Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, November 28, 2016


 Spotted this title on a bookstore shelf in Thunder Bay's historic Bay and Algoma neighbourhood this past summer. Finnfacts. It caught my eye, as it was one of the titles that I could read. Many of the books and papers on offer at the Finnish bookstore were, well yes, in Finnish.

 Although many weren't, likely respecting the fact that Thunder Bay's influx of immigrants from Finland had taken place in 1909/10, providing plenty of time for English to have nade inroads.
The fact that this Finnish book and gift store has celebrated its 60th year  speaks to the strong culture, and the creation of institutions that endure among the Finns of Thunder Bay.

Another structure on this leafy shopping street had even more to tell me about the Finns in the Bay. The building below, with the startling polygonal pagoda roof topped with a domed lantern and clad with tin fish scale roofing, is the Finnish Labour Temple, built 1909-10.
If you read Finnish, check out the right side panel

In the words of the Historic Sites and Monuments board plaque outside, the structure "reflects the committment of Finns to collective action and their influential role in Canada's labour movement in the first half of the 20th century. As a haali, it made available a wide range of social services and mutual aid to newcomers, workers and their families. The labour temple also housed newspaper offices, a library, a cooperative restaurant named Hoito, and an auditorium used for theatrical productions, athletics, and various events together contributing to the preservation of Finnish cultural traditions in Canada." Impressive.

The brick veneer building facade is intriguing. This early photo found in an article online (thanks Thunder Bay) shows its structure. I like the choice of colours in today's painted iteration.

The centre section features a concrete porch with two columns, steps descending at each side. The historic photo shows the third, central flight of steps, which were removed in 1918, to gain access to the basement level for the cooperative workers' cafeteria, Hoito. This restaurant is still operating today. The main level houses the Finlandia club, with its balcony overlooking the street (the view of Bay Street strained through a vigorous street tree,)

before 1918
The central semi-detached tower is polygonal in form; it ends in that astonishing pyramidal roof with the glass cupola with its 'chatri' roof (I looked it up, too) and a proud Canadian flag. Flanking the centre building are two square towers with oriel windows and battlements at the top.

This is hilarious. I just took a break from wordsmithing  to peek at Facebook, and discovered the post 'How Finland ruled the world' on the Facebook page Very Finnish Problems. Third post down (make sure your speakers are turned down.) Apparently the world is pretty impressed with Finland.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Silver Lining

We spent time in one of our favourite Lake Superior communities while we camped at Sleeping Giant provincial park this summer. This tiny old village on a sheltered bay of the great lake has evolved into a rustic cottage community. It's an historic place with its face to the lake and its back warmed against the rock.

Silver Islet Cabins (~1900)
the same Avenue c1900 - courtesy Thunder Bay Library

On our previous visits, the old store was still open, providing a community centre. Further down the road, a little gift shop rested on a rocky ledge.

There's still a small harbour with working boats.

The village is Silver Islet.

A walk along The Avenue is always a lovely break from the busy-ness of camp life  a short cycle away.

And this would be enough. But the old shore road with its unique cottages at the tip of the Sibley Peninsula is a history portal.

An OHT plaque beside the former general store tells it much more succinctly that I ever manage to do:

"Off this shore lies Silver Islet, once a barren rock measuring about eighty feet in diameter, where silver was discovered in 1868 by Thomas MacFarlane. The claim was purchased in 1870 by a company headed by A.H.Sibley, and one of the partners, W.B.Frue was appointed mine captain. Frue waged a constant battle against the lake which undermined extensive crib work used to bolster the restricted working space. Despite this problem and the difficulty of housing miners and transporting supplies in the isolated region, this famous mine produced $3,250, 000 worth of silver ore before it was closed in 1884."

The outstanding visitor centre at Sleeping Giant tells the rest of the story.

Miners from Cornwall (England,) Ireland, Germany and several American states, including veterans of the copper mines of Michigan, along with their families began arriving in 1870; shelter for that first winter was in tents.  Eventually, in this complete wilderness accessible only by water, the village grew to contain a government office, two churches, a large store (still standing,) homes for officials and cottages for miners, a jail. schoolhouse, company office. Gravel roads, a dry dock for boat repairs, wharves and a lighthouse created the best safe harbour  for 500 miles of treacherous Lake Superior shoreline. I find it absolutely astounding what was created.

Log cabins were built for the married miners. It is these sturdy survivors which give the Silver Islet cottage community its unique character.

sleeping giant view from the village centre

And what was accomplished, at what cost in labour on land, was eclipsed by the struggle against the lake, fiercely protecting its cache of silver.

