Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Something to clear the palate

Like cool lemon sherbet after a heavy meal, here's a lovely fall shot of a crisp and unadorned art moderne home to lighten things up after all that Romanesque Revival. This house is in the Golfdale area, so called guessed it...the area used to be a golf course, back when it was on the edge of town. Simple. Sigh.

Heavy, heavy and heavy

And I quote...Shannon Kyles, intrepid world traveller and architecture photographer, architecture professor and creator of the amazing websites and, suggests there are three words to describe Romanesque Revival architecture..heavy, heavy and heavy. Have a look at the winter issue of Arabella magazine for Shannon's article on the style, and luxuriate in the rich photographs that accompany it.

But if you don't have Arabella close to hand, you may have to settle for these shots I took as I ogled my way along a summery Toronto street recently.

The history of architecture is just full of revivals - like fashions in clothing - humans look back and redo old ideas, when we can't think of anything else to build, or when the ideas of a time long past conjure up something important we want to express. The Romanesque Revival style (c.1840-1900) draws on the Romanesque building styles which emerged out of the darkness of the Middle Ages in Europe. Its heavy character speaks to the need to fortify one's home and castle against the savage folk who occupied the wild land between the few bits of civilization, those small city states which survived or reemerged after the fall of the Roman Empire left Europe temporarily without a landlord.

Details of the Romanesque Revival include rounded arches, often compound, with heavy voussoirs; decorative arcading (repeating patterns of arches) ;lots of massive rusticated stonework in basements and trim, carving in Byzantine sinuous patterns, usually depicting faces, vines, creatures; pillars on massive piers; deep sheltered entrance-ways. Check...all of the above.
Recently I enjoyed four balmy days on Toronto, wandering streets bursting with new tulips, daffodils, forsythia and honeysuckle, capturing images of some of the amazing domestic architecture in the area north of Queen Street, in the neighbourhoods around the AGO. I was on the look-out for the style, as I'd heard Toronto has some of the best. On Beverley Street I found these fortress-like dwellings.

It's said that Romanesque Revival was a style popular with wealthy 19th century industrialists. The fortress mentality would fit. What a great way to say "I've got the power!" to folks dropping by for dinner. A house of substance for a man (exclusively male domain, c.19 business) of substance.

I expect this would be considered an eclectic Queen Anne with Romanesque Revival affectations. I love the 'woven' terracotta first storey above the requisite lumpy stone foundation.
Rounded arch - check. See first and third floor windows. Deep entrance porch with archway supported on piles.Carving - notice the row of billets under the second storey window sill - check out any Romanesque period doorway (Lincoln Cathedral's a good one) for the inspiration.
I only wish I'd had time to go further downtown to pay homage to those two amazing civic buildings in the Romanesque Revival style: old City Hall, and the imperious Queen's Park. I'm wondering about the significance of the seat of local government in massively  fortified structures -could it be they've always been mindful of the need for seeking safety from their electorate?

Monday, March 26, 2012

My happy place

 If I lived in Toronto, and I was feeling glum and curmudgeonly, I would walk down McCaul Street. This absolutely silly building,
and the self-consciously arty antics  of the wonderful college kids  who decorate its sidewalks would lift my mood immediately.

What a structure! - primary coloured pencil-like pillars supporting a checkerboard pillbox designed by Alsop Architects of UK. Looks like a spotted alien hovering above the park, the multi-coloured Victorian home next door and (mercifully) the little green park.

Some Canadian greats attended and/or taught at OCA. Arthur Lismer was vice-principal in 1920, J.E.H. Macdonald principal in 1929 - 1933. Students include David Blackwood, Jack Bush, Frank Carmichael, William Kurelek, Doris McCarthy and Michael Snow.

And a bit of history:
1921 - the Ontario College of Art opens its first building, the august structure which sits just east of the Grange, and makes a matched pair with it.
1957 - the main campus opens at 100 McCaul, an extension of the original Grange wing. Finally... all departments finally under one roof. I expect the trillium plaque below dates from that time.

Then, with a grand flourish, The Sharp Centre for Design was opened in 2004. The name was a no-brainer...OCAD alumna Rosalie Sharp and her husband (you may have heard of them, they founded the Four Seasons Hotel chain?) donated 5 million dollars to the capital campaign. If you can't do something famous to get your name on a building, do something insanely generous. BTW, Rosalie was also installed as OCAD's first Chancellor. (The name change to add 'D for design' to the name had happened by then; in 2010 the name changed to OCAD University) . Well you'd expect change in a spot like this, wouldn't you?

