Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, March 28, 2016

Down to the Sea in Ships

"Erchless" mansion (1856 ) and Custom House (1855)
Regular blog reader and fellow time-traveller Mark once mentioned a visit to the Old Customs House in Oakville, imagining weary newcomers arriving, full of hope and trepidation, to this fine structure in a relative wilderness. The imposing British Classical style Custom House (c1855) is the building on the right in this photo.

Some time back, I spent a blissful afternoon wandering the streets of Old Oakville: a neighbourhood bounded by Front, Navy, Dunn, King - containing more exquisite views of water, gardens, mature trees, and historic homes than the heart could bear.

Can't recall what I used for a guide - my nose perhaps - but later found this Walker's Guide (1994) published in PDF by the Oakville Historical Society.

Tom Cruickshank provides an interesting profile of William Chisholm, the founder of Oakville (Century Home, September 1994.) It provides an insight into how 'get-ahead' people got ahead, in the earliest days of our country. Influence. Means. Intelligence. Vision.

The massive Erchless Estate was first owned by William Chisholm, the founder of Oakville. In 1839, he deeded the property to his son Robert Kerr Chisholm, who was a Customs Officer. Robert built the Customs House in 1857 and the Erchless building c.1858. (I know, the dates/sources don't agree.)

Custom House 1857 (Heritage Register)
The Town of Oakville Register of Designated Heritage Properties has this to say: "The residence building represents the strong Italianate styling popular during the 1850s. Features include a belvedere, wide moulded eaves with brackets, slightly rounded window openings enhanced by stone trim and lintels and a decorative doorway with multiple light transom and sidelights."
Erchless mansion 1858 (Heritage Register)

Back to Tom Cruikshank's account: "Since arriving in wilderness Upper Canada, he had had his eye on the site, then a reserve for the Mississauga Indians, noting its potential as a port. As a prosperous merchant and an influential figure in the provincial government,he lobbied to purchase the land [a 960 acre parcel which became the townsite] and finally his wish came true in 1827. As the major landholder, he oversaw development of the town, built a wharf ...and remained at the helm of a flourishing importing/exporting trade. He even built a fleet of schooners to carry his goods up and down Lake Ontario."

Chisholm developed the natural harbour at the mouth of 16 Mile Creek (so named, I've read, as it was sixteen miles from the head of Lake Ontario) to become the epicentre for the growth of the area. Shipping and shipbuilding, toil and bustle.

an earler wing 
Today the place is bucolic and beautiful, with the Erchless mansion and Custom House housing a museum and archives interpreting the harbour's former working life, the Erchless rock gardens in their glory, miles of park and waterfront paths, yachts at their moorings, the sparkling lake outside the breakwater.
The superlative Lakeside Park area contains enough history, nature both wild and domesticated,  and built heritage to keep this girl happy for a long time.

Inside the Custom house, the Oakville Museum interprets the life around Oakville's harbour - shipbuilding, sailing, importing and exporting, immigration...and a chapter in the story of the Underground Railroad. Here and there in my readings, I have noticed stories of ship's captains bringing former African slaves to freedom through this port.

This house, at 41 Navy Street was built by Captain Robert Wilson, who started his mariner's career at 14 (his widowed mother brought her 10 children to Upper Canada in 1817 - women were made of tougher stuff in those days.) He became master of the second schooner launched at Chisholm's shipyards a scant 10 years later; he helped many slaves escape to freedom across the lake. A later Wilson home not far away, dubbed 'Mariner's Home,' hosted an annual gathering of those he had helped, in celebration of recognition and gratitude.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

There's a Meetin' here tonight...well August 26,27 and 28th actually

 Kathy Staples, official stalwart of Old Hay Bay Church, has sent me information about Roots 2016, a grand event scheduled at the site on the 1792 Methodist meeting house on  August 26, 27 and 28, 2016. It will be a grand assemblage to evoke the spirit of the early Methodists who gathered on this hallowed ground at Canada's first Methodist camp meeting in 1805. 

William and Mary Losee rest from their labours
I hope in this small way to assist in exhorting the faithful to make plans to attend. Here is a link to the OHBC website (a medium of communication which saddlebag preachers struggling with the trackless wilderness would never have dreamed possible.) There's a Facebook page as well.

Roots 2016 is a reunion for the descendants of the founders of  the 1792 church. Also invited are relatives of the families of the young people who drowned on their way to this very church in 1819, a truly heart-breaking story, well told at the church and the adjacent church yard. The poster on the website lists the family names.


