Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Friday, November 28, 2014


Thinking about History. We don't consider the Civil Rights Movement a less important part of  history than, say the Rebellion of 1837-8 because it's more current. Or the Magna Carta more significant than the Canadian Bill of Rights, because it happened so much longer ago. Or the Flag Debate. The FLQ Crisis. The Iraq War and sundry others.


Yet we chronically do this with architecture. Worldwide, maybe not so much. Gaudi, Mies van der Rohe get billing pretty high up the marquee. These icons of innovation in thought and construction are standouts, unlikely to disappear from the landscape.

But when I look at the number of cases just recently of work from the 1950's on, which have been demolished, work which represented the best of an era (no less than a beautiful Second Empire or Romanesque Revival does for its time) I feel disappointed and frustrated.
We're rolling up our history behind us as we leave the room.

These are the kinds of stories I'm thinking of. Look at this list compiled by Heritage Canada National Trust to see how many modernist buildings - striking, innovative stylistic milestones in our journey - have been demolished (along with many of their ancestors) since 2007. Even if you're not a fan of modernist architecture, tell me you can't see something important and worth saving in, say, the Bata Shoe Headquarters, the David Graham House, or the Downsview Hangars or Central Pentecostal Tabernacle. The 1963 Riverdale Hospital. Ottawa's Sir John Carling Building (part of my city's silhouette in an earlier life.) Toronto's 90 Harbour Street Building.

Now I'm no architect. Not even close to being a developer. (I don't even give modern architecture equal billing in this blog!) There may be logic in these demolition decisions. Guess what I'm on about is the need to be aware that architectural evolution, like your shadow, is following you right up to the present moment. Just like history - we're making it every day.


Did some looking about. Found this nice link to a Globe and Mail photo article featuring some Toronto mid-century modern buildings.

Discovered  some good news: the Toronto Society of Architects is campaigning for more historic designation for architecture after 1953.


Shortly after these listings, I started getting into helpful links for demolition permits, and how-to's for getting rid of demolition waste. But there are a few good sites, and occasional media coverage, so it behoves us to be aware and get informed about our modern heritage.


And there's a great new book to assist. I often visit the website of  Kingston-based architectural historian Jennifer McKendry. The site contains great resources, such as Kingston's architural chronology, and links to many of her articles. There's also a spot to order books - for  Dr. McKendry has written plenty.

On a recent visit to the site I discovered a new one - Modern Architecture in Kingston: A Survey of 20th Century Buildings.

A slim supple volume, full of black and white photos (Dr. McKendry is a prolific photographer) and easy to use as a 'field guide', it contains the story of Kingston's twentieth century building heritage, its past and (hopefully) its future.

I picked it up at Novel Idea, the great independent bookseller in Kingston. Less than 12 bucks. You can also order it from the website.

As they say...priceless.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ozymandias in Perth

I made a special connection with this once haughty brick dwelling on a late summer walkabout in Perth. Hot, tired and footsore, I took a seat on a stone wall across the street, to wait for my guy to find me after his business meeting. I sat in the sun and recalled a poem I studied in Mrs. Ross' English class, Ozymandias.

Certainly 'the old Boulton place' (as they say in some circles) is a bit down on its luck. There was a day when the likes of me would likely not have been tolerated dawdling so close to such a fine place as Summit House. I spent a bit of time over this house, and those of two other prominent Perthians, back in July, although I didn't make a personal visit at the time.

The OHT plaque at the corner of the property tells the story more succinctly than I might."This house was built in 1823 by James Boulton, one of Perth's first lawyers. Modelled after 'The Grange' in Toronto, the house was designed in the Adamesque style, which was popular in Upper Canada during the 1820's, with overtones of the Regency style which superceded the Adamesque in the following decade. The graceful fanlight over the main entrance and the oval window in the central gable are typical of the earlier style, whereas the tall first-floor windows and the hip roof reflect the influence of the Regency. The use of brick on a large dwelling at so early a date is rare in this province, and the Summit House is one of the first examples, constructed of this material, in the Adamesque or Regency style."
courtesy: Perth Museum

Here's a 1910 photo of the house, thanks to the good folks at the Perth Museum (Matheson House). Follow this link to a before/after photo comparison. Nice to see the walls around the property, all four massive chimneys, a front portico, a sunroom of some sort on the east side, a large driveshed (perhaps), a tower-like structure. The c.1910 photo is part of a fascinating project called 'Remember When, Perth.' Well worth a visit, if you love the architecture of Perth as I do - and enjoy any opportunity to time travel.

