Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

I love it when this happens

Sometime this summer, we spent a Sunday afternoon in Brockville. There were tall ships. There were crowds and crowds. Food trucks proliferating.

As always, I enjoyed the experience of Brockville's Blockhouse Island, the doughty stone buildings along Water, Broad and Buell that I've admired on other visits, the roiling power of the closeby St. Lawrence, and the view of the city skyline with its Gothic spires.

The highlights of the day were not nautical; nor were they architectural. Oddly enough, there is not a single ship on my camera.

But the day, and our memories, are full.

An aside. It's said that Brockville  citizens are friendly. As we pondered our street map, pulled over in a refuge from the traffic, delighted but dismayed at how very successful this event was, a fellow crossed the road from his house, to see if he could be of assistance. The interchange resulted in Linda and Junior moving their truck, so we could park on their lawn, with repeated entreaties to "drop by and park any time"  we were in town.

A superb lunch and a couple of Beau's at the delightful Buell St. Bistro set us up for a delightful wander, and a few photos. As we headed back to the car at the end of the afternoon, I paused to take in the imposing vista up Courthouse Avenue. Often, when we stop to appreciate early buildings or streetscapes, what rises to our lips is "I wonder..." "Do you suppose...?" "Could that once have been...?"

That day in Brockville, the moment I stopped to ask myself and my walking partner what to make of the scene, this awfully helpful interpretive panel came into view. I love it when that happens, Thanks for making your history your present, people.

I've said it before. Good on you, Brockville, for making your past so accessible.

Life Cycles

A J.E.H. MacDonald tapestry
Haven't posted much recently. A summer of camping, loads of time offline, lakeside. Didn't spend much time in buildings, historic or otherwise. The muse was away visiting friends.

That changed one day this week. Waiting for dear one at a medical appointment, I was drawn outside by the warmth and colour of one of those rare autumn days. Intoxicated by the uncanny warmth and the tapestry of fall colour.(let's hear it for the much-maligned wild grapevine, that comes into its own in fall.)

From The Picton Clinic, I wandered down to Hill
Street, to have a peek over the harbour, and think about sailing schooners, steamers and piles of coal at Delhi in the old days. One former industrial building with a unique roof profile caught my attention - a reflection on it later - and drew me to the dockside.

It wasn't long before my wee walk reminded me of the power that buildings - our built heritage - have to take us on journeys into our personal, as well as our collective, past.  On my way back up the hill, I noticed the "old hospital," which it remains in my memory, despite its years as the well-loved nursing home, Picton Manor.
 I must be the only PEC native who didn't know that the building is closed. Thanks to local historian Margaret Haylock Capon, whose 2011 accounts of the closing were easy to unearth online, I learned the story of the sad closure, and a good deal else.

I had always been vaguely aware of the domestic scale of the place, despite some awkward additions and expansions. The most recent ones, the modern stucco clad wings visible in Streetview , were added when the building became a nursing home, after 1959. Then it was called Resthaven, only later Picton Manor.

But back to the early hospital; it opened April 17, 1919. Margaret reports that the idea had been under discussion since 1914. The IODE had been on board since 1908. A donation by Miss Sarah Minetta Walt made it possible to purchase a frame house on Hill Street, "the Alcorn house" and renovate it for use as a hospital with 7 or 8 beds. Additions later that year, and again in 1920, brought capacity up to 20 beds.

Of course, I wanted to know who the Alcorns were. Pioneer Life on the Bay of Quinte helped. So did Wikipedia. George Oscar Alcorn (1850-1930) was a Canadian lawyer and politician born in Lennoxville, educated in Toronto. Practised law in Belleville and Picton. Represented PEC in the House of Commons from 1900 to 1908. Called to the Supreme Court in 1910.

Would love to see a photo of the house in its heyday. It was sure to have been a fine one, given the location, and the stature of its owner. There are still hints of its early domestic origins. A trace persists of the conical roof of  the circular gazebo at the east end of the former wood balustraded verandah - in very poor condition. One of the original verandah pillars, transformed into a 'pilaster' due to layers of exterior siding, still shows to the left of the former verandah exit.

peekaboo pillar
conical roof

My top photo of the hospital shows the wide verandah steps along the Hill Street facade. This 1957 photo of a group of nurses was taken in that same location. Recognize it?

