Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Classical Gas-off

Like a mad old woman muttering in the bus shelter, this post (and perhaps others to follow) will reveal the innermost workings (or lack thereof) of my mind, as I study out loud in public, struggling to understand Classical architecture. A few things are coming clear, as I persist.

Realization #1:
The influence (and elements) of ancient Greek and Roman architecture repeat over the centuries like a bad chili relleno. Each time the inspiration returns it is slightly changed by the aesthetic of the day.

Realization #2:
Most of my reference books/authors use different terminology or group 'styles' in different ways.

This is interesting although it's driving me crazy.

Here are four examples of what I mean:

i) Neoclassical Architecture in Canada by Leslie Maitland (1984, National Historic Sites and Parks Branch) is a complex and arcane government publication which I have to read again. She uses the term Neoclassical throughout. But...why did I start with this one?
ii) A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles by L. Maitland, J. Hucker and S. Ricketts (1992) uses: the Palladian Style, the Neoclassical style, the Edwardian Classical style and the Modern Classical style to describe the uniqueness of different periods.
iii) Ontario Architecture by John Blumenson (1990) uses Georgian, Neoclassical, Beaux-Arts Classicism and Edwardian Classicism.
iv) However, in Identifying American Architecture, Blumenson uses Georgian, Federal, Roman Classicism, Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts Classicism, and Neo-Classicism (1900-1920)

And we know that Georgian, Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival styles across the c.18 and 19 base their uniqueness in how they worked with classical elements and principles. Good grief.

First order (oops, no pun intended) of the day will be to establish what Classical elements are pretty much constant across variations.

Can you say "Symmetry"?

Thanks for listening. I feel so much better.
used with permission - Vintage Kingston FB

All of these impressive Classically inspired buildings are in Kingston Ontario. The city is a Neoclassical feast resulting from the building boom in the 1840's which coincided with the heyday of the style. Kingston was the largest town in Upper Canada and its elevation to capital of Upper Canada in 1841 created a demand for important architecture.

 Neoclassical. Not an off-centre turret, an irregular roofline or a  pointy-headed window in the lot.

Classical Saskatchewan

As I've mentioned in other posts, I am getting serious about my study of Classical all its forms, interpretations and revivals over the centuries. More on this later (with a caution to skip if you have a tendency to boredom while listening to others' struggles).

One of the spots we had a wander 'round on our holiday last summer was Melville, Saskatchewan. The town was a gas stop on the way between two planned destinations - but itself was an unexpected surprise. I took some photos of a rather grand-for-a-small-Saskatchewan-town civic structure, encouraged by the helpful plaque, and made the acquaintance of the 1912/13 Melville Municipal Building. It was built as the Town Hall/Opera House, and is considered "one of the province's most attractive city structures of the era." It's a heritage building because of course, old in the west is anything before 1914, given their later settlement and growth.
dome looms over central frontispiece

The town (which appeared to be 'getting it' regarding its built heritage, with several other fine old buildings in use, and an ambitious railway station restoration underway) was justifiably proud of their birthday girl. They had devoted considerable effort to resurface the dome, restore the windows, doors, brick and masonry, and were planning an elevator to provide accessibility to the second floor, for better use of the facility.

Pretty fine, really. Unfortunately the relentlessly in-my-face late morning sun meant I didn't capture the "imposing central dome." of the dignified red brick building with white trims. But lots of other Classical detailing was there. Symmetry. Projecting fronstispiece. Channelled ground level masonry (well, brick) hinting at a Palladian influence (I think). Brick panels inspired by pilasters.

And why did I choose to start my classical journey in Melville Saskcatchewan? Because last night as I studied the black and white photos in one of my reference books (A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles, Maitland, Hucker and Ricketts) there it was. Page 138. "Modern Classicism at its most reduced and economical form", although the caption also reassured that "it is a moot point whether the stylistic influence  is Modern Classicism or the Georgian Revival style."

Good grief. It's like identifying birds when the trees are full of immature specimens and transients. With the same reminder. Don't try to name them. Enjoy. Watch. Appreciate their beauty.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

You've got Personality

Buildings that catch my eye usually have a story to tell, and we make an emotional connection. Others just ask the viewer to stop and take a look: textures, colour, surroundings. I wish I could have captured this little building in a more flattering light...but maybe 'grey is her colour'.

I met this wee shed one raw early March day at Point Traverse, Prince Edward County, with writer John Martinello. We were there to photograph a several-generations-old fishing premises about to be demolished by the Federal Government intent on expanding wildlife habitat. (a rare example of animals encroaching on man's habitat). I posted this account.

This little grey building stood beside the slushy spring roadway, the ice still holding in the lake just off the bluff - and the wind! Despite that, the little structure called, and I answered. It's not the buildings we came to witness, but likely an earlier version of a functional building likely connected with early fishing days. Could it even have been a home at one time? Somebody local knows, I'm sure. For me, enough to stop and have a look.

big city...little bits

Having so much fun with my close-ups yesterday (and avoiding a serious post on Neo-classical architecture which I am studying at the moment), led me to procrastinate further by looking around my photo files for Toronto 'close-ups.'