Pretty grand house for a young fellow, scion of an important family, making his mark.

Oh yes. Ozymandias. The theme of the poem is "the inevitable decline of all leaders, and of the empires they build." (the Wiki)


I have wanted to visit Dundurn Castle for as long as I can remember. We popped in one early Sunday morning (too early for the Dundurn's to be hosting visitors). Had a great look about the grounds, absorbing all those Regency Villa touches.

The setting, more than the house, coveys the Regency aesthetic. It's set on a bluff overlooking Burlington Bay, with expansive grounds, this lovely avenue of trees leading out to an overlook, exotic outbuildings casually placed about the lawns.


This bit of park leading to the garden folly is especially appealing...but for the geese. Lots of folks taking family portraits "Smile like you own the place!"
At the time of our visit, Dundurn was undergoing repairs; I wasn't able to find any information about just what was underway, but roofs likely. Stone work for sure. But since the good folks at Heritage Brick and Stone were enterprising enough to mention their role in the work, they get the nod.

Alas, the scaffolding and that great yellow rubbish slide didn't contribute anything to the stately effect that nation builder Alan Napier MacNab was going for in 1835 when he had this picturesque creation designed.

Best to concentrate on some of the details below.

I suppose Dundurn has had as many makeovers and updates as a Hollywood star. Certainly there is nothing particularly Regency about these Gothic motifs mounted above a row of dentils and Tudor roses - and that added touch of  some serious scaffolding.

I've often heard Dundurn called a Regency Villa. Certainly the Regency aesthetic is evident most apparent in its earlier stages, when the natural flow between interior and gardens would have been invited through the many tall French windows.

The imposing Greek portico was an afterthought.

So it's probably wiser to focus our attention on these details of the"eclectic blend of classical and Italianate important example of the Picturesque movement in Canada." (so says HSMB Canada on one of the plaques proliferating about the location)

'come into the garden Maude' French doors

Next time, photos from the other side of the glass.

For now, this will have to do - a pretty impressive virtual tour of the 42 of the original 72 rooms which are open to curious eyes like mine. The interior is restored to 1855, when the owner was really hitting his stride - read a bit about him. Sir Alan MacNabb was a pretty impressive guy.

Like  his house.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Halls of Academe

Ontario Hall 1902
flanking conical roofed engaged towers and gabled pavilions
If you occasionally drop in on my ponderings about old houses, and happened to read my recent post about the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, and ventured further to click on the link to the Queen's Heritage would know that further nattering on about the heritage buildings at that worthy school is inevitable. (Incidentally, I found one name associated with the study, that of Larry Turner. I wonder/hope if it was the same Larry Turner whose books on heritage architecture I have enjoyed on many occasions.)

three-storey towers flank the main entrance
Recently, friend Brenda and I braved a bracing north wind as we wandered up University Avenue for some pretty decent Thai food at the John Deutsch University Centre. Ivy-covered stone buildings abounded (and what ivy it was too, looking like tapestries of gold, red, bronze and green). The only intrusion on the setting, imho, was the fast busy two lane street - with a performance of thoroughly modern road rage to counterbalance all that stone dignity. A cobbled small road with limited vehicle access would have helped maintain all that augustness.

So the stiff with cold shutter-fingers itched, and I managed to capture a few of the Uni's lovely old stone structures...and with the Heritage Study to assist, I can introduce you, if you wish.
impressive three bay entrance, curving stone walls,twin staircases

This rough limestone pile would be downright intimidating if it weren't for the fall colours. Of course, intimidating was the effect the first Romanesque builders were looking for when they built fortified houses to keep out the barbarian hordes in those boisterous early medieval days.

round-headed windows within engaged columns

The only improvement I could suggest to all this austere beauty? Wind back the clock and enjoy the elm trees which originally stood in front of it, along University Avenue.

