Category Archives: Architecture

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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Automobile Touring – Knight’s Kamp Dining Hall, Ontario

PhotoSince the late 19th century, what we now call cottages or cabins were known in Eastern Ontario as “camps”. As the affordability of automobiles made family touring possible thousands of commercial, privately operated holiday “camps” sprung up to serve tourists who could not afford (or did not wish) to own a cottage of their own. These rustic resorts usually consisted of a cluster of brightly painted wooden cabins located convenient to a sparkling lake. Some were able to offer a sand or pebble beach. In the centre of the camp was the dining hall which might also serve as a restaurant for day-trippers.

Knight’s Kosy Kabins and Kamp was located on the north shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto, possibly in the Oshawa/Whitby area. This snapshot appears to have been taken in the early 1950’s. The flag (a Union Jack) tells us that we are not on “the American side”, as does the Bell sign which informed travellers of those days that there was a pay telephone available. The Telegram sign would be promoting the Toronto Telegram, one of the two newspapers. The old “Telly” is now nearly forgotten. Tin signs advertising 7-Up and Orange Crush encouraged thirsty travellers to come in. As well as cold soft drinks, such dining halls offered postcards as well as penny candies, gum and peanuts to tempt the children. Many sold cigarettes as well.

Most holiday camps derived most of their business from the excellent sport fishing in eastern Ontario. However, with the danger of the vast open water of Lake Ontario, it is likely that Knight’s Kabins catered more to travellers who stopped overnight on the way to another destination. There was probably also local business from beach-seekers on hot weekends. If a camp was lucky enough to have a good cook, it sometimes evolved into a destination for the delicious Sunday lunches which tempted restless families in the 1950’s.

If anyone knows more about Knight’s Kosy Kabins I would be interested to know.

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The Barriefield Debate


Barriefield Village

Kingston agonizes over development in old Pittsburgh township.

The City of Kingston has given approval for a new assisted housing development which will be constructed on an old pasture bordering on the historic village of Barriefield.

The site is poorly served by public transport and is located far from major amenities.   Significant economic incentives in the form of a bargain land deal and promised government grants seem to have persuaded Kingston Council.  Many Barriefield residents opposed the plan.  Unfortunately, this has prompted insults from the usual morons who seem to lie in wait to drag any sensible debate into the gutter.   It has been insinuated that Barriefield defenders are secret snobs with a grudge against anybody living on social assistance.

The real problem is that there is weak provision in Ontario at present to encourage preservation of early architecture and heritage districts.    Municipal heritage committees have little power, and it is mostly left to enthusiastic private citizens to purchase, restore and preserve built heritage.  Municipal grants are few, small, and often come with strings attached.  Maintaining heritage properties is expensive.

The community gains significantly from the investment of  sympathetic owners of heritage properties.   In addition to providing landmarks which enhance our recognition of neighbourhoods and encourage a feeling of  respect and belonging,  built heritage  contributes to the uniqueness of municipalities.  History and heritage enter corporate decisions when it comes to establishing new offices, but more important, history and heritage are significant generators of tourism income. 

Cities like Toronto, which have the misfortune to look like any city in North America, are forced to continually generate and maintain events to convince visitors to spend time there.  Cities with significant amounts of built heritage have the luxury of using events as enhancements, as (assuming that the heritage assets are known) visitors will come anyway.

In the case of Barriefield, we are asking property owners to preserve a rare asset — a village of the 1830’s with streetscapes little changed from Upper Canadian days.     

In theory, assisted housing should not be a threat to Barriefield village, but Barriefield residents are to be forgiven if they worry that something might effect ultimate property values, leaving them without resources to recover their investment.  It is unfortunate that the silly accusations of snobbery could not be tossed out to permit a rational discussion of this concern.

September 8th: Kingston City Council turned down the Barriefield Village Assisted Housing project (by one vote). Council was persuaded by a Staff report which showed that millions of dollars of investment in infrastructure would be required before the site would be ready for the project. (Duh!) I was very pleased by this decision, but I was even more happy to hear that Council has directed staff to look at alternative sites closer to central services. Kingston needs more assisted (and senior assisted) housing. (JB)


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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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Built Heritage and the City of Kingston (Ont.): the struggle continues

None of those with any interest in built heritage were in the least surprized when the final Bray Heritage report recommended the creation of an Heritage District out of Old Sydenham Ward.  In fact, I think that most of us would have tumbled off our chairs had it not done so.

