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

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