Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, November 18, 2013

Poirot in Bath

Ron Tasker explaining entablature and pediment detail
"It is the brain, the little gray cells, on which one must rely."  Anyone who enjoys British murder mysteries with Hercule Poirot will recognize this Agatha Christie line, best when uttered by David Suchet as the ascerbic Belgian.

Saturday we had the immense pleasure of watching a master house detective share his discoveries at his property, Ham House (1816 - and there's a story there!) in Bath. The tour was thanks to the folks at Frontenac Heritage Foundation, and the sleuth was owner Ron Tasker.

fancy taproom ceiling

I really hope Mr. Tasker is writing a book (I looked in vain for an online journal, or any print publication) about this restoration. Many folks had written the place off, until Ron Tasker and his wife Bonnie Crook took on the challenge. I wish he were writing a log of the process, so that I could double-check some of the facts I gleaned from the tour, and retrieve hundreds of others which have escaped.
"Peter Ham" - I was here

Like these gems:
-dendocronology was used to determine the age of the oak sills - the tree from which one decayed sample was hewn started to grow in 1498!
-the age of hand-hewn recycled elements in the kitchen/shed was likely c.1808
-you can easily determine the age of wallpaper when you find a dated newspaper applied beneath
-graffiti existed in the early 1800's - the house features lines mocking a fussy drill sergeant, and the initials of the house's owner, Peter Hamm

-principal rooms can be determined by the quality of millwork (door and window frames) and floors
-why he knows the foundation was pre-1816   (pitted- ie. military- musket ball found in basement)
-what the little leather patch covered (a hole in the wall created by a musket-toting drinker)
-why the building is on the corner of the lot (it's the early urban way, also leaves room for infill development)

- what the footprints in the floorboards tell (where the innkeeper stood behind the bar)
-why the old (American) Georgian style decor in the store - it suggested solidity, traditional values, a store one can rely on
-how he knows there was a full entablature and pediment on the east/store entrance side (scars in wood trim)
-how he knows the beams were not  meant to be covered over in the taproom (beaded planks, smoothed beams)
-why the wide-board wainscoting was horizontal (early wainscoting was)
-the evolution of the interior space - eg. the east room was originally a store, then became a tap-room, which can be detected by scars from shelves, counters, walls, trapdoors and a staircase, relocated door and window openings

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- why there is a rose inscribed on a beam - a blessing on the house. The Virgin Mary is represented by a rose
-what made the rose - a set of dividers found in the wall, rusted closed at the correct distance for inscribing the circles creating the 'rose'
a faint rose, created with a set of dividers
-why we find shoes in the walls of early houses - 'concealed shoes' are an old English superstition, soliciting good luck on a house being built. Dried cats served the same function, but fortunately, none of those have turned up at Ham House

-observations on fixing a rubblestone foundation - (not easy, especially when a house sits on top). Ham house had been in imminent danger of collapse at the east end
-why there are still so many buildings from the first half of the c.19 along Bath's main street. The town stopped developing - 'frozen in amber' - in the 1850's when the Grand Trunk Railway bypassed it. This slowed later commercial development, which prevented the demolition of the early waterfront neighbourhood, which took place in more prosperous towns

And because I could have looked at these wallpapers all day, their patterns, their muted colours, wondering about  the process of creating them - handprinting? (I saw somewhere that the first wallpaper printing machine was only developed in England in 1839), I will leave you with these images. One thing I found interesting - in the store/tap-room, there wasn't lath and plaster; wallpaper was applied right to the wall planks.

Thanks to FHF's Dave Bull for his tireless industry behind the scenes. Not only does he send reminders of the foundation's wonderful tours, but on the day of the Ham House tour, Dave was making coffee using an outdoor tap, and had arranged some pretty delectable goodies!!


  1. Thank you Lindi for the great article on the Ham House. I'll have to ask my girlfriend about A. Christie's quote......she loves Poirot.

    Too much to comment w/ this piece, but the one assertion re: Bath being bypassed by the railway, and how that actually preserved the town, is very interesting to me. Its a situation that was repeated many times throughout North America. Paul Goldberger talks about this dynamic wrt Nantucket. From his website, I quote:

    "Nantucket had plenty of poverty, and plenty of preservation. Had the island been richer in the first half of the twentieth century, I wonder if any of us would want to be here now: prosperity could well have swept away a huge number of the things here that we all love and cherish. Now, time has redefined this place again, and a weak economy is the last thing this island worries about; instead, we face what I might say are the more pernicious challenges of prosperity. If poverty is an unexpected friend to preservation, prosperity can be its equally unlikely enemy.