This video, posted on YouTube by creator Peter Elliott, tells the story. (Hope he doesn't mind that I share it here, to help keep the story of Silver Islet alive.)

taken from our kayak on a previous visit
the store - still operational in 2011

Engine House and Main Shaft on Silver Islet(1896)
Engine house and Main shaft on Silver Islet

If you've managed a look at the video, you will recall the image of the tiny scrap of island (a reef actually) where the silver was discovered, and where the substantial mine workings were built (and rebuilt) at what cost in appalling labour and lost lives. Here are a few public domain photos I found, courtesy of Thunder Bay Library's 'Gateway to Northwestern Ontario history.
Silver Islet Mine Stamp Mill (~1900),
stamp mill on mainland - 1900

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Taken by the Wind

I'll be the first to admit it. I have a problem with architectural history books. I can never pass a used book table without scanning the collected titles for one I don't have. At the regular third Tuesday public presentation of the Hastings County Historical Society recently, I found two. Marilyn Hughes extended me credit to enable me to pack home Taken By the Wind: Vanishing Architecture of the West by Ronald Woodall and T.H.Watkins (General Publishing,Don Mills, 1977.)

I like how Woodall sums up the appeal of old buildings slowly returning to the earth:

   "Abandoned country buildings are monuments to laughter and grief and childbirth and death and the best and the worst of times. More than that, they are beautiful not just because they are old and weathered and picturesque and quaint but also because they embody the spirit of a noble and resourceful lifestyle. There is intrinsic beauty in the functional simplicity and craftsmanship that outlasts the craftsman. There is beauty in timelessness."

During my roadtrip in Northumberland County on autumn's last gentle warm day, I fell under their spell.

 As I have on many other travels through farm country. These travels feed the soul somehow. Just a few hours in the company of fields and woodlots, farm buildings and gentle livestock, creeks and knolls and sky is all it takes.

near Elginburg

These junkets recapture those childhood Sunday drives with dad and mom, we kids admittedly not so enthralled, in the back seat.
Dad pronouncing on farm crops, fences and building, the laudatory and the disparaged. Our dad was a man of strongly held opinions.
Frontenac Co.

Snow Road area
 But we kids would succumb to our gentle mom's diversionary tactics: count the train cars, not long 'til we get to the ice-cream stop with the bear, look at this, look at that.  imagine the stories that old house could tell. That last admonition contributed to a life-long love of our built heritage. as I explained in my very first post back in April 2010.
near Lonsdale
I have been enjoying sifting through my photo files; hope I haven't bored you. Blame it on Woodall and Watkins.

Salmon Point, PEC
Or on Orland French, he of Wallbridge House Publishing, and the creator of three fine historical atlases. Orland asked me to contribute on things architectural in the 2013 publication about Prince Edward County, Wind, Water, Barley and Wine. He figured 200-plus years in the neighbourhood gave me some cred. And he guessed at the depth of my obsession.
Orland especially wanted to highlight early frame building techniques, and I did my best to explain what I found in my photos of split lathe, hand-hewn beams, wooden pegs and home-built mouldings yielded by a close exploration of this lovely old ruin, one of the rare times I ventured onto private property (though whose, goodness only knows.)

Sandon, British Columbia

Although Taken by the Wind is published in Canada, the photographer travelled throughout the Canadian and American west looking for loss. I immediately looked for familiar spots. And found one or two. When we lived in B.C. we explored ghost towns whenever we could. In 2013, when we last visited, we retraced a cold trail to a favourite spot, Sandon. Not just a house, but a whole town, building by historic building,  being taken by the winds of time.

Power House

Sure, you can probably recall one in your neighbourhood. But can you describe it? Kinda blends in with the rest, nothing showy. Never much activity around. Quiet neighbour.

I'm talking about hydro houses. I've been aware of them for years, but never paid much attention. The one I can readily recall in the east end is a nondescript little red brick bungalow. Will have to track down a photo someday soon.
Hadn't given hydro houses any notice, with or without camera until a daytrip to Kingston last week. Striding along Brock street, on one of the sidewalks blessedly clear of ice and snow, I spied this nice Deco house. Front lawn with spruce, unidentified deciduous tree, tidy foundation plantings. Looked inviting, until a closer look  revealed its identity.

Although the strictly business steel front door was surrounded by a finely moulded Deco frame, the DANGER High Voltage Keep Out put me instantly on the trail.

No notes to the milkman on this homely brick stoop. This is the home of Kingston Hydro Substation No. 2.

Hydro substations convert high voltage electricity from power generation stations to 220 and 240 volt service suitable for domestic use.

