Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Thursday, July 21, 2011

stay cool

A simple homestead in Sidney township...shelter for a farm family and their livestock. A windbreak around the house to provide some respite from hard winter winds. Crops and pasture protected from the cold by a coverlet of snow, drifting into patterns. A proud accomplishment, wrestling a small living from a hard country almost two centuries ago.

As I stand on the roadside in bright sun, the wind adding a keen edge to the temperature of minus 21 celsius, I am anxious to return to the shelter of the car, but also feel blessed by the incredible variety of Canadian seasons, and embrace them all.

On this day when Ontarians gasp in 34 to 39 degrees and high humidity, I am appreciating being able to travel back to this little farmstead in January.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Do not resuscitate

The sign on the fence below troubles me - it's like a 'do not resuscitate' sign on the chart of a dying patient. The fence encircles Kingston's former Rockwood Lunatic Asylum. True, it has had a tarnished past, as an institution for the criminally insane, then for people with psychiatric illnesses, and in its last iteration as an institution for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Structures that housed former institutions are often abandoned and demolished. Ironic...Rockwood was an important public building in the c19; plans by William Cloverdale incorporated the newest and most humane approaches for "the insane". It was an "ideal asylum", a source of some pride.

The imposing limestone structure to the right, a masterpiece of classical symmetry and Renaissance motifs (its important dome, cupolas and roof towers were removed last century) is the main building on the park-like lakeside property. Today, folks with a great deal more freedom than Rockwood's original inhabitants walk or cycle the waterfront trail, sail the lake or wander the grounds beneath its walls.

The grand house to the left is called Leahurst. I wasn't able to find out much about it. It has a grand verandah and elegant doorway, dormers, bay window and a turret. Could have been offices or staff accommodation I suppose. Kingston readers may mock - "oh everybody knows that!".

Both the Asylum and Leahurst are vacant and boarded up. Are they dying or just dormant?

I wonder if as a society we don't just feel a bit awkward about former institutions and their histories, so that decision-makers in their never-ending quest for 'correctness' and fiscal responsibility delay decisions about adaptive reuse until it's too late, and doom to demolition otherwise beautiful structures. Certainly like all institutions, places like Rockwood were once thought of as "the best and only" way, the custodial solution to meeting extraordinary needs. Today we know better. Decades of deinstitutionalization (ref. Wolf Wolfensberger whose book Normalization provided guidance to my work in a former life, with folks with developmental disabilities) have brought awareness that institutional solutions often lead to abuses (via procedures, or efficiencies, not necessarily deliberate attempts to harm) that result in dehumanizing fellow humans.

Whoops, must take care not to trip over that soapbox while I'm putting it away.

The good news on the property is Rockwood House (the yellow house, above right). It's a great place, its style Palladian classicism, its date 1842, its architect George Browne. It was built as a country villa for lawyer and future member of legislative assemblies of Upper Canada and later Canada, John Solomon Cartwright. It was purchased by the government in 1856 to become part of the new asylum complex. Today Rockwood House sports a blue and gold Historic Sites plaque which identifies its style as "monumental Regency". Rockwood House is the home of some Ontario government offices.

So I'm keeping a cautious eye on the Rockwood Asylum. I have hopes for its future. In these ironic days, I think folks might appreciate the rightness of converting a former lunatic asylum into up market condos for the perennially stressed business elite , or into student housing or government offices. I must admit, I know not what wheels may currently be turning. Plans are afoot to convert an old government property on King Street closer to town into an arts centre, so maybe something good will come for Rockwood from this period of waiting. We have a fine building here, the product of style and workmanship that will never be achieved again.

Let's not let embarrassment about its past, and slow-as-treacle- government decision-making, result in Rockwood's being relegated to landfill.

Credit for the facts goes to Kingston's McKendry - Jennifer McKendry's fine book With our Past Before Us, on c.19 Kingston architecture (1995, UofT press) has a fascinating chapter called 'Controlling Society Through Architectural Design.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sidney under Snow

I'm not exactly wishing for snow, but am enjoying looking at photos of historic Sidney Township homes which just happen to have been taken on a bitingly cold late January afternoon.

These are all very interesting places. I thank ACO Quinte (David Bentley) for the 1990 tour notes which led me to these lovely spots. Lois Foster alerted me to the existence of the notes.

top: Sine Homestead - the Sine family, UEL's, were the pioneers in this area, called the Sine Settlement. This house sits on the original property, settled in 1820. It dates from 1870. A lovely working farm, with beautiful rolling fields (and a great tobogganing hill)
left: Windover-Ketcheson house - a unique tin-clad building
right: Williams -Manfreda house (1825), reportedly a plank wall house.

