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Thursday, September 29, 2022
Arch-i-text: Guardians of a 19th-century treasure
The Hamilton-Kormos House.
The Hamilton-Kormos House. Brian Marshall

Owning a historic house is like a marriage, it’s a labour of love.

Along the way there are many compromises to be made, given an old home’s unique and sometimes limiting characteristics, but the returns far outweigh any sacrifices an owner might make.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with one such owner in the garden behind his house. 

Jon Kormos and his wife purchased their home in Queenston during the early 1960s and he still refers to it as “their treasure.”

The house is estimated to have been built circa 1808 by one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in Niagara of the time, Robert Hamilton, for his eldest son Robert F. Hamilton who served as a captain in the Lincoln Militia during the War of 1812 and later as a member of the Legislative Assembly.

For nearly a century and a half, the home sheltered the descendants of Robert Hamilton, finally passing out of the family in 1954.

Stylistically, the five-bay end-gabled home is an early example of the Neo-Classical tradition in Upper Canada.

The facade is “dressed up” with a Flemish bond brick pattern (the end and rear walls laid in the less expensive common bond) and sports six integrated brick pilasters with simple capitals (caps) recalling those of Tuscan columns.

As-built, the facade would have been strictly symmetrical with all window and door openings centred in each bay and ranked top opening directly above the lower opening.

However, at some point in the second half of the 19th century, the centre bay was altered by shifting the main entry to the left side of the bay and the opening above to the right side (one can still see the original upper opening placement in the surviving brick soldier course).

These alterations, odd as they may seem from the exterior, were driven by interior renovation.

So, in the first half of the 1800s, it was not uncommon for the interior staircase to rise from the back of the house on the first floor toward the front wall on the second floor. This configuration presented a formal foyer to visitors without exposing the more simply finished second floor to view.

But, as fashion changed to copy higher-end homes, the staircase became part of the statement made to visitors and many home owners had the staircase flipped toward the front door.

Such was the case in the Hamilton-Kormos house, although the owners of this home went one step further. They shifted the front entry to line up closer to the staircase and pushed the second-floor opening over to centre on the upper hallway.

Now, for the architectural historian the question becomes: Are the French doors in the upper opening an original feature of the facade (as in the Clement House on Four Mile Creek Road) or something added during the 19th-century renovation?

From my “cat-bird seat,” based on the typical 19th-century Niagara homeowner’s practice of reusing original elements where possible combined with the evidence shown on the existing brick/mortar fields, I don’t believe these large-paned doors were a part of the original facade.

While there is some remote possibility that the doors could have been replaced during the renovation, I suspect the original opening was a 12-over-12 window consistent with the other windows on the facade.

Moving to the interior, the original pine flooring runs through the house. Of particular note is the original cooking fireplace in the cellar that Jon discovered under layers of brick and plaster, the circa 1830s mantelpiece in the parlour room and the absolutely stellar vertically reeded mantelpiece (period original) in the south room.

The couple had their home designated in 2002 and Jon plans on extending the protection to include elements not captured within the original designation.

For six decades, the Kormos’s served as guardians of a part of our shared built heritage and he is determined that their treasure continues to live on.   

Bravo, Jon.