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Thursday, September 28, 2023
Arch-i-text: An homage to the Greeks and one couple’s vision
The Slingerlands’ beautifully restored “Winged Temple.” Columnist Brian Marshall says it’s an example that should be emulated. (BRIAN MARSHALL)

During the 18th century in Europe, the scions of wealthy families would embark on what came to be referred to as a “Grand Tour,” a tour of classical historic locales to “expand their education.”

In the early days, classical was defined by all things Roman, but that would change by the second half of the century, mainly due to a book published in 1762.

Funded by the Society of Dilettanti, a club comprised of wealthy “grand tourists,” English architects James Stuart and Nicolas Revett, went to Greece and accurately documented the ruins of Athens.

Upon their return, the pair wrote “Antiquities of Athens,” which fast became a must-have volume in the libraries of the rich.

Towards the end of the 1700s, a fascination with ancient Greece had supplanted Rome as the centre of intellectual interest.

Unsurprisingly, this fascination migrated across the pond where the citizens of the infant United States adopted the study and inspiration drawn from the “original cradle of western thought and democracy” with a passion.

New settlements in Upper New York State were given proud historic names like Utica, Troy, and Ithaca.

Architects of the period shifted their designs from the Roman-inspired Neo-Classical to the cleaner, more severe majesty of ancient Greek temples to develop the Greek Revival style.

That this architectural style resonated with the young country’s aspirations can be seen in a tour of Washington D.C.’s public buildings constructed in the period.

This includes their porticos, colonnades and Greek classical orders, proclaiming their roots.

So too did the new houses of the time adopt the style.

For the wealthy, the Monumental expression of the style was all the rage.

Locally, one can see examples of this expression in John and Alexander Hamilton’s homes – Glencairn circa 1832 and Willowbank circa 1834, respectively – on the Niagara River Parkway in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

A bit more afield in Haldimand’s Ruthven Park National Historic Site, the elegant Thompson Mansion, circa 1845 to 1847, is a fine, albeit later, example of Greek Revival.

While the Monumental form might have been the exclusive purview of the wealthy, the style permeated house construction from the 1830s up until 1860.

It did so via the widely circulated pattern books of the time, amongst the most recognizable of which was Benjamin Asher’s  “American Builder’s Companion” from 1827.

Directed at builders and carpenters, Asher’s book contained sufficient information and drawings regarding Greek architecture and detailing to allow skilled artisans, lacking formal architectural training, to build in the Greek Revival style or appoint a more common building form with the style’s detailing.

From these pattern books, together with the hands and minds of the builders, a more modest expression of the style evolved: the temple form.

Presenting its gable end to the street, the facade of these one-and-a-half or two-storey dwellings is elegantly simple.

An asymmetrically-placed main entry generally boasts a fairly heavy but classically clean built-up statement door surround.

A broad, undecorated moulding build-up wraps the eaves and rakes the gable end with returns which, taken together, combine to suggest a pediment.

Both lintels and sills of the window openings are commonly weighty blocks of rusticated limestone.

Narrow and deep, temple form houses are spotted across the historic communities of Ontario and the U.S. northeast. 

A variant of the temple form, for those whose wallet was deeper and their lot wider, was the winged temple, a standard temple to which single-storey wings were added on one or both side walls.

It is the winged temple which brings us to the home of Nancy and Monty Slingerland here in NOTL.

Forty-three years ago, looking for a larger home in which to raise their young family, the Slingerlands came across a sadly neglected brick house on Queenston Road.

The plaster ceilings had collapsed onto the floors and “generations of critters” had left a major mess in their wake.

On viewing, Nancy’s mother definitively proclaimed her grandchildren would not be raised in such a house. 

The bones of the house were solid, the original trim and staircase were still in place and they could see what it would be when restored.

Undeterred by the challenge (although I imagine a little trepidatious) they bought the property, cleaned it out and moved on to the major restoration work required to make it liveable.

It took 9 months before they were able to move in and then the work continued.

Today, this wonderful circa 1830s house is a testament to long hours of work, careful sourcing of materials and skills learned through experience.

It is beautifully complete inside and out, presenting a classic facade to the street that underlines the Slingerlands’ original ability to see the diamond in the rough.

The central massing is in all ways a stellar example of the temple, its main entry a textbook statement.

Each wing is proportionally balanced and pierced by original French doors.

While the gothic verandah pillars, brackets and details are not original, they also tell a story of the life of the house.

Theirs’ is an example to be emulated.

Well done folks!

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