Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, March 30, 2015


We all remember that scene in 'Streetcar Named Desire.' The clash between the crude but compellingly sexy Stanley and his wife's sister, the delicate if slightly mad Blanche - a clash of such opposite energies that the end was sure to be destruction.

Yesterday we observed something of the sort, in a totally different way (and the similarity may be incomprehensible to you, AR visitor, but it resonated with me.) We spent the afternoon, a cold, windy, brilliant late-winter afternoon, on Amherst Island.

Pentland Cemetery

Before we left home, I checked on-line for what I knew (from my visits to the island tour photos posted on Frontenac Heritage Foundation's website) was a lovely, time-forgotten spot, with deep roots and history.

I knew also that the island community is embroiled in one of those heart-breaking battles with big wind companies, which are dividing communities around the province, for a not-very-convincing alternative to other sources of electrical power.

three Ontario farmhouses on the south shore

Amherst Island has been placed by Heritage Canada The National Trust on their Top 10 Endangered places list. Here's a link to the battle being waged against Windlectric, in defense of the island way of life, and its natural and built heritage.

One of the most unique and beautiful built heritage features of this island are the drystone walls, the legacy of Irish-Scottish stonemasons. Nine of them have been submitted for heritage designation, to add to the three structures already designated.

We had a walk through the village of Stella, a photo drive along the south shore road, and made our promises to return in balmy spring - our first experience of Amherst Island. Another unforgettable place in the cross-hairs of IWT developers.

Enough of this. Let me show you the photos...and you be the judge.

love this building!

the spot to catch up on the news in  Stella, I'm guessing

We plan to revisit in May. I hope we see the island triumphant in its struggle by then.

When we get a chance to walk through the front doors of Neilson's General Store (now a museum) we'll acquire the means to let you know more about the history of these wonderful buildings.
Victoria Hall and 1873 church - stories to tell

Neilson's General Store

Sunday, March 29, 2015

You Can't Beat City Hall

A friend sent along a link to a newspaper clip recently, about doings at our city hall. Now I'll admit, I usually turn a deaf ear, as council wrangling is not my favourite way to waste time. But something about Bev's note suggested I have a read.

And this was good Quinte News! I learned that our Belleville City Hall (built 1873, retrofitted 1988) has won an award for the visionary project which modified the building in 1988.

And in this city known for its demolitions during the progress years, this story is a terrific story of  the adaptive reuse of a heritage building.

Belleville City Hall (and architect William R. White) earned this recognition from the Ontario Association of Architects for a wonderfully creative project which saw the building's two interior levels, which had become woefully inadequate for an increasingly complex municipal bureaucracy, expanded to four. I don't have any interior shots, but  the City Hall website contains a terrific 20 minute documentary featuring interviews with Bill White, former mayors and local historian Gerry Boyce. At about minute 12:00, you can see the reworked interior, capitalizing on the amazing original roof trusses, and lots and lots of light.

 I particularly like one of the meeting rooms, where we gathered for municipal heritage committee meetings, which has old brick walls and knee height windows like portholes, created from the top of the Gothic arched windows. Interestingly, Belleville's choice of Gothic revival style for its city hall was unusual; most municipal architecture is based on Classical precedents - the thought seems to have been that all those columns and pediments added a certain dignity to town business. But I think the building, and especially the towering clock tower, does the trick.

I'll leave you with the imitable Marion Macrae's thoughts on the building, from Cornerstones of Order: Courthouses and Town Halls of Ontario 1784-1914: "[John] Forin's turn to build in the Gothic style came in 1872, when a town hall was planned for his home town, and an overgenerous posterity has given him credit for the design as well. John Forin was a good contractor with many sound buildings to his credit, but the designers of the few Gothic public buildings in Canada West were a more unusual group, and John Evans, the actual designer of the Belleville town hall was not an exception to that rule.

Canadian-born John Dunlop Evans was an engineer-architect and surveyor by training, but an entomologist by choice. He is better remembered for his discovery of a minute insect, whose very long name terminates in the complimentary "evansii", than for the design of the Belleville municipal building and its surprisingly regal,Gothic furniture. Forin, watching over the construction of the red-brick Gothic box - with its un-Gothic bell-cast mansard roof - was moved to protest the shortness of the tower as planned. Public opinion swayed with him and the town council asked Evans to lay aside his butterfly net and give them a campanile worthy of the county town of Hastings. Criticized for designing council room furniture that was too elaborate and a town hall that was not fine enough, Evans went back to the drawing board, and in the spirit of his godfather, Tiger Dunlop, gave them more than was expected. He strengthened the  lower stages of the Belleville clocktower with octagonal buttresses, and in the newly designed upper stages the buttresses were clasped by blind arcades of little Gothic columns, and capped by candle-snuffer roofs. Above the four clock faces the tower rose steeply to a dizzy platform garnished with a cast-iron railing and four weathervanes. The clock faces were gaslit so that all might see and bless the corporation. Belleville's sparrows were grateful too, riding happily on the big wooden minute hands until by sheer weight of numbers they defeated the driving mechanism." (pages174-5)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tough skin, tender heart

