Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Friday, April 29, 2011

Home, James

Here's a Markham Heritage Estates story to help you plan your visit. The lovely brick (warm, soft, handmade) Georgian style house with the excellent doorway and the "Gothicized Palladian window" under its low pitched central gable is just one of the resurrection stories in the 'hood. From the plaque in the parkette in front of the house (from which the archival photo is copied), we learned that this house is one of the few examples of this mid c19 regional style peculiar to Markham, Pickering and Scarborough.

The house sat abandoned near the corner of Highway 48 and Major Mackenzie Drive, no place for a nice girl like this. Fortunately, someone saw her hidden virtues and brought her to live in the estate in the 1990's.

The house was built about 1856 by James Thomas, from England. During his lifetime he was an innkeeper in Box Grove and a successful farmer north of Mount Joy. I saw enough 'rescued' buildings originating from these two communities in my visits to Markham to doubt that they are even detectable today, their identities lost in the rapid growth of the area. Go on, surprise me.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Miracle on David Gohn Street

At right is a photo of my dear Den musing about what a pleasant change this vista is, from the miles upon countless miles of newly built subdivisions of no particular pedigree that we have just winced our way past on our trip from Kleinburg to Markham. Oh, and let's pause for a moment to think about the good Ontario farmland that's just been paved over ("if you ate today...)

What LOML is looking at is a small corner of Markham's 42-lot heritage subdivision. Despite being an 'artificial' construct, it has such an aura of authenticity with its houses of beautiful design, fine workmanship - and history. This place has soul in the midst of soul-less urban sprawl. That's due in large part to the ages of the buildings - from 1820's to 1870's. Something like that cannot be replicated, only preserved.

Markam Heritage Estates was established in 1989 by Markham city council as an emergency measure to deal with the loss of built heritage in the conflict between development pressure and heritage conservation. The development is unique in Canada, according to some sources, and I have found few examples anywhere, in my research to date. It 'rescues' dwellings in the path of developments like the 407, where retention on site isn't feasible. Only one building on site was extant - the original farmhouse. All of the other houses, some in pitiful condition, were moved here and renovated; Markham retains control over the types of landscaping and exterior features.

Markham has a good heritage preservation record, including many examples of on-site preservation of historic buildings within encircling subdivisions (again, not ideal, but it would take some kind of superhero to stop development around here.) And Markham downtown, though struggling, is putting up some heritage wannabe designs for new commercial buildings.

The parkette Den is standing in is in the David Gohn Circle, one of the streets in the small subdivision. Sure, it feels a bit like a house sanctuary, a touch Disney artificial. Reading a plaque about the stories of each of the houses is a very nice feature, but a tad Upper Canada Village. But the people were real - I spoke to a fresh faced adolescent skateboarder who bragged about the street hockey games, the safety for the little kids, and the awesome skating rink maintained by the guy in the white house. And the passion is real. Without Markham's early commitment to heritage rescue, prior to the stronger Heritage Act in 2005, these houses would all have been lost. There was concern at the time about the inherent danger of this model as the ideal, rather than an emergency measure, that (in the words of Adam on developers will treat it as "a smiley-face dumpster for those pesky old wrecks they can't be bothered preserving. An architectural version of Springfield Retirement Castle." So far, so good. Good on ya, Markham.

So, I urge you to go visit. Take in the Markham Museum, while you're there - a great outdoor collection of even more local buildings. Just don't venture out on 16th street toward Kleinburg. No miracles there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Arch Look

Blame it on the Romans.
Actually there are indicators that earlier cultures had the arch, but didn't make much use of it.
But the Romans, consumate builders and practical souls, made their fortunes on the strong back of this simple structure.
Stretched, it made a vault, useful for triumphal arches or roofs.
Stretched and curved, it was handy for 'halls' in huge projects like coliseums.
Rotated around an axis into a circle, it became a dome which made possible wonders like the Pantheon of 120 AD, whose 45 metre wide dome was the world's largest until the 19th century!

Swotting for my history of architecture exam, I am savouring terminology like keystone, springline, intrados, impost and (Brenda's all-time favourite) voussoirs. The arch, useful for doorways and windows, paired as Byzantine or in multiples as arcades, structural or decorative, blind or open - infinitely adaptable in the hands of the inventive and resourceful across the centuries.

