Southern Ontario is a treasure trove of early architecture for those inclined to history. And it is the abundance of its various histories represented in visual architectural form that adds to its interest and beauty.
In my expeditions through the countryside and towns I always spare an eye for the homes of our past. Often these are in need of salvage or preservation though vestiges of their former prestige may be glimpsed if one were to look carefully. Going through Bolton one day many years ago I stopped to inspect a brick house in the process of demolition. What caught my eye was not so much the definitive Italianate aspect of it dominating the scene, but an earlier house that peeked out from under the brick veneer. Seldom had I seen such a graphic example that shows how existing architecture is manipulated to showcase the perceived refinement that happens to be popular at the moment, the moment in this case being about 1890 or so.
There, behind the bricks that were being stripped off, in seemingly great condition, was a clapboard house of great proportion that I suspected was a mid-nineteenth century timber frame that had been hidden for about half a century. I had to check this out. Yes, it was intended for demolition …destruction actually, except for the brick that the salvage yard had purchased. I very soon determined its underlying construction. It had excellent bones—hand-hewn timbers in fact, that I knew dated it to perhaps 40 to fifty years before the disguise it now wore. It was a house of straightforward honest expression with little use of intricacy and unwarranted expression; deep window jambs that housed the posts, beautiful wide pine flooring, a panelled wainscoting and other lovely features deserved a better fate than this. the central hall plan with its generous front entrance sported sidelights and transom still intact. A particularly spacious upper hall was a surprise that would allow for furniture not normally found in an upper hall. I would have liked to have thanked that someone who very carefully ‘bricked it’ so that the original structure was left pretty much unharmed. No, the garbage dump was not going to swallow this one!
My offer was accepted and I sent a crew to dismantle it with care. Surely, someone would appreciate this one. Not that this house with its brick veneer was not appreciated. It was a most handsome representative of an era that followed the more simple, quiet aesthetic of Ontario’s early settlers. The early house became old and change was due. a house that served for many decades had new owners. The house has always been a product of its time, circumstance and personal taste. Why not resurface a building? dressing up, veneering and recycling were part of a progressive society that insisted on moving forward. A brick house was considered ‘first class’. The more modest beginnings were disapproved and too often lost to memory and decay. It was not uncommon that the new, popular gothic details would be superimposed over the more chaste lines that had lasted for more than a century, if not centuries. In this vanguard of change it would not be remiss to consider some attempts to be pretentious. every man’s home is his castle, or at least, his interpretation of one. It’s all ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ as they say.
But this house was certainly to my taste. I guess I’m a throwback to the more distant past. sometimes I wish I could be thrown back. I live as close as I can to it, surrounded as I am with the furnishings of previous centuries. Fortunately, there are others who aspire to the style too, who choose not the palace but the simple farmhouse with its comforting hearth and quiet, country setting. This has kept me and a few able craftsmen busy for decades.
We began the process of careful salvage. Every piece of woodwork was numbered and documented, even the clapboards, though it turned out they would not appear again on the reconstruction. They were worn a little too thin, the natural consequence of age. We were most happy to find the post-and-beam frame itself was as sound as the day it was built. that being so, I was confident about the reclamation and its future as a home for someone. And, shortly after we had it carefully stored away, I was to meet the Chants, Don and Merle, who would become the new custodians of this house, the former Taylor house, one of the oldest house in Bolton.
Thus, a legacy is passed from the homeowner in one century to the homeowner in another. I think the craftsmen who first built the house would be happy to know that it still lives and is lovingly cared for today.
THE CURRENT OWNERS PASS ON THESE THOUGHTS:
“We have been city-dwellers most of our lives, in the sixties through the eighties, in Toronto. In the late eighties, with retirement peeking over the horizon, we decided to leave the city for all the usual reasons: congestion, smog, noise, lack of privacy, and so on. That meant finding a place in the country.
We both like old houses with a sense of history and past lives lived. We had spent many happy summers in Prince Edward County so that is where we began our search. At first we looked for an old house on an interesting property. after a year of fruitless searching, we abandoned this approach. At about that time we came into contact with Mel Shakespeare and learned that he had a circa 1837 timber-framed house stored in a barn west of Toronto, each piece numbered and ready for reassembly. From that point on we limited our search to a piece of suitable property to which this house could be moved. Again, we had no luck in Prince Edward County, so we switched our focus to Hastings County, north of there. Eventually we found the perfect place; 50 acres with wooded hills, a small creek and a finger of the Canadian shield poking down from the north. It is about six miles north of the town of Madoc, near the hamlet of Queensborough, once thriving during mini gold rush but now a quiet backwater.
We chose a site well-removed from the road and here the reconstruction began in late 1991. The process of reconstruction was interesting, to say the least, much like putting together a Lego set, with care taken to insure that each numbered piece fitted into its proper place. The basic house was in remarkably good shape after 164 years of life, though some parts were simply too old to be used again’ for example, the original clapboards.
Nevertheless, the house was ready for occupancy in the spring of 1992 and at that time was transformed from being a structure into being a home. We have lived in it happily for many years and feel totally committed to it. When we moved in, the land surrounding the house was a barren building site but over the years we have changed that with extensive, mostly native tree and shrub planning and the nurturing of gardens all around the place.
We value the land as much as the house, with its varied topography and vegetation, and many species of wildlife, from bears, foxes and coyotes, to raccoons, muskrats, beavers and many species of birds, including wild turkeys. In order to protect this environment in perpetuity we entered into a covenant with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which does not permit any disturbance of the land.
One thing we learned from this adventure is that no matter how we cherish the old house, the need for maintenance and plain old fixing up is endless and unrelenting. Even this process however, though irritating at times has helped us learn more about the house and to bond with it even more closely. Each year that passes we feel that not only has our home become part of us, but also we have become a part of it, writing the next chapter for a building that has lived through so many decades and experienced so many other lives about which we know so little.” DON AND MERLE CHANT — LARK RISE
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