Isn't this little cottage adorable? I hope to see her again this summer in Lindsay when we plan to camp in the area, to explore further the area's history and nature.
A while ago I did a post on concrete architectural elements. The 'is it stone or is it concrete?' question arose around the turn of the last century when the material became popular both for decorative and utilitarian functions.

The service side-walk at Glanmore NHS, for instance, was reinstated during exterior restoration - it was the newest thing in paths when JPC Phillips had it poured for the servants in the late 1800/early 1900's.

Concrete block construction, which is today largely hidden behind other cladding, or used in foundations, was often selected as a practical and economical material for homes around the turn of twentieth century. There are a couple of concrete Edwardian four-square houses in my neighbourhood that I have just never gotten round to snapping. Somehow the colour makes them look so dreary.
St. Mary Magdalene Church, Picton (1914)

St. Mary Magdalene Church in Picton (1914) was built of concrete block, and a particularly fine looking rock-faced block was used on an addition to the mill at Glenora.

But this curious little house, with its optimistic curved portico, its grouped windows low on a tall wall, its perky little dormer, and its cheery yellow door topped by a Federal style  broken pediment, is anything but dreary. I would love to know its story.

Glenora mill addition

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hoodless in Hamilton

Erland and Janet Lee home, Ridge Road, Stoney Creek
Upon the occasion of my recent auto accident, one of the daughters of Fogorig (for an explanation of that title check here, page 43) sent me a thoughtful note. This was sweet because of the sentiments, but also because she selected for the message a delightful note card featuring a quaint white-painted frame Ontario farmhouse.
Now, this wouldn't be an unusual choice, given that Florence knows me for an old house nut. Indeed, we have done some bashing along the English Line, up to Menie and Burnbrae looking for the fine stone houses of Scottish masons.
Board and batten, gingerbread Carpenter Gothic farmhouse (c.1890)

But what is truly fortuitous was that two days later, Denis and I found ourselves in Hamilton, technically Stoney Creek, but with sprawl and all....well, you know. We found ourselves travelling along a two lane country road, Ridge Road, perched at the very edge of the Niagara Escarpment - astonishing terrain!

We found this place, found parking, found lots of opportunity for photos - and even found the house open. And that is very cool because it's a very significant little Carpenter Gothic house. It is a National Historic Site, commemorating the founding by Erland and Janet Lee, of a huge international organization with branches in over 70 countries, with 9 million members,dedicated to the betterment of rural and farm women. The organization is the Women's Institute. And the bright and curious Florence is a lifelong member.

The story which started the Women's Institutes is a sad one; a woman named Adelaide Hoodless set out to create something good from the preventable death of her fourth baby, probably from drinking contaminated milk. She started a campaign to raise the level of education for girls and women, especially in the domestic sciences; one of her speaking engagements was at the home of Erland and Janet Lee. Together they created the first rural women's organization, the Women's Institutes, in 1897. Today we would call it networking, education and empowerment.

I had a great time at the house, while husband napped in the car. I took some photos, and visited the inviting and friendly volunteers at the gift shop, who loaded me up with freebies and info about the group, and encouraged me to return to tour the house. Which I will do. For now, the virtual tour will have to suffice.

The house was declared a National Historic Site in 2002.

The plaque reads: "This nineteenth century farmhouse is the birthplace of the Women's Institutes(WI), an organization that played a vital role in thousands of small communities. Inspired by domestic science reformer Adelaide Hoodless, and supported by her husband Erland, Janet Lee drafted the constitution of the Stoney Creek Women's Institute here in 1897. From these roots emerged a movement that spread throughout Canada and around the world. In meeting halls across the country, the WI brought women together to learn diverse skills and to promote civic reform, helping them break the grinding isolation of rural life."

Here's a Google Streetview link  that places you by the OHT plaque directly in front of the Erland and Janet Lee home, at the very brink of the Escarpment. Just to your right, traffic charging up Dewitt Road pops up over the edge onto Ridge Road. Step over the Armco barrier and it's straight down to somebody's suburban back yard along Maple Drive. From there, a direct line NNE gets you down to Burlington Bay.

