Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Blessing of Locusts

The tall trees are the tip-off. Look down, look way down and you may find a gem of an old house nestled beneath. Or a clearing sanctified by feral lilacs and wild roses, an overgrown stone foundation left to tell a homesteader's story. Another invitation to time-travel, in fact I'm powerless to to resist the pull...

Often those tall trees are endowed with the twisted branches, rough bark and siren-song perfume of the locust tree. This morning I'm trying to find out which one - or should I care? our Dad (who knew his trees) called them Honey Locust. A flit through suggests that Black Locust may be closer to the truth - the flowers and the range arguing convincingly. I remember thorns, the craggy huggable bark, the yellow-green fronds fading to golden yellow in early fall. 'Nuff said. I can debate archi terms 'til even my best friends get drowsy, but these days plant nomenclature doesn't warm my blood. I recall that heady June scent that takes me home, to the beginning of the endless free summers of childhood. That's enough for now.

I've heard people say that the locusts were often planted by UEL settlers..were they in fact? Could they have been brought as mementos of softer climes by these refugees? Unlikely, as folk often escaped with nothing. Were they transplanted from the wild, in an attempt to civilize the rough clearings around newly crafted homes? Were they recognized and spared when the struggle against the suffocating density of the dark forest harvested the useful tall pines blanketing the land, and burned the rest? Was the wood not viable? Or did some good wife, bereft of beauty in her harsh life, plead for their fragrant soft flowers to be spared?

Looking forward to June. Intoxicating fragrance on the wind. Listening to the song in the sculptured branches, in communion with long-ago loyalist pioneer women who may have taken joy in the presence of locusts.

left: Davy house in Bath
right: small brother and me under the locusts at the home farm

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Room with a View

I'm a big fan of set-backs. No, not necessarily those events that sit me back on my...heels and call for a complete reassessment of the situation.
The kind of setbacks I'm fond of are the property variety, that longer-than-the-neighbours' expanse of lawn that draws the eye back to an interesting house and its almost always interesting history. Kind of the same as a car parked out of line in a parking lot catches our attention and leads us to wonder what's at play - did they jettison the car in a family emergency? Was this vehicle stolen and abandoned by romantic underworld figures? Or was there a lover's quarrel, tear-filled eyes and emotional drama preventing the usual precise between-the-lines parking?

These two fine old homes in Picton are 'out of line' in interesting ways. They've always caught my eye, but not 'til two recent pedestrian photo tours did I fully grasp the mystery of their orientation. And of course, retreating to my favourite resource, Cruikshank/Stokes/de Visser's The Settler's Dream, on my return to my study, provided all the answers to my questions.

The worthy home on the left is the Johnson/McDonald House, c.1835, a fine farmhouse built before the neighbourhood was subdivided, forever out of alignment with later homes built at right angles to it, facing Johnson Street. This house was built overlooking Main Street, with the kitchen tail facing Johnson. Later buildings blocked the view toward Main Street. A pretty grand property, whichever way you look.

The grandly-chimneyed parapet-walled c.1835 Washburn House is also in a precarious position, set back as it is from the line of important houses along the block (Merrill House, Wexford, Ross/McMullen, all built decades later). With its Loyalist Georgian symmetry and Greek Revival influences (thanks for noticing that, Tom et al.), it was originally built on open farmland, later surrounded by the town. In fact, it became the rectory for the St. Mary Magdalene Church, built in front of it on Main Street, in 1913.

I guess my proclivity for admiring those following the road less travelled applies to buildings too.

You're not from here are you?

This place on the Old Trent Road (few folks call it that now, more reason to use the old name) has always spoken to me. There's just something special about it. I like its simplicity - on a street of homes with grander pretensions of various eras, from the 1880's to the 1980's.

I'm intrigued by the long setback from the road. Makes me think that it was once on its own down there, or neighbours with other homesteads close to the reliable water transportation route. Plenty of room at the front door for a domestic orchard, a vegetable garden or a few sheep. The low profile, small plain windows, serviceable stucco cladding, narrow eaves all speak of a sensible and serious builder/owner, from a time when show mattered less, and shelter from an inhospitable new country was paramount.

Then last night I came across a bit of the house's story, in a Belleville heritage publication I'd often leafed through.* The writers describe a "Scottish cottage" dating from the pioneer days of Hastings County. The builder was Alexander Chisholm, a Scot by birth. (I am avoiding the predictable cliche), a Loyalist and one of the area's first settlers. Alexander had emigrated to Albany, New York, but his decision to fight with the British in Quebec during the revolution changed all that. A land grant in Hastings County made up for the likely loss of his hard-won homestead, and he began again.

