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Friday, September 29, 2023
Arch-i-text: NOTL history, hidden under the renovations
eneath the renovations these homes are older than you might think. (Supplied)

About three years ago, a young lady of my acquaintance purchased an old house in St. Catharines’ Yates Street Heritage District. She contacted me asking for some advice relative to rehabilitating the sadly neglected interior of the home and I went over to take a look.

One of the items on her wishlist was to remove the wall separating the kitchen which was in a 1950s back lean-to addition and the adjoining dining room located in what appeared to be the original 1860s structure.

To this end, I suggested that in order to assess the feasibility of this undertaking she would have to remove the old plaster and lathe so we could examine the underlying structure.

They set to and, a couple of days later, I returned to take a look. What had been revealed was the timber frame of the original one-and-a-quarter-storey settler’s dwelling circa 1830, complete with the end gable roof trusses and queen posts.

Apparently, rather than demolish the timber frame during the construction of the much larger 1860s house, the builder simply incorporated it into the new two-storey dwelling, building the upper walls directly onto the timber roof trusses.

Needless to say, the young lady got an arched opening rather than the “open concept” she originally desired thereby preserving the original timber frame which was once again hidden within the new walls.

In fact, her experience was not unique since 19th and early 20th Century builders saw absolutely no reason to demo perfectly serviceable existing timber frames and routinely incorporated them into new build-outs.

Similarly, spotted here and there all across Niagara-on-the-Lake, are examples of the town’s hidden history.

In some cases, the bones are still on display and, if one uses a little imagination, the historic structure shines through. While in others, just like the Yates Street house, the original is buried within.

So, let’s take a little tour around town and visit a few examples of our hidden history.

Standing side-by-side on Gage Street in Old Town are two circa 1880 homes, very likely constructed by the same builder within a year of one another, at numbers 116 and 122.

Both of these houses have seen alterations over the years. The main floor facade window openings of 122 have been enlarged, all the windows replaced and the house skinned over with vinyl siding but the through-eave dormers and the general presentation remain largely intact.

Similarly, the wall cladding of 116 has been covered with vinyl but the window openings remain true to the original. However, because the roof pitch of this house has been altered to increase second-floor headspace and create a taller rear wall, it is slightly more difficult to “see” the original one-and-a-half-storey traditional presentation.

Now, out on Concession 2 at number 684 stands a house that one might drive by and assume is a modern New Traditional design but, not so.

It is actually an L-shaped Gothic farmhouse from the latter part of the 19th century, which has been completely recladded with modern brick, its eaves and gables boxed in aluminum while being thoroughly updated. That said, it has retained the tell-tale elements of its original Gothic roots. 

Hidden away behind a 20th-century addition to the facade, the old stone farmhouse at 1258 Concession 6 Rd. can still be seen on the side and rear walls of the building.

Very likely, this dwelling was contemporaneous with the stone Gothic farmhouse at 1023 East & West Ln. (ca. 1875) and probably originally had a very similar presentation.

Stepping the “hidden” element up one notch, let’s look first at 1503 Niagara Stone Rd. in Virgil. Constructed circa 1900 by William Stevens, this building served as both his family home (rear) and housed the business that supported his family.

Under the 20th century siding and angel stone is a traditional late-period Gothic form clad in brick. Imagine the positive impact on this portion of Virgil’s streetscape if it were restored to its original appearance.

And, while we’re in Virgil, let’s take a turn onto Four Mile Creek Road to stop by at number 1408. Built circa 1840 in the then typical storey and a-half end-gabled form, in 1945 the owners conducted a massive renovation.

This work completely altered the street view of the house by dropping the roof such that the eaves sat down just above the windows, adding two bays and installing oversized double dormers.

No doubt it added to the interior liveability of the home but it buried the historic house.

Shifting over to York Road and driving towards Queenston, on the left-hand side sits number 1786. And why, you ask, have I pointed you at what appears to be a circa 1970 Ranch bungalow?

Well, this particular ranch is actually built around a circa 1816 three-hundred-square-foot settlement house constructed of stone. Its 16-inch thick walls still form the core of the bungalow.

Then, on to Queenston where roughly in the centre of the village stands 69 Queenston St.

In form, this modest dwelling recalls the Hall & Parlour houses built throughout the latter half of the 19th and into the early 20th century in Niagara-on-the-Lake but, according to an assessment conducted by the restoration architect Peter J. Stokes, its bones are much older.

In fact, it was Stokes’ opinion that the original construction was either immediately post-War of 1812 or possibly before that war.

So, when you are out sightseeing around town, take a look at that house and then a second look, it may be a lot older than you think.

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

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