|A farmhouse that's faring well by being treated to an ongoing stewardship|
Does anyone actually know how many stone houses still exist across rural Ontario? I'm familiar with a few clusters in Waterloo and its surrounding counties, but my awareness is solely from observation. And I can't locate anything that looks like a comprehensive inventory of these historic buildings, which are sprinkled across swaths of southern Ontario. There's certainly an active real estate market in restored stone buildings, at least for those in and around villages if not for those functioning as hubs of working farmsteads. But it doesn't appear that anyone responsible for heritage provincially has yet troubled to map the survivors and their existing state of repair.
There really ought to be an inventory of these buildings, as they are treasured landmarks and the product of craft skills long gone from our midst. They were mainly built in the mid-nineteenth century by German and Scottish immigrants, before railroads made brick readily available. The stones that surfaced while the settlers broke and tilled new fields furnished the supply of raw materials to make them. But if an inventory of these handmade structures exists, it's not readily available to researchers. Nor have I found signs of a program to support new owners who are willing to tackle their repair, which would help ensure the way they're handled stays consistent with original intent. And while this hasn't stopped many an owner from doing a bang-up job of repairing a neglected and aging building, much more could be done to enable others to take on a stone building. As in, sourcing the skills needed for heritage-quality work, and making them more readily accessible to those wanting to breathe new life into intriguing buildings. Such a program would make it more likely that people lacking skills themselves could feel more confident in tackling repair of a heritage building, which can be a daunting prospect. And, it would serve to steer them away from coarse remodeling errors by coaching respect for their home's inherent values.
Realistically, all old stone buildings are in need of continuing attention, and how and when that attention is given significantly affects their health and appearance. Some buildings are clearly faring well, as in the picture below, where wooden replacement components seamlessly dovetail with originals and repointed mortar joints are restored carefully and artistically. Check out the original stone chimneys on this beauty, one of the features most frequently subject to adulteration!
|Carefully and thoughtfully attended to, this stone farmhouse is a stunner!|
Other buildings, while showing no manifest signs of neglect, haven't been given the sort of loving attention that anticipates needs and keeps appearances spruce and smart. Here there may be a contradiction at work, given the preoccupation of modern farming with making profit from industrial agriculture (which can easily sever the link with the need for a domestic farmstead, as it no longer requires occupation of the land) and an older agricultural lifestyle that included a domicile that was both comfortable and handsome to support the large family working the farm. While the house below hasn't been dressed up, it appears to be maintained in good repair and still in daily use as a farm hub.
|Regular coursing suggests Scottish stone masonry techniques, using split granite boulders|
A heritage inventory and support program that includes a registry of skilled craftsmen for homeowner referral would go a long way towards stewarding these buildings into the future. They comprise a significant piece of our collective heritage, reflecting a central Canadian history of immigrant building skills blending with local materials to create uniquely regional forms. The lack of such a program makes it more likely that the use of incompatible materials will result in unsympathetic additions, marring originals, and the gradual loss of historic detailing when modest wooden components are replaced by off-the-rack lumber. Also more likely is that wooden components will tend to be exchanged for cheaper metal or plastic fittings. Worst of all, in the case of stone masonry skills, more likely that lack of craft knowledge will effect a modernizing blurring of invaluable historic details, detracting from the aesthetic impact of the structure in its landscape setting. Some of these land-building placements, as below perched on a rise, are really quite dramatic.
|Graceful hip-roofed front porch gives a hint of elegance to this active farm home|
Some buildings have been added on to with conscious sympathy, achieving a quiet compatibility with the original. However, it's just as possible that without the requisite design sensitivities brought to bear, some ungainly excrescence winds up plopped down alongside a worthy structure. That act needlessly diminishes heritage values. It can be avoided by making good practice available, both as example and as networks of essential skills, to prospective restorers.
The building pictured below illustrates elements of good and poor practice in repair. While it has recently been allowed to fall into disuse and disrepair, it was both added to and partially repaired/renewed at points during its long history. The wooden addition shown below is architecturally in sync with the original structure (consistent gable angles and massing), if somewhat shabbily finished in duroid shingles, and lacking adequate windows for the space enclosed. Overall though, it is honest enough work and could easily be pitched up with appropriate replacement siding and more wood-framed windows. The front porch to the right, however, is clearly a replacement for the original, effecting a loss of historic detailing (set flush with the stone wall, for example) and bizarrely opting for vertically placed boards that create a pointless conflict with the horizontal lines of the main structure.
|Elements of poor practice on this disused building: awkward repair work on the chimney|
This house appears to now be abandoned, while the ample farmland around it remains in industrial crop use (ownership severed from occupancy).
