Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Moving in the Best Society

Anerican raiders off Ernestown, 1812

Re-enactors' encampment on the F-G lawn
On the July long weekend, we spent three days in Bath and Kingston, immersing ourselves in our history. These communities along the St. Lawrence  brought to life the drama of the early days of the War of 1812, the war many Canadians see as the war that defined us as a separate - and very proud - nation.
Activities in Bath centred on the Fairfield-Gutzeit house (1796), built by the sons of William Fairfield who built the outstanding Fairfield House at Amherstview.

The lads, Wm. Junior and Benjamin, moved to Bath in 1793, seeking their fortune - and managed to do so. They became influential members of the community and entered political life. It was their ship, 'The Two Brothers', which was burned by raiding Americans in the early days of the war along the St. Lawrence.

The house is much changed from the original one and a half storey Georgian form with steep roof, which betrayed its Vermont origins.

Today, the Fairfield-Gutzeit house (so called because it was brought back into the family in 1938 after almost 80 years by Mabel Fairfield-Gutzeit, William's great grand-daughter) is owned by the Fairfield-Gutzeit Society. We had a lovely tour of the house, alive with the breezes from the lake outside its doors.

The non-profit Fairfield-Gutzeit volunteer organization manages and maintains this incredibly important property, as well as two other Bath heritage buildings I have written about - the Bath Town Hall and the Layer Cake Hall.

So, what's a girl to do?
I joined the Fairfield-Gutzeit Society, and felt pretty darned good about it.
Just wish I were a bit closer, so I could put my energy where my admiration is.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Some folks admit to a sense of awe they experience in visits to churches and cathedrals. There's something uplifting about the spaces, the generations of the faithful elevated by something 'other' in these majestic places. Transcendence. For me, this very old house west of Kingston has a very similar effect. It sits by the lake, in a park filled with joggers, dog-walkers, picnickers and lovers. The lake they enjoy  is the same waterway the tall frame house's Loyalist builders looked upon when they landed in 1784, fleeing the horrors of revolution in their country.
the early high-pitched Loyalist roofhouse - porches were a later additionn

warm wood
I admit to a feeling bordering on reverence when I visit this house. Fairfield House, silent and alone in its park, has a powerful presence which it is willing to share. Folks enjoying the park pass it by, while I sit at its feet and listen to the old stories.

the 'terroir' of building - early home built on limestone flats 

I feel the lives of those who built this house and places like it; their dreams, their heartbreak, their hope for the future. The stones, the timbers in this house resonate with the Loyalist family's determination to rebuild their lives and fortunes.

external fireplace wall radiating heat

Fairfield House (1793), Amherstview

Everything stops for tea

to Helen Hutchison for her vision, determination and plain hard work

heritage flower garden

south (front) entrance facing the river
 Thanks all round.
Friend Brenda and I repaired to Napanee today, for tea and a tour of the exquisite museum house, Allan MacPherson house (1826).

Once a ruin, the house was rescued by the Lennox and Addington Historical Society, which administers it today.

Delicate neo-classical doorcase and windows, superb joinery in the cornice, pilasters and door surround. This is one of my favourite houses - clapboard can lay claim to sophistication like no other building material IMHO.
north facade
The house has identical fronts, often seen in  houses of the era. The south side facing the river, gardens and park was actually 'the front' facade. Several PEC homes of the era have the same feature.
Brenda and our lovely guide

MacPherson House parlour
Thanks to our delightful guide, who interpreted the house, its furnishings and the life of the 1830's when this house was the only significant house north of the river.
Napanee River from the ballroom window

stair runner woven on MacPherson House loom by a  gifted volunteer
 And thanks to the volunteers, both those 'below stairs' and those costumed servers in the summer kitchen, who offered choices of very good tea, scones, jams and cream.

Below stairs - winter kitchen

For more information, because Brenda and I really think you should go for tea, visit

Monday, July 9, 2012

Rogues and Scoundrels

Always wondered: why all the fuss about Newburgh?
Yesterday, on our way to Charleston Lake PP, we had a ramble around the village.
And found out why.

Last night, I checked out Abebooks, keen to pick up a copy of Stokes' and Cruikshank's 'Rogue's Hollow', to absorb their scholarship and echo their enthusiasm for the village and its architecture - and find out who the rogues were (always attracted to folks with a story).

Oops - a little outside my budget. Today I hied myself off to the Belleville Public Library website to request it.

Newburgh Academy has a great photo of the 1959 grade one and two classes outside this impressive limestone building. It was opened in 1853 as the Newburgh Academy, gutted by fire in 1872, refurbished later and used as a high/elementary school, then an elementary only, and closed in 1965.

Today it houses apartment dwellers - lucky them.
Study in texture
  So, while I wait for my library book....