It is a fine report, well-researched, with quality content.

However, after thirty years watching and participating in heritage in this neck of the woods, perhaps I may be forgiven a deep sigh.  All of our efforts, beginning with the redoubtable Margaret Angus, and continuing with efforts of well-connected locals like Jim Bennett have resulted in so few victories.

Ontario Street is a case in point.  With the old industrial structures no more,  the City had the opportunity to protect the interface between Old Sydenham Ward and the Lake for the people and instead we have a wall of mundane towers and acres of concrete.  In my opinion, this was totally unnecessary as the old city is still relatively small with lots of  land north and west which could have been used for high density development.  Some of those parcels have spectacular views.  That land is also close to the 401 corridor and there was the opportunity to plan properly for the automobile traffic which high density always generates (no matter what the developers tell you). 

The planning objection to moving the high density north seemed to be the cost of extending utilities.   I wonder how much the recent sewage spills and  flooding of lower Princess street properties had to do with the huge impact of all those new, downtown towers on aging urban infrastructure?  But I digress.

My point is that, despite great public input and energy in the past, we have just not been able to stop the inexorable intrusion of very commonplace late twentieth century forms into the unique limestone part of the city.  I don’t care what the architect’s name is, most of the newer stuff is  functional vernacular.  I would not drive to Kingston to look at, nor in my opinion would anyone else.

We can successfully persuade home-owners to select sympathetic surface elements and restore, rather than replace, Victorian fenestration, but what good is that going to do when an unrelieved red brick wall or a monolith looms at you from the foot of the road?

I need persuading that the City would not once again fold within days of an application from a developer to push back the boundaries of protection… “just a little”, “just a block or so”.  The usual wheeze is to quietly acquire a number of buildings on the edge of the district, allow them to run down and then argue that they aren’t worth saving and never should have been included in the district.  Will the City stand up to this?  Oh, I would so like to think so, but based on my experience, I think not.  All a developer has to do is claim that the City is unfairly standing in the way of someone making a whacking return on investment, and the heritage folk are trampled in the rush to compromise.

Thus, our irreplacable heritage assets are continually eroded away.

The Bray Report acknowledges this in Recommendation 8:

“It is recommended that the City initiate a parallel process to that of the current study to address issues of cultural heritage resource management. The proposed process should have a mandate to establish robust cultural heritage programs with sufficient capacity to address the current Provincial heritage policies and the resultant increased workload.”

Note the word, “robust”.  I wonder how that survived to make it into the final report?

The Bray Report is worth reading and contains some splendid photographs.  The City has posted it so you can read it  at

Being my cheeky self, though, I will comment that we could have saved the Heritage Committee a good deal of time and money.  Should Sydenham Ward be an heritage district?  Yep.  Now someone please get busy and figure out how we can finally protect our limestone identity, before it becomes more appropriate to call ourselves ‘the concrete jungle’.


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Ontario Ministry of Culture offers pre-packaged presentation aimed at municipal councils.

In Ontario, our Ministry of Culture is offering a tool called, “Supporting Heritage in Your Community”.  The objective is to assist local heritage organizations with making a case for heritage at the municipal level.  Specifically, the presentation is designed to be useful in trying to convince municipal councils and employees of the value of establishing an “heritage committee” under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The “Supporting Heritage” package includes speaking notes (a presentation) which someone must study and then deliver.  Also included are slides and some answers to challenging questions that may come up, such as, “How much will all this cost?”

The Ontario Heritage Act places the initiation of heritage protection right at the grassroots, through committees.  In offering this presentation package, in my opinion, the Ontario Government is finally acknowledging that the grassroots are often complete babes-in-the-wood when it comes to kick-starting the process.  In many municipalities where there are important resources and concerned citizens, nothing is being done.

However, will a packaged presentation overcome the handicap of an inexperienced presenter?  If one is not a competent and confident public speaker, will the impatience and disinterest of councillors be overcome?  I have worn these shoes, and political rallies have nothing on a meeting of annoyed and defensive councillors facing a mountainous Wednesday agenda.

Also, without depth of understanding of competing heritage assets, will the presenter avoid being perceived as yet another hysterical, minority interest?  Councils are tired of all the whining.

Going to them is a bit like the heritage equivalent of the Dragons’ Den.

