Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shopping Channel

I've spent a couple of enjoyable half-days lately capturing places I like to look at on Front Street, Belleville's historic downtown. The place is beginning a resurgence, with heritage minded folk contributing to the thinking. Downtowns are suffering everywhere, as people unwilling to eschew the comforts of heated seats, music systems and cup-holders for long enough to park and walk to a shop, abandon them for the convenience, predictability and uniformity of shopping malls or online shopping. Their loss - bargains maybe, but no character to be found there. No discoveries, no experiences. No history, no beauty.
Our downtown has its share of boarded up shops, unsavoury looking enterprises, folks who don't fit the mold and may challenge us a bit. Parking requires some research, businesses still struggle, you actually have to walk, outside. But our downtown has trees, breezes from the river and the bay, and it has life. The arts flourish here. People perform. Street events happen. People eat at lively restaurants with sidewalk seating, or in leafy hidden courtyards. Artists show their work, craftspeople make and sell. There is an historic farmer's market. A real independent bookseller! An inviting library! Lots more....

But I want to talk about buildings. Of course. Our downtown started early. Many commercial buildings dating from the 1830's to the 1870's still serve the public. Many architectural styles, from humble to grandly pretentious, speak of how business presented its face to the world in each generation. There are rubblestone walls and artful brickwork, carriageways and arcades, amazing decorative cast iron adornments over windows and along cornices, great windows.
Unfortunately, most of the good stuff is above eye level, as towns have a tendency to "do shopfronts" in the most functional and unlovely ways...modernizing you know.

So come to downtown Belleville. Come to downtown Anytown. Look up, way up. You'll love what you see.

Top: The Albert Filliter Block (1846)
Left: S.S. Kresge Company (1932)
Right: The Henderson Building (1859)

Thanks as always to 'Heritage Buildings East of the Moira River', Heritage Belleville, 1991 for dates and details. This amazing book is found in the reference department of Belleville Public Library.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Light on Dark Corners

A few months back, I wrote a little article for a Brighton leisure magazine about the history of the Presqu'ile lighthouse. When I was at the park last week, I paid a visit, as I always do, admiring the pleasure craft on the bay, reading the historical interpretation plaques, smiling into the sun as I sit on the beach. Such a different time it was, when this lighthouse and, later, the humble lightkeeper's cottage came into being. The point was a treacherous and fearsome place - so many lives and fortunes lost in the days of sail and steam.

When you next visit the park, drop by the lighthouse. Enjoy the gift shop and support the work of the amazing Friends of Presqu'ile. Walk the winding brick path, read the plaques, time travel. You may even run into the artist in the park.

Presqu'ile is so rich in history, in nature, in opportunities for recreation and relaxation. And thanks to the sacrifices and the work of so many, past and present, it's ours to enjoy, right down the road.

Revolutions and refugees

I camped at Presqu'ile Provincial Park last week - lovely weather (but for the monsoon that made our Monday night dinner party into an adventure), cycling along verdant trails and walking among old-growth oaks and maples, 'in the moment' for hours on cobble beaches or on the boardwalk in awed communion with egrets, swans, herons, frogs, tadpoles, fish and snakes. I also communed with the spirits of the past, looking for echoes and resonances as I always so.

I spent my 'off' hours reading While the Women Only Wept * by Janice Potter-MacKinnon, getting back in touch with my UEL story, and giving some thought to the refugee experience. The well-established, but foolishly loyal citizens of the early 13 colonies were driven by a complex but inevitable set of circumstances into exile in Upper Canada in the 1770's. This book puts the reader in touch with the realities of the conflict - not for the soldiers, not for the politicians, but women and children left behind on hard-won homesteads - left behind, then leaving, both in appalling conditions. (* McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993)

With these desperately sad stories foremost in my mind, I visited the remaining structures at Presqu'ile park. As in most parks, some former family cottages remain - land was expropriated for the park, and families were displaced. Long tenure arrangements are familar in provincial parks; we know of homes and cottages still in use at Sandbanks and Algonquin. Would be curious to know what the arrangements are, but they are likely the best outcome from a difficult situation. They speak to the pain of having one's family summer place, full of memories, special haunts, and plans for future generations overtaken by a provincial institution and given over to the masses for their amusement. A few formerly private buildings still remain in Presqu'ile - all are used for park personnel and the amazing natural heritage education programs for which the park is well known. One summer place in particular is very lovely.

