Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Corner Gas

Not surprisingly, gas stations readily adopted the Moderne style. Not only was it a new jazzy thing about the time gas stations were proliferating, but the style also conveys a message worth sending.

Moderne, or Machine Age, streamlined styling suggested speed and was perfect for making the customer feel part of the modern age of autos, airplanes and steamships.
Moderne architecture incorporated design elements like rounded corners, bands of windows, smooth white surfaces, flattened pilasters at the corners and flanking the central bay, flat roof. And yes, no historic detail.

This service station in Fort McLeod Alberta even adds in the exotic Art Deco stepped Ziggurat shape - an easy enough adaptation of the false front on many of the frame buildings in that town's centre.

The badly deteriorating artwork in the large shop window, from a period when the structure housed the bus station, is an essay on the Art Moderne aesthetic. Have a close look.

Well done Fort McLeod (which has a well-preserved and well-curated historic downtown; here's a link to a post about our walking tour day there.

corner windows, Belleville

Surprisingly, I have captured only a few. of these wonderful gas stations.

So by way of consolation, a few other Art Moderne examples from my travels.

curves and glass block, Picton

curves, glass block and neon, Nipigon
neon in Nipigon

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Over the Top

McMillan Building, Perth (1903)
This fine building is in Perth Ontario. Not quite what you had in mind? When you think of Perth, it's hard not to envision rather dour Scottish stone Palladian formality.

I've always liked it, despite it being far distant stylistically and chronologically from my favourite early buildings, and am annoyed that I didn't take enough photos of all the wonderful detail. Something distracted me. In Perth? Oh yes.

This is one of the classically inspired and dressed to the teeth Beaux Arts buildings featured by my man Blumenson in Ontario Architecture.
Thunder Bay
Blumenson identifies two origins of the style. One, the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France, which taught classical design based in Greek, Roman, and Renaissance versions. The other, the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Buildings in this style display facades with monumental pillars or pilasters, a prominent entrance, and in most cases, tons of rich detail. Grand scale, monumental drama, theatrical, oversized architectural elements. Wow factor.

Oddly Baroque, this style appeared on commercial and civic buildings, railway stations and banks from 1900 to about 1945. Oddly, indeed - as at the very same time revolutionary new ways of thinking about architecture were arising. The medieval nostalgia of the Arts and Crafts movement, the non-historicizing Prairie style, and Frank Lloyd Wright's early work were all reactions to the excessiveness of classical and Gothic revivals.

Beaux Arts never made a huge mark in Ontario, but it did suit the ebullient Americans putting together the venue for the 1893 Chicago Exposition. I love how John Blumenson describes it: "So prevalent was the undisguised and even pretentious templelike atmosphere that the exposition came to be known as the 'White City of Roman Buildings.'" Here's a link with photos, to the whole larger than life World's Columbian Exposition.

inside Toronto's Union Station, inspired by
 the Roman baths
Ontario Beaux Arts, according to Shannon Kyles, often mixed Classical, Baroque and Renaissance elements.

She points out that Beaux Arts styling was commonly used in banks (which my Perth example was, originally), often with a cut off corner as the entrance, and more than one facade imitating a Greek temple. Eclectic - porticoes with pediments combine with balustrades, with Mansard roofs; if there are columns as well there may be, look for a mix of capital styles. For this was about showing what you knew, if you were a student of the Academie.

On her website Ontario Architecture Shannon describes a pair of University Avenue (Toronto) structures that I have marvelled over. Perhaps the best way of identifying a Beaux Arts building is to ask "am I gobsmacked? Is this over the top?"

330 University - Canada Life Assurance Company (1931)

"mixing of various unrelated classical motifs
 on the same facade" -Kyles
Other examples cited in my sources are more restrained - leaning toward the virtually contemporary Edwardian Classicism (1900-30, with its British leanings) and Modern Classicism (1920's & 30's) with a sombre post-war aesthetic). For another day.

Here's an interesting fact: as Beaux Arts buildings were constructed in the twentieth century, materials were not always as they seemed. Concrete masqueraded as stone, terra cotta as marble, and stone walls were sometimes only a veneer, not structural at all.

