The Doorway to the Light

1308smThe Lighthouse at Presqu’ile, Brighton, Ontario, 1840

For a long time, I have wondered what was in the mind of Nichol Baird when he designed the entrance to the Presqu’ile light. The doorway is tall and narrow and tapers to a point. To me, it looks like a narrow boat, standing on end, but it is usually described as “gothic” and indeed it reminds one of a church window. Upper Canadians liked to see medieval design elements incorporated into otherwise symmetrical Georgian buildings. For want of a better term, this practice is known as gothic revival, or sometimes “carpenter’s gothic”. In 1840, gothic revival architecture could be found all over Eastern Ontario. St. Mary Magdalene, Picton, is an example. It was built in 1834. To Upper Canadians, these references to ancient Western European buildings were a statement of learning, respectability and stability.

Gothic revival elements were most often used for churches and sometimes for schools or residences, less often for structures with other purposes. Pointy, lancet windows were not uncommon but unless the building was religious in use, builders usually favoured rectangular entrance openings. These were more practical for admitting furnishings and cheaper to maintain and repair.

Nichol Hugh Baird (1796-1849)was a Scot who had spent time in St. Petersburg working for his uncle, the proprietor of a factory. Baird was an engineer and inventor rather than an architect. He came to Canada in 1828 and made a living from a number of patronage appointments mostly concerned with roads, bridges and canals. Biographical references suggest that he was a tempermental chap, sensitive about suggestions that any commission might be too big for him. Perhaps the inclusion of a gothic door on the Presqu’ile lighthouse was his way of demonstrating that he knew a thing or two about things early English. Perhaps he liked to consider himself an architect as well as a builder and engineer.

Or perhaps in his mind a tall, narrow, pointy building needed a tall, narrow, pointy door.

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings - Ontario

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