Paddle to the sea.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nice Day for It

One crisp November day a few years back, our small family travelled to Almonte (bundled by amalgamation into Mississippi Mills along with Pakenham and Ramsay - a fact the locals likely ignore), to support each other and say farewell to our aunt, mom's sister, who was being buried that day.

In typical Pierce fashion, learned at our father's anxiously twitching knee, we arrived too early and headed to the nearest river to pass some time.

Menzies house 1850
 I've just come upon this file of Almonte photos (a limited selection, as we made only one stop before heading to the church) in my search for images of great town halls for a post. But because the day was so bright, and the Mississippi so picturesque and the riverfront park so appealing, I will post them here as an antidote to a series of dull posts this week, all arising from cloudy day visits.

the stone house
By dint of a bit of streetviewing, mapquesting and googling, I determined that this wonderful white riverside house is the Menzies B&B. This stunning Anglo-Norman structure was the 1850 home of Jonn Menzies, merchant and bureaucrat. The frame house was constructed over an earlier stone one, and contained the store. At the end of the property was a blacksmith shop. It looked across the river, not at the wonderfully restored Gothic Revival town hall, but at a very workmanlike Shipman's sawmill in this (then) busy wool manufacturing town. The B and B's website has a pre-1880 photo of the mill with the house in the background. Looks much more restful now.

The bracketed stone house with polychromatic roof tile, to the right of the white house, is also an inn, Almonte Riverside Inn and Kitchen. Sounds delicious, as does the house.

 An Almonte history site explains that this quiet village was known as 'the Manchester of North America' *. By 1900 there were seven woolen mills in operation. The site's mention of "massive mill owners' mansions" suggests a longer road trip may be in our future. By the 1950's the wheels were off the woolen bus; the early 1980's saw the final mill closure.

* This was a familiar boosterish boast - just last weekend, while researching Hamilton's Victorian industry, I learned that city was once called Canada's Birmingham. Proudly.

This inviting walking bridge carried tracks at one point - an 1863 map shows the Brockville and Ottawa Railway crossing the river there. At the other end is the Almonte Flour Mill, tidied up and used as upmarket residential.

Almonte town hall (1885)
I wasn't able to find much information about the lofty old town hall. Macrae and Adamson used it as the cover girl for their 1983 work on courthouses and town halls, Cornerstones of Order, but didn't devote any text to it. It's listed in Town Halls of Canada (Parks Canada, 1987), where I found a reference to an extensive LACAC report written by Susan Algie.

Almonte town hall was built to accommodate a fire hall, police offices and a large meeting hall - the multi-purpose town hall type. It was made redundant by 1998 municipal amalgamation, and now houses a celebrated performance and function venue.

But oh, in its day, it had bragging rights. Gothic Revival imperious, with polychromatic roof slates, a kind of Scottish baronial feel to the south facade, and that tower - mansard roof, bracketed, multi-coloured painted brackets, and stick-style open tower. Stonework for which the area is famous - check out the window hoods on the massive Gothic window.
There's a fascinating town history website, which has a great collection of old photos, and an explanation of why the town was named for a Mexican general. You will want to know.

And there's a book. Isn't there always a book?

Lanark Legacy: Nineteenth Century Glimpses of an Ontario County, written by Howard Morton Brown, was published by General Store Publishing House in 2007. The sample I found online is filled with tantalizing historic photos. A ticket to time travel, once again.

The Royal Treatment

The New Royal Hotel, Picton, Ont.
The Royal Hotel (1910)      Virtual Reference Library photo (public domain) 

post cards are from the Eric Pierce collection
 On my walkabout in downtown Picton last week, I had a look at a building that has always just been there, throughout my life, the Royal Hotel. Our conservative parents would make comments about the seedy characters and shiftless farmers who hung out there - hushed not-in-front-of-the-children references to "the beverage room" always accompanied by that 'trouble in River City' disapproval. Now clearly, that image was not always the case.
This wonderful photo of the 'new' Royal Hotel shows lots of ladies chatting out front (and they DO look like ladies.) The three storey luxury hotel, opened about 1881, was considered the best in town, and sported a bell-cast octagonal roofed turret to set it even further apart.

bell-cast roof dome
I turn to The Settler's Dream for this architectural description by Tom Cruickshank and Peter Stokes: "Brickwork on the Royal also shows polished elaboration, particularly in the rusticated pilasters and cornice detail as well as the decorative labels with keystone, all executed in brick, over each window. Other details worthy of the hotel's status are its heavy bracket and an iron balcony, since removed, which extended the full length of the building." (p.211)

But its character slipped, and its future was in doubt until a few years ago, when heritage and arts types began to explore the possibilities of the hotel. A local photographer captured, Drake-like, moody views of the hotel's last residents and its evocative faded interiors in Graham Davies at the Royal. Black and white images are available for sale in book form or as prints.

