20th Century, Buildings, Culture

Art Nouveau Porch

Porch at 254 King Street East. (my photo)

Porch at 254 King Street East. (my photo)

April 15, 2016 update: I literally saw a drawing of this house from a 1970s calendar which shows a plain, modern porch and a sign for tourist housing or some such thing. So perhaps a later owner recreated the original one? Who knows? This is getting confusing.

July 29, 2015 update: I recently viewed a photograph of this house while a dentist, Dr. Clements, was living there, so pre-1910. The porch was there at that time, suggesting it’s original or nearly original to the building.

An entire post about a porch? Yes.

Art Nouveau is a bit of a catch-all term for a design and architecture movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the decorative arts, it lasted from about 1880-1910, while as an architectural style it was most popular from about 1893-1903. The term Art nouveau (“new art”) is more specifically used for the French-Belgian variety, which tends to feature long, curvilinear, plant-like lines. Jugendstil (“youth style”) is used for the Austrian-German variety, which generally features a sleeker, more open and square-ish aesthetic. However, Charles Rennie Mackintosh et al. in Scotland were also creating their own niche in the Art Nouveau world, as was Antoni Gaudí in Spain, and others around Europe. There isn’t terribly much linking these groups together stylistically, except for the plant themes that keep popping up and the desire to create a modern aesthetic, free from nineteenth-century fuss, that became instantly popular with the upper-middle classes.

But as you can tell, Art Nouveau was primarily a European movement. It’s certainly not something that ever caught on in Canada, and considering Canadians’ historically conservative taste in design, stepping inside something like Victor Horta’s famous Tassel House in Brussels would probably have freaked some people out:

Public domain photograph. Wikipedia. (click image to go to source)

That’s why the presence of this Art Nouveau porch is so surprising to me! The only other place I’ve seen Art Nouveau in Kingston is on a fireplace grate in a house a friend of mine used to live in, which was built around 1914, some years after the style had burned out. (What, you don’t research when your friends’ houses were built?) Evidently by 1914, Art Nouveau was mainstream enough to be on mass-produced fireplace designs in Canada, but as the example suggests, it was still limited to minor interior decoration.

So, the real question is when the porch was put up. The house at 254 King Street East, which the porch belongs to, was likely built no later than 1889. Tassel House, regarded as the first Art Nouveau building, wasn’t constructed until 1893, so I’d argue that the porch isn’t original to the house. At the same time, Art Nouveau never really had a “revival,” so it’s unlikely (though possible) that the porch is a much-later addition. Considering that Art Nouveau was well on its way out by 1910, and that Canada was historically a few years behind trends in Europe, I’d initially guess that the porch was put up around 1910-12.

But interestingly, after a run of doctors occupying 254 King Street East during the 1890s and early 1900s, by 1910 the more typically middle-class Kavanagh family was living there. In fact, they eventually turned the place into a boarding house for several years. Generally, it would seem more likely that one of the doctors put up the porch: they would probably have been wealthier, and possibly more up-to-date with current fashions and trends and willing to implement them as a status symbol. They may even have travelled abroad for their education and seen Art Nouveau “in the flesh.”

However, if that was the case, then we have a surprisingly hip Kingstonian on our hands. Kingston has never been an architecturally adventurous city (excepting a few fun examples like Elizabeth Cottage) and by the turn of the century its houses were very similar to others across Canada and the United States. Victorian gingerbread-style porch decorations were extremely common and sometimes elaborate, but always with a standard style (just look at any typical late-Victorian house). This porch would be a rare example of someone in Kingston adopting – however tamely – an avant-garde architectural movement at a time when it was still relatively current.

Art Nouveau shop at 45 rue St. Augustin, Paris, circa 1904. George Eastman House. (click image to go to source)

Art Nouveau shop at 45 rue St. Augustin, Paris, circa 1904. George Eastman House. (click image to go to source)

Adding to the interest, Art Nouveau was unpopular among Canadian architects and designers of the time. It was almost always referenced with derision. To be fair, the Furniture and Upholstery Journal and Undertakers Gazette in June 1901 explained this derision with two good points:

A short time ago this particular style, if such a term may be applied to what is apparently everything and anything, was confined to expensive lines, but it is fast being introduced into cheap goods which means of course that its life will not be a very long one.

It’s true that Art Nouveau often wasn’t a clearly defined style and it’s true that it was increasingly being used in mass-produced goods, taking away its prestige value. However, many people, especially architects, just didn’t like it. Here are some nuggets I found in The Canadian Architect and Builder:

“The modern English style, L’art Nouveau and other stuff of the same kidney appeals to me as empty and idle – with rare exceptions. […] [W]hen we turn to L’art Nouveau . . . we are confronted with all manner of violations of absolute laws and sound construction.” – March 1902

“…Messrs. Burke & Horwood, Messrs. Symons & Rae and Messrs. Gordon & Helliwell, show us much careful and thoughtful work, thoroughly modern, yet happily not tainted by the virulence of the ‘Art Nouveau’ movement.” – January 1904

“…the temporary aberrations of the ‘Art Nouveau’ movement…” – October 1904

“On the 7th November, the subject of the programme was a debate ‘Has L’Art Nouveau had a beneficial influence on Architecture’? Most of the members present had a word to say on the subject, which was dealt with in a lively manner. No vote however was taken, as it was understood that several members were speaking rather as special pleaders than as convinced.” – November 1906

The only neutral article was a description of a building designed by Hector Guimard (of the Paris Métro entrances) which was a reprint from another journal.

All of this just makes me happier that someone liked Art Nouveau enough to put it on the outside of their house, in Kingston of all places. After looking around other areas in the city, I have yet to find another example of Art Nouveau’s distinctive sinuous lines. Whoever that person was, history is on their side: Art Nouveau is now recognized as a seminal moment in modern art history. I’m happy we have a little slice of it in Kingston!

Art Nouveau porch 002

Sources

I relied on my course notes from ARTH 292, Architecture 1900 to the Present, which I took at Queen’s in Winter 2014.

Kingston city directories

The below journal articles were found on the database Early Canadiana Online, which requires a subscription. The page numbers are only for the quotes I cited:

“Picture Frames and Mouldings.” Furniture and Upholstery Journal and Undertakers Gazette 8, no. 6 (June 1901): 325.

“Ontario Association of Architects.” The Canadian Architect and Builder 15, no. 3 (March 1902): 37.

“The O.A.A. Exhibition.” The Canadian Architect and Builder 17, no. 1 (January 1904): 16.

Nobbs, Percy E. “Opening Lecture of the Department of Architecture, McGill University.” The Canadian Architect and Builder 17, no. 10 (October 1904): 163.

“Sketching Club P.Q.A.A.” The Canadian Architect and Builder 19, no. 11 (November 1906):171.

“An ‘Art Nouveau’ House in Paris.” The Canadian Architect and Builder 15, no. 11 (November 1902): 133. (article about Hector Guimard building)

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