Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Gone Walkabout

 All the buildings in Sydney that I am about to see, fall in love with, research and photograph.
Ditto Melbourne. Cowes, Ventnor and Rhyll. Hobart. Add Ballarat. Christchurch. Also Dunedin and Oamaru. Then there's Napier. Wellington. And finally Aukland.

These two delightful books of building sketches by James Gulliver Hancock made their way to my desk last spring, imported by friends Larry and Bill, just back from enjoying the other side of the world. In a short while, we will be doing the same. Some of it in their most delightful company.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Early houses, early book

I did some research and writing about Dr. Eric Ross Arthur recently. In that post I mentioned two of his books, The Barn and Toronto, No Mean City. The vast difference in the study topics, the range of interests of this pioneer of heritage awareness was astonishing.

As I scanned the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, I came upon two other papers written by Eric Arthur in the 1930s. And of course, I found I needed them. This 1938 publication was referred to by Anthony Adamson, in the 'first word' to Ancestral Roofs by Marion MacRae and himself, published in 1963. This co-writer on what was the first work on Ontario architecture ("in the first book on any subject, certain matters have to be overlooked") credits Dr. Arthur "the author of the only published monographs on early Ontario buildings..." with the beginnings of the passion so many of us have for our built heritage, and its preservation.

Just holding the slim volume is time-travel. This plain brown wrapper with its formal blue type-face, the simply composed black and white photos, the exquisitely detailed measured drawings are architectural history itself. I found it incredibly moving to study these photos taken in 1938 of buildings which still stand (as do many of those Dr. Arthur mentions) and to read words like this, words of passionate appreciation of the buildings of 1810 to 1840, written long decades before the rest of us 'caught on:' "The old buildings of Ontario were designed simply as dwellings. They were unostentatious, yet dignified, compact in plan without being dull. Indeed they had all the qualities which in the sixteenth century Sir Henry Wotton required of a building - Commodity (the proper arrangement of rooms,) Firmness (structural stability) and Delight, which is the pleasure we have in seeing it." (Page Thirteen)

Not surprisingly, one of the buildings photographed for the essay is Barnum House, Grafton. Now if you had a chance to read the October 31, 2017 post to which I invited you in the first line, you will understand why I find the austere black and white photo of this "house of  weathered  pine, [its] composition, detail and ornament well handled" from 80 years ago so moving. So much began when that man saw this house.

The black and white photo  which appears in the un-copyrighted (how simple the world once was) eighty year old monograph, shows the silvery weathered pine flushboard cladding. The plain language caption reads: "This house of weathered pine is well-known to the traveller on the Kingston Highway. Composition, detail and ornament are well-handled. The architect's name is not known but it is certain he was a person of considerable experience. The boarding is flush and in spite of exposure to the weather [sic] during 120 years, shows few cracks between the boards. The interior is not interesting but the exterior is worthy of the closest study."

It is a tribute to this great man Arthur that we are privileged to stand before this great house today; the sapling before it has also stood the test of time.

Another worthy house featuring prominently in The Early Buildings of Ontario is The Bluestone House of Port Hope.. This fine Georgian home with Greek Revival detailing has received a lot of attention over many years. Here's Ontario's Historic Places' take on this wonderful place. In 1938 Eric Arthur's contribution to the conversation is seen below.

One of the astonishing features of the monograph are several reproductions of the measured drawings done on location by students of Professor Arthur's students in the School of Architecture at UofT. I've included one at left.Speaks for itself.

The paper includes sections on history, location and features of early Ontario houses, on doorways, windows and mantels. It  concludes with a "List of Buildings already Photographed or Measured" which includes 4 Picton structures, one in Bloomfield and Belleville, and two in Brighton, one of which, the Butler house, I hope to meet in the spring.

A dozen black and white photos complete the monograph. Some I do not know (and wonder if we'll meet in this life.) Others grace towns and villages today, as if their keepers had early risen to the challenge posed by Dr. Eric Arthur. His province-wide survey of historic buildings in the 1930s is his legacy.

St. Andrew's Church, Niagara on the Lake 

"House at Perth" (Inge-Va , 1824) 

Of the Perth residence now known as Inge Va, Dr. Arthur wrote: "...a delightful house with well-proportioned windows and a handsome doorway..." His 1938 photo included a neat white painted railing along the front porch. Mercifully, nothing else appears to have changed.

Osgoode Hall, west wing, 1829
No fan of the Romanesque Revival and other later Victorian styles, Eric Arthur said of Osgoode Hall: "The dignity and simplicity of this building may be compared with the ostentation and crudity of civic buildings built at the close of the century (City Hall, Parliament Buildings, etc.)

