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Friday, September 29, 2023
Arch-i-text: The tale of a War of 1812 survivor home
Despite the legend that the home was spared for a pregnant inhabitant, it is a mystery how the 1804 Clement House survived the burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake. BRIAN MARSHALL

I became a regular visitor to Niagara-on-the-Lake nearly 50 years ago when my aunt and uncle purchased and began renovations on an early 20th-century American Foursquare on Mary Street in Old Town.

One of the things my uncle loved to do during my visits was to conduct “tours” to show me the surviving built history in various locations throughout the town.

It was on one of these tours I first noticed a sadly neglected old house on Four Mile Creek Road.

Even in its dilapidated state, what caught my attention was that the building showed every indication of being an American Federalist style rather than the common Georgian. An interesting architectural note that was filed away in my memory.

That said, it wasn’t until after I moved here in 2015 – and subsequently began the research preparatory to writing a book on Canadian architectural house styles – that I once again stumbled across this old house as I compiled the very short list of homes that had survived the burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake during the War of 1812.

In fact, it wasn’t until I had headed out to get some photos of this old survivor that I actually connected the memory of that neglected 1970s Federalist with what I found at the address of the pre-war house on my list.

It took a while to make the connection because someone had visited a lot of love on the house during the interim.

But, before we get to that love, let’s set the stage by going back in history to those who built it.

James Clement, like his older brothers Joseph and John, declared himself Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, serving the Crown during that conflict in the Indian Department.

Forced to abandon his place of birth in the Mohawk Valley of New York, James travelled north to Fort Niagara where, in 1786, he married the youngest daughter of Adam Crysler, Catherine.

In the early 1790s, James petitioned the Crown for land grants: first, a lot in the Town of Newark; second, for his service to which he received 400 acres in the Township of Niagara; third, for 200 acres to be granted to Catherine as the daughter of a Loyalist; and finally, for him to receive title to the 2,000 acres in the County of Norfolk, granted to his Loyalist father.

In short, by the end of 1798, James Clement was the proud holder of grants that totalled 2,600 acres – a lot of which were in Newark.

Circa 1804, James and Catherine completed construction of their home on the lands in Niagara. The design was in the Federal style (a derivative of Georgian) which became popular in the former English colonies of his birthplace beginning in 1780.

It was a symmetrical five-bay design set with 12-by-12 windows on the main floor and 12-by-8’s on the second, interior end gable wall chimneys, and simple eave/window mouldings echoing the shadow lines of the clapboard and corner boards.

Like many Federal-style homes, the central bay of the house included a portico over the main entry with a balcony serviced by a side-lit door that largely duplicated the main entry statement.

Typical of the majority of houses during this period, it was only a single room deep since the expectation was a significant addition would be added to the rear as soon as time and finances permitted.

Certainly, given the burgeoning size of their expanding family (seven children by 1804 with another three added in 1807, 1810 and 1811 respectively), I suspect the addition was not long in coming.

During the first decade of the 1800s, James successfully farmed 500 acres and employed between 20 and 30 workers.

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, James returned to service as Lieutenant in the capacity of dispatch rider.

Unfortunately, he suffered a wound to his hand and, as was all too common in that period, contracted blood poisoning which took his life in March 1813.

Tragically, Catherine who was pregnant with their 11th child, died in childbirth in July of that same year leaving their 23-year-old son responsible for his younger siblings.

Now, the common tale has it that the house was spared from the torch during the American withdrawal from Niagara because a pregnant Catherine begged the mercy of the American forces.

However, the burning of the town occurred five months after she had passed away, so we will never know why or how their house survived.

But now, let’s return to 1980 when a young couple named Ken and Virginia Douglas purchased the derelict shell of the once proud Clement House.

Their parents were aghast that they proposed to raise their grandchildren in such a structure. Undeterred, they carried on.

It took them several months while living in a borrowed Winnebago to restore the house envelope and mechanicals to a habitable condition.

Focusing on one room at a time, they worked their way through the house, occupying each room as it was returned to reasonable living conditions.

But simply making the house habitable was only the beginning of their journey, since their goal was to restore it in a fashion that recalled the original.

Recently, I had the privilege to walk through their completed restoration (albeit the work on a 220-year-old house is never really finished) and I must say it is glorious.

Today, the Clement House is a testament to this couple’s vision and hard work. 

Congratulations folks and may you be an example for others to emulate. Sometimes the best things in life are those you work and wait for!

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

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