Jennifer McKendry, in her new book Modern Architecture in Kingston, identifies the Prison for Women (1930) as a Beaux Arts grand scheme.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

North Country Fair

Last fall (how long ago it now seems) I took the road less travelled along Central and North Frontenac county roads, following my nose for old buildings and stories.

This area is part of the well-known settlement story, of the tantalizing promises of the Colonization Roads which led immigrants hungry for land of their own, and a future, to break their hearts on the stony ground of the country north of today's Highway 7.

The story is usually told by the structures still standing...a tumbledown log house attests to the reality - the farm may have provided a small living for a large family, but there were never the resources to build that next house of frame or stone of which the settler dreamed.

Nevertheless, there were a number of fine farms and well-maintained homes and properties, attesting to the fickle nature of geology - they were the birthright of  folks whose land grant fell onto a band of good soil, which was all one needed - that and good health, extraordinary luck, and strong sons. Sounds Biblical.

so few general stores now

These are a few of the lovely places I visited - I don't know their story, but they have stories to tell.

 There's a terrific history of Frontenac County, published a number of years ago, titled County of a Thousand Lakes: The History of the County of Frontanac 1673 - 1973, published in 1982. Not surprisingly, it's a large volume; I've borrowed it twice through BPL's most obliging inter-library loan department, and still haven't made it all the way through.
resourceful sign-maker
So much more to see and learn about. Questions tumble out. Is there a desert in Desert Lake? When did cottages start to grow into monster-homes on the lake?

 Why are the stone buildings of Harrowsmith striped? Where did the old cabin resorts go? Can I find that great twisty road north of Sydenham again?

When did folks stop going to church here? What destroyed these small communities? Who are the folks who live here today?
thanks to Vintage Kingston FB

So many stories to tell.

There may just be a new book of Frontenac County history (from the ground up) coming soon. Stay tuned.

For now, a few photos to take me back to the back roads and communities of Frontenac- and hopefully entice you to go too.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

This too Shall Pass

Cold and getting colder.
Now comes the time of year when I have to accept that parking, wandering city streets and country roads, admiring and photographing historic and beautiful properties, just has to stop.

Whenever I think about a photo tour, I remember the January Hastings County road trip two years ago when some of these photos were taken. Bright and beautiful. Still, photogenic and minus 25 degrees.

(This is the rare and beautiful 1853-6 Wesleyan Methodist cobblestone church north of Belleville; I wrote about it, its history and its charming and creative owners Denis and Brigitte in the winter 2011/12 issue of Country Roads magazine.)

So, back to winter house spotting. My Denis waiting in the warm car, parked as safely as possible on the snow-covered road, because inching closer to the snowbanks for safety could mean dropping into a deceptively smoothed-over ditch. Fingers turning to insensate lumps - just trying to hold the camera, much less composing and clicking, becomes out of the question. And the equipment itself - can it really be good for a camera to move back and forth between freezing roadside and warm welcoming vehicle?

Until that sport becomes once again inviting and safe, here are some winter/summer photos of beauty spots in Hastings County. Reassurance that one day, this too shall pass.

This farmhouse north of Belleville was started in 1807. It's the Hartman-McComb house. Hard to say when it's prettier, winter or summer.

The Old Hastings Mercantile and Gallery  is beautiful in all seasons, its shelves filled with unique nostalgic gifts and must-haves for me. The building itself is filled with history, and most importantly with the warmth and generosity of the folk whose store it now is, Lillian Oakley and Gary Pattison. I was fortunate to meet Lillian several years ago, to find out their story, again for Country Roads magazine's Spring 2012 issue.

Just down a few steps from the Mercantile is another most wonderful treat - S.S.# 3 Limerick, better known as The Old Schoolhouse Tearoom. This forest destination is another nostalgic and inviting spot, filled as it is with school-house memorabilia, china cups.teapots and tiered cake plates. 