Here's a rather tedious powerpoint about
the construction of the Sharp Centre 

So now I'm outed...this lover of serene and under-stated neoclassical and regency architecture,  likes the Sharp Centre. Must go have another their expense.
Art school in 1931 - thanks to Jimmy Wales

OCA's first home at left, Sharp Centre at right - different ideas
about what an art school might look like?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

...the swimmers will rule the world

This wonderful structure drew me from the moment I first spotted I walked the Lakeshore Drive overpass from the foot of Roncesvalles, hurrying into communion with the lake shrouded in mist. I took lots of shots as I approached it - mirage-like in the fog, its amusement park architecture such an anachronism. But how grateful I am to make its acquaintance, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, built in 1922, restored 1980. Its grandeur belies its intended use - as a changing room for lake bathers (starting a long tradition immortalized by our Marilyn Bell). No-one counted on the water being so cold, so a pool was added later. "Ain't we got fun?"

I've just been reading about all the changes that occurred along the waterfront, as the city grew and changed the actual land and shore it was started on. So much of the original lake shore is paved over - but it's a traffic jam with a great view.

Someone peering over your shoulder?

I love this place - the Grange (1817, Toronto's oldest brick house), its park (uncharacteristically empty this early in the morning), and the new AGO looming above so many spots in Toronto, the clash or blend (depending on how attentively it's done) of old and new catches the eye (when it doesn't break the heart).

I am struck with how the massive Gehry iteration of the gallery almost dissolves from this angle, in this light. Whether planned or happily accidental, it makes it possible for a fine Georgian neo-classical home to maintain its dignity with the toothpaste staircase oozing out of the building above it, and the art students frolicking irreverently outside the outrageously irreverent OCA across the park.

Lodge brothers...

 I've just returned from a few days in Toronto - an absolute feast of walks and photographs, old houses and sublime early summer days...I'm satiated on beautiful older buildings for awhile- my heart just can't take any more. For today, a revisit to one of my favourite buildings, true to form, in one of the most evocative settings - the exquisite and significant Regency cottage Colborne Lodge in High Park. Enjoy with me.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bless their little pointed heads

All across the Ontario landscape, the last vestiges of Europe's great high/late medieval 'Gothic' era of architectural history stand stalwart.

The Ontario farmhouse style (aka Gothic Revival Cottage) is the simplest form of a revival which took place in Ontario( from about 1750-1900) of the heaven-reaching forms of  the Gothic style. The Gothic Revival style was touted by Pugin (France) and Ruskin (England) in the mid 1800's as the architecture of a Christian nation; their ilk spurned as 'pagan' the classical forms being used in Europe for the church and civic architecture of the day. (Visit for a good look at the variety of Gothic revival domestic, religious and civic buildings among us.) The plain little Ontario Gothic cottage design was made accessible to home-builders through pattern books - and the idea caught on enormously well. One of the most well-known pattern books was 'The Architecture of Country Houses', by A.J. Downing (available as a free Google e-book I love his thoughtful essays on style; he was so dismissive of things classical, mumbling about "the impossibility of making a dwelling-house of reduced copies of the Parthenon."

It's neat to think about how different our countryside would look today, without Downing's help.

 1853/55 Wesleyan Methodist cobblestone church
 Sidney Township
The point about Ontario farmhouse style is made here is at the top of the windows. Occurring first in the amazing churches of the Gothic era, and getting pointier and pointier as the style evolved, the pointed arch is the vestigial feature which stays around in those lovely Ontario farmhouses. They grace the steep or wide front gables of hundreds of plain and fancy farmhouses including my own childhood home. Other details, like bargeboarding and finials may not have endured, but the prim little gable with the (typically) pointed arch window withstands the test of time.

Lake Consecon, PEC - the classic look

Massassauga Road, PEC - a fanciful variation 

North Marysburgh township, PEC
 the wide NM gable observed by Cruikshank &Stokes 

Have a look round the next time you're out and about and give a nod to the Ontario farmhouse. 

South Marysburgh, PEC

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hearing voices...doesn't everybody?

Stone Hog Barn, Hastings Co.
West Lake, PEC

Abandoned barn, Hastings County
"Wallace Kincaid's House", Queensborough

Reconstructed log house, Demorestville

A few weeks ago on the way to Tweed, I fell in love with a fence.
It was beautiful enough - the fence line ...with mature winter trees casting exquisite shadows onto a snowy field of drumlins (and me without a camera what-was-I-thinking).

The rail fence sheltered by these aging trees, whose seedlings were once spared from the plough by this very structure, was rotting and broken. The responsibility for maintaining property lines and detaining foraging livestock for the century since the land was cleared had weighed heavily. Wind and water and snow, moss and time had brought it to its knees. The fence was returning to the earth.

