Sunday, July 6, 2014

More Summer Rambling

On what stately building in Old South can this gable be found?

London Building Types: Ontario Cottage

One of the most common home styles in London is the Ontario cottage, popular from the early days of settlement right through to the early 20th century. Usually a single storey with a square plan, the Ontario cottage has one or two windows symmetrically placed on either side of a central doorway. A hipped roof slopes from a central point to all four sides. Although small, there's often an extension at the back. And while some are very simple, such as 23 Cathcart Street, shown at right, others have more ornate doorways and decorated gables, like 12 Cathcart Street below.
Some would call "Ontario cottage" a misnomer. The cottage is actually found in many parts of the world and isn't native to Ontario. The style probably received its name because it's prevalent in Ontario and not seen so much in adjoining provinces or states. The style was influenced by Regency architecture, but, in fact, the Regency cottage can be traced back to a style of home brought to England by soldiers who had served in India. Once it became popular, it was naturally transferred to other parts of the Empire.
After a few years in Ontario, the cottage changed a little. The pitch of Ontario roofs is usually steeper than English ones, probably to provide for more insulation against winter weather and to let the accumulation of snow slide off. The pitch was so steep that sometimes a half storey would be added under the roof and a Gothic window added to light the upstairs as in the ornate 47 Bruce Street shown below.

Hundreds of Ontario cottages are scattered throughout London's older neighbourhoods. Often constructed for tradesmen, labourers, and clerks, the Ontario cottage must have been deemed the most practical and affordable home the average person could build. Cottages are still practical as starter homes or for singles and couples not requiring a mansion.

A variation is the side hall plan with the front door on one side. A cute example, shown below, is 1 Dundas Street near the Forks of the Thames, now the First Hussars Museum.
The oldest cottage in the city isn't found in the downtown core, however. Flint Cottage in Springbank Park, below, likely predates any other cottage in our area. Fisherman-turned-builder Robert Flint built the cobblestone buildings well known in the Byron area, including this family homestead, built 1837. The cottage remained in the possession of the Flint family until 1891 when it was bought by the London Board of Commissioners. It became a stop and shelter for the London Street Railway.
Whether downtown, in Old North , Old South, Old East, Soho, Blackfriars, or beyond, there are enough cottage examples in the city to fill several posts.  International and yet home-grown, quaint but somehow stately, the Ontario Cottage has become an integral and charming part of London, Ontario's architectural tradition.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

London Building Types: Italianate

A walk through London's older neighbourhoods provides fans of Victorian buildings with some true architectural delights. One of the more commonly found housing styles is the Italianate which must have been a favourite among London's builders.

The term Italianate stems from the Italian villas, particularly those of Tuscany, that inspired the style. The villas were built for the Florentine elite during the Renaissance but English architects, searching for a new look, went for it in a big way in the 1800s. The fact that Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, designed Osborne House in the Italian villa style helped popularize the look.

It's a giant leap from Renaissance villas and royal palaces to the Italianate homes of London, Ontario. The square towers didn't appear here at all. Nevertheless, an extremely scaled down version of Italianate become popular throughout the province from about 1860 to 1890 and London has numerous examples.

23 Peter Street, built about 1873, could be a textbook illustration of an Italianate house. The low-hipped roof, wide eaves, double brackets, and elongated windows are typical of the style. Bricks form segmental arches over the windows and doorway and there are brick pilaster strips at the corners of the building. A blue historic plaque has been placed on this house and a sign to the right of the door tells us this was once the home of Rowland Dennis, Ironmonger, in 1875. Mr. Dennis owned Forest City Wire Works, specializing in fencing, railings, crestings, finials, and stable fixtures. By 1895, his company had been renamed Dennis Wire & Iron Works.

On the other hand, 505 Talbot, now dwarfed by the apartment building behind it, might be described as an Italianate mansion. Still the low-hipped roof, wide eaves (in this case with a frieze), large paired brackets, and elongated windows, but on a much grander scale with a two-storey central projection and nice trim above the second-storey windows. This one was built for James Owrey, a director of Agricultural Savings and Loan Co., about 1881. The brick has been painted and dormer windows added. Houses such as this one indicate this stretch of Talbot Street must once have been a prestigious neighbourhood. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Talbot Estate Today

The news that the old Thomas Talbot estate is up for sale for $6.3 million should come as no surprise. The property has had numerous owners since Talbot himself lived there. But no one since him has ever known quite what to do with the 300 hectare lakefront property and it'll be interesting to see if anyone ever does. 

Colonel Talbot himself arrived in 1803 and established Port Talbot, heart of the Talbot Settlement. Among the earliest structures in the area were forts to defend against American attack, mills, a distillery, numerous warehouses, and Talbot's own long, rambling home.

After Talbot's death in London in 1853, the family of his assistant, George Macbeth, inherited his estate. In 1925, the land was acquired by a group of Detroit businesmen who planned to build a luxury resort complete with hotel and golf course. But the Depression ended their plans and the property has passed from hand to hand ever since. Talbot's derelict house was demolished in 1997, a sad ending for the home that was the heart of Elgin County's earliest settlement.

