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

Spooky Architecture?

The Second Empire style of architecture has become Hollywood’s “go to” setting for tales of paranormal phenomenon and spine-tingling horror.  Todd Mansion, found in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, (pictured above) is arguably Atlantic Canada’s greatest example of Second Empire domestic architecture.  Had I taken this photo at night with a full moon hanging low over the wrought iron cresting and eerily illuminating the path to the front door, you would instantly expect that I was about to regale you with some sort of scary tale associated with the place.  Don’t worry.  Even though it is just two days before Halloween, as I write this, I do not wish to contribute to the monstrous body of irrational fears that are already associated with these nineteenth century masterpieces.   Still, it is a curious association.

When did pop culture first usurp this noble style and twist it into the macabre mansion of faulty electric wiring and secret passages?  And why this particular style anyway?

I’ll take a “stab” at a few answers.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates has become so entrenched in our culture as the gold standard of the genre and progenitor of so many horror /thriller stories produced since its release, that everyone knows it – even if they’ve never actually watched it.  And the set – the Bates Motel, with that old Second Empire style house looming behind is, I hate to say it, perfect.  The choice of house is said to have been influenced by a painting by artist, Edward Hopper (1882-1967), titled “The House by the Railroad” (1925).  That house was, of course, a Second Empire house.

In 1964, The Munsters aired on CBS.  Once again, a Second Empire house was chosen as the set for the creepy characters with the over-the-top Gothic appearance.

Similarly, the Addams Family’s Second Empire residence has “endeared” itself to many as that franchise successfully introduces itself to succeeding generations through cartoons, television, movies and video games.  Creator, Charles Addams (1912-1988) first brought the family to life with single panel cartoons illustrated for The New Yorker.  Perhaps the earliest and arguably the most influential depiction of the iconic haunted house in the Second Empire style is an Addams cartoon titled, Boiling Oil.  It appeared in the December 21, 1946 issue of The New YorkerBoiling Oil depicts Addams family members tipping a cauldron of hot oil onto carolers below from the top of the central tower of their Second Empire home.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Second Empire style had fallen out of favour with architects and builders who were busy satisfying new tastes like the popular Queen Anne Revival style.  So, by the 1940s, 50s and into the 60s the once fashionable and unique Mansard roof appeared dated.  It is perhaps the distinctive roof feature that, more than anything amplified the peculiar nature of the architecture to a point that it became a likely candidate for ghosts and ghouls.  Additionally, the iron cresting generally associated with the style is reminiscent of cemetery gates.  The often generous scale of Second Empire homes also contributes to the mystery of a “typical” haunted house.  And finally, the massing and profile of the style lends itself well to the all important interplay of light and shadow – especially spectacular on dark and stormy nights.  Happy Halloween everybody.

Posted by Joe Oct 29, 2013 Posted in Atlantic Canada Comments Off