I have always wondered about this little certificate which I found in one of the books in our parents' small library of local history. Looks like my ticket to the celebration. Likely through the Clapp family connection. One day I will explore further. In the meantime, some views of the beautiful setting which invites you to enjoy your heritage, and the 'faith of our fathers.'

For the Record

I have been meaning to post this little 'editorial' for some time now. I picked up this terrific book, For the Record, after an exchange of emails with an AR reader, an architect who is writing a book about a Canadian architect of the mid to late c20. Together we were trying to locate a modernist home in the Foxboro area, which had been designed in 1960 by architect Bill Grierson. The home was written up in Canadian Homes in 1961; the reader included the article, with plans and photos. Tantalizing! Sadly, the quest ended in failure, but for the opportunity to learn about Grierson's work. And his wife's. For Joan Grierson was also an architect, and a writer. In 2008 she put together this tremendous volume celebrating the lives and work of 28 women architects in Canada. For the Record is published by Dundurn Press, and features profiles of  women in the profession of architecture from the 1920s to 1960, with photos, career milestones and designs for which they will be remembered. Brilliant.

In writing this post, I wanted to celebrate two women architects I know. Shannon Kyles, daughter and grand-daughter of well-known architects (what chance did she have?) is the creator of the world famous Ontario Architecture website, and a professor of architecture at Mohawk College. Here's a neat Globe and Mail story featuring all three generations...around the subject of a particular house.

Another friend, Adele, who is very active in our local historical society and ACO branch, worked with her husband in the firm Lassing Dibben Consulting Engineers. She mentioned several buildings around the community that I will capture to add here. Adele studied at the McGill School of Architecture and is a Life Member of the Ontario Association of Architects. 

This morning, I saw an intriguing letter from Huffpost Women, with the intriguing title "Male Engineering Student Perfectly Explains why Female Classmates aren't his Equals." Now before the blood boils, click on the letter above, and have a read.

I'm pretty sure female architecture students might echo the sentiments. So, my female architect friends. I salute you.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Boyle on Brant

A year ago, LOML and I were in St. Catharines on business (his.) After the period of reading in the car had come to a close, it became my turn. The Arrangement. I've spoken about it before.

The deal was a few hours to walk about Olde Oakville. No QEW would do. Eastport Drive and Lakeshore Road beckoned. The 400 series roads are useful, but they destroy completely our understanding of 'the lay of the land', the connections between the natural world of ravines and bays and the communities which were spawned by them. The old roads can be slow. But not necessarily bad, this slow.

So, we were proceeding slowly along, eyes on Lake Ontario, grabbing the occasional side-street side-trip to stand along the Waterfront Trail, when pow! A bright white Georgian frame house appeared on a slight rise to our left, dwarfing by its presence the taller buildings around and behind it.

Palladian window, crisp 12x12 sash windows, portico guarding a plain Georgian doorway with prim round fanlight above. Didn't go in, but circled the house on its fall-bright property. Sure looks old. Sure in fine shape.

So what have we here? This is The Brant House - that part's easy, there's an Ontario Heritage plaque with the details. The house is a replica of the original frame house on the site which was built in 1800, demolished 1932, recreated in 1937/8. The house belonged to no less a personage than Mohawk Chief (Thayendanegea) Joseph Brant. He built it on part of 3500 acres he was granted by the British Crown for his loyalty and support during both the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. He lived here until 1807; his widow and youngest son Captain John Brant stayed on. The town which grew up in the area was called Wellington Square.

Terry Boyle also takes up the story in his book Hidden Ontario: Secrets from Ontario's Past and provides interesting details about the house (the timber reportedly brought from Kingston) and the earliest settlers on parcels of land which Joseph sold to Loyalist friends from his 3450 acre grant.

Head-of-the -Lake - imagine the 1800 vista from here
 The house contains a  museum featuring among other displays, some original gifts to Brant from the Crown. An important personage indeed. This link to vitacollections Burlington contains some interesting early photos of the area.

The importance of the Brant family and the Mohawk people of (today's) upstate New York to the Crown's aspirations in North America can't be underestimated. I still only have bits and pieces of the story.

Interesting that the current issue of Foundations, the journal of the Frontenac Heritage Foundation, featured an article about another famous Loyalist Mohawk - Molly Brant, Joseph's sister. The piece centred on the creation of a new elementary school named for the Mohawk matron, and provided her story.
 Molly (Gonwatsijayenni) and her brother Joseph took the name of their widowed mother's second husband, Brant. Foundations recounts that she was born around 1736, and "raised in a Mohawk culture that was highly anglicized." For good or ill, it put the siblings in a good position to bridge the gap between two cultures. The Brants both worked to ensure the Anglo-Iroquois allegiances during the American revolution.