1966 Elm Trees - Vintage Kingston FB album

The Problem with Palladio

Town Hall (1863)
Those blog visitors with more architectural background than I were likely laughing up their sleeves at my attempts to untangle several academic publications produced by the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch in the 1980's, in a December 2013 post.
later cupola (1874)

Not being an academic (perhaps a disclaimer is warranted, for those visitors who might think I know what I'm talking about?) I have no idea how these monographs are viewed in the architectural history world.

I spent a good while over Nathalie Clerk's scholarly work Palladian Style in Canadian Architecture recently, and captured what I could in a post. So now I'm going to play around with some buildings that through design and function are Palladian in inspiration, although with later Neoclassical or other vernacular complications.

James Allen dwelling/store (c.1840)
Perth Ontario has all the ingredients for a public architecture largely Palladian. Palladian style in Canada, Clerc explains,  is represented mostly in civic and religious architecture of the late c.18 and early c.19.

I was thinking about Perth's early days, back in July. Perth was settled under government direction (the Jurisdiction of the Quartermaster General's Department - feel like I should salute!) The first settlers were Scottish emigrants (stonemasons among them to be sure) who stayed in barracks in Brockville the winter of 1815-16, and discharged British soldiers. In March of 1816 a central supply depot was established, and by October the settlement had 1500 inhabitants - loyal to the crown and a buffer against hostile American incursion into the country(info courtesy of an OHT plaque downtown.)

So, I muse. Architecture commisioned by British military establishment, built by skilful masons just arrived from Scotland - bound to be some Palladian influences in their civic buildings and the residences of important citizens.

So I offer these imposing structures for your enjoyment (well, mine anyway). The town hall started life without the Gibbs style cupola - so it cut an imposing no-nonsense figure with its projecting central section topped with a pediment.

Roderick Matheson House (1840)
 Katherine Ashenberg (Going to Town,1996) points out "self-confident Scottish touches" in the James Allen building - the stonemasons' unique take on the centre frontispiece. Usually projecting, the centrepiece recedes in the 1840 building, leaving the side wings to project.

The prominent string courses, and forthright window surrounds and quoins - and the centre pediment (broken) with roundel all say Palladian, with a brogue.
Pedimented Brooke and Gray's Emporium (1846)

And that's the last you'll hear about Palladian architecture from me. Unless of course, I might find the occasional 'Georgian' style house attractive. In which case, I can only quote from a real authority, John Blumenson . In Ontario Architecture (1990), he begins his chapter on Georgian style thus: "While Georgian refers to the sovereign rule of the Georges, in architectural terms Georgian generally refers to the continuation of the English Renaissance and Palladian Classicism as practised both in England and the colonies during the eighteenth century."

So it continues. The beat goes on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Too young to care...

Alwington 1954 (Panoramio)

To young to care...1959 and a building rich in history and architectural significance disappears from my life, before I even knew it. Reading Kingston history the past couple of days, and browsing images, I have fallen in love with the story - and the architecture - of Alwington House. Alwington stood on important King Street west, just a bit east of the penitentiary.
Alwington 1954 (Panoramio)
 The venerable Margaret Angus in The Old Stones of Kingston explains that Alwington's importance lay in the fact that "it was perhaps the most important single dwelling in Kingston and because its story belongs not to Kingston alone but to the whole country."

Alwington was Government House, built in 1834 for Charles William Grant, and leased to the government in 1841. Alwington was the most important house in the new country, in the years from 1841 (the year of union of Upper and Lower Canada) until 1844, while Kingston was the capital city and Lord Sydenham, Governor General, resided there. "Much of the basic structure of Canadian government was mapped out [here]" continues Angus.
Alwington - Street side - 1954 (Panoramio)

Lord Sydenham died of gangrene, after a fall from his horse, said to have been startled by a pile of building rubble outside Hale's Cottages, in September 1841. Kingston died as capital in 1844, when the seat of government for the newly united country moved to Montreal.

