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Friday, June 21, 2024
Arch-i-text: NOTL is home to grand expressions of neoclassical design
Columnist Brian Marshall says Niagara-on-the-Lake is recognized as having the highest concentration of neoclassical homes in the province and likely the country. (SUPPLIED)

Before we get into this week’s Arch-i-text, I want to correct an inadvertent error in last week’s column about the role of the town’s urban design committee.

When I submitted my overly long column on Tuesday evening to be edited down to a more practical length for the paper, the first sentence of the ninth paragraph was edited to read: “Under membership qualifications, it says that people on the committee must have been members of professional associations …”

This inserted a factual error.

It should have said: “Preference will be given to individuals who are or have been in the last five years members of the following professional associations …”

The wording didn’t change the substance of my argument, but I want to be sure that the record is corrected.


Now, let’s go back in time to observe a curious convention of the 18th century in Europe, where affluent young men could be found wandering from one historic site to another with all routes leading to Italy.

Referred to as the “Grand Tour,” not only was it a prerequisite for confirming one’s social status, but success (which was measured by the quantity and quality of the items acquired during travel) could actually underwrite an individual’s (and family’s) social climb.

Further, the Grand Tour, focusing as it did on the art, literature and accomplishments of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, became an integral part of a scion’s education while creating networking opportunities in the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Grand Tour graduates, upon their return home, should seek to demonstrate their educational experience by lionizing the cultural achievements of classical society.

The 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, who drew upon rationality for its clarity, order and symmetry, while paying homage to antiquity through the use of classical forms and decorative motifs, was the first source British architects drew upon.

Then, in the early 1700s, architect Colin Campbell published the three volumes that comprised “Vitruvius Britannicus.” That truly launched Palladianism in England. 

However, by 1800, Palladianism had been supplanted by the neoclassical movement in architecture. In essence, it was a refocusing on classical forms and details derived directly from Roman antiquity as opposed to Palladio’s Renaissance interpretations.

Palladianism had already hopped across the Atlantic into the British colonies in the 1700s – Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, for example – and neoclassicism followed, landing in Upper Canada near the end of the first decade of the 19th century.

It should come as no surprise that, during the rebuilding of Niagara-on-the-Lake after the War of 1812, neoclassical designs found a high level of public favour.

Not only were neoclassical homes built in significant numbers, but enough of them have survived into the present day that NOTL is recognized as having the highest concentration in the province (and likely the country).

Two expressions of the neoclassical dominated during the rebuilding.

Representatives of the first expression can be seen in the clapboard homes located at 234 Johnson St. (Clench House) and 392 Mississagua St. (Breakenridge-Hawley House).

With both homes, we see that order and symmetry take centre stage. Pilasters topped by Ionic capitals carry a weighty dentiled cornice entablature which wraps around the house to enclose the gable ends forming pediments.

On both, the main entry is an eye-catching statement with gorgeous elliptical fanlights, detailed sidelights and Ionic pilasters to either side of the six-panel door.

The second expression is built of brick and features a facade decorated by elliptical arcades, which recall the Colosseum and aqueducts of ancient Rome.

Again, the main entry is a treat, with beautiful sidelights and elliptical fanlight together with stylized classical pilasters.

A double arcade version of this expression can be found at 165 Queen St. (MacDougal House), while the single arcade version is shown on the home located at 42 Prideaux St. (Stewart-McLeod House).

In all cases, neoclassical designs presented windows that were taller (in relation to their width) with finer muntin bars than in the windows of similar period Georgian homes.       

Back in Britain, neoclassicism’s focus on “all things Roman” had been displaced by what was described as the “purer and more correct” culture and architecture of ancient Greece.

This sentiment caught fire in the United States where, the fragile new republic, immediately identified with the “original democracy” which was, at that time, engaged in a struggle for independence.

From these roots, architecture developed the Greek Revival style.

North American pattern books, foremost among which was the pivotal “The American Builder’s Companion” by Benjamin Asher, were widely distributed and, “everyone who was anyone” in the U.S. was building homes in the style.

However, in the British Canadian colonies, despite waning anti-American sentiments of the 1830s, the popularity of the Greek Revival was constrained.

Still, some Niagara citizens, likely underwritten by the work of British architects, would move forward with new homes in this style.

Again, we have two primary expressions evident in NOTL – the Monumental and the Temple.

Monumental, as implied by the term, was a full-blown, large-scale expression of ancient Greek elements in the form of a residence (mansion) and purely the purview of the wealthy.

NOTL has two outstanding examples of this expression, both with classical Greek details, pillars and colonnades. The first is in Queenston and houses the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts.

The second, Glencairn, at 14795 Niagara River Pkwy., has an incredible facade that can unfortunately only be seen from the river.

More common was the Greek Revival temple form, which presented closed or partially closed gable roof ends (to suggest a full pediment) to the street but might, if finances permitted, be augmented by wings to either side of the primary building.

At 343 Queenston St. is the Winged Temple Durham-Slingerland House which, if one ignores the wings, displays the basic temple expression.

Then, once again engaging your imagination to replace the Gothic details of the porches with Greek pillars and entablature, one can see the upscale temple with wings.

Stay with me … Gothic Revival is next.

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

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