Okay, full disclosure time here. There is more to this story than pillars and bandshell roofs. The nurse in the very front row of this 1957 photo is our mom, Doris. She trained at Picton hospital in the 1940s, going on to Ottawa Civic to get her R.N. She left nursing early, but returned when my brother was in high school, to serve as the registered nurse at Resthaven. 
She used to talk about the great group of nurses she trained with; they were getting together for reunions into the 1970s and 80s to relive the glory days, and some high jinks. Mom occasionally recalled one lunch-time walk down to the docks, where she managed to fall into the bay in her immaculately starched uniform.  This Tudor Revival house was, I seem to recall her saying, the nurses' residence. She related stories of the occasional after-curfew trip up the fire escape. I am looking forward to picking up a copy of Alan Capon's 1998 history, This House of Healing, to learn more about the history of this proud little hospital.
And the layers continue. Of course, I was born in this white
frame hospital, and returned as a sickly child, to have my tonsils removed. Oddly, I can remember a lot about that overnight stay: the odd experience of ether, the bright bedroom, the ice I was given to sooth my sore throat, the peculiar feeling of having mom come to visit the next day, the sense of freedom I experienced coming back out into the sun, through this wide doorway.

In later years, visiting from the west in the 70s, I vividly remember dropping in on mom at work: the gleaming waxed floors, the careful measuring of medications, the residents, an awkward mix of seniors and mental health patients, a caring environment. Even later Den and I visited the feisty Georgia, mom and dad's neighbour from their apartment in Picton, who moved to the gentle care of Picton Manor, as her health failed.

Picton Manor Hotel c1929
I close by trying to set the record straight. Not long ago, I found a photo on the outstanding Facebook page Vintage Belleville, Trenton, Quinte Region. Someone had shared this postal card of Picton Manor Hotel. The comments rolled out, people nostalgic, making connections. "I had my tonsils out here." "I was born here." "I was the last baby born here in 1958." I had a long look at this structure. No resemblance to the little hospital. Wrong number of storeys for starters. Folks, this is not the old Picton hospital. Somewhere deep in my memory, the words resonate. Picton Manor. A resort hotel? Outside my experience as a little farm girl. But it existed. I'll figure it out. You'll be the first to know.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cottage Lives

 The most recent e-edition of The Beacon,  the newsletter of the outstandingly productive Friends of Presqu'ile Provincial Park, just landed in my inbox.

In addition to all the volunteer activity accounts, details of the outstanding Natural History Education Programs at the park (think endangered Piping Plovers) and plans for their 25th annual Christmas at Presqu'ile Arts and Crafts Show (where they work super hard to raise funds so they can continue their fine work) the issue honoured long-time volunteer Joan Selwood.

The account of Joan's many contributions to the Friends mentioned her research on four historic cottages in the park. A quick trip to the website and I was able to read the full story of the families who built and loved the four cottages, now absorbed into the park infrastructure. Back in 2011 I mused about their provenance. For the full story, read Joan's research in the history pages of their fine website.

 For just a taste, read on.

 The impressive stone at the top of the post, the one with the Quebecois accent, was built in 1942-44 as the summer home of Jack and Luta Wilson, and their four children. It was purchased by the park in 1956, and has been used as staff residences in recent years.

The low pitched roof and wide windows of 'Edmerel', built between 1942-44   Edward and Merele (Farrell) Cousins now houses Presqu'ile's Nature Centre.

Joan's account reveals that the two families were life-long friends. Ironically, both wives died at their lovely cottages, Luta in 1944 and Merele in 1954.

 I noted during our May visit that the signage of this little brown cottage has been changed to Denson Clarke cottage. "Rossmore" was built by Dr. Harold Clarke  about 1934. Dr. Clarke maintained a practice in Brighton from 1920 to 1948.

 Some years after Dr. Clarke's death, his widow Kay married Lester Denson; she retained a life lease on the cottage after the park took over private properties in 1956. The cottage reverted to the park in 1985. The name change reflects the man who had it built, of BC fir; some of the labour being bartered for medical services.

Last year, the cottage became a guest rental, a growing trend in Provincial Parks. Joan mentions original fittings in the cottage, including the kitchen sink!