Hot chocolate anyone?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Barn

I love barns. I grew up on a farm, so barns evoke so many intense memories for me. Barns are beautiful structures, and a disappearing part of our built heritage. But for today, this very hot day, I just want to look at them. I especially want to look at them with piles of snow in their driveways and drifts of snow on their fields, and a sparkling icing of snow on their roofs.

The great Eric Arthur wrote a book called The Barn in 1972. Sadly, many more barns were standing, and many more of them were working, 39 years ago. One quote from the book resonates: "nothing remains so vivid in the mind of man (sic) as childhood memories of the barn, of...listening in the mow to the hooting of the owl, the acrobatic display of swallows and the echoing beating of pigeons' wings". I remember the vastness of the hay mow - a small child's glimpse of infinity.

I think I will write more about barns later. Today I just want to think of them in the winter, their beams snapping with the cold, their stables warm with the steamy sweet breath of dairy cows, and outside, sharp cold and the crunch of boots in the snow.

Friday, July 15, 2011

it's all somebody's history

Instead of a having a screensaver, I set my computer to cycle through my photo files. Every so often, after a period of inactivity on the keyboard, I am treated to a mini slide-show of my photos. Occasionally I have a "wow did I take that?" moment when I see something quite good. More often I am reminded of photos taken and not revisited, images I wouldn't necessarily go looking for.

The photo on the left popped up the other day - not a great photo, but something to think about. I took this, and several other houses, in an old area west of the Moira River in Belleville. This house is old, it's dilapidated, it's not beautiful. But there is something about its proportions that I like. And someone's taking care of it - well, they put vinyl siding on the front, anyway.

It's just a reminder to me - this humble house has many memories (I hope they're good ones). It sheltered generations of working folks, shared their hopes and aspirations for a better life. It may not be an Old East Hill beauty, and its story and its family's story are likely not recorded... but it's still somebody's history.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

the case for quality

The corner of Bridge and Pinnacle Streets in Belleville is an historic spot - it's at the centre of downtown now, as it was in the early days of the last century. Despite the progress inflicted on heritage buildings in the 1960's and 70's this intersection is unique. Anchoring three of its four corners are really significant early buildings - the Belleville Armouries (1909), the Hotel Quinte (1895, rebuilt1909), the corner block containing the Post Office Block at 44 Bridge Street and the Belleville Club (1909), and the cultural landscape of the shady Armouries lawns.

And then there's the south-west corner. It was occupied until the 1970's by the Old Post Office (1890's), a pretty impressive French Second Empire structure. I don't know, I wasn't there, but I suppose it had deteriorated after nearly 100 years. However, with the quality of materials and the level of craftsmanship we know from many early buildings, my guess is that it was a far superior structure to the white brick box which replaced it. As no less an Intelligencer correspondent than Eugene Lang said - [the Old Post Office was] "solid as the rock of Gibraltar but had outlived its usefulness. " Today, with our growing awareness of the imperative of sustainability, there's a chance it would be renovated and reused, its Victorian finery making it a showplace in a mundane world of progressive replacements. Alas, the Old Post Office was demolished to make way for the Intelligencer Building, now itself a white elephant - an a very unlovely one it is too.

And to repeat the Joni Mitchell line, all too often used in connection with heritage "you don't know what you've got til it's gone".

Quote from Eugene Lang: Belleville Intelligencer, January 1990
Left: old post card view of the 1890 Post Office, Mika publication
Right: the Intelligencer building

Monday, July 11, 2011

I just can't do it

I have to face it...I do not have the patience to be a 'primary source' researcher.
This realization has come at a bad time, as I just recently promised myself I would join the Loyalist's Association this winter, and document our lineage on both sides of the family, checking the documents to confirm what we have always believed to be correct, filling in the blanks on the forms, and getting the certificate of authenticity, good for discounts at UEL reenactment events (no, not really).
And how much easier it will/would be, with the power of the internet holding a treasure trove of thousands of documents and the discoveries of countless dedicated researchers. In a few seconds just now, I found the Old United Empire List D with the name of our ancestor Patrick Pierce, who we have always known arrived in Marysburgh with a disbanded regiment by 1784.

But I digress. I came to the realization (that I haven't the jam to be a researcher) when preparing a summary about a local building over the last few days, using the work that the Historic Structures Committee compiled back in the 1980's. The documents they reviewed, the sleuthing they did, the hours they must have spent poring over old photos and newspapers, deciphering old documents, forming and testing hypotheses, recording, interviewing...outstanding work. I'm humbled each time I make use of their labours in the books they published. And thank heavens they did!

