Monthly Archives: September 2009

Home not a Castle

House with stepsides

House with stepsides

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.

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Another Historic Building Lost: The Walker House Hotel, Odessa, Ontario

Walker House circa 1900

The charming main street through Odessa will soon have another big gap, when the Rebekah Lodge Building (which burned in mid August) is demolished.   This structure was originally the Walker House Hotel, and has a long history.  The site was purchased by Johnston Walker in 1847 for 55 pounds.   At that time 55 pounds was a reasonable price for a lot with little or nothing built upon it.  Johnston Walker was the son of Weedon Walker who owned a hostelry at concession 3, lot 8, Kingston township known as “Five Mile House”.   His son may have gained his hotel-keeping experience there.   

Johnston Walker built the original, handsome symmetrical red brick building, probably in the 1840’s —  early 1850’s  as the twelve-over-six fenestration and entrance treatment suggest.   The Walker family owned the Odessa building until 1871.  It then passed to the Wycott family, who changed the name to “The Royal Hotel”.  They sold to the International Order of Oddfellows (IOOF), Lodge 361, in 1914.   The Oddfellows were a very popular fraternal society in Odessa.  The ladies’ arm of the IOOF are the Rebekahs, and both the male and female societies met in the building with the two coming together to share a sumptuous dinner annually.   The old Walker House has another connection to many local families.  In the 1940’s, when rural young folk no longer liked to have  granny’s wake in the parlour, the front room of the old hotel was often rented for that purpose.

Odessa was once one of the most thriving villages of Ernestown Township and has survived nearly in tact.  Ironically, the other major loss on the main street was another hotel, the old Stagecoach Inn.   The sign from the facade of the Stagecoach Inn and attached spoolwork elaboration now hang at the Lennox and Addington County Museum in Napanee.

Ernestown Township became part of Loyalist Township in 1999, and there is an active Heritage Committee, but it is doubtful that anything can be done to encourage a sympathetic replacement for either hotel.  The lesson is that we need to respect, care for and enjoy those old buildings which remain to us, as their numbers dwindle every year.

I am grateful to Philip Smart and Ross Babcock for sharing their research with me.  I also wish to acknowledge the late Glenn Robertson who shared his family photographs with the community, including the one above which shows the Walker House when it was the Royal Hotel, circa 1900.

Below, after the fire.

After the fire, August 2009

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings - Ontario, History, Ontario, Material culture, Ontario Architecture