The Attitude of Historic Construction

Liverpool skyline c. 1905

the half-finished stone church belonging to our Episcopal friends… will be an ornament to the town.  Truro, 1877

The new Masonic Hall, Sheet Harbor, now under construction, will when finished, be quite an ornament to the village.

Sheet Harbor, 1903

“…an ornament to the village”  “…an ornament to the town” These early phrases and various equivalents have been used in reference to period construction of public buildings and residences alike.  Its conviction is virtually unheard of today.  Its sentiment is loaded.

It treats the subject as a piece of art.

It declares the appearance of the subject as a credit to the community.

This kind of sentiment was once widely held by architects and other local builders; and their work was truly admired by citizens.

Consider the associated benefits that this sort of attitude could potentially produce.  Does it not impact on sense of place and community pride?  To personalize it we might say self-esteem and self-confidence.  These attitudes naturally encourage economic initiative and risk – in other words – entrepreneurship.  If you look like a winner and feel like a winner – you’ve got the makings of being a winner.  Now we’re talking about economic prosperity.

Is it a coincidence that communities that once built “ornaments” were at the same time prosperous?  Some might be tempted to say that such communities were prosperous and therefore could afford “ornaments.”  Some might claim that notable structures can only rise out of affluence.  A closer look at the building of these “ornaments” reveals, in many cases, considerable sacrifice and hardship, even cases of derision for building on such a scale.

The idea of building “ornaments” is best encouraged by the words of John Ruskin (1819-1900)…

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever.  Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See!  This our fathers did for us.”  For indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold.  Its glory is in its Age.

Contemporary construction typically does not follow the “ornament” creed.  Buildings now are often constructed with something called a “life expectancy” – an odd concept for a culture that is trying to adopt ideas of sustainability and of minimizing carbon footprints.

Although the largely uninspired architecture of today should be a concern; there is already ample enough building stock that did follow the “ornament” creed to keep preservationists busy for decades.  In other words, we already have wonderful ornaments that need either preservation to retain their status, or restoration to return them to their former prominence.  These ornaments also need to be cherished by the general public in ways that are vocal and sincere.

Value these structures  – because indifference means slowly conforming to contemporary ideals that promote a sterility and sameness of architecture – ultimately eroding community identity and neutering a community’s ability to present itself as confident and proud.

Architecture should be experienced and enjoyed.  Build ornaments.  Preserve ornaments.

Posted by Joe Nov 30, 2011 Posted in Architectural History Comments Off


How did we get to the point where some people butcher wonderful examples of built heritage and proudly declare their crimes against culture as a restoration?

When exterior trim is removed, window sills lopped off and other architectural details systematically trashed to install imitation clapboard, also known as vinyl siding, little heritage remains to be seen from the curb.  Suppose the interior is gutted to “open up the space.”  Historic plaster is history.  Traditional room layouts vanish in favour of the open concept fashion that will itself be lamented as dated in a few years.  Wide, historic mouldings are discarded for narrow MDF trim.  Hardwood floors, originally laid to conform to the room layouts no longer suffice so are replaced or covered with new flooring.  Solid wood doors wear too much paint and are placed street-side for municipal clean up.

In some people’s minds, this is what actually passes as restoration today.  It can be seen in presumptuous B&B publicity, magazine articles and real estate ads.

If it is not the wonderful restoration that is boasted of then it seems it is the historic nature of the place that is so highly touted.  But in such cases what is left that can be heralded as historic?  The house frame?  The year the place was built?  The public’s perception of what is authentic and honest is being distorted.

The Bluenose II, the ambassador of Nova Scotia, is being lovingly restored by skilled tradesmen in Lunenburg beginning in summer 2011.  The government first announced the project in 2009 and since that time the true extent of the work has become apparent. Some workers carefully describe the restoration in the context of the shape of the hull or the spirit of the ship.  Criticism of the so-called restoration is widespread as there is reputedly nothing left of the original Bluenose II except the rudder and the boom.  And when were these components last replaced?   One government official has gone on the defensive declaring that the criticism is unfair and that the government is honouring the Bluenose II in a respectful manner.  But is the term restoration being treated with honour and respect?

The difficulty with the Bluenose II restoration is that it is not so much the actual ship that is being restored as it is the concept.  And if you stop to consider the issue, it is the concept or essence of the ship that holds value and meaning to Canadians.  That value is derived from what the ship represents to each of us.  The values foremost in my mind are tied to the ship’s roles of ambassador and as replica of the original – these without question will be restored.   So, while many may feel that calling the Bluenose II a restoration is incorrect, it may not be technically untrue.  What is certain though, is that the use of the term has been problematic as it only serves to further confuse the public as to what a restoration really is.

In light of the confusion and in the interest of clarity, it might be helpful if we simply agreed to refer to the rebuilding of the Bluenose II as a reconstruction rather than a restoration.