I am full of respect for the family in this home - they have resisted the tendency to modernize, to subdivide, to tear down and rebuild. I can only assume they are proud of the history of which they are guardians. I would like to meet them and express my humble thanks.

* Historic Belleville by Nick and Helma Mika, 1977

Downes but not Out

When I last posted about "Grove Place", Picton's wonderfully exotic Gothic Revival style Downes/Allison/Falconer place (c.1858), I was feeling a bit glum about its chances of survival. I took its photo last February, shivering in an unkind wind under a foreboding winter sky, standing in snow deeper than my boots. Later I posted "Gothic Survival," feeling as if I were practising for the cottage's epitaph.

I took this photo from the corner of the supermarket parking lot last month. Now granted, we all look a bit peaked in February. The glow of a late afternoon October sun does wonders for an old girl's complexion (trust me, I know). But there's something going on here that gives me hope. The realtor's sign is gone. The building is still standing. That fact alone speeds the heart-rate of old house folks.

There are loads of people in town who value the artistic and historic. There are some deep pockets.They've been burned once by wrong-headed heritage demolition.

We're keeping an eye on this one.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tale of two Victorian ladies

I went walking and photographing along the waterfront trail with a friend recently, loving
every rich moment of the golden fall afternoon. Along Dundas street (the 'detour' on the waterfront walk) I stopped to snap 'the old Couldery place' and share with B___the story of her association with Glanmore.

It's a lovely story of serendipity which led to Belleville's receipt in 1955 of an outstanding collection of 1600 pieces of fine art and furnishings from the estate of English collectors, which is now housed in stately Victorian splendour at Glanmore National Historic Site.

But back to the tale of the two 'ladies'. These days, the Couldery house is living in genteel poverty; I worry about the state of her health and her life. The house looks closed, and badly in need of attention. Her good aristocratic bones show: the profile of the fine chimney against the sky, her verandahs for taking the country air, her stately windows and gables, but the house is in decline. How different life is for Glanmore: supported by all levels of government, beautifully maintained, in good architectural health, her handmaidens the museum staff and the Friends of Glanmore ensuring that her exquisite plaster ceilings, her collection of fine artwork and furnishings, her story of Victorian elegance are preserved and shared with the community and the world.

Long ago, in the early 1800's, the lives of these two houses crossed in a wonderful accident. Bertram and Celia Couldery, collectors and artists from England, were delayed on their Canadian train journey, and spent the night in Belleville. The owner of the (now infamous, once esteemed) Docter's Hotel near the railway station toured them around the town, and soon after they set up a second home on the western edge of town, the now-aging Couldery House (photo above right). On their return to England they took Ann, one of the Docter children back with them as a companion to Celia. Ann grew up, married well, and when she and her husband died, part of their estate, an important collection of "fine European antiques, paintings, ceramics and decorative objects," which included many of the Couldery's own important animal paintings, arrived in 1955 Belleville. Ann Docter Salaman also provided a bequest to house the collection, which led to the establishment of Glanmore as a museum.

(It wasn't uncommon for informal adoptions like this, which provided 'advantages' to deserving young people, raising them above their station. Mr. and Mrs. John Philpot Curran Phillips, builders/owners of Glanmore also took in a young woman, and provided her with a good education, entree into society, and ultimate role of heiress of Glanmore.)

There's a lot of history behind the front doors of these two old homes.

Facts and quotation above from Glanmore published in 2001 by the Friends of Glanmore.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Comfort and Joy

Just the best day...shared with a friend with similar interests, exploring a town with history and architecture, November sun and unexpected warmth...

We wandered the streets of Picton, photographing houses we loved, guided by the lovely David Taylor's walking tours, my friend listening patiently to my endless blather on architectural styles and local history as I recall it (in bits) from my childhood and youth in this town - "that house was my Latin teacher's, and my Mother's Latin teacher's", a day's end creep through the exquisite and moody Glenwood Cemetery...

Appreciating the glow of afternoon sun, golden leaves and a yellow Craftsman bungalow, perfect shadows cast by a wrought-iron fence, sun glow on a hand-made brick parapet wall, and at the end of it, a close-enough-to-touch red sun setting across fields of dry corn and beans.

A day of loving old houses, without the obligation of preservation activism, just being among them, and their massive overhanging trees, and their lovely sheds...some gentrified, lovely but somehow sterile, some crumbling but with authentic voices from long ago. Jaywalking like high school kids, watching for cars while we shoot from the centre of intersections, pick-up trucks with locals indulgently shaking their heads at the foolish tourists immersed in the irresponsible joy of being fully present in a day of old houses.