I have posted some photos found in online searches. I admit to being reluctant to do so; although ownership/copyright is said to be a factor, most of these photos are well over fifty years old, and as such I believe they are public domain. I attempted to contact one of the sites with no success.
Government Alwington House 1832

So, this is Alwington. Lost when I was 12, and hadn't travelled as far as Kingston yet.

Today, an enclave of pretty boring suburban homes lays claim to the property. The only dignify left (imho) is the look out to the lake - but even that is exclusive - private property. Look but don't touch.

Willowbank, Niagara on the Lake (1834)

I can only console myself with the memories of high style Classic Revival structures which I have been able to visit, wander about, and fall in love with.
Victoria College, Cobourg (1832)

Barnum House, Grafton (1817)

Day Tripper - Bellevue House

Bellevue House in Kingston is the cover girl for the Parks Canada book Architecture of the Picturesque in Canada (Janet Wright, 1984), and I cannot think of a better candidate. For Bellevue House, built in 1838-40 features the Italian or Tuscan Villa style, a picturesque classical alternative to the Gothic Revival of the day. I've read that it was one of the first in Canada by some  accounts; it was certainly ridiculed at the time.

John Blumenson lists the characteristics of the style: asymmetrical roofline, L-shape with tall campanile at the junction, irregular massing, grouped windows, presence of a portico and arcade or loggia, cantilevered eaves, stucco surface the better to observe the play of light and shadow, French doors, and "an exotic flair."

It's such a happy house;  festive pennants from the roof cornices recall for me our visit to the town square of medieval Sienna, festooned for Il Palio, the ancient annual horse-race held in the centre of town. (We didn't see the race, I would have been too worried for the horses). Medieval Sienna? Rightfully so, as the ancient and romantic and picturesque is what the Tuscan Villa style was committed to recreating, in the early days of the c.19.

The sun and shadow play on the white painted stucco over limestone walls. The Juliette balcony with its ski-jump roof, the tower with its boastful finial, the balconettes, the deck reached via French windows, the verandah, the gardens, the orchard all just say Joy. Each time I visit I feel transported somehow.

Bellevue was built by Charles Hales, a well-known Kingston grocer who also built Hales' Cottages, still standing on King Street. Bellevue is one of a number of country estates (a mile from town in the day) to which wealthy merchants were migrating in the 1830-1860 period. Some still stand. Formerly storeowners would have lived in some luxury above their stores.

Ironically, Bellevue was not such a happy house for one of its tenants. Young lawyer and Kingston member of Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, John A. Macdonald and his invalid wife Isabella resided in the house from August 1848 to September 1849. The house sat on 9 acres in the country, with a vista over the gentle slope down to the lake, and considered a fine bracing locale for the ailing Isabella. It also provided a gracious lifestyle at a slightly reduced operating expense, as the young lawyer, though successful, experienced constant cash flow problems. Tragedy struck - shortly after they moved in, their only son died.

Bellevue's beautifully recreated interior is interpreted in that impeccable NHS manner. Bellevue staff and interpretive panels explain the design choices made by the residents of the mid-1800's thus:"Classical antiquity was seen as the height of sophistication and a time of learning and moral behaviour, and as a result, much copied by the Victorians". Our hosts point out Greek and Roman design features such as columns for chair legs, decorative scroll and acanthus leaf patterns on furniture.
guest room says "aren't we grand?"

trunk belonged to Sir John A.

The bedroom of Sir John A. Macdonald. What worries kept him awake in this beautifully appointed room with the wonderful stove)? An invalid wife, financial responsibility for his widowed mother and sister, legal problems to muddle over for his clients. And his problems were just beginning!

It's a miracle that the gardens at Bellevue have been retained, considering they are in the most desirable section of the city. No modern infill - good on you NHS Canada (my tax dollars happily at work). A grassy orchard, back garden with pergola and massive trees, a kitchen garden for wandering in.

So - on this wintry November day, make a note to yourself. Come the first sunny warm June day, retreat to Bellevue NHS.
Bellevue was built on 9 acres