Don't have many photos from 1784. There is a house in Wellington that some sources attribute to 1768, 1792, who can be sure, " possibly the oldest stone building still standing in PEC" (Cruikshank's diplomacy on that is fun), but I don't have a photograph of it.
So, some pretty old places:
Left: signage marking the route of the Kente Portage, near Carrying Place, a first nations route favoured by fur traders and early explorers
Right: an early house at West Lake. It's stood for years, obviously valued by someone (note the new roof). There's an old cemetery behind it, which I'm sure contains stories of early settlers to that area.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sophie's Choice

On my way home from Picton this week, I took a road less travelled and found myself tracing the south shore of Fish Lake in Sophiasburgh township. Having missed David Bentley's ACO tour of the historic houses of the area earlier this spring, I decided to follow my nose and seek out a few of them on my own.

Easy. As soon as I made my turn off the road to Demorestville (where I was planning to check out the state of the Greek temple houses), I fell in love.....with the c.1837 Van Blaricom/Gorsline house (according to my tattered copy of The Settler's Dream which introduced us).

Tom Cruikshank talks about the extraordinary width of the brick house's gable, which of course, gives it that solid footing on the ground. Solid in 1837, and looking pretty solid 174 years later!!

The house has an incredible doorway - deep panelled reveals and a panelled door, elegant fanlight, moulded pilasters and sidelights. The window openings are the same as in a 1955 photo - no picture window improvements - although likely modern sash windows. Refined cornice treatment and eaves returns. There was once a shed (summer kitchen?) at the back which has been removed, and a simple deck has been built at the east - "the kitchen door" as we would have called it. And at the back (which I didn't see) is a unique 'chimney dormer', a local innovation . I just wonder what state the house was in before this recent tidy-up?

And oh, the setting. Small woodlots and meadows. Lovely trees along the road. Split rail fences. Everything light and shade dappled. Rich green and wildflowers. Rural, bucolic, undeveloped but somehow domesticated. Nice scale. Somehow felt like a trip back in time. Oh, my Sophiasburgh. You've stolen my heart.

And did I mention that the house is for sale?
Saw lots of historic and beautiful homes and farms on the rest of my trip, but they couldn't move heart had already been stolen.
I can only hope that the yearning in this post is viewed by someone looking for a home, who will invite me to visit once they're established.

With good old house viewer etiquette, I always view homes from the roadside or sidewalk. What I failed to realize as I was falling in love with this house, was that it had lived a tragedy of immense proportions. Inside these brick walls was a yawning empty space... a contractor had "gutted the interior, stripping it down to the bare brick walls", obliterating the unique early layout, with slip rooms, an irreplaceable winder stair and a unique box hall. Mouldings (including horizontal beadboard wainscoting in one room), doors, a staircase...all removed. The couple who purchased the home have laboured for years to effect an authentic recovery of this lost historical detail, while dealing with the challenges created by modern building codes and integrating modern conveniences. The blog account of their journey starts here.

before and after

I love archival photographs - they are a tiny window into our history,
their haziness emphasizing just how far away we are, in time and in experiences, from those days.

At a Community Archives event on Friday, I took a photo of one of the wall displays which showed an image of a big event in early Belleville. I love how they used evergreens to create decorative arches over the street in the day.
I should have gotten the date, but after a quick check in the invaluable resource Belleville's Heritage (HCHS 1978) I think I can narrow it down to between 1872 and 1881. Could well have been the celebration of Belleville's becoming a city in 1878 (the centennial of which the publication of the book celebrated).

I can state those dates with some confidence, as the building I'm looking at, the Corby-Bone Building, was built (according to my impeccable source) for Henry Corby's offices between 1868 and 1872, and changed after 1881 when his son took over the building, adding the decorative carved window surrounds and cornice details.

I have often photographed this.building, loving the contrast between the somewhat pretentious front, and the rubble stone walls of the sides of the building, and wondering what its story was.

The archival photo shows an earlier version of the building. The lower storey is much the same now as it was then. The booklet describes its "lower storey of dressed stone in the English Italianate style, with classical round arched windows and doorways separated by rusticated stone piers". The photo shows the carriageway in the centre, although even then it looks to have been closed in by a door. But this early photo shows a simple brick second storey, with simple Italianate window surrounds with flat curved stone lintels with plain keystones, and a central glassed doorway, I think (bricked up in the later incarnation, leaving a small window). Under the simple cornice is a row of brick dentil or small brackets.
The photo above shows the style of decoration added to the second floor by the son, in an effort no doubt to go "upmarket". I wonder if this adornment was of cement? Certainly there was lots of 'off the rack' decoration produced in pressed metal and even cast iron (our own Hotel Quinte and Henderson building, respectively, are great examples). This just doesn't look like carved stone to me - and we have seen examples like this recently in Kingston, giving their humble origin away as they erode in the weather.

