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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
Arch-i-text: Training our eyes on the world of Gothic Revival
This Ontario Gothic Cottage at 226 Victoria St. shows the typical form and verandah. Brian Marshall says it’s a great example of the architectural style. SUPPLIED

In architecture, the term “revival” is applied to the various design schools that use visual styles that echo the elements of a previous architectural era.

Generally speaking, revivalist architects do not attempt to recreate copies of historic buildings but rather utilize the shapes, forms and decorative elements of earlier eras to evoke a sympathetic sense of the original.

To illustrate, we can draw on one example of Greek Revival mentioned in last week’s column (“NOTL is home to grand expressions of neoclassical design,” The Lake Report, Aug. 24) – Willowbank is not a copy of an actual ancient Greek building.

In fact, it was a modern house of its period which was appointed with decorative elements of the classical orders that recalled the classical Greek building.

That said, let us return to Britain of the 17th and 18th centuries wherein the Romantic movement amongst the educated classes permeated art, literature and architecture.

This movement had underwritten the popularity of the Regency, neoclassical and Greek Revival styles of architecture, but Romantic architects were not primarily classicists.

Indeed, their focus was on developing picturesque designs that would heighten sensibilities, provoke imagination and cultivate “feelings.”

As such, they drew inspiration from historic and international forms of every stripe in pursuit of the picturesque.

So it was that, while most academics of the time denigrated medieval architecture as a crude and valueless product of the Dark Ages, there were a few brave souls who chose to explore the expressive nature of Gothic decorative elements – doors, windows, trim, etc. – which might be applied as features in their designs.

Likely the first major British house incorporating fully expressed Gothic features was Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in 1754.

Not only was Wapole the scion of a monied influential family and the son of former British prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, but he also went on to establish Strawberry Hill Press which published many works of literature that celebrated the “Gothic” and spawned a genre that included Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” published in 1817.

The Gothic style gained popularity and these picturesque homes began appearing across the nation – a trend that continued until 1840, when the new Gothic Revival parliament buildings were completed and the style became dominant in British architectural design.

A decade earlier, the Gothic Revival crossed the Atlantic and initiated a spate of pattern books, including Louden’s Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm & Villa Architecture and A.J. Downing’s Cottage Residences.

Broadly circulated in Ontario, these pattern books fuelled a province-wide appetite for Gothic Revival homes, which was to last into the 20th century.

Without question, the most popular expression of residential Gothic Revival in the province was a derivative of Downing’s Cottage Residences (Design IV – An Ornamental Farmhouse).

Built so frequently across the province from 1840 to 1900, it came to be known as the Ontario Gothic Cottage.

Commonly, it was a one-and-a-half-storey brick home with a gable end roof and a centred main entry in its three-bay facade.

A tall, forward-facing gable broke the roof line directly above the front door that held a single gothic arched window (or occasionally, the arch might be semi-circular or segmental).

A full-width porch or verandah – depending on the height on the main floor above grade – spanned the facade with turned or chamfered columns, and often sported ornate decorative trim.

Fanciful bargeboard that ranged from a plain sawtooth to ornate (carved, pierced, patterned, etc.) acted as fascia, following the roofline around the entire house and precisely patterned matched (right side to left side) on the gable slopes.

Unfortunately today, on most of these houses, the decorative bargeboard and original arched windows have been lost to weather, time and expense to repair but, if surviving, one can see how they “dressed” the house.

Amongst others, I’d point you toward two great and easily accessible examples of the Ontario Gothic here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The first in Old Town at 226 Victoria St. which, although it’s been stuccoed and had the original gable window replaced, shows the typical form and verandah.

The other, a short hike out to 1023 East & West Ln., is an uncommon stone with brick quoins version of the cottage.

And, despite its missing bargeboard, retains the original arched gable window and a stellar decorated Gothic fanlight above the front entry – it’s worth the drive just to see the fanlight.

Nearly as common as the cottage in Ontario is the Gothic Revival Farmhouse. It too, is usually a one-and-a-half-storey home but its L or H-shaped footprint provided a much larger living space.

The tall front gable is generally incorporated in association with the main entry, a door that is typically placed under the roof of a wide porch supported by turned posts.

Brick and clapboard are the most common cladding for the farmhouse, but stone and stucco also can be regularly seen.

Again, decorative bargeboard and trim were almost always included in the original 19th-century builds but, sadly, in most cases have not survived to the present day.

You can find an L-shaped example of the farmhouse in Old Town at the corner of King and Mary streets.

It’s missing the original bargeboard and front porch, but the facade and side elevation can be viewed from King and Mary respectively.

Then, set well back from the road (but still viewable), is the H-shaped footprint of the Farmhouse at 1752 Concession 2 Rd..

This house displays a rare Gothic element in Canada in its narrow and vertically accentuated centre gable above the front entry.

For a variation on the farmhouse, drive by the gorgeous three-gabled Gothic at 551 Line 1 Rd. in Virgil.

While its L-shaped footprint may or may not be original to the house, its crisp white stucco shows off the elements of a multi-gabled Gothic – a form that is more common in Niagara than elsewhere in the province.

Finally, if you are up for a drive, at 14 St. David St. W in Thorold stands Niagara’s only example of High Victorian Gothic.

Completed circa 1886, this highly ornamented mansion built of Grimsby red sandstone and Queenston limestone was described by the Globe newspaper (today’s Globe and Mail) as “the most splendid house between Toronto and Rochester.”

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

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