The roadside cairn shown above acts as a monument to the Talbot Settlement, the founder himself, and his little troop of hardy pioneers. It was erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1926, at a time when Talbot's house was still standing nearby. One can't help but feel that if Talbot's home were in the U.S., it'd still be there, preserved as a pioneer museum. In a country with respect for its heritage, there'd be more than this cairn to look at.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer Rambles Continue

As the heritage explorer wanders the streets of London . . . someone might be watching. Who knows where this is? takers on this one. Here's a hint:

The above symbol appears on a fence surrounding the property. Can anyone guess where this is?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Gore Cemetery

Gore Cemetery on Trafalgar Street was set aside in 1834 to be used as a pioneer burial ground.  Originally part of London Township, the cemetery has become surrounded by the ever-expanding London. The city-owned property, closed to burials since 1954, is now protected with metal fencing and padlocked.

The Historic Sites Committee of London Public Library has been researching the site with the intention of erecting an historic plaque. To that end, groups of historians have been allowed to enter the grounds and look around. The investigators noted broken and chipped markers, as well as stones obscured by vegetation - in particular, a large mulberry tree.

The plantings could be a problem. The roots of the trees and bushes may cause the cairn to heave and break underneath while the shade provided by the mulberry promotes dampness detrimental to masonry and stone. Organic matter accumulates inside the walls, holding moisture in and producing an unkempt appearance which promotes vandalism.

The cemetery has been restored in the past, which accounts for the gravestones having been moved from their original positions and set into a concrete cairn. This mid-twentieth century trend was an alternative to repairing markers in situ. But the reconfiguration means there's no way of knowing where specific persons are actually buried.

Overall, when one considers the restructuring, wear and tear, broken stones, and greenery at this site, it's a far cry from the way it must have looked in pioneer days. One can only hope another restoration project will take place in the near future.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thoughts on Downtown

Ask ten random Londoners what should be changed about the core and you're likely to get ten different answers. So now that city planners have drafted a "master plan" to revamp the city's heart, there's likely to be much public debate about whether the ideas are constructive or a silly waste of money. Chip Martin of The Free Press summarized many of the suggestions here.

Since I know you're all waiting for my take on things, here it is:

Dundas Street: The idea is to turn our main street into a pedestrian walkway on a "flexible" basis. But heck, why be flexible about it? Why not turn part of Dundas into a permanent pedestrian mall like Sparks Street in Ottawa?

Alley way connections: Back alleys would be put to use for something else besides dumping garbage. It's about time.

Queens station: A transit hub on Queen's Avenue outside St. Paul's Cathedral. Why there exactly? How big would this hub be? Would it ruin the view of our city's oldest church? Not that St. Paul's isn't already hidden by surrounding buildings.

Clarence Street: Enlarge sidewalks and plant trees. Well, OK. I'm in favour of all the trees the Forest City can grow. But a pedestrian bridge over the CN tracks? Probably a waste of money when there are other crossing points.

Sports heros' way: Setting aside the question of whether athletes are really heros, why would it be a good idea to turn Kensington Bridge into a "pedestrian link?" Isn't this one of the main driving routes into downtown? And the bridge does have a sidewalk already. It's Blackfriars Bridge that needs to be turned into a pedestrian bridge as I've already stated.

As for featuring Labatt Park as part of a gateway to the core, we should advertise Labatt Park as a destination in its own right. It is, after all, the the oldest continually used baseball diamond in the world. And the city should be promoting it. They own it.

Market district: "Enhance and connect" the public squares outside Budweiser Gardens (alias the JLC) and Covent Garden as a venue for festivals, etc. I won't judge this idea until I see exactly what they have in mind but it seems to me it's attractive as it is.

Richmond Street: Improve "pedestrian walkways" (aka sidewalks?) and "reduce the north-south artery to three lanes, one of which would be for rapid transit." Not sure about this. Fewer lanes usually means more traffic congestion.

City gateway: A new public square in front of the VIA station with "access" to Dundas. Not necessary, unless we're suddenly going to have thousands of people taking the train and strolling to Dundas Street. But this isn't Europe. Our train service will have to improve a great deal before more people want to use it. And what's on Dundas that these hoards want to visit?

Forks of the Thames: Ideas here include a riverside promenade and a concrete beach. One of the pictures associated with the article shows a proposed "beach" at the old Victoria Hospital site. A refreshing treat on a hot summer day for people who can't make it to Port Stanley or Grand Bend. But wherever they put it, I'm afraid an inner city beach is going to be costly to keep up. Is it worth it?

Many people would say that, considering London's current unemployment rate, City Hall should be focusing on more serious issues than making downtown prettier. But it's also likely that beautification projects bring more people to London and encourage the idea that we're a forward-thinking community. I'm in favour of positive changes for downtown, so long as they incorporate heritage buildings and a bit of nature. But these ideas need more discussion.  And I'm sure we'll have plenty of it...