Working class hero

Hooper's Mill

Early brick dignified by ashlar quoins - parapet walls

Still waiting...reliving my day lily day in Newburgh.
Looking forward to an autumn colour visit.
And perhaps a snow-blanketed winter day. 

When life hands you lemons...

 I'm thinking about how many Loyalists and other pioneers drew lots for properties they'd never seen. Thinking of the role that geological chance played in whether they and their descendants became successful farmers or just rural survivors. So much depended - everything depended - on the drawing of lots. By chance, some folks ended up with deep alluvial till, while others got...rock farms.

Even the hard farms on the Cambrian shield had been forested, encouraging settlers (and those promoting settlement)  to believe in the soil's capacity to provide.

I spotted this beautiful house near Hay Bay. It's built from granite fieldstones, used in their round natural state - I remember our dad calling those stones "hard-heads". The builder looked at the stones strewn about his hoped for prosperous fields, and made lemonade.

The photo does not do it justice to the little Ontario farmhouse, but look at the massive chimneys, the patchwork walls. The house has style - the shady verandahs boast turned posts and bargeboard.

Notice the window sash cut to cooperate with the incline of the kitchen tail built to the side of the main house.
And here, near South Bay, is a unique community of beautiful stone walls. I don't know if it's because there was a gifted drystone wall builder who shared his love and skill with stone, or if folks just looked at the stone lying about on the surface of their newly cleared fields, eroded over millenia from the loose limestone escarpment above, and said....anyone for lemonade?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

It's what's inside that counts

I am finally reading John Rempel's Building with Wood, cover to cover, front to back. It's a promised return after so many visits just to check a fact or find a term.

I have just finished a large-ish writing job - a chapter on early PEC building - for a local author/publisher. I spent a lot of time photographing houses of the early decades of the 1800's, and they taught me a thing or two, standing mute and in some cases abandoned and in disrepair. They broke my heart.

But I have been most disciplined, recording "just the facts ma'am" and setting emotional responses aside. Now it's time to sit back and enjoy these old bits of old buildings, try to connect with their earnest builders, and think about the many years they stood and sheltered families, and listen to the stories they can tell.

Enjoy these silvery weathered old bits of our built heritage (our disintegrating heritage in these cases) with me?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Adoption is not for everybody...

Adopt a highway, adopt a manatee, adopt a soldier, adopt a pet, adopt a....bit of neglected c.1819 frame house, Bath's most significant building?
Nah, wouldn't be practical.
Too much work.

That's why I've had this house on my worry list whenever I've passed through Bath these last 15 years.
I blogged about the house back in November 2010.
To quote our old dad, at the time "I wouldn't have given much for its chances".
Looked like a classic case of benign neglect.
And we all know how that ends.

Last Friday as I bopped down Church Street from Bath Academy, head full of anticipation for the War of 1812 events ahead, eyes on the reenactors' encampment on the Fairfield-Gutzeit lawn, I was overjoyed to see signs of life at the corner.

Had a peek inside - and a tour the following day.
This is one lucky house...adopted by a smart, energetic, skilled, ambitious, informed, visionary man who is bringing it back from the brink.
His name is Ron Tasker, he's an engineer, he knows what he is doing and he had been searching throughout the area for a house like this.

He has sat down at the knee of this old soldier, and heard all the tales.
He is sharing the stories, and writing a few of his own along the way.

I am almost speechless with relief...with recognition of a kindred spirit.

Someone whose conversation is peppered with words like hand-made lathe, guttae, Rempel, rose headed nails, pilasters, the Kingston Gazette, Georgian mantels with subtle neo-classical touches, early wallpaper. Who knows his way around the early history of this building, its business, its owner, and this town, and is graciously sharing what he is learning and doing (like removing 30 or more tons of rubbish from the building) to effect this house rescue. He was looking for a place like this house. Lucky house.

Ron Tasker telling the Peter Ham store story

a touch of neo-classical under the mantel shelf
This was the original 'front' facing the street up from the harbour

hand-split lathe - to enjoy fully read John Rempel

Watch this space.
The news from Ham House is getting better every day.

Hello Old Man...

...tell me your story.
I've come upon you, travelling an unmarked road over shallow limestone and hot dry weeds.
I've found you in this place.
Nothing but silence here, nothing but the whisper of the wind in the long grass, the spice of the red cedars under the hot sun. An unfamiliar bird voice calls...a bird who does not know backyard feeders, one who feels only the rhythms of this bit of the county, forgotten now.

You did not prosper here.
You built this house when many lived in fine brick and stone, their cattle fat and their fences strong.
Moses Hudgin log house 1860, PEC

Yet it was a good enough house; strong enough to last 150 years.
You farmed a bit on this begrudging land.
You fished in the unforgiving lake.
You sailed sometimes for a bit of pay.

You'd laugh to hear we've saved your log house.
But they did.
Because sometimes we still need silence, and the stories that a hard man on a hard farm can tell.