Friday, November 4, 2011

It's the REAL thing...

My husband Denis and I went exploring in Prince Edward County last Sunday. We were sleuthing, at the invitation of a local historian, trying to learn the story of a very old church standing in a picturesque spot near Fish Lake.

At Den's encouragement I braved loud dogs and even more intimidating watch-geese to talk to a delightful fellow who is renovating a deserving old house across from the church. I wanted to see if he had any information on the very old, authentically restored church with the new foundation faced with limestone and the tell-tale electrical service entering discreetly at the back.

Well, courage was rewarded. The fellow was Kip Brisley, son of Dr. John Brisley, a retired dentist, and his wife Diane, who are well-known in heritage circles. Kip definitely had information. In fact he has done a lot of the restoration work. As he wryly put it "I'm a musician so I do a lot of carpentry"

Since that conversation I have found a number of sites with information about the church and several nearby early houses, all exquisitely restored. Turns out the area is called 'Brisley Village' in some circles. I can understand that. I had the feeling of artful authenticity and 'time travel' that I have experienced at spots like Upper Canada Village.

The church is the 1820/23 St. Paul's Anglican church, a loyalist church, which was taken down board by board, moved from its Adolphustown location and rebuilt in its original design in 1997 by the Brisley family. A drystone wall circles a 'burial ground' to the right of the church, adding a real feel of authenticity.

And the intriguing yellow and red loyalist houses nearby?
The yellow house was moved from Cobourg (I think he said) and the little log cabin with the cantilevered porch, in the trees behind the red house, was moved from a location in the southern part of the county, and faithfully restored.

The red house, where the senior Brisleys live, is documented in my favourite source, The Settler's Dream. That building is the c.1818 Demill-Foster-Jones house, its influences more New England than Upper Canada. It was the home of John Demill, son of Vermont Loyalist Isaac Demill and his wife Mary Dixon who arrived in the Sophiasburgh area in 1792, and raised seven daughters and four sons. In 1810 Isaac senior received the Crown patent for the land onwhich much of today's Northport grew. The homes of three of Isaac's sons, John, Isaac and Peter, still stood as the Cruikshank-Stokes-de Visser work went to print in 1984.

Must go have a look-see.

What were they thinking??

I'm not a snob.
To be called "a purist"can sting.
But maybe, when I am tempted onto the topic of older homes and renovations, I can be a bit picky.

On the scale of problems facing us and our world, this is a small issue. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

It makes me sad and frustrated when I see unsympathetic renovations made to older homes. Oh, sure, we all understand eclectic, that clever juxtaposition of elements that can make for an interesting interior. But I would argue that harmony and fidelity to style on the public faces of our older homes create more beauty.

I have been watching the house on the left for some time. A lovely man has been pouring time, skill and soul into a porch for the home, using found elements. But, well, it doesn't work with his Victorian era house. I would suggest that both the house and the addition lose personality in this awkward marriage.

At the right is a rubble stone house I've loved for years. It was built in 1863. It has barn-red shutters, a hip roof and that upright and dour Georgian facade. Recently it was treated to a showy bevelled glass confection in place of its former plain panelled door. A beautiful door, but it works like love beads and a miniskirt on an octogenarian.

Sorry folks. Just had to say it.

the case for Heritage Conservation Districts

It's not in my nature to criticize, but I'm just sayin'...

I've been watching this house.
The last owner maintained a medical office in his/her home - lots of attractive improvements were made to porch, paint, and planting.
Then it was for sale - checked all my pockets but no luck....
Soon it became apparent that there was a new owner.

The first sign of change was the disappearance of a single-storey wing to the east side.
Good work, I thought. It was never in keeping with the house. Then I noticed that the east brick wall, exposed by the demolition of the addition, had been covered - cedar shakes in the gable end! beige vinyl siding! Ugly quick fixes covering the interesting blind window openings and former doorways telling the building's story. The house is not designated; it is unprotected from unlovely changes.

Then I learned that the owner was attempting to sell the lot created by this extra space, for infill housing. The request for severance was initially refused, but subsequently approved by Ontario Municipal Board. There was insufficient protection for the heritage home (not listed or designated) or the character of the neighbourhood (not a Heritage Conservation District).
So now the property is for sale, and construction fencing has appeared.

The lovely big trees are looking apprehensive.

Let's hope whoever buys this choice lot has good taste...
Watch this space.