What the ell?

Typical Atlantic Canadian suburban ell configurations.

What is an ell?  It is an extension often attached to the back or a side of a building at a right angle.  Historically, it was sometimes written as “L” because of the footprint that is configured in connection with the main body of the building; although it appears as though it more often produced a “T” configuration.

An ell generally has the appearance of being an addition but it would be a mistake to assume as much.  By the 1840s, the ell was such a valued architectural arrangement that house plans commonly called for its inclusion.  But why design something that looks like an afterthought?  The reasons are manifold.

One reason why an ell might exist is a matter of scale.  Having an extension at the back of a structure permitted a more or less standard, or even modest, scale of façade in building a house.  For the sake of style and aesthetics a house of a certain frontage often required a corresponding depth.  As well, the gable end of a house was generally shorter than the side under the sloped roof.  All the dimensions were important – even height demanded a proper proportion with length and width.  Symmetry too, in many cases, was not to be violated.  Roof pitch had to be considered.  With such constraints, how was a builder to accommodate a large family without scaling the house plans up to a proportion that was, well – out of all proportion?  The answer was… to build an ell.

Another reason for an ell was fashion or something called “correct taste.”  It was agreeable to have a kitchen that was, to some extent, removed from the rest of the house.  This could be achieved with a cellar kitchen, or clever room configurations that isolated the kitchen, or with an ell.  Kitchens produced smells associated with domestic work.  Odors and gases that might emanate from a kitchen sink were considered offensive and even harmful.  It was believed that food prep smells should not be wafting through the house but be confined to the domestic work station.  Nineteenth century house descriptions indicate that kitchens were typically not even considered rooms.  They were somehow ranked just below official room status – so that both physically and conceptually the kitchen was a separate entity.

It is becoming easy to see why real estate ads of the period, generally quite brief, take care to mention this feature of ells, or back kitchens, as they were sometimes called.  It was an advantageous and therefore saleable configuration.

Isolating a kitchen also satisfied the desire to isolate domestic help.  The only other components to having domestics remain unseen were to provide them with easy access to the stairs of any connecting upper or lower floors and a service entrance.

Two house plans showing different ell configurations from Downing’s Country Houses (1850) p.78 and p104.

A service entrance connected to an ell or “back kitchen” had the additional advantage of facilitating home industry.  Auxiliary rooms connected with an ell often contained workspace for the production of a variety of wares.  Dooryards off kitchens provided for easy reception of unprocessed produce into the kitchen and for finished goods out of the kitchen.  The kitchen dooryards themselves provided further workspace for home industry connected with the kitchen.

Fortunately, the ell didn’t have as many rules to follow as the front of the house.  Actually it appears it really only had one – to be subordinate to the main house body.

Now, the great difficulty with an ell is in discerning its provenance.  Is it original to the building?  Was it an addition?  Or perhaps it even predates the main building – as with a small structure moved and repurposed as an ell?  Investigation as to how an ell is connected to the main body will provide clues and likely answer any of these questions.

Posted by Joe May 18, 2016 Posted in Architectural History, Built Heritage Comments Off

Concealed Shoes and Other Apotropaic Devices

The ritual concealment of charms to ward off evil has an extraordinary but largely unknown history in the building tradition of Atlantic Canada.  Its sequestered quality lends mystery to the practice and is likely to blame for its largely undocumented existence.  Placing carefully selected objects, such as shoes, in walls, attics, floors, or cellars in the belief that it will afford the inhabitants some supernatural protection or other benefit comes to our region from Britain and its roots there likely extend across Europe and beyond.

Above: In 1981 this shoe was added to the collection of the Parkdale-Maplewood Community Museum in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia.

The Jews of the Old Testament were instructed to smear lamb’s blood on their door posts and lintels before the Spirit of the Lord was to descend on all the houses of Egypt and take the first-born of people and animals.  His Spirit passed over those houses marked with lamb’s blood on the door frame.  Did this Biblical example of household protection offer our ancestors some inspiration for other means of “marking” their homes as somehow set apart or protected?  Was placing objects in walls a physical component of Christian folk ritual or was the practice tied to pagan or non-religious traditions?  Current research does not provide definitive answers – only clues – but whatever the roots of the odd practice it appears to have been motivated by a desire to safeguard loved ones.

The practice of concealing shoes in walls enjoys slightly better than sparse awareness in our region but horse skulls, witch bottles, or even dried cats are largely unknown.   Ritual marks on framing and sheathing was another practice connected to protection and is often dismissed as carpenters’ marks. 

Collectively, these practices are termed apotropaic, a suitably mysterious word with a Greek origin that simply means to ward off evil.

So how were these charms supposed to work?  Was the intention to repel evil or to trap it in the shoe?  Did the protection relate specifically to the shoe’s wearer or to every resident – or perhaps just to the structure?  Was the shoe a fertility charm?  Did those placing the shoes wholeheartedly believe in the promises of the practice or did it eventually diminish to a mere exercise of continuing with the “old ways” simply to honour those who came before?