This handsome split field-stone cottage, elusive amidst evergreens,  was built in 1944 for Dr. William John Cruise and wife Eleanor. It was sold to the park in 1958.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Survival Instinct

 We just spent a week at Bon Echo Provincial Park, camped in a cathedral of white pines, on a hill overlooking Mazinaw Lake, watching the sun in its travels change the face of Bon Echo rock. That rocky presence emanates energy, geological time made manifest, aboriginal passages recorded in enduring ochre on the flat planes of the cliff.  All around, traces of the Dennison's early c20 literary coterie in the outdoors.

We visited an outstanding small museum in nearby Cloyne, "town" for the duration of our stay. There the enthusiastic  summer staff helped me with research on summer lodges like the Dennison's Bon Echo Lodge - more on that later.

 What struck us both were the displays on the logging era (1850 to late 1890s.) I'll check that in The Mazinaw Experience by John Campbell (Natural Heritage Books, 2000)  - there's always a book, yes?

Someone said the pines above our heads were 150 years old. That makes sense. The logging era in the Mazinaw area peaked between 1870 and 1890. What the mind cannot quite grasp is that all the land around us was once entirely denuded of trees, stripped by loggers making profits for people who viewed the vast forests as a limitless resource to plunder. The hills above the lake were called the Bald Hills.

The majestic pines were thought to have been about 400 years old, according to Campbell, stood 38 metres high with a diameter of about a metre (imagine that?), growing 250 to 400 per acre.

The men in the logging camps lived and worked in appalling conditions,  doing dangerous often deadly work. What they did to the countryside around them, in the interests of economic growth and trade, and in the firm conviction that nature was there for the taking, was equally appalling.

The majestic pines were converted to square timbers of enormous length (up to 100 feet in length) and size (nothing kept smaller than 12" square.) Imagine what was left behind. Slash it was called, littering the landscape, and tinder-dry, putting any community in the area at enormous risk of fire. Lots and lots of fires.

That's what happened in 1903, in Vennachar, just north of Mazinaw Lake. Fire destroyed the complete village, leaving just this little church. It was an immediate eyecatcher for its location on a wooded hill, its home-made steeple and Gothic windows, and its humble insulbrick siding - and the artificial flower bed out front.

But it was the message on the sign which brought such powerful images - of people struggling to establish communities in a hostile land, then seeing everything disappear in minutes in an inferno. The sign explains that  Vennachar Community Memorial Church (1875) was the only survivor of the 1903 fire.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sisters in the Viewfinder

Charlotte Gray's Sisters in the Wilderness brilliantly captures the literary lives of two sisters, transplanted from genteel Sussex country life, into the wilderness of the Lakefield area in the early 1800s. Their husbands, retired military officers on half-pay, were as unsuited to the rustic life of pioneers as were the ladies.

Those ladies, however, managed to make a literary name for themselves, with works that resonate even today. These lady pioneers were Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie.

Most memorable amid Catherine's formidable literary output was The Backwoods of Canada, (the full title adds Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America) a how-to guide for roughing it in the bush, published in 1836.

Her viewpoint has been described as "perennially optimistic." Certainly she put a brave cheerful face on a very difficult life. Her saving grace may have been her love of the nature around her. She was an amateur botanist, and published several studies of plants including Studies of Plant Life in Canada.

 Recently I managed to capture her literary home, something I'd been meaning to do for ages. The house in Lakefield had proved elusive until a  road trip for lunch in Buckhorn with our lovely aunt, and a return via Lakefield, address in hand. While my two favourite people cooled off near the river, I wandered up to take a few snaps of the shy frame farmhouse hiding in the trees. This site has some additional views and some text, if you can ignore the zippy animations.

The house is Westove, Catherine's home after the death of her husband in 1862, until her own death in 1899. There's a lovely contemporary image of the house on this dandy site.

 Catherine's sister Susanna Moodie may be better known. She wrote two works about the emigrant experience: Roughing it in the Bush(1852) - the title describing pretty much how she felt about the pioneer life - and Life in the Clearings(1853) - which expresses her relief and relative contentment, upon their move to Belleville in 1840, where her husband Dunbar served as Sheriff of Victoria District /Hastings County from 1839 to 1863.

