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Niagara Falls
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Arch-i-text: A home, a couple and a sense of place
Columnist Brian Marshall says this 20th century house displays a true “sense of place” in NOTL’s architectural fabric.

When I first began writing the Arch-i-text series back in 2018, my intent was to make this column a place wherein the character of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s community, reflected in its built heritage and shared values, would be celebrated, protected and enhanced.

More than half a decade later, I believe that the column has consistently fulfilled those parameters.

What I did not anticipate, but am extremely gratified by, is the extent to which the Arch-i-text’s weekly message would resonate with other folks who call Niagara-on-the-Lake home.

Every week I receive expressions of encouragement, sometimes spoken and in other cases written, from The Lake Report readers – all of which I profoundly appreciate.

Another blessing conferred through this column has been to meet, chat with and often tour the fine homes of people who are justifiably proud of their part in the warp and weave which makes this town unique.

So it was that last week I was invited to sit down with Erika and Jim Alexander, a powerful couple who have consistently contributed to this community since the 1960s, in their home on King Street.

Now, I freely admit to being rather excited by their invitation, since I had been curious about this house for years: a 20th-century build imbued with an exquisite sense of place that reflects and enhances NOTL’s prevailing built character.

But, until I crossed its threshold and met the Alexanders, I had no idea just how great a treasure their home represented.

Nearly immediately after our mutual introductions, Jim asked me what I thought of the home’s design.

After replying that I liked it, he went on to explain that there had been considerable resistance to it from a neighbour who believed that no new house should draw upon traditional designs, forms and elements out of fear that it may, somehow, detract from actual historic architecture.

Jim indicated that he and Erika had come across and fallen in love with the design during one of their vacations. They were determined to build it here in NOTL as their new home.

Jim smiled at me and said, “I simply told him that great design should never be limited to a period of time but, rather, only by appropriateness to a sense of place.”

A sentiment with which I completely agree.

He went on to explain that they had built an R-2000 house before most people “knew what that was.”

Then, he continued by explaining that principally the only “new” materials involved in its construction were the 2x4s used in the double framing and the cement foundation.

And that is the second fundamental point of departure down the path they took to create a very special residence.

About the time of their build, the town was seeking to have the brick outbuilding that had been an original part of the King Street courthouse (sic. Our Western Home) demolished.

Jim won the tender on this undertaking and, instead of hauling all the debris away, saved and cleaned each usable brick.

It was these 19th-century bricks which were re-laid as the exterior wall cladding.

As we walked through the house, more and more materials were identified as repurposed from this historic place or that.

The flawless white oak used in their cabinetry, for example, had been milled down into flat boards (a technique Jim had to figure out) from the staves of expired wine barrels obtained from Brights Winery.

Floors, ceilings, beams and joinery of all types were crafted by Jim from largely old growth wood that had served in a previous purpose.

Which brings us to a third point of departure along their path.

Both Erika and Jim are artists and superb crafts persons and their talents are expressed in every part of this build.

Erika’s stunning stained glass art decorates nearly every window augmenting the subtle arts and crafts feel of the interior anchored in Jim’s craftsmanship – skills developed by working on historic projects across the province.

With its traditional gambrel cedar shake roof set off by a triple row of fishscale shingles, the reclaimed brick cladding that features herringbone inserts below the windows, and its timbered framing, the gestalt is a tour de force at the top of King Street, rightfully claiming a special place in the built heritage of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But, with the Alexanders, it is not solely about their achievement in this build, for they both have contributed selflessly and continually to the community in which they’ve been a part.

As we sat having coffee in their living room, I was struck by their past and ongoing commitment to the tapestry of this town.

Amongst other things, they have both been actively involved in the Friends of Fort George ever since it was organized in 1987.

They were a driving force in the community group that established Rye Heritage Park on the grounds associated with the 1817 courthouse (that later became Maria Rye’s Our Western Home).

They were founding members of the local Rotary Club and active fund-raisers for a wide variety of projects. And the list goes on.

Consider the fact that Jim was a long-term volunteer on the town’s Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, not only serving alongside of notables like Don Chapman and Peter Stokes, but also taking the leadership role as Chair during several terms.

Jim recounted several successful examples of advisory committee’s recommendations during his tenure before recalling one particular undertaking in detail.

You see, the committee’s eminently qualified members could not understand why NOTL’s historic district was so circumscribed and did not align with the boundaries of what is now the National Historic District.

Not content to accept the status quo, this committee conducted the research required, justified the district expansion, then submitted for council approval a full and complete written recommendation to that end.

That it failed to receive council approval was not due to any shortcoming in their work or the written submission, but solely a result of political considerations by the councillors at that time (incidentally the same considerations – I am told – which had restricted the original boundaries of the Queen-Picton Historic District in 1986).

That said, the committee and the Alexanders soldiered on because one loss could not negate their commitment to the community at large.

In the past, I have called upon each and every one of us who live in Niagara-on-the-Lake to get personally involved in the preservation and betterment of our town.

Otherwise, there are vested interests who will step into the gap.

In Erika and Jim Alexander, we have an example to emulate.

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

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