"rusticated pilasters, window labels and dog-toothing in brick"
In late 2013 an optimistic note was sounded in The Wellington Times at the purchase of the Royal by former Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara (well, he would have money, right?) His plans to launch into the county's 'hip transformation' with the refurbishment of the building as a boutique hotel aren't manifested yet in any noisy messy encouraging restoration work, but I am hopeful.

No-one can tell me when the hotel received its most recent facade facelift. I love the hotel name in deco letters on a black background - could it possibly be Vitrolite? 

Gage House - the Place we Won the War

Last year I started a 'series' of posts on historic homes within a day's journey of our city, Belleville. After years of thinking about it, I finally got inside Bellevue in Kingston, Proctor House in neighbouring Brighton, and the very early Fairfield House in Ernestown just west of Kingston.

Here's another. This past Saturday, my inamorato had occasion to hold a business conversation in Stoney Creek Ontario. As always, in return for my company and occasional navigating services, I was treated to a stately home visit, and some bashing about town looking for impressive spots to photograph (an easy thing to arrange in Hamilton.) I did some quick online research, and found all that I needed to occupy two hours and my rapt attention at Battlefield House Museum and Park.

Granted the cold drizzly foggy weather didn't lead me to explore the entire scenic 32 acres, but I was in old-house heaven. Not one, but two Georgian style frame houses, impeccably restored to National Historic Sites' standards and interpreted in the same faithful manner. (I wrote about the Nash-Jackson house, this home's 'cousin' here.)

One of the great things about official historic sites is guided tours which actually let one inside the doors of  important early homes. The opportunity to enter the life of the time, to see furniture and finishes, decorative arts and paintings - and to talk with experienced interpreters about the house, its people and its story - is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon.

Of course, for me, the first attraction of Battlefield House and Park was the Gage House, for my heart is drawn first to built heritage. Only later was my head turned to the important historical event which took place on this property, and indeed, within the walls of this house.

Georgian center hall simplicity
The serene and beautiful interiors of the mid-1830's were impeccably recreated in bedrooms, keeping room, pantry and parlour. The centre hall was being researched, original stencilling uncovered and plaster stabilized. A great (though likely not surprising) discovery was that Rod Stewart of Historic Plaster Conservation Services is the historic plaster expert undertaking work on both floors of the house. Rod did the consolidation and cleaning of Glanmore's ornate ceilings in 2012. (Here's a link to  the Spring 2012 issue of County and Quinte Living magazine about that project. It's on page 44.)

Gage House is as much the story of the indomitable Sarah Calder as it is of the James and Mary Gage family who settled here in the early 1800's (and were occupied and imprisoned) during the War of 1812 battle of Stoney Creek.

Sarah Calder was the grand-daughter of James and Mary Gage, and a heritage force for good. As founder and president of the Women's Wentworth Historical Society, in 1899 she purchased this house  to interpret the life of the earliest settlers and their brush with this formative war.

The museum house was transferred to  the Niagara Parks Commission in 1962, to the City of Stoney Creek in 1988 and to the City of Hamilton in 2001. 
 The painted 'fancy chairs' in the parlour are original to the house. I struggled with the faux marble treatment of the neoclassical mantel. The mantels were previously painted (you can see them in the virtual tour) which showed the delicately fashioned mouldings and paterae to advantage, imho.

But the rest of the room, from fire-screen to drugget, china to chairs, and the tiny slip rooms beyond (restored in recent years) were exquisite.

These photos help me relive a wonderful day. Should you need a visit - get yourself to Stoney Creek (Battlefield House Museum is open year-round) or take this great virtual tour of the house.

cooking crane and faux mantel?

Sandy, my outstanding guide, in her pelisse
formerly a bedroom

Battlefield House Museum and Park commemorates the battle of Stoney Creek, the Niagara campaign's most important battle of the War of 1812, and possibly of the entire war. Luck, darkness,  first nations support and the usual confusion of warfare of the day resulted in the retreat of a numerically superior American force. This site marks the furthest incursion of Americans into Upper Canada, thwarting a plan that involved moving along Lake Ontario directly to Montreal, and the takeover of the country. How much we forget. Each year a reenactment of the battle helps us remember.

An impressive (if a bit Disney, sorry) monument stands on a landscaped knoll south of Gage house. In 1899 Mary Gage began a subscription to raise funds to build this 100 foot monument (homage to Nelson's monument in Edinburgh - the resemblance is striking) to honour the dead of both sides on the hundredth anniversary of the war. The monument was 'unveiled' by Queen Mary in 1913 - remotely, as one did.