I have powerful memories of a visit in the very early 1970's to the Gaspe communities just recently expropriated and off-limits, emptied for the creation of Forillon National Park - memories of a night there, of exploring for fossils under massive cliffs and watching whales from the headlands, all the time aware that we were trespassing on ancestral lands, small holdings and fishing stages (and government property). We camped in our old Volvo with our dog Zeke, wandering among abandoned and boarded up homes and sheds, gardens and jetties, hearing the voices of the communities so recently erased. The memories are powerful and haunt me even now.

Back in April I was deeply was moved to read a letter from a reader to Canadian Geographic, in response to their April National Parks issue. He writes "My family was expropriated in 1970 for the creation of Forillon National Park in Quebec. If you knew ...the harassment, grief and sorrow we had to go through, especially my 84 year old could not buy a decent garden shed today with what we were paid for our properties...My dad who was still living in our house, witnessed its burning while sitting on his suitcase waiting for his transport to Montreal...He never set foot in Gaspe after that September day." Difficult voices to hear. When we finally camp at Forillon, I expect to hear them still.

As we enjoy our wonderful Presqu'ile Park, and all of the others in the system, let's give some thought to all of those who came before us, and left, refugees, giving up something precious.

Top: 1950's cottage transformed into the Nature Centre
Centre: Stonehedge, the Wilson family summer home (c.1930's)
Centre Right: a tiny forgotten cottage near the Nature Centre program building
Bottom: Gatepost at Stonehedge

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Neighbourly Napanee

A neighbour just gave me a copy of a very well produced walking tour map of Napanee. Full credit to all the usual suspects - Chamber of Commerce, LACAC/Heritage Napanee, Lennox and Addington Museum and Archives - and my Mohawk College prof Shannon Kyles' website't wait to bring this tour to life, feet on pavement. I have been intrigued by the town's impressive homes and leafy streets since I was a Carleton undergrad, taking the bus along highway 2, back to school from Prince Edward County visits home. My neighbour has many childhood memories of the town, and we have enjoyed a couple of house tours already. Another one is imminent. Best seat in the house for the Napanee built heritage boosters!

Hill Country

On Sunday, the president of ACO Quinte, the able and dedicated David Bentley, led a tour of homes in the Old East Hill area of Belleville. The tour was well-attended, David provided loads of architectural and social history, the weather was wonderful, the gardens were exquisite, the trees were green and shading. And the houses were a joy.

I tend to avoid groups. But Sunday's experience, and other ACO tours we have joined, are making me a believer. It is delightful to spend time with people who have the same interests, and enthusiastically discuss pressed metal vs. wooden drip moulds, who notice the curiosity of 6 over 3 sash windows or the building and maintenance of chimneys, and appreciate the efforts of old house owners who build additions with great sensitivity and fidelity to historic styles.

It was great to talk with some of the elder members whose families had lived in these neighbourhoods for generations, and whose story is bound up with the built heritage of the OEH. Their minds take them (and us) back to the day when the doctor who had his surgery in that house removed a button from a child's nose when she was six, or the dark times when the wrought iron fences gracing most OEH properties was commandeered for the war effort (WWI). A distinguished retired doctor shared the health misfortunes of the Scandinavian fellow who built this board and batten carriage house, and the tragedy of a child struck by a car in front of that home. It was interesting to learn that the house with the corner door and the missing porch post was once a neighbourhood store, and amusing to find out that the Fox sisters, legendary mediums from the US, and Susanna Moodie met for seances at a particular address on John Street.

Lots of tours coming up: Cherry Valley, Picton, Sidney Township. Gonna go. Nice bunch of folks, old house people.

the buggy stops here

Yesterday I spent an enjoyable half hour photographing the old commercial properties on the east side of Front Street - those with their faces turned to the afternoon sun. I used as my field guide the fine little HCHS booklets entitled Belleville's Heritage.

Later, after a respectful pause for a slice of decadent rhubarb and sour cream pie at an outdoor cafe, my artist friend and I explored lanes and alleys, she looking for patterns to inspire her, I searching for old stories in the rubble stone walls at the backs of the old commercial buildings and in the carriageways. Belleville is fortunate to have a number of these passageways - as you travel their cool darkness, you can almost hear the footfall of tired carriage and dray horses being led to the stone stables behind the buildings.