An online search revealed several sources with information about hydro houses. All focus on Toronto specimens (of which there are 250 and counting, downward, as they reach end of life and are demolished.) What intrigues me is the architectural diversity among them.

horizontal banding, dentils, tight eaves, flat roof
Photos of these Toronto sites reveal delicious examples of prairie, colonial, victory, cape cod, suburban bungalow, collegiate Gothic, Edwardian classical, modernist and an outrageous Scottish baronial style substation,  as well as a couple of facsimile churches. All designed by nameless architects to blend in with their neighbourhoods.

homey shutters, sash windows
WebUrbanist, from whom I borrowed this post's clever title takes us back to the establishment of the great generators at Niagara Falls in 1911  which necessitated a system of substations in Toronto neighbourhoods. As tony Toronto was unlikely to take to "ugly conglomerations of metal, wire and ceramic resistors" in the 'hood, Toronto Hydro set up an in-house team of architects "to 'clothe' the substations in the fashionable brick, masonry and woodwork of the day", either as fake office or warehouse buildings or fictional grand homes. The article provides a photo tour; have a look at the Scottish baronial Glengrove substation on Yonge Street!
hexagonal window, nicely framed

Understandably, after the depression and the war, the team toned down their urban substations.That would explain the 'plain Jane' on Herchimer Street in the 50s and 60s neighbourhood near us. (I'll record it, and two others in Belleville, on Jones Street (that must be a playground structure to the right, if the principle of camouflage is still at play) and a utilitarian modern structure on Reid Street. My guess is that these neighbourhoods weren't so fussy, or Hydro had just stopped caring.

Here's a link to a Heritage study which provides more than you might ever want to know about a typical residential substation in Windsor. One thing it does, that most of us don't, is to honour this powerful bit of our built heritage.

Here's Blog TO's photo essay, and a 2012 article in The Walrus, if you want to see more. I will certainly be on the lookout in a town near you. Do let me know if you have a Hydro house in your neighbourhood!

This lovely classical building still fits in well with the historic downtown (if you overlook the expanses of parking lot signalling overzealous demolition.) It was built in 1892 as the HQ for the privately owned Kingston Electric Light Company. Today it's a distribution substation for Kingston Hydro.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Putting on a Brave Face

Had to remind myself not to be cute about this post title.
No 'False Gods' stuff. I just wanted to spend some time researching the history of this eye-catching church on Johnston Street in Kingston.

There's no much online about the structure. The name also intrigued; fortunately that information was available. The Dormition of the Theotokos (theological words for the death or "falling asleep" of Mary, the Mother of God, and her resurrection and assumption into heaven) . There, I'm way out of my depth here, so I'll leave it at that.

As you can see, a pretty important event in the Greek Orthodox church, and a logical choice for a church name.

The architecture is eye-catching: an Italianate design, with the characteristic tall round headed windows. The classical pediment, some dentils and modillions, a parapet, arched portico, the triple Palladian style windows in the frontispiece are classical in origin,  The polychromatic brickwork (my companion observed the later repairs using different bricks) creates quoins and window hoods, and pilasters up the sides.

But here's the thing. Viewed from the front (and likely the interior, if the richness of the Greek Orthodox tradition of decoration lives here) the church is a pretty impressive.

The Ontario Heritage Trust inventory reports that construction was begun in 1881, by a denomination not specified. Looks like the Greek Orthodox church is a more recent inhabitant of the structure, and cannot be held responsible for the architecture.

 I don't want to cast aspersions on any house of worship, but a sidelong glance can be disconcerting. A look (askance) from the side reveals the truth - a rectangular hall with a gable roof and (hate to say it) a false front.

Isn't that (and a good haircut) worth the drive to Kingston, Brenda?

Did he really say bastardized?

One of my favourite history websites (and the most prolific one I know) is the meticulously researched Marmora Historical Foundation site, renewed almost daily by the dedicated local historians Anne and Andre Philpot.

Georgian proportions, Hastings
Today's post really hit home, on a subject which causes me pain on occasion. It's the story of the large red brick Georgian house at
# 3 Forsyth Street in Marmora.  Here's the best look I can offer you; thanks Streetview. The post highlights the evolution of former fine homes into businesses, with frontages which certainly don't respect, and in most cases, totally obliterate, the formal proportions and hand-fashioned detail of early homes.

In the case of today's post, the Philpots relate the transformation of an 1868 Georgian home in Marmora to commercial and office uses. And yes, he really said that.

I don't find too many of these metamorphoses in my photo files, as I find them painful to look at, and challenging to record. I know. I know. I fully accept that old houses standing on former quiet residential streets-become-busy-downtowns will not survive intact over the years.  I also acknowledge the decline that time creates.

And admittedly, many c19 homes weren't separated from business areas; in fact many housed the family shop on the same premises.

Loss is inevitable. But we still can grieve.

Thanks for grieving with us, Philpots.