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Niagara Falls
Saturday, June 15, 2024
Arch-i-text: Ghosts and the loss of heritage buildings

There is no question that the War of 1812 destroyed much of the town’s original built architecture.

Many fine buildings were put to the torch and burned to the ground. Imagine if Robert Kerr’s home with its 96-foot-long facade or William Dickson’s grand Georgian manor house constructed of 120,000 bricks still graced our streets.

But the loss of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s built architecture did not end with the withdrawal of the Americans in 1813. It has continued down through the decades and remains a force even to this day.

Let’s consider the Niagara Courthouse and Gaol, which was constructed in 1817, and, when completed, was proclaimed one of the finest buildings in Upper Canada.

Designed in the Neo-classical tradition, the facade of this winged red brick structure displayed a second-storey arched arcade used by Neo-classical architects to recall the ancient Roman building practice (surviving examples of this design form can be seen in the MacDougal House on Queen Street and the Stewart-McLeod House on Prideaux).

Its impactful presence at the end of King Street, built well away from the town centre, would have created a statement for the future growth ambitions of the town.

Replaced as the Court House in 1847, the building became the seat of operations for Maria Rye’s “Our Western Home,” an orphanage for young girls that operated until 1913. The building then fell into disrepair and was demolished a few short years later after the First World War.

This was certainly not the only fine old building in Niagara-on-the-Lake to suffer this fate. If we were to journey over to the village of Queenston in the early 1800s, facing onto Queenston Street could be found the strong stone facade of the Ivy Block (a.k.a. Fisher Building).

Reputed to have served as a barracks in the War of 1812, over its lifespan this building housed the Queenston Hotel and the Imperial Bank of Canada, a retail store, restaurant, operated as a boarding house and then an apartment building. This example of Niagara’s built-heritage outlasted the 1817 Courthouse by several decades before meeting its end with the wrecking crew in the mid-20th century.

It seems to be typical that an old building is viewed as something that has outlived its purpose, which leads to diminished use, slow disrepair and deterioration, followed by eventual demolition.

Taking a drive on the roads of Niagara-on-the-Lake, one can see this happening today. Wander out Carlton Street heading toward the canal bridge to witness a perfect example.

It seems that for many Canadian citizens, “old” is another word for “useless,” with the automatic response that it should be swept away in order to build something new.

But does it really?

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