Ernie Pattison is chief cook and bottle washer of this absolutely delightful and tasty cafe. Anyone who has been a teacher - or a student - will enjoy browsing old schoolbooks and maps, sitting in old flip seat school desks by the parlour stove. Here's the website so you can check hours and make your plans to drive north to Ormsby, just south of Bancroft, in beautiful Hastings County. 
Here is a September photo with Elmer the Safety elephant guiding us safely across the road, mind spinning with all the delights just enjoyed at the Mercantile.                                                         
As a volunteer at Glanmore National Historic Site, I get to see this grand house in all its for your enjoyment are the ice storm of January 2014 and Porchfest weekend in September. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Not just Flower Pots

Indian Head Sask. - no relation 
Mark, a regular visitor to the blog and a old-house nut even more certifiable than I, recently sent me a photo of an astonishing house at 20 Jerome Street in Toronto. It's the John Turner house, locally called the Indian Head house. It's a workmanlike house in most regards, but for the fact that the exterior cladding consists entirely of terra cotta elements.

Now I haven't seen this place in person (yet) so I'll include the entirely trustworthy link which features a walking tour narration of the house and the builder's use of  this unusual material.

 Or go check out the unprepossessing neighbourhood via Streetview.

Here's another great article in BlogTO. This place has generated a lot of buzz, and deservedly so.

 For terra cotta, to which I have often been attracted, mostly because of the way it adds medieval gloom to some of Toronto's wonderful red brick Romanesque Revival houses, is a material well worth considering. It has a great history in 1880's and 90's Ontario, with a number of manufacturers gaining prominence.

One important producer was right in my back yard, the Rathbun works (for didn't the family run all the industry in the place?) Deseronto! Short road-trip! I've just had a look at the old opera house on Main Street via Google Streetview, and guess what! Terra cotta bits.

This is hysterical - the interesting terra cotta grotesque face keystones have been blurred out by Streetview - that could be considered malicious compliance (always loved that phrase) regarding privacy concerns, were it not an entirely automatic thing. But I digress. (In my real writing job, I have to be a bit more disciplined about these side-trips, but this blog is a bit like a chat among old house nuts, over three cups of coffee.)

 Turns out the Jerome Street house (still standing although the builder's first terra cotta house has been lost to condos) with its covering of decorative reliefs was the work of builder John Turner Sr. who was left with piles of decorative terra cotta after it fell sharply out of favour around 1895. So he put together this curious assemblage of large and small cast terra cotta elements, and the more you look the more you see,

By the grace of the google, I have been able to track down a couple of great resources on architectural terra cotta, learn some things I'd never have guessed about the material, and create a terra cotta photo tour wishlist to whittle away at.

The first great resource is an article by Barbara McMullen published in  Heritage Canada's magazine in 2008 (follow the link so you can see the wonderful colour photographs. Oddly, the French and  English editions contain different photos, providing a good tour).

 I found out that there were a variety of colours available - not just flower pot red but white, cream or pink depending on the clay used. McMullen explains that terra cotta is easily mistaken for carved sandstone (I feel so much better), but that its crisp details as well as the seams where small units are joined together, give it away.

Terra cotta was made into a variety of design elements - panels, bandcourses, capitals, keystones, wreaths - in painstaking steps. First, clay models were created from architects' drawings, then plaster of Paris moulds were made from the models. Clay was pressed by hand into the moulds, dried, turned out, covered with slip and then fired for days. And we wonder where all the manufacturing jobs have gone. 
animal and foliage designs
basketweave main floor facade

Following on the heels of the collapsed unglazed terra market, glazed terra cotta (almost always white, cream or grey) appeared on commercial architecture from about 1900 to the 1930's. This time, terra cotta easily passes as stone; it was imported from England or the U.S.
299 Queen West, Toronto
Winnipeg's Exchange District (bucket list!) contains the nation's best collection of glazed terra cotta buildings, according to Barbara McMullen. Closer to home, the facade of the 1914 neo-Gothic former CHUM-City TV building (in an earlier incarnation, the 1919 headquarters of the Methodist Church!) is white glazed terra cotta. And there's a bank in Kingston that is similarly clad.

Another good resource - the Toronto Architectural Conservancy has a super publication for sale,  Terrra Cotta: Artful Deceivers by Keefer, McHugh et al (1990) for a mere $15. It's on order.

Here is a terra cotta example from Napanee - doubtless supplied by the esteemed Rathbun Company. I will be looking more closely on my next ramble through town.

And incidentally, should you resort to googling your own sources, the Terra Cotta community hall is definitely a non-starter. Have a look.