For this service, like other Loyalists, the Mohawk people received land - at Tyendinaga near here, and to the west, the area around Brantford.

Peggy Dymond Leavey has recently published a bookMolly Brant: Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat. I know that it's on the shelf at the Trent Port Historical Society awaiting my next  research trip (where I get to enjoy one of  their terrific lunches.

Molly Brant formed a liaison with General William Johnson, the British 'Superintendent for Northern Indian Affairs.' The couple had nine children, and made a home together. Molly lived her later years in Kingston, receiving a pension from the crown for her services. She is remembered with a plaque at the magnificent St. George's Anglican Church, of which she was a charter member. This account of Molly's life is too brief - her diplomatic and political influence was huge. Suggest we all read Peggy Leavey's book.

The places old houses take us.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Let's "do Napanee"

IOOF Hall below the basketweave brick and bright brackets
In these days of electronic communication, it's possible to meet, discover common interests and become friends - before actually meeting. So it was a fine day indeed when last Friday I ventured to Napanee for lunch with Jane at Ellena's Cafe, to pass on a small collection of Century Home magazines (in return for which I received some toothsome brownies) and go walkabout in one of my favourite towns.

Not surprisingly, we found conversation easy. Jane is an active member of the municipal heritage committee, newsletter editor/writer for the Adolphustown-Fredericksburg Heritage Society newsletter - and a big fan of Ham House.

nice terra cotta, too bad about the in-window a/c

We started by admiring the classical front of this former bank, and ended in a lovely chat with Jefta Monster, who with wife Cat owns and operates Starlet, a wonderfully popular eclectic shop full of  accessories and style for those with a clothing budget.

one third of the amazing Starlet
Three rooms of luxe and fun accessories are housed in the former Merchant's Bank (later BofM), Pigeon's Pool Room and grain retailer/travel agent. The couple retained heritage aspects like the mosaic floor in the bank, and coffered ceilings, and copied design elements in the other two boutique spaces. And added an eclectic 50s vibe.

Here's a nice article about the duo and their dream. These two - and their team - deserve every accolade they get!

The shop's been in existence for nine years, and the personality and buzz of the place is still infectious. Even the Globe and Mail likes them!

 The question posed in the title of the Globe and Mail article (assuming you haven't already travelled the link to the September 2014 piece) is 'Can Fashion Save a Small Town? This Revival Suggests Yes' is one dear to heritage activists everywhere. We see the return of vibrant downtowns linked to their heritage attributes, to specialty shops and restaurants, and to residential redevelopment of old buildings.

Downtowns becoming destinations, once more. Napanee is right on trend with their ambitious plan to re-purpose parts of the former Gibbard furniture factory, and add other residential space along the river. I would live there.

And this tiny perfect grey-painted brick jewel. Wouldn't it make a great local eatery? Love that it has its own tree. I would go there.

This is a glimpse of the post office tower, usually obscured by summer foliage, and the heritage committee plaque. I'm impressed (and edified) by all the information the heritage designation plaques contain.

  So. The walkabout. Jane is a retired engineer. She has the best eye for detail of anyone I know - and asks a lot of questions! So our downtown tour featured observations like "the bricklayer put in one brick upside down," and "did you notice the face on the parapet?" "What would the ceiling height be on that top floor with the knee-height windows?"
the bricklayer was no 'star'...note the curved brick

And then there's: "those grilles aren't symmetrically placed."

And: "the roundels are falling off some of the window hoods."

And it was Jane who noticed (and waved to) the man at the desk in the central bay window of the IOOF hall building I was photographing.

I have the feeling there's another walkabout in our future.
would love to know the story behind this quizzical face

Gothic Novel-ty

Menie, Northumberland Co.
So You Want to Live in the Country, Eh? is the name of a home-grown history written some years ago by local history teacher (and Quinte Secondary School colleague of Hastings historian Gerry Boyce)  Max Wooley. The book chronicles the years he and his wife spent in a red brick farmhouse north of Belleville, along a rural route near the hamlet of Halloway. (I wrote about Halloway once a few years ago.)

