Communications with a Heritage House

Posted Jan 18th, 2023 in Design, Current Issues, Niagara Architecture

When we moved from Toronto to Niagara some fifteen years ago, we needed a wonderful, and unique, house to replace the one we were leaving.  One of the houses that was available at the time seemed to be appropriate, and very different from most of what was on offer.  I recalled having seen it some decades before, when I had driven into the street – and was amazed by what I saw:  a set of three intriguing houses – each unique in its own way, but somehow they belonged together.  We purchased it and moved in.  

The house, now having celebrated a century of its conception in 1922, is a fascinating contrast to today’s monster houses, appearing considerably smaller than it actually is.  This is not a unique feature, and other nearby houses embed wonderful adventures in scale.  One has an entry with eaves below the head-level of an average person.  I have heard people suggest houses with such features appear suitable as dwellings for hobbits – and also that the architect of many of these houses was quite short. 

In 1967, Canada’s Centennial year, plaques were put on many ‘century houses’ – those that had existed a hundred years before.  In Ontario, outside of a few large cities, most houses as built we would now consider to be primitive.  No indoor plumbing, no electricity, no telecommunications, illuminated by oil lamps, and often heated with a wood stove.  The dramatic innovations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries become obvious when one considers houses built in the 1920s and 1930s.  Today, interwar houses are at, or are approaching, their own hundredth birthdays.  Most of those houses were built with central heating, electricity, telephones, and comprehensive indoor plumbing (even if only limited to one small bathroom).  Kitchens had stoves and refrigerators, and many houses had driveways and garages for cars.  And there are many more houses, relative to those built just fifty years before. 

Moving on into the early 21st century, there have been fewer technologies to fundamentally change the way houses are used.  For many, probably most, of today’s century houses, kitchens have been upgraded, something that now seems to occur every few decades in keeping with changes in fashion.  The appearance of dishwashers, better laundry equipment and robot vacuum cleaners have reduced the amount of daily labour required.  Bathrooms have also frequently been rebuilt, as they are no longer expected to offer only a minimum level of amenity.   

Documentation can be invaluable in understanding much about the origins and early life of a building – but having it can also fundamentally change relationships.  Soon after purchasing our house, we encountered the daughter of the couple who had the house built, and we made a photocopy of her father’s diary.  Working through the almost-illegible writing gave a wonderful sense of the house.  The original owner loved it so much that the diary was written in the first person – by the house, who referred to its owners as its ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’.  It contained intriguing information about the original heating system, and the annual cost of coal.  We knew the name of their dog, and those of the Irish immigrants who cleaned and did the laundry.  We know that, having returned from the Great War, the ‘master’ hoisted a union jack in the back garden every day, and that during the tragic years of the great depression, the hobos would come into the garden and steal the chickens, but also sometimes a hobo would be brought in for dinner.  There were comments on the design process, the builders and the architect, and grumbling about the amount of concrete that went into the foundations – the house comments “Perhaps the lot was not such a good deal after all.”  With all of this information, we became connected to this family of a century ago, and the house became not just a blank slate, but a responsibility, requiring that we continue to cherish and protect it.  The house, through the diary, expressed its sentiment that it existed to shelter, serve and protect those who dwelled in it.  Knowing the exact date when the original owners decided to proceed with building the house, enabled us to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its conception. 

Unfortunately, without an engaging history, it is tempting, for many people, to try to turn an older house into a new one.  In the Niagara area, students and other connoisseurs of heritage are often distressed by people who seek out an older house, and then proceed to replace the windows and strip the interiors.  Without those elements, all that is left is a structural shell.  The spirit probably is extinguished, and it may not remain real piece of heritage at all. 

Perplexingly, there seems to be a movement to homogenise the interiors – scanning almost any real estate publication shows numerous all-white interiors.  Somehow the use of colour has become almost taboo, together with any substantial reference to the past.  Recently, I encountered a Niagara-area building that had passed its 200th birthday.  The owner was proud of that fact, but it was difficult to see anything that was not painted entirely white or over a decade old.  He took me over to a small piece of wall, where one could view ‘the heritage’:  perhaps a square metre of old brick. 

The history of most buildings is a black box, so more effort is required to connect them to the culture in which they were created – and to ourselves in our time.  Perhaps information is the real key to understanding heritage buildings – what is important to preserve, and what can be modified to meet current requirements and aspirations. 


From the diary:

Perhaps my reader will wonder just what I am.  Well!  I am the spirit of the whole home of my master and mistress aforesaid.  I am the spiritual embodying of all they call home or part of their home.  I take note of all changes in the home, additions, deductions, alterations permanent and seasonable, and everything of general and special interest to my master and mistress.

I was born on June 1st 1922, when my master and mistress, Mr. & Mrs. Pepler decided to throw in their lot and more or less control my destinies.  It was about eight months before they completed the house on the land where I exist, and Mr. Pepler says it cost about $12,500 to build, the high cost being necessary on account of the side hill construction, and the amount of reinforced concrete required for the foundation:  the latter cost $5,000 alone.  I wanted to speak before now, but my master never gave me the opportunity until today…

April 3rd, 1925          


This was contributed by Dr.Ian Ellingham, who is Chair of the Niagara Society of Architects, and has been involved in heritage matters, both in Canada, and in Europe.