This blogging hiatus isn’t going as planned, but that’s okay. I’m going to use this post as a testing ground for a paper I’ve been researching on domestic Gothic Revival architecture in the Kingston area. My argument is that Gothic Revival was an unpopular style for houses in Kingston – and more broadly, Ontario – in the nineteenth century, and exploring why that might have been. This was despite a growing interest in Gothicism in England throughout the first several decades of the nineteenth century, and a later assessment of the Gothic as somehow being an inherently Canadian style. (The British thought this too. Even though the Gothic originated in France. Anyway…)
Nineteenth-century Gothic Revival architecture often has a heavy and sober appearance, but apparently it was still too fancy for most Kingstonians in the 1840s and 50s, who preferred plain, classically-inspired designs. The only examples of secular houses making a real effort at Gothic Revival in Kingston are Elizabeth Cottage (Edward Horsey, c. 1846) and McIntosh Castle (John Power, 1852). Allen Cottage (William Coverdale, 1848), a house on Wolfe Island which was demolished some eighty years ago was another good example, except it was built for the rector of a church. I may consider it in my essay even though I’m focusing on non-church-related architecture.
In this post, I’m just going to go over some local examples of Gothic Revival and save the theory for my paper.
One thing that’s been interesting so far is comparing the Gothic Revival in Kingston versus neighbouring regions. I’ve looked at domestic architecture in Prince Edward County through perusing the book The Settler’s Dream: A Pictorial History of the Older Buildings of Prince Edward County, and have found that Gothic Revival details were much more common in vernacular architecture there. The book contains many examples of farmhouses with lancet windows (some with intricate tracery), bargeboards, and the like. It’s much more pronounced than in the Kingston area. This was likely due to a microcosm of local builders who were influenced by each other, and by other buildings in the area.
Prince Edward County also once contained Warwick House, later renamed Rickarton Castle, which you can read a bit more about on the blog Ancestral Roofs (spoiler alert: it was demolished). It was apparently inspired by Warwick Castle in England. Interestingly, Rickarton had a history similar to some of the earliest Gothic Revival houses in England. For example, in 1749 Horace Walpole bought Chopped Straw Hall, the small (not medieval) house he had been renting for two years at Twickenham. Over the next several decades, he and his friends rebuilt it into the Gothic fantasy castle Strawberry Hill. In 1796, William Beckford, escaping a sex scandal involving a teenage boy, began to build his immense Fonthill Abbey near his father’s Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens, which he rather wantonly demolished a few years later. Fast forward to 1860, and we have Colonel Ryland buying a (clearly not medieval) house in Hallowell township, which was remodelled over the next three years by Ryland and his wife into a Canadian castle.
The eighteenth-century Gothic Revival was a different beast than its Victorian cousin, which advocated architectural precision, truth in materials, and period accuracy. Despite being built in the 1840s, Elizabeth Cottage is in some ways more in keeping with the whimsical eighteenth-century mode. It has a false gable, exaggerated bargeboards, fake buttress-like supports made of lacy metal, and isn’t fooling anyone as to its authenticity. It is much more concerned with play-acting as an old English cottage. Similarly at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole had no inhibitions about taking elements from solemn medieval tombs and cathedrals and recreating them in plaster and paper maché wherever he pleased.
McIntosh Castle of a few years later is also a very fun little house, but it isn’t whimsical in the same way that Elizabeth Cottage is. The architect John Power seems to have shrunk down a cozy but serious “castlet” (yeah I just invented that word) onto the triangular lot at Sydenham and West Streets. (It’s worth mentioning that the battlements on McIntosh Castle’s tower are not original, but even without them the house has a sense of compact sturdiness.) Although Augustus Welby Pugin – the most intense of nineteenth-century Gothic enthusiasts – deplored among other things houses made to look like castles, I think he would approve of McIntosh Castle more than he would Elizabeth Cottage.
Leeds and Grenville is another area that never really warmed to Gothic Revival for homes. However, Brockville has a really unusual example of a Gothic Revival house, totally different from the ones I’ve just discussed. It’s illustrated in Thaddeus Leavitt’s History of Leeds and Grenville, Ontario (1879).
The nice people at Heritage Brockville were kind enough to tell me that this house, which they’ve named the Latham-Sherman House, is still standing on Sherwood Street, though its vertical thrust has been compromised by a heavy porch addition. This house has virtually none of the usual Gothic vocabulary, except for those amazing panels of windows that shoot through the roof into evocations of buttresses. (Oh, how Pugin would hate it).
In the twentieth century, especially, Gothic Revival began to be seen as a specifically Anglo-Canadian style. Most of the impetus for this judgement was people waxing poetic over the Canadian Parliament buildings. However, the joke’s on them, because very little of English Gothic was actually used in the Parliament buildings, and that’s not even an architectural historian talking: that’s what the architects themselves said. They commented,
The designers have endeavoured not slavishly to copy the Gothic of any particular period or country but the noble civic buildings of the Low Countries and Italy have afforded them suggestions.
Mathilde Brosseau’s study of the Canadian Gothic Revival only identifies the library as English Gothic; meanwhile the Parliament buildings also include French mansard roofs and seem to take most of their influence from medieval Flemish architecture. So much for England! (Brosseau literally suggests the Cloth Hall at Ypres as a similar building, which I don’t really see to be honest. Random aside: cat-throwing used to occur from the top of the Cloth Hall tower. I remember learning about that tradition but I didn’t know it was in Ypres. Today they do it with stuffed animals. Really).
November 13, 2014 update: Architectural historian Harold Kalman, in A History of Canadian Architecture, Volume 2 also suggests the Cloth Hall at Ypres as a similar building based on its design of a tower with two extending wings, but I think he’s citing Brosseau. He also remarked that the architects’ statement of their influences was “borrowed” from a “contemporary British source.” This doesn’t make it any less true!
The fact that I feel I have so much more to say on Gothic Revival means I’m probably set to begin my essay. Yay! If you have any questions, please let me know because it will give me areas to expand upon in my paper. I’m often concise to a fault when I write.
Here are two good books on related subjects. Also see The Settler’s Dream; I’ve linked to the library record in the text.
Brosseau, Mathilde. Gothic Revival in Canadian Architecture. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1980.
McKendry, Jennifer. With Our Past Before Us: Nineteenth Century Architecture in the Kingston Area. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Also see Jennifer McKendry’s article on Elizabeth Cottage in Vol. 35, issue 2 (2010) of Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (entire issue can be found in a PDF on their website)