Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Friday, January 3, 2014

My Man Blumenson

In a recent post I mentioned my frustration with the differences in terms and styles across the many history of architecture books in my library. I am beginning to zero in on the source of that annoyance - the overly academic language (imho) of a particular series of academic treatises on historical Canadian architecture (more on that later.) But this amateur's somewhat impatient review of the literature and the recognition of pet peeves has led me to the following conclusion about my favourite book.

My favourite go-to book for information on historical styles, building details, photos, and that soupcon of social history that makes the whole study of built heritage so darned interesting? Ontario Architecture : A Guide to Styles and Building Terms 1784 to the present by John Blumenson, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside (1990).

Not only does Mr. Blumenson bring the building story right up to modern heritage, including the tongue in cheek post-modernists, but he starts the story at a spot that warms my UEL heart: 1784.

But the book's so darned clear, concise, visual.

And his bibliography is good, including that series I kvetched about earlier.

And in the acknowledgements, he thanks three individuals for their help and support. (I like it when folks give credit where due). Those three names have taken me far in my studies. So I feel good knowing that we agree on Anthony Adamson, Harold Kalman and Thomas McIlwraith.

And I suspect Mr. B's a favourite of my esteemed history of architecture prof Shannon Kyles, as the course material we used for Ontario Architecture corresponds well (so as not to induce headaches in this particular old house nut).

And John Blumenson has written another even handier book, that I travel with on the increasingly rare trips south of the 49th: Identifying American Architecture (1995).

And finally. Because Mr. Blumenson and I have a story. Sort of. This book was one of the first I purchased when I took Shannon's course. Although my love affair with old houses goes way back to childhood (and undergrad art history courses), the luxury of time to study came only with retirement from a jealous career. I ordered the book from my favourite online bookseller Abebooks, who had a copy in England. Needless to say, although the book was affordable (barely) the shipping was not. But I succumbed.

Shortly afterwards, a friend mentioned she had a book she had been wanting to hand on to me. She'd purchased it when it was first published, as it featured a house she loved in London, her former home.

Of course, that gift was to be - Mr. Blumenson!


  1. I agree with you about the confusion and varied terminology, especially as an amateur. I've discovered that people sometimes used different labels to describe the very same building. It doesn't help that many buildings are muddled examples of architectural styles, mash-ups that have been added to & altered over the years. You'd almost need to be clairvoyant.

  2. Or a time-traveler. Wouldn't you just love to?

    1. Hmm, my computer froze....

      Don't get me going !! I'd love to. Many houses today bear little resemblance to what they were 200-300 yrs ago. They often started out as small bldgs, often just 1 room structures. Then they were altered and added to several times. The Perkins House in York, Maine was a tiny 17th c. house, but now appears as a full-size Georgian house.

      I remember reading about one of the American presidents who lamented the sad stock of housing in western Virginia during the late 18th c.....but the reality is that so much of the housing in those days was rudimentary and diminutive.

      One house in Edenton, North Carolina was thought to date from about 1900, and be of little architectural significance. But the house was renovated and found to date from 1719 after they did dendrochronology on it. That makes it the oldest building in the entire state, and it is now being studied in depth. The reality is that it was so altered over the years, that it was unrecognizable in the our modern era.

  3. Speaking of bldgs. that are altered or enlarged, this is today's entry on PEI Heritage Buildings.....I think it was abandoned out of sheer architectural blight and humiliation. LOL.