South Marysburgh, PEC
This is the neighbourhood, which you can reach by clicking on the Streetview link, or by driving north of Belleville on Highway 62. The bit of blue on the horizon is Ross Lake, or Ross' Pond, as Max Wooley dubs it. It's the source of Rawdon Creek, which paddles through Stirling and on to the Trent River. Their little brick farmhouse overlooked that pond. Lovely spot.
on Lake Consecon, PEC

 The story is pleasant - the usual city slicker getting duped by country ways. One of the most peculiar anecdotes features Wooley's delight (tongue in cheek,  I presume) at finding a swimming pool below a trap door in his living room floor. The cistern, as you might readily guess. Unfortunately, a deceased rat detracted from  his truiumphant disclosure of this indoor pool to guests at their open house.

wide 'Marysburgh Gable'

But any book which features a house in any form will always lead me to my books - and to this blog. Do I hear a sigh? What got me thinking was Wooley's introduction to their country place - an 1876 "Cottage Gothic." Or was it Gothic Cottage? Or Gothic Farmhouse? Or Gothic Revival cottage? Or Ontario farmhouse?

(Never "Ontario cottage" -  that places us on quite another territory - or roof slope at least)

It's a long way from the Ontario countryside and its  ubiquitous bargeboard trimmed centre-gable three bay house with its pointy or round-headed window dead centre to the origins of the Gothic Revival Style (1830-1900 in Ontario.) But there we begin.

Blumenson says it best, describing the style's "rekindling of interest in the building forms and styles of the various periods of English Gothic, as well as the years preceding the English Renaissance, ie. the Tudor and Elizabethan periods." (Ontario Architecture, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1990)

Gothic window in Bloomfield
By the early decades of the 19th century, pattern books were assisting the builders of Upper Canada with technical know-how as well as style guides.These patterns included a number of Gothic details which could be added - often with reckless abandon - to plain houses. So one might see a combination of  "hood-moulds with carved label stops, numerous dormers and gables, finials, pinnacles and crockets...bay windows, verandahs...steep roof pierced by tall decorated chimney stacks." (Blumenson p.37) Gothic Revival style's penchant for the vertical recommended  board and batten cladding for frame buildings.

Academic versions of the style such as the superb Elizabeth Cottage in Kingston remain to delight us.

Other popular plan books of the era include A.J. Downing's The Architecture of Country Houses (New York, 1859) and J.C.Louden's Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furnishings (London, 1867). Both available free at Google books.  A periodical, The Canada Farmer (1865) presented  helpful instructions for "a cheap farm house."

and again in Ameliasburgh
In any case, it got me thinking about the simple Ontario farmhouse form decorating the countryside.

As the style hit Upper Canada in the early to mid 1800's builders were adding one or two enduring Gothic details to otherwise symmetrical Georgian style buildings. And those were...that centre gable peak and the (usually) pointed window.

As I tune in to the academics at The Ancestral Roof (Marion Macrae and Anthony Adamson, Clarke, Irwin & Co, 1963) I am reminded that the jaunty peaked front gable decorating my own ancestral roof is a vestigial member...a nod to the pointed Gothic
Frontenac County

As are all of these, and many more fronting the farm properties or dotting the hills of Ontario.

So. Back to that style chat. I'm sure I have said this on occasion. Enjoying older homes is not birdwatching. Playing 'name-that-style' has never enhanced anyone's appreciation of an early home...and often proves frustrating as styles blend (or coexist awkwardly.) A bit of style knowledge is  useful to help us look for and appreciate details, understand the roots of the style, the social history of its time. I'll save the rest for the exam.

Oh, on that topic, here's a much better discussion of the Gothic Revival style, via a link to Mohawk College prof Shannon Kyle's wonderful 'Ontario Architecture' website.

I believe that appreciating our built heritage is not about 'name that style' - for it will surely make fools of us. The academic and the pattern book versions may prove easier to identify. The vernacular and the additive will regularly elude us.

Rednersville, Prince Edward County

I believe it's about the idea - the architectural tradition upon which the builder drew - that's interesting (and edifying) to explore. So this is my homage to the little Ontario farmhouse, with its symmetrical three-bay front and its cheery gable.

Waupoos checkerboard brick

And just to settle the matter, the last word goes to Marion Macrae and Anthony Adamson, of The Ancestral Roof.

Macrae and Adamson descend from solemn discussion (I always visualize these two in a deep-carpeted library, brandies in front of a roaring fire) of academic versions of Gothic style in Ontario such as Elizabeth Cottage in Kingston, and "Picton's Gothic Cottage" (its story here) to this epilogue:

"It was the first of July 1867. Confederation was an accomplished fact. Upper Canada had been Canada West for some time, now it was to be called Ontario. The little vernacular house, still stubbornly Georgian in form and wearing its little gable with brave gaiety, became the abiding image of the province. It was to be the Ontario Classic style."