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

The Lunenburg Bump & Other Peculiarities

Travel would be rather dull if every place exhibited the same appearance, atmosphere and attitude.  Nova Scotia had, at one time, a large variety of regional differences in its architecture.  It still does; but not the salad bar variety that it once had.  In 1859, a travel writer named Frederick Cozzens astutely observed Nova Scotia this way:

As I have said before in other words, the province is nothing more than a piece of patchwork, intersected with pretty boundary lines, so that every nation is stitched in and quilted in spots, without any harmony, or coherence, or general design.

Certainly Cozzens was observing more than just architecture; he was also talking about people, language and religion but to zero-in on the built environment and contemplate the richness that was, is a worthwhile exercise.  The days of regional influences and traditions associated with our built environment have certainly ebbed but it is important to recognize and celebrate such vernacular because there is always a risk that those who become too familiar with their own community’s distinct attributes undervalue them and unwittingly foster their decline.

While attempting to document every minute local tradition is not the goal of this article, I will name a few just in the hopes of whetting as many appetites as possible and perhaps encouraging people to explore what is or was distinct about disparate corners of Nova Scotia.

Lunenburg is obviously a great place to start with its British – German origins.   Many structures in Old Lunenburg front right on the street and thereby contribute to the unique atmosphere of the town.  The bright paint colors that so often encourage photos of the townscape are nothing new but carry on the long tradition that was noted as early as 1830 when one visitor likened the vivid assortment to the colorful little Dutch toys he used to play with as a child.  This contrasts starkly to the Musquodoboit valley where there once existed a prosaic panorama of red structures to the exclusion of all other colors with the intermittent exception of white.

Cape Sable Island’s hipped gables, Truro’s spoke brackets, East Hants County’s corner boards designed to simulate stone, Pictou’s real stone buildings built by Scottish masons, company houses in Cape Breton, Yarmouth’s infatuation with hedges and belvederes, Amherst’s red stone, and shiplap siding in various locales all speak to a rich tapestry of architectural diversity within the province.

Returning to the south shore, that odd but lovable “Lunenburg bump”, is a great example of how a very local expression of vernacular architecture is well-documented, celebrated and even marketed in such a way that locals and visitors alike feel as though they’re in a special place.

What makes your community unique?  Identify it. Hold on to it.  If it’s lost, get it back.

Posted by Joe Aug 08, 2014 Posted in Architectural History, Built Heritage Comments Off

The Endangered Belt Course

The colored band or belt course has all but disappeared in Atlantic Canada.  Historically marked by fancy butt shingles and sometimes flaring out like a skirt, the delineated mid-section of many heritage homes was usually painted a different color than the rest of the house body.

Certainly, the belt course still exists on many houses but its presence is greatly diminished by a monotone color treatment that blends it with the rest of the house body.  It is the disappearance of that traditional color emphasis that I am lamenting; and it is that authentic detail that, in most cases, is gone.  In fact, even the notion of painting the belt course a contrasting color or complementary hue has largely vanished.

The purpose of the belt course as an architectural device was to break up a perceived monotony caused by two or more stories of repeated clapboard (or shingles) all the same color.  It may not sound overly monotonous today, but the late Victorian house fashion that saw the belt course become popular was enamored with surface details and points of interest.  Variety reigned.  It was not enough to just have the first and second stories broken up with textured shingles; different paint color really was the icing on the cake.  Additional colored belts would sometimes even break up the second storey or gable end.

The plight of the flared version of the belt course, in particular, has been the most tragic.  More than suffering a fate of monotone blending, it has been the victim of complete removal where vinyl siding is installed.  These applications are unable to conform to any atypical substrates, and so instead of simply laying the offensive membrane over top (to be removed by more sensible future owners), installers remove the flare altogether.

Admittedly, it is a rare moment of snobbish satisfaction when a curious turn down a rural road or an urban side street reveals that one of these Victorian homes is inhabited by owners with a correct understanding of how a belt course should be distinguished.  If you happen to see one of these endangered specimens, enjoy it.  If you happen to own one, you know what to do.

Posted by Joe Apr 16, 2013 Posted in Architectural History, Atlantic Canada Comments Off