Dr. Eric Ross Arthur. The kind of gentleman to whom one grants the last word.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

You're in Good Hands with ...Metropolitan

Doing my best to capture the exterior grandness of the 1927 'Wellington Building' on a summer's day-trip to  Ottawa, I snapped the monumentally colonnaded facade (somewhat) through a  rather grimy glass canopy (faithful replica of the original) above the gleaming brass doors.

For a proper look at this grand Beaux Arts building, your best bet is my desk-chair travelling companion, Google's Streetview.

But then this happened. The former Canadian headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Insurance company became the setting for the best up close and personal experience on my Ottawa walkabout last August.
from Sparks Street, west elevation along Bank Street

All my to-ing and fro-ing in front of the building drew the attention of a uniformed figure, who emerged silently, his  demeanour rather menacing. "I'm allowed?" I squeaked.  I was informed that I was safe provided I had no plans to photograph any of the security arrangements for the PM's office across the street. Easy to assure him that was NOT my interest. Though I like to know folks are being kept safe.

getting closer
So instead of being upbraided, I was invited in,  into the lobby of this former wonder of the commercial world, whose rather Byzantine glories have been recently restored. It was fun to hear the story from my conspicuously proud host.

The vaulted lobby ceiling is encrusted with  mosaic murals (almost a million glass tiles) depicting the protective power of the insurance company, the building's former inhabitant. Shamelessly maternalistic images portrayed the protection of the "great Metropolitan mother" (good grief) and her reassurances: "at destruction and famine thou shalt laugh"is one of the quotes emblazoned above the mosaics. Don't think today's insurance coverage extends quite so protectively.

Bank at Wellingtoin
If you'd like to hear the story from Megan Gillis at the Ottawa Citizen, here's an article about the $425 million restoration, with some great still photos and a 45 second video tour (another job loaded onto reporters' shoulders in this new multimedia world.)

What a shock after the business-suit grey exterior!
The rest of the building, considerably toned down from the foyer, will house meeting rooms and offices for seventy MP's. An interior living green wall and solar water heating highlight government's committment to saving the planet.

Like so many grand early commercial structures in the area of the 'Parliamentary precinct' this one was expropriated in the early 1970s.

Although I've read reports complaining about the lack of street life which is leading from government use of former commercial buildings, at least the Federal government has some of my money to devote to these impressive restoration and rehabilitation projects. I'm good with that.

A few photos destined NOT to do justice to the lobby. Go see for yourself. 180 Wellington Street.

Here's everything you wanted to know and I forgot to mention, in Historic Places

America Hurrah

I'm still mining my Wellington Street walk for building stories. This sophisticated limestone Beaux-Arts Classical beauty dated 1931/32 is the former U.S. Embassy across from Parliament Hill. The Historic Places description notes that nation's efforts at the time to market its image around the world, with such purpose-built embassy buildings "signifying  the rise and establishment of the United States as a leading world power." Not so clear-cut a mandate in these troubled times.

Here's a Streetview peek which will have to substitute for my own, as I struggled to get good images free of  parking and pedestrians. Here's the austere main entrance, with some hefty modillions above supporting a wrought-iron grille over the impressive sash windows. An Italian palazzo landed in a provincial Canadian town.

As we know, this fine building was abandoned in 1999, as space and security concerns prompted the move to fortress USA on Sussex Drive near the Byward Market.

I was as interested in the banners draping the facade of the spurned beauty as I was in the architectural pedigree of the place - one can get a bit jaded with all the built beauty about.
The motif, the eagle feather, suggested the building's repurposing as a place with relevance to matters indigenous. When I was back at my computer, I tracked down the controversy. Empty since 1998, the building has just recently been bequeathed to the nation's first people as a "performance, artistic, cultural, archival or a working space for Indigenous leaders" - at the time of a Toronto Star piece in June 2017, the plans were none too clear.
And the nation's first folks are none too happy with it either. Here's some press about the unpopular decision.  The phrase "Colonial overtones" has popped up.

Lots of government types eager to get tenants into the building suggest it's just the spot -  geographically significant. A government cheer leader enthused that "if the Parliamentary precinct were a monopoly game, this would be Park Place." True, it is an architectural gem. But a bit of a white elephant. And with no immediately apparent connection to the culture of Canada's first peoples.
American Embassy to the right of building in foreground

Here's a photo from my 1930s 'Dominion Series View Book' of Ottawa sights and sites. The embattled building in a simpler and more peaceful time.