In Ontario it is sometimes said that the unusual stepped walls along the edge of a roof are clues that the building has military connections. Alas, this colourful idea is not true.
The walls which project above the roof at either end (which look rather like steps) are properly called “corbiesteps”. In the US, they are also called crowsteps, or catsteps, which is rather evocative and colourful I think. In Ontario they are called stepsides.
Corbiesteps are an urban northern European phenomenon. In crowded mediaeval towns, it was all too easy for fire to spread from one roof to another. Therefore, the walls which divided townhouses were built up above the gabled roof to form a fire barrier. As with many other architectural devices, people became familier with the appearance and felt that the building just didn’t look quite right without the corbiesteps so it became a decorative convention as well.
Although architectural reference books often say that corbiesteps were obsolete after 1700, I have seen them on 18th and early 19th century urban buildings in the British Isles, particularly in Scotland.
The idea seems to have come to Ontario with early 19th century masons. Corbiesteps were used here on brick and stone town buildings up to the early 1850’s. After that, their use was more exceptional and perhaps a symptom of taste formed from an earlier time.
Corbiesteps may also appear in retro designs today, as a deliberate attempt to evoke a nostalgic appearance.
The example shown above is a building in Napanee, Ontario. The corbiesteps are poorly proportioned: they are big and clumsy in execution. The house is not joined to other structures. (In fact, it towers over its neighbours.) This suggests to me that the motivation was not fire barriers but taste. Perhaps this was the owner’s concept of the appearance of an important town building. I also think that the builder was not a skilled mason with European roots, but a local tradesman who was yielding to the wishes of his client.
Although these stepsides are clumsy, they give character to the building, which would be a much poorer piece of architecture without them. Because it is difficult to incorporate corbiesteps in modern renovations, they are too often chopped away. Numbers are dwindling. Every effort should be made by Heritage Committees to assist owners in keeping stepsides.