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

Scruples and Steeples

Mahone Bay’s famous churches are facing challenges. These are of course not ordinary churches. These buildings have taken on a status that transcends religion. Collectively they are Mahone Bay’s Eiffel Tower – Lunenburg County’s Statue of Liberty; unlike such contrived landmarks though the existence of these churches is natural and sincere – and therein lies their true charm.

Their relationship to one another and to the water and their similarity yet individuality of forms creates a unique viewscape that has lured and captivated both locals and visitors. Their beauty has inadvertently contributed to the growth of tourism-based businesses in Mahone Bay’s waterfront business district. They have helped make Mahone Bay a nice place to live. But we know all of this. What we don’t know, is how to ensure that these churches continue to make the town a special place while the good people who worship inside struggle with the burden of maintenance within a society that is both increasingly secular and increasingly anti-maintenance. The latter concern is, of course, a reference to that camp who believes if something needs fixing – it should be replaced.

If any one of these churches approaches that final lamentable stage of disposal, the entire county had better mobilize because the architecture of these three churches needs to be viewed as a community asset and as such it deserves community support. Now, support for what happens inside these churches is a personal choice and needs to be separated from what happens outside which is where the churches’ well-documented architectural aesthetic comes into play.

Mahone Bay, and indeed every place of cultural significance, needs a new formula – a formula that supports the authenticity of place here in Nova Scotia. Preservation of our historic architecture is a huge (and often overlooked) economic driver and quality of life booster. Mahone Bay illustrates that as well as any place can.

The problem is that once such architecture is gone, it’s gone; because the scale, quality, and aesthetic of most modern buildings cannot evoke the same degree of emotion as that of earlier edifices.
So what would a new formula look like?

Before getting to that it is important to remember two points with respect to the history of churches in Nova Scotia and in the process debunk a couple of widely-held assumptions. First, most of these glorious buildings were not constructed solely by means of subscriptions from the congregation. Others in the community, regardless of religious affiliation often contributed to the fund raising – or in other words there was community-wide financial support. Secondly, dwindling numbers of church goers is not a new or irreversible trend. The same problem was lamented during the first decade of the twentieth century. The New Glasgow Enterprise, in 1909 for instance, investigated the problem and declared that “not one half of the people… were attending any church.” Interestingly, reasons for not attending in 1909 read like 2012 but delving into them is not the purpose of this editorial.

Stephen Kristenson, pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church makes the important point that “many use the three churches in almost every conceivable medium, from stained glass to cookies” and he wonders if the three churches shouldn’t explore how some tourism revenue streams might flow back to the stewards of those churches. Kristenson may be on to something; in fact, even just discussing the subject brings awareness to the inequity of the situation.

Let’s return to that “formula” I hinted at earlier. The impact of architectural heritage (and Mahone Bay’s churches is a great example) needs to be quantified and valued by those parties who directly or indirectly benefit from its existence. Municipal governments and businesses are beneficiaries that immediately come to mind.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not one of those artsy socialist types who believe governments should pay for everything and businesses are parasites, I am in fact very pro-business. It could however be convincingly argued that the province’s heritage assets have been treated like parasitic hosts for some time. It’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just how the thing has developed. As parasitic relationships go, some might even be pretty beneficial if they’re sustainable – but Mahone Bay’s situation is not. The heritage assets of Mahone Bay need external help. First, by being identified for their true local and regional value and finally by the establishment of an arms-length, community-based body to assess historic preservation needs. Whether such a body has an independent structure or is an extension of a regional development agency or a historical society is for stakeholders to determine. Ultimately, funding needs to be found, how much and from where would become clearer after a formal cultural and economic values assessment.

Posted by Joe Oct 18, 2012 Posted in Municipal Issues 2 Comments

Historic Paint Colors of Nova Scotia

The dawn of the ready-mixed paint industry in Nova Scotia (1875-1900) saw roughly one dozen major paint companies introduce their products here.  Initially represented by local agents and then by hardware stores and journeymen painters, manufacturers made great inroads into the well-entrenched tradition of locally mixed paints.  By 1900, it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of all paint sold in the province was of the ready-mixed or canned variety.  For house paint color consulting, the advent of the ready-mixed paint era is very convenient.  Here’s why.

Large multi-national paint manufacturers produced huge amounts of promotional material.  Because of the sheer volume cranked out by the marketing arms of these companies, many valuable pieces have survived.  Color card samples as well as placement, pairing and treatment suggestions all exist for companies that sought to advance their product through mass marketing.

Vineberg & Fulton has documented when ready-mixed paint was introduced in different corners of Nova Scotia and specifically which manufacturers were actively selling in individual communities.  This information has been cross-referenced with surviving marketing ephemera to identify historically accurate colors that would have been available in a specific time and place.

It is essentially now possible to go “back in time.”  Suppose a home owner living in Amherst in 1898 is considering what color scheme he will use for his nearly finished cottage home.  The color palette available to him in 1898 is now available to Amherst residents today.  The opportunity for authenticity is exciting to those who admire historic homes.

Colors though are only half the equation.  The placement of colors is equally as important.  Components such as shutters, windows, and verandah ceilings each had colors with which they were traditionally associated.  Decorative shingles, belt courses, pilasters, verandah posts, eave brackets and many other architectural details all demand specific treatments apart from the color of the house body.

“Harmony of colors” was an important decorating concept espoused by some journeymen painters in Nova Scotia by 1895 and likely earlier.  It produced such vivid results that small town newspapers frequently printed news briefs on the striking results with comments like, “Many houses and places of business are being brightened up with paint of ‘various and sundry’ hues.”

Local color traditions may also play a role in identifying historically appropriate colors.  Yarmouth and Lunenburg, for example, can boast of individual characteristics, as can areas that claim predominantly Scottish or Acadian backgrounds.  Although Nova Scotia was to some extent influenced by color traditions external to our province (and increasingly so with the introduction of ready-mixed paints) this corner of the world was culturally significant in terms of its paint history.  Travel writers visiting our province throughout the 1800s provide confirmation of this fact.  At least one nineteenth century American paint manufacturer even marketed a color it called “Nova Scotia stone.”

For information on authentic colors and paint treatments from the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, as well as colors that predate the ready-mixed paint era, contact Vineberg & Fulton directly.

Posted by Joe Mar 03, 2012 Posted in Architectural History, Publications & Research 3 Comments