According to my course notes ( there are 67 types of arches - but even Shannon might have missed one or two in her travels around the architectural world. Many of the Roman arches are still standing today - will you be able to say that of your contractor's work in 1800 years?

If I had more time, more money, and more aptitude, I think I would like to take more architecture courses. But I guess some are destined just to appreciate the work of others.

One thing I have learned - if it's not trabeated, it's arcuated :-)

top centre: Bridge Street United Church, Belleville
above left: Denis and a Roman arch, Lincoln, UK
above right: Me with a Norman arch, Lindisfarne Priory, UK

Modern Heritage...not an oxymoron

I think I might just put together a walking tour of our local modern heritage. There's lots of talk these days about the loss of significant c20 buildings that have fallen under the wrecker's ball before they have even reached their 50th birthdays. I think I've blogged about this before - this is a growing concern among ACO types.

Our modern heritage includes the architectural styles that we tend to overlook, because they are 'modern' and somehow we feel we know them. Familiarity breeds contempt, showing up in other forms as hide-bound resistance to the new, irritation and downright dislike of the modern. Maybe we are drawn to early c19 buildings because of their rarity and because they evoke our history and emotions associated, even when we haven't studied their finer points of construction or design. And of course the buildings second half of the last century can't help to knock us off our feet, with their profusion of revival decoration, and their sheer eclectic excesses. Some of these houses are loud!!

But somehow, perhaps because they are more of our time (those of us with lots of decades on the odometer anyway) and not so decorated, and of materials more familiar, the buildings of more recent styles do not evoke such strong emotional reactions. I must admit to feeling the same way until my last two winters of architectural history courses. I've gained an appreciation for c20 architecture as I have learned about the styles - the architects and their vision, and the use of materials and methods which make these structures unique and worthy.

It's interesting that even up to the present day folks seek solace in old forms and decoration with the Colonial and Period revivals....or in fabulous fakes that incorporate easily machine-made bits from all sorts of periods, the more the merrier. We once visited a business associate of my husband's in a posh new snob-division north of Toronto. I waited in the car admiring the Hummer-equipped garage's door with the wide 'ashlar stone' surround and its three key-stones.....

But arts and crafts, deco, machine age/art moderne, mid-century modern/contempo, international style, post-modern - these are fabulous styles. The revolutionary ideas, the creativity, the innovation, the wit, the experimentation, the quality of workmanship and materials - they've certainly turned my head.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Room to grow

This post is a pledge to myself to spend some time soon researching and photographing one-room school-houses (as they used to be called when my grandparents spoke of them). I guess now they'd be school-factories? My brother would call this 'putting a stake in the ground'.

Last Sunday, after a community church hall celebration for an uncle's 90th birthday, I asked LOML to take me to school - to the one-room schoolhouse in North Marysburgh township where I completed my first eight grades of schooling, with the same teacher, the stoutly dedicated Miss Eaton. Eight grades, 20-some kids of all ages and abilities, one rubber-booted, nylon-frocked iron-willed woman. I took these photos of my little school-house, S.S.#3 , in rain mixed with snow, shuddering in the cutting wind.

(Phil Norton did a fine photo of the school, good lighting, professional equipment. I keep meaning to get a copy.)

But my photo has a sound-track - of the teacher's voice intoning "Good morning, boys and girls, quietly, seats" each morning of those many years, of her long wild stories about divine retribution after morning Bible reading, of her enjoinder to me to take my little brother to the porch to impress upon him the importance of his math test....and hundreds and thousands of other moments, images, feelings, smells (one-room schoolhouses were great for smells), and activities - making dens in the wild plum grove, discovering wild-flowers on arbour day under Keller's hill, marvelling over the exotic poppies in the flower bed...