The Ontario Heritage Act is deficient in tools to provide leadership.  It is intended to empower not to endorse.   The “Supporting Heritage” package aims to help while avoiding Provincial interference. 

I, for one, will be very interested to know how often the package is used and whether the number of heritage committees increases during 2009.

You can see the the “Supporting Heritage in Your Community” package for yourself at

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Is Our Earliest Methodist Church Nationally Significant?

Over the last forty years, Canadians have revealed the bad old bias in favour of things White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant as the nasty attitude which it is.  We have struggled to make our country more inclusive. -And that’s a good thing.

We should be preserving things which help us tell the stories of multi-cultural Canada, whether it is the sad experience of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War or the evolution of the West Indian neighbourhoods of Toronto just yesterday. These are all chapters in the one, great Canadian Story.

-But I observe of late a dimished appetite to explore our earlier history. It is as if there is a national hesitation to recommend elements of our Anglo-Saxon past (unless there is an important First Nations connection, or something to do with the underground railway).

The United Empire Loyalists, the farmer-founders of Ontario (1784), were refugees having found themselves on the loosing side of the American Revolutionary War. Those who came very shortly after the Loyalists were part of an economic migration in search of a better future,  just like emigrants from the third world do today. But those sturdy, eighteenth century agrarian pioneers were White, and Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.

Hay Bay Methodist Church

Hay Bay Methodist Church

The meeting house which they built on the shores of Hay Bay in 1792  (enlarged in 1835) is still there.   It is a frame building, elegant in its simplicity and expressive of an unpretentious and very personal piety.  It is a reminder that the founders of Ontario were loyal to the Crown, but reserved the right to opt out of the official state religion.  Indeed, they wanted freedom of choice in many things which evolved into a steady pressure to organize and govern themselves, which is at the root of how Ontario is organized and governed today.

The church is respected as a monument by descendants of the original Loyalists who remain in the county of Lennox and Addington.  It has been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, and recognized as a National Historic Site by the Department of Canadian Heritage (2000)  but without passion.   It is difficult not to believe that the church squeaked through the designation process based on a convenient opportunity to share out the cookies combined with, “Well, we guess so…   It’s really old.”    This site deserves more.

Somehow, we need to overcome our reluctance to eulogize the accomplishments  of settlers who happened to be White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.  We need to encourage our educators to continue to teach this history, as part of what Canadians call, “the cultural mosaic”.  To fail to do is a national disservice.  A lack-lustre interest in our Anglo-Saxon pioneers is not contributing to an inclusive Canada.   It is in fact diminishing a very large and signicant part of our cultural heritage.

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Possibly the greatest asset that any historical society possesses is direct connection to the public. From documenting built heritage, to capturing our personal stories (and offering a haven for amazing collections), historical societies are incredibly effective engines for engaging our communities with the past.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that the “public” is absolutely everybody.

The phenomenon which is the greatest strength is also the greatest weakness.

1. Authenticity. Ever since “Roots”, the general public has been engaged as never before in heritage through the very personal interface of family history. This is a good, perhaps a great, thing. However, it has resulted in a perception that all input is equally valuable, which it isn’t. From vast data banks of poorly transcribed materials, full of mistakes to bulletin boards which offer information which is totally wrong, the work of simple folk who are really good at history is mixed and muddled with the work of simple folk who haven’t got a clue. Historical societies are more and more under pressure to represent and publish everybody, which means that the quality of offerings is diluted, authority is increasingly suspect and respect diminished.

To me, this has always seemed akin to cutting ice time and funding for the Ontario Hockey League and diverting all resources to free skating.

2. Political activism. Communities always include passionate individuals who want to storm the bastille. Usually, this is in defence of built heritage. Of course, all historical societies occasionally compose letters or send representation to hearings on compelling issues. -But activists see this level of participation as weak, a “cop out”. Societies are more and more often asked to “take a stand” – by which is usually meant involvement with the media, rallies and placard-waving and some very strong words.

Since preservation decisions are made at the municipal level in most jurisdictions, this frankly means making life hell for elected municipal officials. Now, these are the same officials who decide local funding for our museums, archives and heritage sites. The existence of these institutions is hard-won, usually the result of years of work by our predecessors. This fight is not over. In the early twenty-first century, the survival of many of our small heritage facilities is very fragile. Can we, should we, risk losing old political allies and established good will for new battles? Perhaps societies should, but it is by no means clear to me.