This has really got me thinking....I need to look more closely, but that will take another visit with a camera. This morning, I must resign myself to a few photos.

Drop me a line and tell me how wrong (or right) I am?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Glen Lovely

Back in May when I began this post, I had already committed lines of timeless prose onto the screen, enthusing about Glen Williams, when in mid-sentence, Blogger had one of its celebrated hiccups and I lost most of the text. Not being a person who likes to cover ground already travelled, I gave up in disgust. And I have been remiss!

This weekend we met someone (quite by chance, seated together at a joyful family wedding) who knew Glen Williams...well, who lives in GW...well, actually, someone who owns the amazing 1878 stone Beaumont Mill, a former woolen mill a kilometer north of GW and has participated in the rebirth of the village as an artists' colony. Now what are the chances of that? His mill (which we failed to visit, distracted as 'we' were by the historic streetscape) is his home, and antique shop. Three other c.19 mill buildings in the village house a visual arts centre for artists and artisans creating and selling their work.

Glen...the word conjures up a sheltered, quiet, picturesque refuge. Pleasant associations rise in the mind as I think of lovely glens we have visited, drawn to the promise of tranquil and lovely settings that the name conjures.
Glen Miller on the Trent...Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes... ...Glenmorangie...Glenfiddick, Glenlivet...But I digress.

A list of Ontario place names shows over 40 communities whose name contains the word Glen, some now erased from the map. New settlements established by homesick immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, I suppose, names rising from a longing for ancestral valleys never to be seen again. Then again, the settlers were a stolid lot, more likely drawn to the practical over the picturesque, finding the attraction of water coursing through narrow valleys a tempting invitation for water-powered mills, for growth, stability, prosperity. In fact, I read at that the three mills of the town served as sawmill, woolen mill, hosiery factory, flour mill, power plant and apple-processing factory. The site claims that " nearly every family in Glen Williams Ontario had a member working at one of these mills at some point." They suggest that's why the mills still stand. I guess that's how we invest in history - when it's ours.

Malcolm emailed Monday. I credit him with the motivation to revisit my photos and retrieve our delight at our visit to the glen. And he promised "a pretty good story about the house at Glen Williams". Something tells me there's another GW post in the offing.

above L and R: the mills at Glen Williams
below L - hillside neo-classical beauty
below R - historic general store and very British enclave (authentic ploughman's lunch)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Homecoming...part 2

I spent yesterday road-tripping in Prince Edward County, communing with the ancestors.

The gathering of the clan on the left is found in the picturesque and evocative graveyard of the old St. Mary Magdalene Church. There is a heart-breaking story told by some of these stones - of the 1866 death of 5 of my ancestors, young Patience and her four brothers, children of my great-great grandfather Sam, drowned with two friends within sight of their family on the shore, on a sunny July day in a Smith's Bay pleasure boating outing gone terribly wrong.

Another stone memorializes my great-great-great grandfather William, the stone dated February 31, 1860. I have a newspaper clipping from the Toronto Evening Telegram, dated June 26, 1936 pointing to an "absent-minded stone-worker as the culprit", so it cannot be linked to any inability of my family to keep track of its landmark dates. The stone even made it into Ripley's 'Believe it or Not' column (slow news day). The marker was replaced by a replica after vandals, sensitive as they are to date anomalies, destroyed the original on Tom Kuglin's watch as curator of Macauley Heritage Park, some 20 years ago.

Along another road, I stopped to yearn for days gone by, along the roadside in front of the old family home. I have written about the family farm at Lot 50 Bayside in other posts, so I'll not detain you. Today, this is just a tip of the hat to Pat, who must have recognized the longing on my pointy little face, and invited my friend and me in for a wander.

Sure, it's somebody else's house. The little black dog was most insistent that I know that! And it's changed in its layout over the years. Back stairs gone, doors relocated, windows added, floors returned to their pine board origins, the entire original floor-plan opened up. Some things remain - the pressed tin ceilings, the upstairs hall with its west-looking window, the open hall layout upstairs in the east wing, and the tall windows, deep baseboards and window surrounds, front door with sidelights and transom, and the pointed arch window in the wide gable, all in the lovelier east side of the original double house.