My mother's voice returns. "The stories that house could tell" she would muse as we "went for a drive", our farmer father taking a Sunday break from his work to critique or admire the work of others.

 Every man-made structure has similar stories.

I shared with Den the places that glimpse of fence had taken me, the voices on the wind. I conjured up the struggles of a farmer and sons cutting red cedar for rails and posts, the tired beasts hauling them to the new field, the physical labour and the art of building a sturdy fence.  I recalled dad's stories of being allowed with his brother to cut red cedars (vengeance is mine, said the man who hated those trees) during the depression for some spending money - "here's your allowance, son."

 I channelled the thoughts of the tired farmers as they leaned against a top rail, humbly admiring their work - another small step in taming this wild land to their service. Next they'll turn their hands to improving the log shelter, to cobbling stones together for a better barn.

 The field served well - for forage, for crops. Decades of stones released from the soil by winter frosts were tossed against the fence to create a small world for field mice and partridge. (My heart hurts when I see these 'fence lines' dynamited to create today's monster fields). I see hundreds and thousands of earnest, weary early farmers  building, planning, hoping - establishing the farms all over this province, the very farms now drowning under asphalt and the pretentious shabby houses of urban sprawl.

I told Denny all these stories and many more. "Am I nuts?", I asked, "to hear all these voices when I see an old fence?" Reassuringly, he admitted that fences don't take him 'there', but that it's a small gift to be allowed to hear those stories. "That's what historians do," he smiled. Oh. I have entered distinguished company.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The oh-gee! Ogee

Neglected ogee arch in a PEC farmhouse gable
 The ogee arch always stops me in my tracks. What an exotic creature to be imported to rural red-brick Ontario, or primly displayed in a late Regency shopfront!

The ogee arch is an arch with a pointed apex uniting a concave and a convex arch in a sinuous S-shape. Its is said to have been imported into late medieval Europe from the Arab world in the c.14. The ogee cannot be counted on in a pinch - it is a non-structural arch and can be seen flaunting its exotic curves over the tops of hardworking conventional arches or assuming a languid pose profile in shaped mouldings.
Beautifully maintained Old East Hill residence (c.1857)
Ogee moulding above blind Gothic arches
with wood louvres, OEH home

Late Regency early  Victorian shop-front styling,
Niagara on the Lake

 The ogee arch is sometimes called the Venetian arch because of (you guessed it) its popularity in Venice, the keel arch due to its similarity to an inverted ship's keel, the horseshoe arch for some reason, and the depressed arch. Now I ask you - if you were that pretty would you be depressed?
St. Mark's Venice. Denis looking admiringly toward a set of fine ogee arches
above clerestory level rounded arches

The Stonecarvers

L.P.Fisher Public Library, Woodstock N.B.
So much work for so little attention.
Think of all the bas-relief sculpture adorning public buildings - how often do we stop, in our appreciation of a heritage structure (if indeed, we do stop to appreciate the thing) and focus in to enjoy the small details which were added so painstakingly.
The Pagoda - Thunder Bay (1909)
There must have been so much effort put into the design - just the right symbolism, the kind of messsage the designers of public buildings would want to express.
 Then the work - think of the often unknown stone-carvers spending months and years on tiny spots in large buildings (writing this has me longing to visit the second floor galleries of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa again). Think of the skill, the intricate and painstaking physical work of grinding away stone, forming the three dimensional shapes, ornamenting the surfaces, making no mistakes. Buildings are built by teams of people. These sculptures felt the touch of a single individual's hands leading them out of the stone. Inspiring.

Looking at this warm grey stone sent me to my bookshelves to browse Jane Urquhart's The Stonecarvers - to get closer to the minds and hearts of the folk who do this labour for love.

The comical watchful owl above was chosen to honour knowledge in perpetuity, adorning a frieze on a small town public library in New Brunswick. The beaver and the roiling maple leaves are a fervent tribute to all things Canadian on the quirky orientalist Pagoda in Thunder Bay, Canada's oldest continually operating tourist bureau.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Verandah needed...urgent

I'm posting this photo of the old farm-house because I need some hot June sun warming the day lilies and me, instead of  freezing rain and sloppy snow. The lawn looks like a good spot to lie down and watch pictures in the clouds- remember when that was a suitable occupation for an afternoon? No "I'm bored" allowed. And when the sun gets too hot, we'll withdraw to the verandah's shade. Used to be shadier, a cave of Dutchman's Pipe vine creating a green den for a summer snooze. Ah, feel warmer already.

Occurs to me to add that there actually is a verandah needed in this photo. Years ago a good farmer, too busy, too practical and too poor to replace a collapsing 1860's wood verandah with attendant gingerbread, made a clean sweep. An early photo shows what was lost.