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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Arch-i-text: Brought back from the brink
An example of heritage that has been saved.
An example of heritage that has been saved. Brian Marshall

The threatened historic houses of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a topic this column has spoken about many times over the past few years.

I find it unconscionable that irreplaceable pieces of our shared built-heritage are allowed to undergo demolition by neglect. Off hand, I can think of at least a dozen examples of this currently occurring.

That said, when one of these threatened houses are pulled back from the brink of destruction, I feel compelled to congratulate the owner. It’s a cause for community celebration.

Out on York Road, near the Homer Bridge, an old house had been slowly deteriorating for some years.

Partially hidden by big spruce trees, most people would likely not have given it a second glance if they noticed it at all. But, for an architectural historian, this battered old soldier told a different story.

Between 1830 and the early 1860s, an architectural style called Greek Revival was in vogue.

Designs in this style came in two broad forms of expression: Monumental (NOTL examples being Willowbank and Glencairn) and Temple which, as it happens, this York Road house was, in my opinion, a late-period example.

The Temple form was the modest version of Greek Revival. In its common expression the form typically presented a front-facing gable roof with broad undecorated raking eave mouldings that sloped into returns from the side eaves to suggest a pediment.

The main entry was generally placed either in the right or left bay of the first floor with balancing window(s) to the other side. Second-floor openings were normally unranked, that is, not set directly above the first-floor openings.

A colonnade, veranda or porch was always included and this might be abbreviated to the main entry opening (quite rare), across the whole facade (normal), or wrap two or three sides of the house (rare).

In about 20 per cent of the surviving examples of this form in North America the first-floor window openings on the facade were full height and of a width that would accommodate French windows (doors) that let onto the covered porch, supported by classic column forms.

Finally, the main entry surround usually included sidelights, transom and some form of classical order pilasters.

Now, generally viewing the existing facade of this York Road house, we can easily see it conforms to many of these criteria. It presents the front-facing gable with eave returns. The first-floor main entry is set to the right side of the facade with two openings to the left and the second-floor openings are not ranked to the first floor.

It had a porch that spanned the facade and wrapped around onto the right side wall. The original window openings were wide and sat on the watertable while the front door surround has sidelights, transom and modest pilasters.

It’s interesting to note that when this home was built, it was the fashion to “dress” the facade with a more expensive Flemish brick bond (the other walls are cheaper common bond), limestone sills, lintels and watertable as a success statement such as seen on this house. 

Now, I estimate that sometime during the 20 years between 1890 and 1910, the building was renovated. Its cold, leaky French doors were removed and replaced by much smaller gothic-style windows (the original openings bricked in around the smaller windows).

The original porch pillars were replaced with trelliage supports, also in the gothic style. And it is very likely the glass in the sidelights and transom were replaced with the then-popular stained glass inserts. All of these gothic features were present when the current restoration commenced.

In my wheelhouse I’d like to see the house returned to its original Greek Revival presentation, however there are those who prefer a restoration that shows the changes to the home over time.

In either case, I applaud the current owner for saving this part of NOTL’s built-heritage.