But, just so there’s no mistake the next time you’re planning your own restoration project…

The Standards & Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada is a publication produced by Parks Canada and defines restoration as the action or process of accurately revealing, recovering or representing the state of a historic place or of an individual component, as it appeared at a particular period in its history, while protecting its heritage value.

Restoration returns a place or object to its appearance at a particular point in time.  The act of restoration can include removal of components that represent a later (more recent) period and reconstruction of missing features that were known to exist.  Authentic restoration must be based on clear evidence and detailed knowledge of the processes and materials that the project requires.

Now her namesake remains to show what she has been
What every schoolboy remembers and will not come again
To think she’s the last of the Grand Banks Schooners
That fed so many men
And who will know the Bluenose in the sun?

- Stan Rogers


Posted by Joe Sep 06, 2011 Posted in Architectural History, Built Heritage Comments Off

Historic Fences

One of several different postcards produced in the early 1900s that showcased Yarmouth’s famous hedges, also known as “live fences”.

Why does our romantic notion of a dream home typically include a white picket fence?  It could be the result of inherited nostalgia or even a creation of Hollywood – but either way the vision seems to have widespread appeal.  Most people view a white picket fence as an integral component of a picturesque property and one that adds a good deal of charm and order to a place.

How can something as seemingly simple as a white picket fence assert so much elegance?

Demystifying the allure of the white picket fence first requires a look at ourselves.  I believe the human mind has an affinity for order; and, a white picket fence is a manifestation of order.  Its stark white rails of uniform height and precision spacing pleases us with its cleanliness, form and predictable pattern.  A fence also demands order by dictating where one may and may not walk.

Additionally, a fence typically possesses one very likeable attribute – humility.  What I mean by that is that as beautiful as a fence may be, it really doesn’t seek attention for itself; in fact, it nobly aspires to an existence of servitude. It exists to accentuate and compliment the structure that it encloses.  Visually, a good fence does not compete with the associated house but draws the eyes upward.

I am, so far talking exclusively about traditional white palings so I need to acknowledge a few other Nova Scotian fence traditions.  Yarmouth’s live fences (or hedges) were stunning in their perfection – trimmed as close as a 4-H calf at Pro Show – they could if required keep the wandering beasts at bay.  Earltown’s Bone Setter’s wall is one of many vestiges of old stone walls erected for the manifold purposes of clearing stone from fields, enclosing grazing animals and marking property lines.  Bay of Fundy fishing weirs were simple yet ingenious devices that utilized the power of the tides to catch fish – once commonly stitched into the beaches of Fundy, their presence told of a way of life with a clarity no other type of fence could convey.  Snake fences zigzagged their way through rural Nova Scotia many years ago and have entirely vanished apart from the odd suburban residence that displays one for artistic purposes.  Dozens of other styles of board fences and iron fences were erected throughout the province with some of the latter still surviving in cemeteries and older residential areas.

Historic photographs provide a wonderful opportunity for communities to document the style or styles of fences once associated with their local area.  The diversity of style that existed from region to region and even from one town to the next was in many cases quite striking.  Fences were but one of many built features that conveyed a sense of place but their ubiquity and design has largely been forgotten.

The handsome new fence around the Chambers’ property is noticeable. The grounds are much improved in appearance by this neat and substantial enclosure, and King Street by its increased width and beautiful row of shade trees will soon become a favorite promenade.

Colchester Sun, Aug 29, 1877

What led to the demise of Nova Scotia’s historic fences?  Fashion.  Changing tastes, between the years 1900 and 1910, began to favour unobstructed greenery over boarded enclosures.  This meant that open lawns became the ideal and although hedges are a form of enclosure the fact that they are also greenery dictated that they remained in vogue.  Unfortunately, no one had remembered to inform the livestock of these changes.  So during the first decade of the twentieth century conflict reigned in Nova Scotia as livestock and their owners had to adjust to the new fashion.  They were, of course, accustomed to moving through town streets with much the same effect as a golf ball in miniature golf – with barriers keeping them on the straight and narrow.  Fewer fences meant an increase in complaints of cows destroying front yards on their way from one grazing ground to another. Demands for better supervision of livestock were made and eventually more men and boys provided it.  As herd boys demonstrated their diligence, still more home owners dismantled their fences.  So in the end, fashion, and to some degree better bovine management, sounded the death knell for fences.

The swinging pendulum of fashion though may once again be calling for a renaissance.  Historic Nova Scotian fences are much too attractive to allow them to remain forgotten.  So, consider a fence for your home, especially if it is a heritage home and try to avoid the generic pre-assembled styles available at home reno stores.

For more on historic fences, and particularly the unique fences of Truro, see Joe Ballard’s articles, in the Winter 2011-12 edition of the Griffin – a quarterly publication of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia and also Edifice Old Home Magazine, issue 22, 2009.

Posted by Joe Aug 31, 2011 Posted in Architectural History, Cultural Landscapes Comments Off