The consolation of great age, they say, is the tendency to slip back in time - and stay there. I shall welcome those days if only I am able to travel back to the simple times at my little school - one room, very small, crowded with all ages and a jumble of activities - but somehow, plenty of room to grow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rural more

I've just walked to the mailbox to pick up another treasure from my used bookseller. This order, interestingly, originated from a small bookstore in Fenelon Falls!! We had a look for the place last week while driving through the village but couldn't find it, so the transaction took place at third hand through AbeBooks. AbeBooks is an amazing online bookseller - infinitely searchable, the purchaser can choose a title from a range of prices and condition, and identify the point of origin of the book - I have 6 titles on order currently, travelling by priority post from Ottawa, Hartford, Detroit, and Mishawaka, Indiana! Prices are ridiculously low, shipping can be 5 times the price of the book - but when a valuable out-of-print architecture reference costs $1, it's hardly an issue.

According to my friend Jimmy Wales, the company is based in Victoria, with offices in Dusseldorf and the US. It was incorporated in 1995 and launched its websites in 1996. At present, I'm told, AbeBooks lists more than 100 million books on sale from 12880 booksellers in 57 countries. It was acquired by Amazon in 2008.

The book I have added to my library this afternoon joins two other great books (architecture/settlement history) by the same authors, that I use as 'field guides' when we travel southern Ontario byways. All were published decades ago. All feature pre-Confederation buildings, in different parts of Ontario. Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers collaborated with different partners to write Homesteads (subtitled Early Buildings and Families from Kingston to Toronto) in 1979 and The Governor's Road (subtitled Early Buildings and Families from Mississauga to London) in 1982. It was Homesteads, purchased on a family visit to Picton from my home in central B.C. in 1980, that started this dangerous addiction to old houses. It's dangerous because, like loving unsuitable men, it is destined to bring heartbreak.

Heartbreak? Oh yes, guaranteed. My new acquisition, Byers and McBurney's Rural Roots, records many of the pre-1867 buildings of York Region. Rural Roots was published 35 years ago. Addresses they feature: Yonge Street , Major Mackenze Drive, and Main Streets of many burgeoning bedroom communities. This Friday I will be visiting in Markham and Kleinburg, and will do some exploring. I wonder how many of Byers and McBurney's wonderful accounts of these buildings and their creators now serve as epitaphs for long vanished heritage, the only echoes perhaps amid all the din of progress, change sadly so inevitable on the edge of a massive city. On our way home last week we witnessed the four-laning frenzy on old Highway 7 east of Markham. How many more buildings, part of our pioneer farming heritage, will vanish in favour of the progress we all demand?

Oh, in case you wonder, I do not flatter myself that these thoughts are original, but I do know that talking is an important part of dealing with loss.

Photos - two pre confederation survivors in Belleville
left: Front Street
right: Queen Street

Thursday, April 14, 2011

School's Out

The preservation fight for the Brighton school has me thinking about, and looking at, schools. I don't know much about school design of the early days of the last century, but there is definitely a classical pattern here that I will investigate when I have some research time. I have some great resources in my personal library, and love it when I discover a reason to bury myself in books (my dear mum's frequent complaint about me when I was a sprog). Guess I should commit myself to the research and the writing of an article for one of my local heritage publications. Maybe cycling around and getting photos of a few others in town - Queen Victoria, the Loyola Learning Centre on Octavia, the Ann Street offices of HPEDSB...never too soon to capture memories of some of these structures, as our distressing loss of BCI taught us.
Just back from an unsuccessful search through some old photos, looking for a shot of my own little elementary school, S.S.#3 North Marysburg. I really must get over there, and take a few photos before the poor little thing collapses. A lot of what I am today started out in that plain little building - 7 years, 8 grades, one teacher.

lower left: Brighton Public/High school 1915
lower right: Trenton high school 1914

Bloody well Wright

I have been immersed for the past week in writing a paper about Frank Lloyd Wright's work. At the risk of sounding disloyal to my other loves - I love his Prairie style houses. I am particularly coveting a 1965 copy of the Wendingen edition of Wright's work, which the wise folk at Trenton Public Library thought to include (and retain!) in their collection.

I think the simple horizontal houses above are the closest I am going to get to FLW, on my native soil. All four of them are on Queen Street. I may have to make a pilgrimage soon to see the real thing in the Oak Park subdivision. Chicago. Wonder what possible need husband would have for going to Illinois?