No doubt about it. In the early twenty-first century, the role of historical societies is being questioned. A delicate balancing act may be insufficient to meet the challenge. What’s an historical society to do?

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A Toothless Dragon?

When the municipality signals intent to “designate” a property under the Ontario Heritage Act, there is a right to object. As Designation is in fact, a legal lien, objections happen quite frequently and usually originate with the person or company who owns (or intends to own and develop) the property. Sometimes, initial resentment and distrust is resolved amicably by some small changes in expectations from both sides, but if this does not work, if the municipality is unable to resolve the objections, then the matter is taken to the Conservation Review Board.

The Ontario Ministry of Culture offers the following explanation for the work of the Board:  “The Conservation Review Board is a regulatory tribunal that hears disputes on matters relating to the protection of properties considered to hold cultural heritage value or interest or of archaeological significance to a municipality or to the Minister of Culture, as defined by the Ontario Heritage Act (Act). ” Ontario – CRB

Both sides are invited to argue their case before the Board and interested third parties may also make presentations at the hearing.   When all arguments have been heard, the Conservation Review Board rules on whether the property should be designated under the Heritage Act.  There is no question that the Board takes the job seriously, as their reports (which are public documents) show.

So, on the surface, this is good stuff, and a fair way to get out of an impasse. -But consider this. The Board may consider the heritage merits of the property, and only the heritage merits of a property. Related disputes are beyond their jurisdiction.

The Ministry of Culture states: “Once a Notice of Intention to Designate is issued by a municipality …. enforcement of these provisions is the responsibility of the municipality or the Minister of Culture, whichever is applicable. The Board has no role in the protection of a cultural heritage property, outside of its mandate as an adjudicator in disputes over decisions made under the Act.   As it is an independent regulatory tribunal tasked with assessing the merits of designation without any apprehension of bias, the Board’s sole role is to conduct a formal hearing process.”

For instance, if the owner of the property has turned off the heat, and left the building vulnerable to all that the elements can deliver in the expectation that it will become so unsound that the neighbours will demand demolition, the Conservation Board has nothing to say, even if they agree with the municipality that the structure is of historical importance. The recent ruling in regards to the City of Burlington and Seaton House (April, 2008) is a case in point.  The Conservation Review Board agreed with Burlington that: “the values or interests prescribed in Regulation 9/06 of the Act to be well manifested in this property” and recommended Heritage Designation.  However, the Board could do nothing for the City in the matter of the landlord’s seemingly deliberate neglect of the property and ignoring the City’s requests for inspection. It was left to the City of Burlington to decide whether they should take further legal action.

This seems to be a classic Pyrrhic victory.

As Designation, with required public notices, followed by mounting a defence at the Conservation Review Board is not without cost, municipalities might well be excused for baulking at further investment to attempt to stop angry owners from destroying built heritage by neglect.
So, the decision of the Board only has teeth if the municipality gives it teeth. Exhausted Heritage Committees (“LACAC’s”) must find the energy to push and push again to defend the built heritage, even after a positive ruling from the Conservation Review Board.

Consider also the role of the Conservation Review Board vis a vis the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Developers may take their planning problems to the OMB, even after a ruling by the Conservation Review Board has gone against them. The OMB takes a much wider look at the case. “Decisions are based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the relevant law, provincial polices and the principles of good planning.” (Website)

 Although there is no question that the OMB would treat a recommendation to Designate from the Conservation Review Board very seriously, it does not consider heritage as the principle issue in requests for planning permission. In recent years, the OMB has listened to accusations from developers that the Heritage Act may be used to impede otherwise good planning initiatives. In the current economic situation, it is doubtful that the OMB will put history and culture before job-creation and infrastructure growth.

The expertise on the OMB team does not normally include heritage, or even architecture.  However, “Members of the [Conservation Review] Board can be cross-appointed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) as members with full standing to hear disputes under other sections of the Act.”  So, the Ontario Municipal Board may invite colleagues from the Conservation Review Board to provide heritage input on a property.  However, the Ontario Municipal Board out-ranks the Conservation Review Board in the government hierarchy and, “Decisions of the OMB are final.” (Ontario Municipal Board official website)

Beleagured Heritage Committees, having rallied to convince their Municipality, and then fought the battle at the Conservation Review Board, may wake up the morning following an OMB Hearing to find that all they have saved is the facade, after all.

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