No excuse for taking so long to photograph this fine stone house, which has evolved over the years from a pleasant Regency cottage. (I'm sure I saw a photo of its original form once.) Susanna (Strickland) Moodie's Belleville home is a short hop across town.

Although I know the owner, I haven't yet seen the interior. You'll recognize the doorcase in this 1866 photo at Collections Canada.

At right, Susanna's final resting place in bucolic Belleville Cemetery, by the tranquil Bay of Quinte.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Steeple Chase

Wesleyan Methodist Church, Actinolite (1864)
There's a knack to it. I don't appear to have it.
I love looking up, trying to capture the communion of steeple - windows, roof treatment, adornment - and sky,  in that moment just before I fall over backwards.

Hazzard's Methodist Church (1857)

The photos don't do justice to the places, and certainly don't capture the Heaven-reaching of their spires, and their church congregations.
Nevertheless, I'll share these photos of some I've encountered lately, and add a reflection.
Burnbrae Presbyterian Church, est. 1836

These are very old churches.
The lives of the people who built them were enormously challenging.
Their faith sustained them through the heart-breaking work of clearing the forests, wrestling livelihoods from uncooperative land. They lost wives in childbed, children to simple illnesses, husbands to cruel accidents, precious livestock to predators and homes to raging fires.

St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, Madoc (1865)

But they built churches. Early on they gathered in homes. Sometimes they met in their rudimentary schoolhouse built for their children's better future. As early as they could, using what they had at their disposal, they built churches.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Paying your own Way

Special Effects, Brighton
Our dad was big on "paying your own way." Being a practical farmer, he dreaded debt, "paddled his own canoe" and was "beholden to no man."

I expect he would approve of the thought that popped into my mind as I enjoyed the tropical heat of Brighton last week.

I wandered up Young Street (toiled might be more precise, given the hazy sun broiling pedestrians to perfection), strolled through the grounds at Proctor House (she's having work done, good to see) and trickled slowly downhill via Kingsley and Sandford to Main Street to find a house on the western edge of town. And back. Via Lighthouse Books (more on that later) and all the shady trees I could find.
ogee arch garden trellis..'piano' at right

 One gorgeous red brick home in particular drew my attention - starting with the shade and expanding to the luscious gardens. The sun-speckled front lawn was a feast for the senses with all kinds of needful garden art. The focus, which would bring a grin to the face of a Victorian butler, was the upright piano/water feature/music centre. Worth the drive to Brighton. The house was lovely, as an abode, but it's also the home of Special Effects Decorating. I recognized the sign, and was delighted later to reconnect on-line with the very creative and lovely style of Sheryl Delorme, who I met years ago, when her shop was in downtown Belleville.

Another fine old house on the other corner of Meade Street has been in my sights for some time. I've been admiring with considerable relief,  the restoration of the Mansard roof with polychromatic tiles or shingles, and the repair and repainting of cornice brackets and porch gingerbread. Delightful spot.

Now it's the home of Paramdhan Kaur yoga studio and several other practitioners of healing arts. One could say that the worthy Victorian house has been healed as well.

Right next door, along Main Street, in a rambling frame Edwardian  house is a Brighton institution, The Blue House, featuring home and garden gifts and original art.

I also admired the HQ of Brighton Massage Therapy and Footcare Clinic, who have revved up the  their Greek Revival facade with white and pale yellow paint.

Old homes have long been re-purposed as B&B's and funeral homes, but I think I see a growing trend to repurpose interesting old houses into business venures. It seems to me that tourists and shoppers are drawn to businesses in heritage buildings, heritage districts. Even if they wouldn't know a pilaster from a pinochle, there's a charm, a presence, an experience in and around old buildings that the shiniest newest build just doesn't provide. Even this old house nut accepts that not every worthy heritage structure can be fully restored and run as a museum. Nor are there enough owners with the means to restore and retain yesterday's massive single family homes in private hands.

Some old houses, like the rest of us, have to pay their own way. Ask Alex Fida, visionary owner of the restored House of Falconer in Picton, who purchased an at-risk  property, painstakingly restored it, and has now "monetized it" into a vibrant community arts hub.