For most of the 1700s, the controlling elements of British society were staunchly conservative, promoting the values of rationalism, order and harmony; attitudes that launched the Industrial Revolution in Britain decades earlier than anywhere else.
However, there were many who pushed back against the prevailing attitudes and created a movement which eventually had a profound influence on 19th-century thought. This movement, which is known as Romantic, celebrated individualism, variety, emotion and a profound connection with nature.
By the early 1800s, the tenets of Romanticism could be seen in the writing of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, John Keats, in the art of painters like J. M. W. Turner and John Constable, in the designs of architects such as John Nash and in the actions of political reformers attempting to influence those in the halls of power, none the least of which was the controversial Prince of Wales.
By 1810, King George III was virtually blind, suffering from continual pain and recurrent bouts of mental instability that forced Parliament to pass the Regency Act in 1811, appointing the unpopular Prince of Wales (future King George IV) as regent with restricted powers.
While The Prince Regent, as he was often referred to, had a smaller role in politics than his predecessors, he moved to centre stage in matters of “style, culture and taste.”
In short order, he commissioned John Nash on projects which culminated in the design of the exotic Brighton Pavillion – the first fully realized example of grand architecture in the style that had been developing under the principles of Romanticism: Regency.
As one might suspect, a style developed by architects who spoke to individualism and variety could, and did, take on various expressions that, at first glance, may not seem to follow a consistent set of parameters. However, within this variety lies a consistency of common elements.
First and foremost, a Regency design follows the picturesque tradition of integrating with the surrounding landscape. Unlike formal Georgian houses wherein the principal rooms were often located on the second floor, these “public” spaces were placed on the ground floor and very often opened onto verandahs via French doors creating a flow from the interior to the exterior.
The buildings displayed a horizontal emphasis, appearing to be set lower to the ground, with distinct water tables and belt courses which drew the eye across the building into the naturalized plantings around the structure.
Particular attention was paid to the play of light and shadow generated by the sun, the plantings, and the elements of the building’s design; whether that building be grand (as in Hamilton’s Dundurn Castle) or simple (as in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s James Butler’s House at 285 Simcoe St.).
Finally, a hip roof was the most commonly used for its quality of drawing the eye back down to the ground, enhancing landscape integration.
Some inspiration was drawn from neoclassical design, but this was leavened with elements from rural Italian (Tuscan), Moorish, Indian and Oriental architecture. These “exotic” elements were moulded, altered and often simplified through the filter of the British picturesque tradition to establish a natural emotive response rather than a distinct decorative statement.
In keeping with the “natural emotive” principle, Regency decorative elements are typically minimalistic and the main entry, even when large and dressed with sidelights and/or transom lights, tends to be understated.
The advent of the Regency style in Upper Canada coincided with a fundamental change in the colony’s pattern of immigration. Where, prior to 1815, the majority of immigrants were early, middle and late Loyalists leaving the newly formed United States, after the War of 1812, the primary source of new arrivals came from Britain, not a few of whom had served in the King’s armed forces.
The post-war anti-American sentiment combined with the influx of new British settlers – many with a military loyalty bias and tastes broadened by service in foreign lands – created a social desire to be definitively British.
The Regency style, with its hint of the exotic but completely a British development, suited Upper Canada in the first half of the 19th century to a T.
So, within a 30-minute drive of where you sit in Niagara-on-the-Lake, we are blessed to have superb surviving examples of each of the Regency design expressions for you to discover.
The Ontario Regency Cottage, a Regency expression based on the British military modification of the Indian bungalow for their serving officers in India, was one of the most common period building designs in Upper Canada.
A symmetrical single-storey home with a hipped roof, the circa 1837 Warner House at 287 Warner Rd. in NOTL is an outstanding up-scale instance built of quarried stone, while the previously mentioned circa 1817 James Butler House at 285 Simcoe St. in Old Town stands out as an early clapboard survivor.
The two-storey, three-bay, hipped-roof, symmetrical, cubic form Breakenridge House, circa 1823, at 240 Centre St. in Old Town is likely the oldest unaltered example of this Regency expression in the country. The circa 1840 Ball House (Roselawn) at 1413 Lakeshore Rd. in NOTL illustrates some oriental influence in its entry decoration typical of its later period.
Over in Niagara Falls at 2922 St. Paul Ave. sits the circa 1840s Oswald House, a rare one-and-a-half-storey gabled roof home which treats passers-by to its original trellis wrap-around verandah served by six sets of French doors.
Back in NOTL, the circa 1858 St. Mark’s Rectory is a Regency Tuscan, the verticality of its architecture illustrating the waning popularity of the expression and the influence of the emerging Italianate style.
Finally, the last and rarest of Regency expressions is the romantic landscape gazebo-inspired form of the Solomon Miller Octagon House located in rural Niagara Falls at 3878 Baker Rd. Designed in the form that Orson Fowler described in 1849 as the “ideal house,” there were only 45 examples of this design ever built in Ontario and, of those, a mere handful remain.
Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.