Now, placing a shoe in a wall and enclosing it behind lath and plaster in the expectation that it will somehow protect or bless one’s family has an endearing quality to it; but the same feelings do not easily extend to dried cats and horse skulls. The animals though are in many ways more fascinating. Most of us can recall countless experiences where a cat or a horse became spooked for some unapparent reason.  It is believed that the “sixth sense” sometimes attributed to these animals is behind the usage of their remains as apotropaic devices.  The inference being that the animal’s spirit – or simply its form – may ward off evil spirits or rodents.

The meanings behind concealed shoes, which are more likely to be retained and documented than dead animals when found, are not entirely understood.  One theory suggests that to give one protection, the shoe must be imbued with the wearer’s essence – which is one explanation for why it is well-worn footwear that is most commonly found.  A related tradition calls for burying an old shoe under a tree.

Placement is important.  Chimneys, a favoured location for apotropaic devices, were often selected because they are always open to the outside and otherwise unprotected.   Similarly, window and door openings were seen as vulnerable to entry and so adjacent wall spaces can sometimes contain a well-worn shoe or animal.

Vineberg & Fulton has endeavoured to create a database to document the discovery of apotropaic devices in Atlantic Canada and we request your help.  So far, the earliest documented find of a concealed shoe in this region occurred in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1891.  Its discovery was lauded, and its finders marveled at its style which featured a pointed toe – a style they noted was so old that it had come back into fashion at that time!

Apotropaic practices were likely far more pervasive than we will ever know.  When we have the opportunity to peer into the “insides” of historic buildings it is helpful to know what to look for and where to look.  It is hoped that this article will raise awareness of this mysterious part of our built heritage and result in more findings being documented.  In response, Vineberg & Fulton has developed a curatorial policy and documentation sheet for recording historic concealed charms.  Please send us records of your finds so that we can add them to our Atlantic Canadian database of apotropaic objects.  The database is available in a limited format by selecting this download link.


Posted by Joe Dec 17, 2015 Posted in Architectural History, Atlantic Canada, Publications & Research Comments Off

Noticed Any Promiscuous Architecture?

No, I’m not talking about brothels.  The term promiscuous architecture was once used to describe buildings displaying an indiscriminate mingling of elements without any discernible order.  In 1865 the term was used to reference many of the houses around the Whycocomagh area of Cape Breton and is indicative of a kind of snobbery that has long existed in house descriptions.  It may not be surprising that the term was used by that rigid Protestant organ known as the Presbyterian Witness but the bias against “ordinary” or “hybrid” houses lingered well into the twentieth century as evidenced by Inventory Site Forms that humourously evaluated historic properties based on how well they exemplified a particular style.  A house that displays no apparent formalized elements of style or is a hodgepodge of two or more styles typically has not commanded the respect of a strict Romanesque or an unadulterated Queen Anne.  Today, we have dropped the promiscuous reference in favour of that somewhat more redeeming term vernacular.

I don’t mean to condemn the historic treatment or evaluations of our wonderful built heritage.  In fact, the most sincere assessment I have heard on the subject of “impure” house architecture in our province comes from way back in 1877 when a writer commented on a newly-erected house that featured elements of different styles.  He said,

“The whole appearance of the building, which is very fine, favours the Italian style of architecture, though perhaps no particular style, as often happens in this country, is closely followed.”

Apart from the interesting contention that strict rules of architecture were commonly ignored in this part of the world, the writer’s use of the word, favours expresses a subtle yet respectful assessment admirably suited to just about any hybrid, mixed, or perhaps even vernacular example of architecture.

My point is there is no need to diminish a historic property by labelling it as a poor or incomplete example of xyz architecture.  Look at it this way – if a university degree features a major area of study and a minor – the minor in no way diminishes the major.  In a similar way, a house might favour Italianate influences and exhibit Second Empire influences.

Above: A Gothic style house built in 1877 gets a Craftsman style verandah with sweeping umbrage in the second or third decade of the 20th century.

Our vernacular architecture, of which not only Whycocomagh but the entire province has its share, has gained greater appreciation in recent decades.  So too, have houses of hybrid forms and details.  Hybrids, in some cases, have the ability to communicate fascinating stories of transition as owners felt compelled to modify their homes for various reasons including keeping up with the latest style.  T. S. Arthur’s short story, Bay Window and Mansard Roof, from 1873 relates a tale of envy in which one neighbour covets another’s “updated” exterior and ultimately succumbs to the unbearable temptation to have the same Second Empire features added to his own house.

The great value of built heritage is the stories that are communicated and it is often the case that the promiscuous tell more remarkable and compelling stories than the pure.  Think about it… but please do not mistake this for an analogy promoting reckless social behavior.

Posted by Joe Jul 24, 2015 Posted in Architectural History, Built Heritage Comments Off