But mostly there were echoes - sensory memories more than visual ones, I suppose, as I walked the shallow stairs to the room I occupied as a tiny girl, or lingered in the small side-room where my baby brother occupied the big brown metal crib, or stood on the front verandah and gazed out over the dooryard that was once my huge empire.

I thank Pat so very much for the opportunity to time-travel yesterday. I salute her and her husband for becoming stewards of this old house with all its loveliness and its crankiness. And I look forward to dropping by someday to share some family lore.

see ya in church

"Put off your shoes from off your feet for the place where you stand is holy ground" Exodus 3:5

Yesterday I had the incredibly humbling experience of standing on holy ground...well, on the ancient worn floor boards of an historic church seldom accessible to the public. It was open thanks to Orland and Sylvia French, members of a group of volunteer curators who reside on site during the summer and open the church to chance visitors and pilgrims alike, anyone fortunate enough to visit this bucolic bit of Lennox and Addington county, steeped in history.

The opportunity to wander the property is available year-round - plaques explain the church's worthy history. When the curators are present, you are invited to enter, to examine displays or purchase some fine historical resource material, to marvel at the beautifully crafted replica pulpit and soundboard, to climb the sturdy worn stairs to the gallery and look out over the simple New England meeting house interior and the views of bright water beyond the plain sash windows.

The building is a tribute to the faith and the labours of our pioneer ancestors, who survived the refugee experience as Loyalists, carved farms from the wild country, raised families against great odds, and maintained their faith in the face of life's joys and calamities. The Hay Bay Church was built in 1792. It's a National Historic Site, Canada's oldest Methodist building, where circuit preachers once thundered from the high pulpit. There is an annual service, this year on August 28.

The Hay Bay Church story is kept alive by dedicated volunteers of many kinds, and by historians, clergy, genealogists and UEL history seekers, pioneer history buffs, and folks who love old buildings. It's a miracle that it survived. As the early Methodist church evolved, the building was sold to a farmer for use as a storage building, in 1867. The church was purchased and restored by the Methodist Conference of Canada in 1912 - a very early recognition of the importance of the Methodist and Loyalist history of the region, and of our historic structures. Bless 'em.

I virtuously avoided purchasing any of the wonderful resources on offer, thinking that I had ample material among the church histories given to me by my mother. Finding none, I am already planning a return trip to get a copy of the newly published book 'The Founders', the story of the 22 persons who founded the church, written by William Lamb, a Past President of the Canadian Methodist Historical Society, and historian of Old Hay Bay Church.

I'm looking forward to that, and to just standing inside the meeting house door again, being in a holy place.

And, it would turn out, in a place deeply connected with my story. I have a little certificate that once belonged to my father. It is dated August 1926, written on the occasion of the Huff Family Historical Association's 150th anniversary, It states that he is a descendant of Solomon Huff. It was a Paul Huff who donated the land for this church. I expect they're connected. Looks like we're connected. Another reason to be drawn to this place.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just plain folks

I'm still thinking about downtown.
Since my last two photo outings, I've been studying the intricacies of the finer buildings - Belleville's only wonderfully ornate cast iron front on the Henderson Building (1859 and unfortunately showing its age), the beautiful Victorian facade of the Corby-Caldwell-Greenley block , the pretentious Beaux Arts additions to the serene Renaissance front of the Jamieson Bone (Corby) Building: so much craftsmanship and beauty still, after all these years.

But the plain Janes that just don't have that 'wow factor', are my favourites today. Uncoursed rubble stone, parapet gable ends to prevent spread of the all-too-common fires, corbel stones, simple windows - most with modern unsympathetic shop front up-do's. Very old, they were here when our city was new.

Right: Turnbull Block (north section late 1830's) - large Regency style windows (replaced I think) , home to one of Belleville's institutions, The Cozy Grill
Left: The Commercial House Building (1838) - empty for some time, LEASE signs in the windows. Rather worrying.
Top: The Seldon-Harris Building (c.1832) - great chimneys. Is undergoing extensive remodelling by its owner, one of our old building champions.

As always, sincere thanks to the painstaking labour of Lois Foster and Beth Green, the Heritage Belleville researchers who put together Heritage Buildings East of the Moira (1991)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Happy Day Canada!

Centre Block, Parliament Hill, Ottawa
(Pearson and Marchand, 1916-1927)

The Hill - "some of the country's finest Gothic Revival buildings within a landscape that is itself internationally significant" (Ottawa: A Guide to Heritage Structures, LACAC, Ottawa, 2000)

...and a GREAT place for a birthday party.