Toward the end of the 19th century, a number of societal forces in both Britain and the United States combined to have a profound impact on architecture.
The Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom began almost a century earlier and a significant portion of the population had grown weary of change, tired of mechanization and new technologies together with the rapid march of urbanization.
They wanted, perhaps needed, a break from the consistent impacts caused by continual innovation and yearned for a return to the order and stability that they perceived the Georgian era represented.
In 1876, across the Atlantic, the United States celebrated its centennial and a fascination with American history swept the nation.
New historical societies sprung up in any number of towns and cities as the general population embraced their nation’s past and its colonial beginnings.
At the same time, the average American citizen had grown weary of the changes introduced by their own Industrial Revolution and there was widespread desire for a simpler, more orderly life.
Back in the U.K., British architects responded to the desires of their population by resurrecting the Georgian rules of proportion, symmetry and conservative dignity, introducing Neo-Georgian designs to the market.
While in the U.S., architects drew upon colonial architecture (which, incidentally, was based on the English Georgian), developing designs they referred to as Colonial Revival.
However, this was just the first step in the evolution of a new architecture style. While the desire for a pausing of innovation might have been prevalent in both populations, this had little effect on the rate of change.
The decline and subsequent death of Queen Victoria seemed to coincide with the general societal rejection of the rigid adherence to the rules and formal behaviour that marked her era.
This easing of the rules governing both personal interactions and conforming to the expectations of “proper” society influenced housing design.
So, too, did technological innovations like electricity, central heating, plumbing, and labour-saving appliances change the requirement for large houses with complicated floor plans.
In addition, public means of transportation such as streetcars, trolleys and commuter trains proliferated while automobile ownership grew more common, together granting increased access to a countryside where many of the middle class envisioned owning their own house and enjoying informal country living.
Taken as a gestalt, the house-buying public wanted designs informed by the history of more orderly times, with simplicity and elegance in form, efficient and practical in layout, ideally surrounded by landscaped gardens.
Armed with this mandate, architects who might have begun with the Neo-Georgian or Colonial Revival (the latter of which was quickly expanded to include the Dutch Colonial expression), rapidly plumbed history to generate neoclassical and Tudor Revival designs.
Then, not content with Anglo-based precedents, they drew on French period houses to develop the Chateauesque, Beaux Arts and French Eclectic expressions.
Finally, they went to Italy for the basis of the Italian Renaissance Revival and Spanish colonial building history for the expressions which came to be known as Mission, Spanish Revival, Monterey and Pueblo Revival.
Taken as a group, these expressions comprise the Eclectic style of architecture, which spanned the period between 1880 and 1940.
Here in Niagara, many of these Eclectic variations (French, Italian, Spanish) did not reflect the staunchly British-oriented attitudes or taste of the majority in local society and hence are largely absent from our built heritage landscape. However, we do have a rich inventory of the English and Anglo-American based expressions.
Before we visit a few of these houses, it is important to note that architects of the Eclectic school were not loath to modify elements (using square posts rather than classical pillars on a Neo-classical Revival, for example) nor did they hesitate to use elements drawn from other period houses on their particular revival design; hence you might see Tuscan columns and a Neo-Classical pediment used on a Dutch Colonial Revival.
And, that particular example is drawn from the McClelland House in Old Town at 164 Victoria St. If one pictures this house without the recent side addition and focuses purely on the gambrel roof portion, it is a superb example of the early 20th-century Dutch Colonial Revival.
Now, let’s head out to 14902 Niagara River Pkwy. Built circa 1880, just as Eclectic style first gained popularity, this white clapboard clad home with its grand two storey porch is one of the earliest surviving Colonial Revival houses in Canada and amongst the oldest of its kind in North America.
Further along the Parkway toward Queenston at #14719 is a simple two-storey circa 1900 home in the Tudor Revival expression. Then, just a few doors down on the same side of the road is 14703 Niagara River Pkwy., which is a lovely circa 1912 example of the Neo-Georgian form, albeit with some American influences such as the shingle cladding.
Swinging back into Old Town, let’s land in front of 166 Queen St., set on one of the historic “estate lots,” this Tudor Revival home with its superb two storey side porch bespeaks the era of wealthy American summer homes in town. As does its next-door neighbour at the corner of Simcoe and Queen.
Another example of Tudor Revival, this time displaying the more common mixed cladding with brick on the main and half-timbered stucco on the upper. The multi-paned windows with weighty trim work is common to this eclectic expression.
For our last stop before leaving NOTL, we’ll head further out on Queen to #456 where we find a neoclassical revival with all the bells and whistles including a full height front entry porch and a two storey, double level colonnaded side porch.
If you are up to a short road trip, there is a special Eclectic nearby that is worth a visit.
At 35 Yates St. in St. Catharines’ Yates Historic District is a rare example of Spanish Revival north of the border.
The house is the work of the brilliant Niagara-based architectural partnership of Arthur Nicholson & Robert MacBeth and displays many of the features of the Spanish Revival expression.
Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.