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Monday, April 15, 2024
Arch-i-text: How architecture holds the history of its inhabitors
Facing King Street and hidden behind a hedge, Brockamour’s facade has changed little from the 1840s with the exception of the columned porch added circa 1890 to 1900. BRIAN MARSHALL

At the corner of King and Mary streets stands a large white building that recalls the early days of the Town of Niagara.

In 1800, the renowned Mohawk leader Joseph Brant purchased the one-acre lot from Robert Pilkington, due – it is thought – to the property’s proximity to the Indian Department Council House.

Brant was continuing to ardently negotiate for the rights of his people to obtain title to the lands of the Grand River Valley.

He sold the property in 1805 to the son of Chief Justice William Powell, John. It was he who built a substantial house on the lot for his wife, Isabella, and their family circa 1809.

Isabella’s father and sister, Sophia Shaw, were regular visitors to the Powells, as was, apparently, a senior British Army officer and colonial administrator, one Sir Issac Brock.

And now we enter the realm of urban legend, for it was widely believed and repeated at the time that Sophia Shaw and Brock were an “item.”

In fact, it was suggested that the couple were engaged to be married at the time of Brock’s death during the Battle of Queenston Heights.

Sophia was said to be heartbroken and remained single for the rest of her life.

Whether that story is fact or fiction, the Powells’ fine house was lost during the torching of the town as the American occupiers withdrew.

Interestingly though, many historians — citing the inordinately modest amount in Powell’s war loss claim — suggest that perhaps one original wing containing two rooms and the kitchen survived and was incorporated in the rebuilt ca. 1816-1818 home.

The Powells spared no expense to ensure this post-war house was built to withstand the vicissitudes of time and any future conflict with the Americans (a common fear during the decades following the War of 1812).

Solid masonry, its walls are four brick wythes thick. 

At the time it was built three architectural styles were in vogue: Georgian, neoclassical and early Regency.

For their new house, the Powells chose a two-storey cubic three-bay Regency form with its typical hip roof and tall chimneys.

The main entry statement was neoclassical incorporating a glorious semi-elliptical fanlight similar to those found on the Breakenridge-Hawley House (Mississauga & William) and the Clench House (Johnson & Mississauga) for example.

The window openings are a statement in and of themselves. Oversized for this period in Upper Canada, each boasts 30 panes of glass (15 over 15) — at a time when glass was the most expensive material used in a building. 

In 1824, the Powells sold the property to Thomas McCormack, its owner for the next 12 years whereupon it was acquired by the very successful barrister, James Boulton.

During the 1840s, Boulton added several additions to the house, including a formal ballroom topped by a second-floor nursery (think dormitory) — likely required for the abundant number of children born during his three successive marriages.

This remodelling extended to the original house massing as well.

Drawing inspiration from the new Court House on Queen Street, brackets were added under the eaves and, I suspect, the original brickfields were coated with smooth stucco that was incised to mimic ashlar stone.

This stucco treatment would not only have “modernized” the building’s presentation but also served to integrate the original building with the new additions.

As with any home, the property continued to be passed from owner to owner – benefiting from, or suffering under, each owner’s treatment.

The historical record appears to indicate that most of Boulton’s alterations survived through the 19th century when such notables as Duncan Millroy – a significant figure in Great Lakes sail shipping – and Dr. Frederick Morson, who served as the doctor for the Rye (Great Western) Home, were numbered amongst those owners.

That would end in the early 20th century when Boulton’s ballroom addition was demolished.

Then, in the mid-20th-century, a house fire caused the loss of more interior elements. Battle-worn and weary, the old warrior survived.

So … fast forward to today: the Powell-Wisch House has been fully restored – including rebuilding the ballroom – and was heritage designated in 2002.

It functions now as an elegant B&B, operating as Brockamour Manor.

Here we have a story of success wherein a grand and gracious home, an irreplaceable piece of the town’s built heritage, was saved, restored and designated by caring individuals who recognized the importance of its place in history.

This is certainly not a rare occurrence in Niagara-on-the-Lake: it is a rare street, road, line or concession, which does not have an example of our shared built heritage that has been restored and given new life.

It is one of the things that sets this town apart from virtually all the other villages, towns and cities in Ontario.

Townsfolk have celebrated, worked and sometimes fought to preserve that heritage.

Has that effort always been successful?

No. Witness the fact that the Kirby House on Front Street is the only remaining heritage asset on that part of the street — the others have all been demolished and replaced with contemporary houses. 

Look, I fully understand that saving and restoring a historic building is an expensive undertaking.

So is funding a university archive or a museum collection — but we all understand and accept the value inherent in those investments.

Simply put, an original work displays the mind and hands of its creator and it connects us in a very fundamental way to those who have used and or experienced the work over time.

It’s something that no reproduction, no matter how fine or accurate, can do.

I find it strange that some don’t put the same value on a dwelling that has been home to families for centuries and has captured that history and those individual experiences in its very walls.

For someone to suggest demolishing a 200-year-old house because the cost of saving it will be more than its worth, is not only guilty of proposing to vandalize the historic warp and weave of this community, but further, is denying current and future generations the opportunity to directly interact with our heritage while relegating the experiences of previous generations to the trash can.

Whether a humble cottage or a grand mansion, every piece of built heritage tells a story which would otherwise go unheard.

The preservation and protection through designation provide a richer community for us all.         

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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