Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. At least I can’t.
There are a number of historic buildings in Kingston that are missing a little something: namely, their top storeys and towers. These buildings all looked normal to me until I saw photographs of them in their heyday, appearing somehow more complete than they do now. What was the difference? At some point their crowning glories – third floors, fancy roofs, or towers – were removed, changing the streetscape in a sometimes major way. Now I walk around like someone with an 120-year-old memory, wishing things still looked like they once did. Unfortunately, except for one instance, I don’t know why or when these buildings were altered. I assume in most cases (especially for roofs and towers) it was simply deterioration, and it was easier to remove rotting wood and shingles than trying to repair them. I have no doubt there are countless examples of this in other towns as well. Here are the ones I’ve found in Kingston, in no particular order:
Macdonald School, now used by Cogeco, corner of Colborne and Division
Sorry, I don’t have a photo of this school before it was deprived of most of its attic space. However, I have seen a photo of it (during my volunteer gig at the Queen’s Archives, more on that later) and I can tell you it used to look a little more like this:
This is the original KCVI building, constructed in 1892 and destroyed some time prior to the 1970s (if anyone can tell me a more exact date that would be great). It has a typical turn-of-the-century school look with a big gabled roof similar to the one originally at Macdonald School.
“Clergyview Apartments,” 174 Earl Street
This much-altered house used to be reminiscent of the house from Psycho, but now appears a little more friendly due to the addition of ample (if ugly) porches and the removal of its pointy tower, trimmed with iron cresting and a weather vane. If you look closely, you’ll see that the chimneys have also been chopped short. Before Ban Righ was built, this house was the women’s residence at Queen’s for many years.
The Rocking Horse, 193 Princess Street (at Montreal)
I think this is the first building I noticed had its top lopped off, after looking at the full version of the photo below (I’ve got a cropped, zoomed-in version here because it’s the best detail I could get). I thought it was a little weird, until I noticed other examples of top-less buildings all over the place. In the photo below, you can see the original three storeys directly to the left of the building with the “Horsey” sign.
Windmills Restaurant + Merit Travel, 182-186 Princess Street (at Montreal)
This building is directly across the street from the previous one. While downtown one day, I happened to take a look at it and instantly thought, “I bet its top floor was knocked off.” And I was right! In the photo below, the building in question is the tallest one directly above the head of the woman in red.
Golden Lion Block, now Pearle Vision + Market Pharmacy, 158-166 Wellington Street
The Golden Lion Block, as it was originally known, is missing its mansard roof and third storey. I don’t know whether it suffered the same fate as the Oddfellows’ Block (see below) or if it was simply the ravages of time.
However, W.R. McRae & Co. really is “one of the old timers,” it’s still in the wholesale business and now located up on Montreal Street!
Merchant’s Bank Building, now (slowly) being turned into condos, 165 Wellington Street
Kitty-corner to the Golden Lion Block is this imposing piece of 1870s architecture, sadly missing its pointy tower roof and iron cresting.
However, according to the developer’s website, they’re planning on replacing the corner tower and adding a weird, very Gothic-looking top storey. Not sure why the artist’s representation doesn’t include the removal of the terrible modern ground-floor façade which doesn’t match at all. It’s one of my downtown pet peeves. Can someone please get rid of it?
Oddfellows’ Block, now vacant space + Menchie’s, 239-241 Princess Street (at Sydenham)
I’ve saved the best for last, because I actually know what happened to this building! I was hunting around for images of this block because I happen to work at a certain self-serve frozen yogurt franchise located on the ground floor. The first image I found was the circa 1909 engraving below, published in the Daily British Whig’s “Special Industrial Number” (go to this post for a source link). Looks pretty similar to today, although the ground floor has been heavily redone. However, I wanted to see more. That’s when I came across another image at the Queen’s Archives, which showed the building with not only a third storey, but a large square corner tower extending to a fourth storey, plus a pointed roof. (June 16, 2016 update: I originally had the image here but took it down.) During my volunteering time there, I have access to the digital image database. Sometimes when a photo is taking a long time scanning, I look through other folders in the database, which is how I found this one. (Actually, I think I was looking through this folder on purpose for a class project I was doing on Kingston photography. For the record, the image is in the James Powell studio album at QUA.)
I knew the Oddfellows’ Block likely wasn’t built pre-1890 (I later found a date stone that says 1891), and I had seen the photo of the more complete building. Yet, as early as 1909, its top had already been lopped off. What had happened? Lack of structural integrity? I was telling this all to a bemused coworker one afternoon when it hit me: what if there was a fire? A few days later I spent several hours trying to find evidence of a fire at the Oddfellows’ Block, with the knowledge that the newspapers online are only available to 1901. But after much struggle, I finally found it!
This was quite a serious fire. It began at 6:30 p.m. on 25 January 1899, when the owner of Kingston Business College, located on the second floor, saw a flash of light in the hallway. Apparently a gas lamp had burst and a fire was quickly spreading, filling the hallway with smoke. Although the fire department was dispatched, the hydrants they were using had poor water pressure and the hoses could barely reach past the second storey. The smoke also forced the firemen away from the building, unable to efficiently get at the fire.
However, J.B. McKay, the owner of the college, was undeterred and ran back in twice to retrieve valuable belongings. The second time he was overcome by smoke inhalation and had to be rescued (he was okay after a few minutes in fresh air). Later on that night, a man called Thomas Moore rather heroically climbed into the basement to cut off the gas supply.
By 8 p.m., the roof had caved in and the tower and part of the third storey “fell with a thundering crash” into Sydenham Street. “A” Battery from Artillery Park was called in to help fight the fire, but it didn’t die down until after 11 p.m., by which point the building was gutted. By the report, I’m surprised any of it was salvageable.
Anyway – that is the reason why the Menchie’s building is missing its top half. Ironically, despite the destructive fire, it’s really hard to tell that it used to have another storey. The renovators of 110+ years ago did a really good job with this building, and in my opinion it looks perhaps the best out of all the ones I’ve listed here. Still, you can bet the next time I go down to our unfinished basement storage room I will be looking for evidence of this unfortunate event among the foundation stones! (May 20, 2015 update: I literally did this and found lots of blackish streaks, but that might just be dirt. There is however, a great old door down there with the word “Manager” painted on its window in old-fashioned lettering. It probably dates to the building’s wholesale grocery/cold storage facility days – see the above illustration.)
Many (but not necessarily all) photographs that I sourced from the Vintage Kingston pool officially belong to the Queen’s University Archives.
I also used a photograph from the Archives of Ontario in this post. Unfortunately because of how their database works, I can’t link to the image record. Normally I avoid using their images, as they have a very strict reproduction policy, but in this instance it was the only one I had. I’m just hoping this blog counts as “private study”…
The newspaper article on the Oddfellows’ Building fire can be found on pages 2 and 4 of the 26 January 1899 edition of the Daily British Whig. You can access it by clicking on the image of the article posted above. But be warned that in some places it is near-impossible to read because the microfilm is really bad.