Last year, I was writing an article about the heritage commercial buildings on Bridge Street. Building owner Paul Dinkel pointed out the curbstones which he had retained when glassing in a carriageway in one of his buildings. Still it stands, a vestige of the days when building owners prevented damage to stone walls from carriage and wagon wheel hubs by placing stone barriers at the corners. (photo at left)

The middle image shows an open carriageway on Front Street, with the curbstones still in place, though unused and unnoticed in the busy shopping and socializing going on closeby. The limestone walls echoed our busy chatter as we took advantage of a brief respite from the late afternoon sun.

The photo on the right shows a commercial building further up the street. There is a plaque above the carriageway arch with the date 1863. This building could well have been a hotel; there were many in that area. One contemporary hotel which stood nearby, the Albion, was established in 1869. It reportedly accommodated 40 guests and provided stabling for 250 horses. I'll see what I can find, when next I have a copy of Buildings East of the Moira in my hands. For now I will have to content myself with this portal to the past, and its invitation to rest for a weary team of draft horses.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Delicious Places

Silly me. It's often called The Layer Cake Church.I always thought it was because of the luscious droop pattern bargeboard, which makes me think of dripping frosting on a particularly scrumptious confection. You have to admit, this is an exquisite board and batten Carpenter Gothic building, with its steep gables, its finial, its wonderful large lancet arch windows, hood mouldings on its rectangular windows, and its beautifully crafted recessed arched sort-of-Renaissance doorway. The building was designed and built by the village carpenter, Abraham Harris, for the Mechanic's Institute, an early form of library cum trades training institution, in 1859, in historic and appealing Bath Ontario.

The lovely building once served as a Masonic Lodge, and at one time in its history it housed the Presbyterian and Anglican congregations, simultaneously. And THAT's when it became known as the layer-cake church. Heaven forfend they should share a space in those righteous days.

The community has worked heroically to maintain the structure, and it now houses one of the most attractive and appealing libraries I have ever encountered. My friend Elaine and I dropped in on Saturday and the delightful librarian gave us a tour, and made us feel very welcome. My new favourite spot to read is definitely the second floor with its plain wood floors, its wing chairs and footstools, gorgeous floor to ceiling windows, good carpets and a selection of artwork. Only....too far to go with my book under my arm!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Renovate and Gildersleeve

My working title for this post was 'Tensions'. Then I decided to test my readers' literary mettle - a free ACO Quinte membership to the first reader who followed me there.

On my recent Kingston visit, I was delighted to meet a woman, a financial planner with a posh firm, whose offices reside in another fine Kingston heritage building, Gildersleeve House (1825). Gildersleeve house is a wonderful hammer-dressed limestone house of very haughty classical proportions, with a portico and imposing doorway, and a large second storey window with balcony in the centre bay, a pediment with lunette above. The house was built for the Gildersleeve family, a big name in early steamboat navigation on Lake Ontario. In fact, they launched the Frontenac, first steamer on Lake Ontario, whose story is told in a roadside plaque on Highway 33 west of Amherstview.

Jane and I talked about the tension between development and 'hysterical societies' (her playful slip of the tongue), and the challenges in balancing fidelity to historic detailing in heritage buildings with meeting our modern expectations regarding comfort, convenience and accessibility.

She mentioned a simple yet thought-provoking example. Windows. She said their wonderful old single pane poured glass windows were ice-covered in the winters, and they were trying to find a way to maintain the look of the early c19 and still stay warm in the winter with double-glazing, sealed seams and the like. Seems like a reasonable request.

I know a good replica heritage window maker :-)

Thanks to Nick and Helma Mika for the information about the Gildersleeve house, and the Old Post Office in Kingston, in their 1983 publication Kingston Heritage.

Thanks also to Jennifer McKendry, from who I have 'borrowed' this great photo of Gildersleeve House (from With our Past Before Us: Nineteenth Century Architecture in the Kingston Area, UofT press, 1995) until I can get back to Kingston to take my own. Brilliant writer, outstanding heritage researcher, super book.

windows at left: Bridge Street Belleville
windows at right: Princess Street Kingston


This is not one of her best photos. But then again, she is not looking her best right now. As we left a favourite downtown Kingston bookstore one day last week, I caught site of her distinctive roofline, and asked Denny to stop us for a photo.

