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

On Apartments in Historic Neighbourhoods

South Park Street, Halifax c1905.

Some heritage home owners argue that their historic neighbourhoods have traditionally been composed of single family dwellings and should retain this composition for the health and sustainability of the neighbourhood.  An extension of this position asserts that future conversions to multi-unit apartments should be limited in the number units the house can be divided into or even disallowed altogether while new apartment construction should not be allowed.  On the surface, this position looks like the obvious one for champions of heritage but it is unfortunately founded on a shaky premise.  The sad problem here is that if the premise is found untrue the entire argument crumbles away as does perhaps the historic character of the neighbourhood and the credibility of heritage proponents.

In fact, this position is more than shaky; documentary evidence doesn’t support such a fanciful claim of ubiquitous single family occupancy.  The household arrangement of yesterday was in some ways quite foreign to us today.  These same heritage homes declared as life-long single family dwellings often housed live-in help, otherwise known as domestics.   Many homes even took in a boarder or two or several.  Both of these arrangements are very rare today and reflect different practices surrounding labour and more liberal notions concerning privacy.  Another social arrangement saw many of these old homes constructed as double tenements – duplexes are not a new invention.  Still other homes, often owned by widowed women, took in large numbers of boarders calling their premises hotels, boarding houses or houses of entertainment.  If enough fabricated nostalgia has not yet been shattered, I should add that in every community a surprising number of these old homes were constructed for the purpose of generating rental income.  To resort towns like Digby and Chester, house rentals were an important asset during the summer tourist season.

There will be no houses to let after this week.  It is a well known fact that Digby is in need of more small cottages. 

Digby Weekly Courier May 4, 1900


All of this means that what some decry as a new and troublesome trend of increasing intensification and non-owner occupation is not really so new after all.  Proponents of preservation should not despair though – there is solid ground on which to stand.

The appearance, specifically: scale, footprint, massing and style of these historic homes were fairly inoffensive and consistent regardless of the social dynamic of the inhabitants.  It is on these points that a preservation defense should be founded as present day additions and new construction often deviate from these historic and character defining norms.  Other more obvious arguments of preserving heritage homes centre on contributions to culture and sense of place but these benefits will not be discussed in this article as they are already well documented and widely accepted.

Those property owners that historically built houses for the purpose of renting typically built structures indistinguishable from other neighbourhood cottages of the period.  These landlords were themselves generally resident in the same neighbourhood and the period was known to support a culture of pride in property that simply does not exist to the same degree today.  Still another difference was that the seductive myth of the maintenance-free property had not yet been borne.  There existed also a culture of communal responsibility that in terms of property maintenance manifested itself in a frankness that saw even newspapers “call out” those whose lack of initiative negatively impacted the great common objective, which was promoting the image and prosperity of the community.

From a historic preservation perspective, single family occupancy is preferable (if sustainable) but there is no great sin in dividing a large heritage home into two or three residential units.  At the end of the day, continuous use and relevance are the greatest insurance against demolition.   The point now, as it was then, is to maintain the appearance (scale, footprint, massing and style) of a single family dwelling (or possibly a double tenement house).

This position, of course, means larger, modern apartment boxes have no place in historic neighbourhoods.  Their construction in such a setting would be inappropriate and fundamentally alter neighbourhood stability and sustainability – to the detriment of the municipality.

For property owners who wish to squeeze a little more value out of their investment in an historic property without offending heritage proponents too much, carriage houses provide an opportunity.  Carriage houses were often generously proportioned structures of as much as 1 ½ stories.  Their scale and siting though have always been and should remain subordinate to the main house.