'll attach photos of various stages in the Corby Library's development (in no particular order as I have yet to gain much influence over Blogger Uploader's placement decisions.)

Left: Corby Public Library addition 1959
Right: original Corby Public Library (undated post card)
Below: former Corby library, 2010 (now housing the Core Centre art school) - my 2011 photo

So thanks: to Historic Belleville and Belleville Centenary Flashback for the photos, to Senator Corby for the gift of a library, and to the 21st century council and architects, people of vision who built a modern new library and social hub - it's a great thing for a community to gather around an art gallery and shop, cafe, film club showings, wifi lobby, lectures, workshops and lunch talks, special kids' events, coffee, Nanaimo bars and oh, yes - books (no "trouble in river city" here).

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A living legacy

I received a lovely anonymous message from someone who came upon my blog searching for images of his/her own property (which I will choose not to identify, to respect the owner's identity). This owner and preserver of an exquisite 1816 Niagara-on-the Lake home and property expressed the following " While I technically have title I have long determined I am the only the temporary steward and the house owns me."
Isn't that lovely? Unlike many Ontario towns and cities, whose c19 buildings must feel sentiment has turned against them, and that they are the victim of developers' whisper campaigns, the houses of Niagara-on-the-Lake ought to feel secure in the knowledge that their fate lies in the hands of an informed and heritage-minded community which sees itself as the guardian of something precious.
Perhaps that security accounts for the serenity we experienced as we cycled its leafy streets.

And for Brenda:
L: St. Andrew's Manse, 342 Simcoe Street (1836)
R: 85 Johnson Street (1813)

God bless the researchers

I couldn't count the number of times in a week that I consult these two little publications ...for names of original owners, history, address, date of construction, opinions on style, observations on detail. Each time I do, I thank the tireless researchers, and the local initiative that brought the books into being. The little books are Belleville's Heritage, volumes I and II, published by the Hastings County Historical Society in 1978 and 1983. The subtitle of each is A Partial Inventory of Old Buildings - from my perspective they do a fine job. The research is thorough and the writing is informative, the photos are very helpful. Sometimes, alas, the entries serve as obituary for worthy buildings that have been lost to demolition in the years since.

From the introduction to the books, I learn that the work was completed by the Historic Structures Committee of the HCHS. The first volume was published for the city's centennial, the second built on the interest generated from the first. In the introduction to volume II, long-time HCHS president Gerry Boyce (prolific local historian and author and still heritage advisor to the HCHS) acknowledges the ongoing work of the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC) in identifying and plaquing significant buildings. As a new member of that committee (now called Heritage Belleville, after several injuries were sustained in trying to fit the former unwieldy name into conversations), I benefit from all this work done decades ago, when I open a file drawer at our City Hall office, and find a complete file on a heritage building.

Gerry Boyce also mentions another near-to-my heart organization, the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, whose Quinte Region branch had just formed at the time he wrote the introduction to the second volume. They were then, as they do now, conducting an informative walking tour of the Foster Ward. Sadly, I missed David's tour last year, while I was away checking out Lunenburg Nova Scotia.

So to all of Belleville's heritage pioneers, the researchers and champions of old buildings, a sincere thanks and my great admiration. I am very fortunate to know and work occasionally with one of these folks, who is still the 'go-to girl' when it comes to Belleville's historic buildings. And perhaps the best news is that at last look, Volume II is still available at the HCHS, for a mere $2.50! Check out their new improved website at for details.

On the cover of Volume I is a photograph of the Lewis-Wallbridge House, an eclectic delight built in 1865. The photo above is my tribute to its wonderful tower.