    You know as well as anyone how that can be, the way people can approach historic structures with the arrogance of believing their affluence gives them the right to do whatever they please with the older buildings, whether it is to demolish them, to gut them and exploit them by turning their facades into false fronts for entirely different kinds of buildings, or to imitate them in a way that disingenuously pretends to be paying homage, but is really doing the opposite, since it cheapens rather than honors your architectural heritage."

  2. A few interesting things stuck out for me:

    "foundation is pre-1816" he suggesting there was a previous house there ?

    shoes...I've heard of this before....but to ward off any nefarious things, spirits, etc

    "PH" font is cool. very cool. also noticed the board its written on is ever-so-slightly chamfered by the look of it.

    dendro ?? didn't know they were doing it in southern Ontario. fascinated by the whole process, and its applications. It gets interesting when the immediate samples don't match up w/ the masters of that such cases, it might suggest that a house was transported to the area from another region.

  3. Re the foundation Mark; the house structure was first believed to date from 1819, new evidence indicates 1816. Suggestion the foundation is older came from artifacts found there, like that musket ball which might be associated with pre-1812 war skirmish involving an American attempt to seize a boat being built at Bath (sorry, I'm a bit sketchy on the facts - there was so much going on it was difficult to attend to all of Mr. Tasker's talk).
    Don't know where Ron Tasker linked up with dendrochronology sources, but he is very well situated within restoration architectural circles, I have heard. I'll see if I can find out.
    Shoes: Good luck = warding off evil
    Chamfered board - nice finishes on the planking - beaded pine interior walls, I'll email another photo.

  4. I'm completely captivated by these old places (I'm still digesting Fairfield Place that I saw this past summer). The dendro could have been done by the UWO....I think they have a program there of some sort.

    Don't understand how they made that rose ?! I don't get was made by a divider ???

    thois was a greta post - I love seeing little details about places such as this...its the small things that are so interesting and instructive.

  5. If you have an interest in early 19th century wooden built heritage, be sure to visit Bath Ontario to see one of the largest collections of structures located in their original location. Under aluminum and vinyl siding you will find some amazing buildings similar to the Ham House waiting to be transformed.

  6. Thanks everyone for your kind comments.

    Dendrochronology was performed by Carol Griggs at the Cornell Tree Ring Lab in Ithaca as part of their NY State and NE N. America Project. Interestingly the 1498 squared oak sill plate (10"x8") was the earliest historic timber they've seen from eastern N. America. Another surprise was that the addition was partly 1805 and partly 1819. It seems one of John Davy's outbuildings was reconfigured for a summer kitchen.

    At the SW corner of the building we discovered a small US military button and a Springfield 1795 musket ball at War of 1812 depth. The closest I could find in US military button references are some buttons of the NY state militia from the War of 1812, but I did not find a match. The musket ball was pocked in a manner described in English Civil War battlefield archeology used for close-quarter combat (ie - not hunting).

    Chauncey sent the USS Scourge into Bath (Ernestown) in November 1812 to take a schooner. They tried to tow the schooner in their pursuit of the Royal George but ended up scuttling it. That's all he says about the incident. British Military records indicate the Army was in Kingston and that the Canadian Militia had been recalled to Kingston. Local lore says that older veterans of the American Revolution (mostly Butler's Rangers and the King's Royal Regiment of New York) had a skirmish with the raiding US forces. If the foundation were built prior to the war and put on hold because of the war, the US forces may have been using it for shelter in the raid.

    We have an opportunity to get dates on the foundation as there was a large door and two barred windows with heavy timber frames. Dendrochronology may yield some additional secrets...

  7. Thanks so much Ron for the additional details...I had been wishing I'd brought a tape recorder to your tour, always so much information! I shall be looking forward to another visit, to watch the story unfold.

  8. Amazing to think the house was a part of such momentous events !! I love the building, and I'm just so happy that it's being preserved. It makes me want to read more about the town and the history of Bath.

    The heavy timber frames in the basement are intriguing, and hopefully they'll have an interesting story to tell. I didn't even know Cornell did dendro, so that was surprising to me. The oak cut date of 1498 is fascinating....its hard to imagine North America in its modern-day infancy. As an interesting sidenote, there was a White Pine chronology that dates from 1442 in Halifax. It was done by Mount Allison dendro lab in 2008......on Government House.

  9. Thank you soo much for saving this place! I used to live in this house and it was wonderful! My family and I also believe that it is haunted. It would really be exceptional if you could find the history of the previous residents that was there from the day it was built to about 1940's? If it's possible : ) I really loved and miss that house. Thank you for the wonderful history. I loved it! : )

  10. Hi, it's me again : ) I was looking at your Beautiful pictures. I notices you have caught some spirits in the windows of your pictures. : ) AWESOME