Because Toronto is SO big, one just has to look at it a tiny bit at a time, to keep from being overwhelmed.

Here are some favourites.

Maybe I'll leave it to you to identify them.
Admittedly, some give some fairly helpful clues.

.Am I alone in this?
 I have to ask.

Last year a magazine I write for featured a number of my photos of elements of local buildings with the title "The Angels in the Details. It was a contest of sorts. 'Archi-bits' were posted, along with a fun rating scale based on the number correctly identified. There were to be prizes. To my knowledge, nobody played.

 I know I'm not totally alone. One faithful follower of the blog admits to a similar affliction.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I'm ready for my closeup Mr. Demille

returning eaves 

Most of us will be familiar with that classic movie line, uttered by a languid Gloria Swanson, in the 1950 film noir, Sunset Boulevard. "I'm ready for my closeup Mr. Demille."

neoclassical window entablature and pilasters

From time to time, delightful closeups appear on my laptop screensaver as it cycles through my photo archives.

 mausoleum adornment

The images conjure up the moment when I first encountered a particular element - some decorative, some practical, some the best of that synergy which sees a craftsman giving his best to the creation of even the most mundane bit of a building.

They rekindle the curiosity I felt at observing interesting construction details at close range, or at recognizing an iconic bit of a particular style.

cast iron neoclassical parapet graces concrete block store

The images also recall the emotions I felt at seeing something well - taking in all the elements,  listening for the voice of history (what was the public reaction when this structure was new, how did folks interact with it?)

neoclassical church entrance
wooden quoins

warmth of wood noted by the most discriminating critic
closeup: wilful neglect

Thought I'd share some.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Porchfest is the name of a yearly event in Belleville's historic residential East Hill, which features local musicians entertaining from host porches throughout the neighbourhood. It's a great community event and brings out lots of neighbourly folks to wander along leafy streets among our best houses. If only it wouldn't rain every year.

This isn't about that event. I stole the name for this celebration of an unusual porch  noted in my travels.

As I walked through Port Hope early this past summer, I came upon this truly unique Egyptian Revival porch. It seems to dwarf the cottage it's attached to.  Katherine Ashenburg identifies the material as concrete, and identifies the style as "one of the novelty revivals fashionable around the turn of the [last] century." I would love to know what transpired at that address before the project began. (Honey, you want to build what?)

Notice the detail? Under a pretty standard flat roof and fascia, an organic pattern on the columns led me to scour my Egypt notes from Shannon Kyle's world architecture course.

Columns weren't always stone; they began as tree stumps, or when unavailable,  bunches of likely palm or reed branches, bundled together, stooked upright and covered with clay, to support a lintel. Later columns of stone were carved with patterns recollecting those early forms - encircling bands representing the twine binding a bundle of reeds, flaring capitals recalling the flowers of papyrus. The Port Hope Egyptian column shaft bears organic decorative motifs, leaves and their ribs perhaps, and recalls some of the wonderful palm capitals we studied in the course.

 But still I looked for the exact pattern. A search led me to this paper by Jimmy Dunn, webmaster and publisher of Tour Egypt online. No, I did not find the origin of the pattern this Ontario home-improver used, but what a lot of detailed research I did find. Bookmarked. Have a look. Somebody's done his homework.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


One day this week, a balmy Vancouver kind of winter day (the rare non-rainy kind, I hasten to add), I parked my car downtown, far enough from my destinations that I had to walk, in order to enjoy the warm sun. Without the need to bury my ears in my collar, I was free to look about me, look up at rooftops and treetops, and see...mashups.

A mashup usually describes the creation of a new musical work by blending two or more elements. The architectural mashups I enjoyed consisted of one or more buildings of very different eras and/or styles, the whole somehow more than its parts.

Of course, the light was perfect. Mashups appeared around every corner. And my trusty camera was at home.

Above, two very modern structures in Toronto, viewed from the lawn of Osgoode Hall. The former makes a nod to Gothic form, the background, to a ziggurat with stepped projections. And April buds. It all works.

To the right, the Bank of Montreal on Yonge Street (I seem to recall) with mirrored towers looming behind. The only connection between the towers and the resolutely grey horizontal Beaux Arts bank might be the verticality of its top floor windows.

Left, a Vancouver streetscape taken on East Pender. The arches of a Romanesque inspired stone building and the repeated round-headed windows of an adjacent brick Italianate are echoed in the colour and curves of a modern residential building with its treetop forest.

Right, the east pavilion of the robust Neoclassical Osgoode Hall on Queen Street, with the futuristic 1965 new City Hall looming in the background. No apparent connection but for the arched forms, the sidewalk's curve and the greyness, oh the greyness.

Below, a foggy day shot of two very appealing buildings in downtown Thunder Bay. I love the massive colonnade of the Arthur Erickson-designed post-modern Province of Ontario building juxtaposed with the quirky 1909 tourism pagoda, declared a national historic site in 1986 because of its unique classical-Asian fusion architecture.

Mashups, love them. Look for more here. The next time I'm in downtown Belleville, with sun and a camera.