Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Throwing down the gauntlet

We escaped to the natural wonders of Murphy's Point Provincial Park last week. Bliss (about which I will refrain from rapturing on, as you came for the old house stories).

When one lives in the country (if only temporarily) there always seems to be a need to go to town. When the closest towns are those architectural treasures of Perth and Merrickville, the need would be even more pressing - and the guidebook to pack along would have to be Katherine Ashenburg's Going to Town.

I love the profiles Katherine writes of the communities she features in the book. I think she outdid herself in her description of Perth, which was established as a military settlement along the Rideau corridor in 1816, at a time when cross-border tensions were palpable, and the establishment of a community of strong loyal subjects in the wilderness seemed prudent. Enter Scottish emigrants (whose masonry talents would soon be called upon for the Rideau Canal start-up in 1826) and discharged half-pay officers with their education, their experience of the wider world, their pretensions to culture and their "hyper-competitive circle, which numbered public insults, duelling threats, and horse-whipping as normal pastimes."

Ashenburg describes "the masculine, honour-obsessed ethos" of the place, which fuelled a Perth tragedy, Canada's last duel, between two law students, in 1833.
Summit House (1823)
She cites Larry Turner (Perth:Tradition & Style in Eastern Ontario, Natural Heritage 1992) on the social differences of the town's three senior lawyers - James Boulton, Thomas Radenhurst and Daniel McMartin - and the way it manifested in their three very different houses. Seems to me to be a pretty good profile of the town in the day.

"All three are still among Perth's most prominent houses, and their styles mirror their owners' values almost uncannily; the owners in their turn are a microcosm of Upper Canada's elites. Boulton, a scion of the Family Compact Boultons, built a simplified version of their Toronto house, the Grange, which is itself a simplified version of an English Georgian house - ordered, refined, aristocratic."
The Grange (1817) Toronto

Proud twenty-two year old James Boulton built the town's first brick house on its highest hill. Ashenburg describes it as a simpler version of his brother D'Arcy's Grange, in Toronto. Just a bit more down at the heels, in the above photo from

But Ashenburg argues for "the same symmetrical five-bay two storey structure, with tall first floor windows and shorter ones above." (Palladian tradition) She continues: "the fanlight hidden by the portico and the rounded light in the gable are other familiar neoclassical touches,but unlike the Grange's projecting frontispiece,the Summit's is flat." Brick houses were uncommon in the area; the selection of brick was an imported Toronto pretension.

Daniel McMartin house, NHS (1830)
When Boulton's law clerk killed another lawyer's clerk in a duel, he fell from favour, and left Perth. He left his house behind to tell the story of pride and honour.

Ashenburg continues with an account of Daniel McMartin "a pugnacious country boy [who] harked back to his Loyalist New York State origins with a Federal style mansion, the most complex and preening house of the three."  It's an astonishing house, out of place in a small Ontario town. Its accent is Yankee - its arcades, mixing of brick and local marble, the massive double chimney stacks, the lanterns flanking a cupola, its sheer ostentation...not a very Canadian house, really.

'Inge-Va' was built for an Anglican rector, then owned by the third of our trio of Upper Canada lawyers, Thomas Radenhurst. It's  refined one and a half-storey Georgian style stone house with an elegant elliptical fanlight over the equally elegant door-case, 12 x12 sash and a front gable with a round-headed casement, added after 1833. The interior features five Adam-style mantelpieces.
'Inge-Va' - the Harris/Radenhurst/Inderwick house (1823)

The name wasn't added until the time of the third owner, Ella Inderwick whose son Cyril was one of the founders of ACO; his widow donated the house to Ontario Heritage Foundation. It means "come here", in Tamil. Though my Tamil is rusty, I will for sure be accepting the invitation on my next visit to Perth.

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