To my dismay, she was boarded up. I am hopeful that the covered windows and doors are merely screens hiding the complete sympathetic restoration going on inside, prior to a clever adaptive re-use of the building. I don't have contacts in Kingston to whom I can address my alarm. I will do some searching of their historical society website to see if I can find 'articles pertaining'.

Oh pardon me. How rude. Let me present to you 'the Old Kingston Post Office'(1856-59). Its architectural inspiration is British Classical style (hence the symmetry and formality) blended with Italian Renaissance palazzo features. The palazzo flair gives it that "have a second look" quality, to my mind. Like the medieval (fortified) palaces in the warring Italian city states of the 1500's, the building has a tall massive fortress-like ground floor, with rusticated stone voussoirs above sturdy round-headed arches (the original palazzos had carriage-ways leading to internal courtyards), and more refined upper storeys. Typical of palazzos, the decoration is more refined as the building rises; in palazzos it's frequently regularized windows topped with alternating triangular and Florentine pediments, and string courses separating the first and second level.

The old Post Office, despite its modest two storeys compensates with impressive rectangular second storey windows with architrave surround and cornice supported by console brackets. The roof is topped with Renaissance inspired rooftop sculptures, moving it just a bit away from the prim British aloofness of many Kingston civic buildings in stone.

So, when I am in Kingston, I shall be watching this space closely. I have confidence that she will prevail, given that in 1971 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Post office as being of national significance.

PS The photo on the right is a small hotel we stayed at in Verona on our trip to Italy in 1995. Looks like it may have started life as a palazzo (or somebody in a more recent century liked the style).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

too much of a good thing

We found this great building in Glen
Williams on a forsythia-brightened
afternoon exploration in May. The owner was gracious about my interest, pleased to have me take photos and offered the bit of history that he knew - that the building was the home of the town's protestant private school at one time.

But I must admit that my interest was not in the structure's story (for once) but in the uniqueness of its construction. I love how it's perched on the hill, settling back against the slope. I appreciate the tippy rubblestone foundation, the deep set wooden frame windows, the nice line of three windows on the west, the board and batten doorway, and the double shed door on the second floor....would need a second opinion on its use. Likely a storage loft with a crane beam and hook, but I saw no signs.

As the stucco cladding falls away from the wall underneath, we get a look at a very rare type of construction. This method, according to my construction resource guy Thomas McIlwraith is called 'plank wall' or 'horizontally stacked dimension lumber' style. Obviously not a building style for today, when 2 x 4's at Home Depot cost as much as diamonds. But this contemporary of log building shows up occasionally in locations near early sawmills, in lumber-exporting areas such as Peterborough, where unmarketable, low-grade lumber was sometimes pressed into service as building material. McInwraith describes the plank wall buildings as a "nail and labour extravaganza (which) could be put up by two people of no extraordinary talent."

The rough lumber was always covered, with stucco, boards or bricks. And they were sturdy. Unless this worthy succumbs to the inevitable gravitational pull down the hillside, it should serve for many years. With luck, long enough for me to go back, to ask for a closer look.

By the way, I strongly recommend the book I've been quoting from, the worthy Mr. McIlwraith's Looking for Old Ontario (University of Toronto Press, 1997), to any backroads prowlers and old house enthusiasts in our wonderful province.

Archives are Forever

OK, I was wrong. Blogger's recent dropping of the information ball made me cynical.

But some things ARE forever. 'Archives are Forever'. That's the motto of the folks who work at our Community Archives at the Hastings Heritage Centre. When these dedicated volunteers put on special events they don their elegant black and white tees sporting this logo, and make our local history real to children and adults alike. The volunteers at the Heritage Centre, "the Archives Angels" maintain the collection, and help researchers who drop in; they are a most dedicated and informed group of folks. And our new archivist Sharon, and our volunteer webmaster Nick are taking us to a whole new level of accessibility to the wondrous collection.

A few weeks ago I made my first (of many) visit to the Prince Edward County Archives, at the public library in lovely Wellington. My brother who works for the library system (tech coordinator) had told me the archivist was a sweetheart - was he right! Krista graciously abandoned her plans for the morning and assisted me with a journey through my family story.

With her help I saw my family farm lot on Tremaine's 1863 map, got a copy of the original 1860 Land Registry transaction when the Lot 50 Bayside came into the family, found my great-great-great-great grandfather's name on a list maintained in the Dominion Archives, of United Empire Loyalists who settled in Marysburgh township.

Thanks Krista. I'll be back.