The rear wing is almost certainly a later addition, a more utilitarian space capture prevailing over detailing. The front porch replacement on the stone structure adds metal components that eliminate the delicate details of the cornice return, which add a graceful touch to the weight of a stone building and with which the porch should be compatible. There is often a temptation to move away from crafted wood, because it's expensive and takes skill to work properly. However, this is usually a mistake on a heritage site where stone and modest wood fittings are the original materials.
|This structure has been carefully updated, but with some loss of historic detail ( eg brick chimney)|
The structure above has also been extended at the back, possibly in two phases. The stonework in the nearest extension appears consistent with the original building, but its roofline seems shallower than the farmhouse roof and this suggests it may be more modern. This minor discontinuity is carried on into the second extension. Finally, the bit at the very left is definitely modern work, shown by a stepped back roof line and vertical siding that introduce a rancher-like discordance into the otherwise nineteenth century scene. Not terrible, and not in rank conflict with the original building, but demonstrating a certain stubborn refusal to be closely guided by original design choices. However, the materials used here appear worthy, and pains clearly have been taken to blend the new stone work with the original (bravo!). The red brick chimney, while a nice design choice in its own right, is unlikely to be original.
|Even in disuse, the beauty and solidity of the original stone masonry remain intact|
To return to our now abandoned farmstead: this is a structure that has been unevenly cared for over the many decades of its life. Likely it was repointed along its street facade before eventually being allowed to fall into disrepair and ultimately being abandoned as a residence. Look at the white tracery lines over the mortared seams (above), which serves to reduce the weight of the mortar and lends a flowing regularity to the rustic stone coursing. This is likely more contemporary work than original, yet still compatible with the inherent stone values. The main building itself remains rescuable to this point (no dilapidation), although the wooden end of it may be too moldy and deteriorated by now to make the juice worth the squeeze. The original window and door frames are also suffering from long exposure to the elements without being sealed, so they too may have to be replaced. If so, this should be done in exact replication of the originals, to avoid the cheapening effect of false mullion bars coupled with indignity of thin metal frames.
|It would take investment to return this building to its original stature, but well worth it|
Above, a blend of both good and bad work: stone work in pretty good condition, original wooden soffits with the classic gable return intact (but sans moldings on the new wood on the right), with an earlier stone chimney rebuilt in discordant red brick finished with a modern concrete cap. And yet, the ensemble remains imposing and worthy of rescue despite some years of neglect and disuse.
|A revealing look at the backside, which has received less care and attention|
The far side of the same structure reveals signs of the house's checkered fortunes over as much as 150 years: at one time the side wall behind and beneath the porch was plastered over and painted; while plastering of granite boulder walls is not uncommon on barn foundations, houses typically displayed their split-granite boulders prominently and proudly. These were the highpoint of Scottish stone masonry skills, splitting glacially transported granite boulders to reveal an array of colours resistant to weathering effects. Also apparent here is that while the street facade was given a facelift at some point (see inset), the rear wall was left in its original state and thus
appears more rustic and irregular, and likely more true to the original look (see above). Finally, look closely at the foundation beneath the porch, which appears discontinuous in finishing with that of the main building. It has been repointed (or partially cemented over) in a slap-dash manner, in contrast to the obvious care taken on the main wall. The replacement porch is also coming apart at the soffit, likely due to ice travelling down the shallow roof and tearing the guttering off. And the classic gable return on the right has come off and simply gone unreplaced.
|Solid barn with once plastered wall with granite coursing now fully exposed|
I'm obviously advancing a preservationist argument for these comely stone structures. Probably in some older Ontario villages and towns, where there is perhaps deeper awareness of the past's value and presence as architecture, there's some organized effort to keep these stone buildings around. But given the significance of hand-wrought structures of this kind, there really should be regional inventories of the buildings, a registry of appropriate carpentry, joinery and masonry craftsmen to work on them, and modest financial support for repair and restoration where buildings have been inappropriately remodeled or let fall into disrepair. The existence of such a program would help raise awareness of these unique entities, and in turn aid in securing them into the future. Modern industrial farming can easily jeopardize this outcome by severing occupancy from ownership of farmland, which is happening on an expanding scale. if the original stone building is viewed as having low or no capital value (which assessment practices would reinforce), the opportunity cost of letting it fall down is low, which makes it more likely. This is a challenge that needs to be grappled with, to make it more likely that new hands will tackle the challenges. Leaving things as they are now invites a disconnect from stewardship of the buildings. The first result is disrepair, the second disuse, then finally dereliction bringing, as below, dilapidation and ruin.
|Industrial farming continues, but the old stone farmstead is finished|
If you want to learn more about Ontario's stone farm buildings and enjoy some excellent eye candy, check out my earlier post at: