Friday, December 19, 2014

A reviving stone wall in Elora, Ontario

"when anything has to be renewed....the only question asked is how little it can be done for, so as to tide us over our responsibility and shift its mending on to the next generation." 
William Morris

Elora Gorge: deep channels carved out of ancient limestone

I've been going to Elora for over fifty years now, drawn there by the beauty of its setting above a deep river gorge and its collection of well-maintained stone buildings from the nineteenth century. Elora is a place with period ambience that's still largely unspoiled. My first trip to this small Ontario village was actually to swim in an abandoned quarry alongside the Grand River.
As I recall, it was an unusually hot June and we had decided to play hooky from studying for final exams to find a swimming hole in the untypical heat. There was talk of an abandoned stone quarry near Elora that had high walls and deep, clear water, which turned out to be a thrilling place for jumping and diving (it wasn't fenced-off then). To get there from Waterloo, you drove through the village of Elora, a revelation that immediately caught my imagination because it seemed authentically from another time. It's a mix of mostly older stone and brick buildings in good repair that haven't been infilled with many clashing modern intrusions. And the physical surroundings are dead lovely too.

Elora developed where it is in order to take advantage of its riverside setting, formed by a deep gorge cutting through a massive limestone deposit that's over 400-million years old. The natural run of the river offered a harnessable energy source to drive large-scale machinery.
Water-driven grist mills and sawmills, with later electrical power generation, formed the basis of a thriving economy, and houses, like the one below, came to adorn the river's high banks. Limestone extracted from the gorge and the quarry was artfully worked by Scottish settlers into the solid houses and commercial buildings that still anchor the village character today. The buildings and town form these Scots achieved with local limestone, so different from their much harder native stone, continues to be viable, serving for decades as a tourism-magnet and now en route to becoming a residential enclave. The use made of limestone for building is direct and honest, sometimes fashioned into dimensional blocks for cottages, but as often worked as irregularly shaped pieces in a cement matrix (see below). The effect is solid and pleasing to the eye.

A solid home for a prospering member of the Elora community in the nineteenth century

A structure that may have been an inn has been recycled as a bed and breakfast

The highway to Elora snakes its way through the outskirts of the community, winding past trim stone cottages and the occasional inn while tracing the contours of the land. The stone buildings we passed on my first visit made a lasting impression. I also recall glimpsing a long, curving wall running in front of several stone cottages. Walls aren't a rarity in this part of Ontario, but this one's extent impresses and adds a considerable charm. Subsequently Elora beckoned me back to explore and enjoy, time and again, eventually becoming a place I would choose to visit in order to wander in surroundings redolent of the past. The Elora experience was enriched in the late sixties with the recycling of some of its buildings as studios and workshops for potters, woodworkers and other artists, reinforcing it as an artistic destination. In time I came to know that long stone wall better and found myself checking in on it to see how it was aging and changing. The wall was unremarkable in character yet unique in form, lending definition to the contoured landscape. Its gradually curving extent generates a secure effect by fitting perfectly into its setting.

A long wall that runs with the land's contour


Today's sidewalk post-dates the wall, but traces its lead

I don't recall when I started examining this wall more carefully, but at that moment I stopped taking it in as a scenic whole and began trying to discern what still showed of its actual composition. At first glance, its overall effect is similar to that of Elora's many stone buildings, which tend towards limestone's neutral buff-grays. On closer examination, it's apparent this wall has been subject to many interventions over its long life, and to such an extent now that the interventions obscure much of what it originally was. While intact in outline, its original look is now pretty much covered with cement. Realizing this, I worried that continued entombing in response to new breaches would one day obscure even its outline. And yet beneath all that accumulated gunk the wall's real character lay buried. I couldn't help wondering whether it was doomed to stay that way or one day somehow it would be rescued? Increasing care was certainly being taken with repair of many of Elora's stone buildings, but walls often suffer from indifference.

Stone cottages sitting behind secure perimeter walls, the handiwork of Scottish immigrants

I assumed the accretion of all that cement meant that new cracks must be regularly appearing and that homeowners were just doing what they could to keep the wall intact and prevent dilapidation. But this utilitarian approach to repair came at the cost of obscuring the presentation face of the stones, submerging them to the point of disappearance. The next picture gives an idea of the aesthetic results of a great many quick fixes.

This wall is now a monotone gray from all the cement slopped on it over the years

In fact, there's now so much cement slathered over the wall's numerous joints that it's challenging to gain a sense of what it originally looked like. In sections like the one shown above, a not-very-convincing attempt has been made to scribe some lines in the cement overlayer, presumably to imply an order or intentionality of some kind. The photo below shows a closeup so you can judge for yourself the success this has in gaining a plausible effect.

Lines that appear random, various tooling effects, cracks and a new breach near the base.

Capstones disappearing under the burden of mortar used to secure them from cracks

The wall's capstones are a mix of rounded limestone and granite boulders, in contrast to a base made of a mix of chunks of similar materials. There's a kind of rude entablature between the two principal components. I'm sure the wall's original look was rustic and unselfconscious, but I can't picture how the mortar placed between the stones was originally finished. If it mimicked the look of the rubble stone buildings around Elora, it may have been somewhat like the detail shown in the next picture. The manner of filling the voids, and the size of the voids left between the pieces, is what decides the look of the finished surface. But it's impossible to discern what it looked like from staring at what's left showing there today.

A regular pattern developed from irregular materials: loose intentionality in design

This long wall serves both as a boundary marker, visibly defining an edge to the landscape, and as a retaining wall, holding back an earthen bank whose height is exaggerated by the road cut beneath it. One wonders whether the wall was inadequately reinforced for the stress of the weight of earth behind it, whether flimsiness of some sort accounted for the extent of cracking that in turn brought on the cement fix? A visit in fall 2014 unexpectedly shed light on this, as sections of the wall were undergoing serious repair and a cross-section revealing the back of the wall was visible. This repair may relate to drainage issues.

Trees too close to the wall can lift and crack components

Breaches in the wall at the point shown above may be due to tree roots expanding and working their way into the base, perhaps aggravated by mortar's permeability and the expansions and contractions of freeze-thaw cycles. Frost heaving in damp soil is quite capable of mechanically breaking up cement, especially in the thin layers filling voids between irregularly shaped rocks.

Strength at the base, but perhaps subject to toppling stresses

The deconstructed portion shown reveals a prism that's substantially thicker at the base, but not leaning back into the slope. Despite the apparent solidity and strength, the forces of moisture penetration and frost heaving may be causing stresses that crack the upper parts of the wall. The landscape fabric just visible in the picture above suggests this isn't the first intervention at this point. From it we can infer that becoming a steward of this old wall is a potentially involving responsibility that might prompt one to resort to cement as a quick and simple fix for recurring problems.

Stark contrast between covered and newly exposed segments

A revealing discovery awaited me on the far side of this opening, where it became clear that someone was bravely engaged in a more restorative form of repair. Sections on either side of the entry steps to a stone cottage had seen their cement tomb carefully chipped away, exposing the original rock composition of the wall to startling effect (see contrast above). Here the mystery of how the wall once looked dissolved before my eyes. Presumably the mender intends to elaborate a new pattern of mortaring, without obscuring the stone facings, and so regain what was likely the original look. Or perhaps they will be left as excavated, as voids emphasizing the pattern of solids comprising the wall? I can't help but wonder if the original pattern didn't involve flush mortar between the many seams. Yet I found my eye quickly acclimatizing to the emphasis the newly recessed joints lend to the stones. Only the person removing the buildup chip by chip can gain an idea of the original treatment, but by the time I left Elora I'd already become comfortable with the aesthetics of the recessed joints, whether original or not. My next visit there will reveal what choice the current owner has made for the restored wall, but I'm comfortable with it as it is here.

Elements of original personality showing in the cleaned sections:a fresh start for a familiar face

The effect of chiseling away the mortar smeared over stone facings is dramatic indeed to my eyes. A great deal of suppressed personality is suddenly visible in the varying colours and shapes of the individual stones. This restoration would be terribly time-consuming and delicate, so as avoid damaging the face of the stone or dislodging pieces that would grow the scope of the repair. But what potential to regain aesthetic effects!

An exposed section reveals a vibrant personality previously entombed in concrete

Colourful granite boulders and a rough entablature add entirely new dimension to the wall

Contrast the variety of form and colour of the revealed look (above) with a still-encased section of the wall (below) that is grey, uniform and lacking in any distinctive character.

Cement-encased section for comparison - no distinct or even any personality for the stone

So while the cement covered wall more resembles the subdued coloration of Elora's limestone cottages, the original look stands in more vibrant contrast with them. Doubly so, because the cottages model consistent blocks of limestone, while the wall promiscuously mixes chunks of limestone and granite in novel patterns.

These developments leave me with a renewed optimism about the future of this old wall. It takes remarkable commitment to tackle work as painstaking as this, but the ability to regain an historic effect - to  unearth the buried past and allow it to live anew in the present - is to me at least real stewardship and tremendously inspiring.

I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

Off the main drag, another high stone wall persisting in Elora

Like the other wall, this one has had a lot of cement placed over the stone original

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ontario's stone farmhouses

Over the years I've taken many drives through the countryside around Waterloo, Ontario, where rolling farmlands dotted with woodlots and sugar bushes still show occasional stone farm buildings with great character. A fascination with their multi-hued granite walls has led me to wonder what explains their presence  among much more numerous brick farmhouses, and what accounts for there appearing to be two distinct styles of stone masonry at work? Some showcase more prominent individual stones that often appear in block-like chunks, while others utilize smaller and more randomly sized stones overlain with lavish quantities of mortar.

A farmhouse near Shakespeare, Ontario, made from blocks of colourful stone

On a visit over the 2013 holiday season, I decided to photograph a few of these magnificent structures and inquire further into their origins. I wanted to know where the richly hued rocks used to make these 150-year-old walls came from, given there are few if any granite outcrops in surrounding counties? I learned that the stone for these farmhouses wasn't quarried from bedrock, but consists of granite fieldstones distributed by retreating glacial moraines whose parent glacier carried them down from the distant Canadian shield. Glacial pressure and tumbling likely rounded them into smooth boulders during their long southeast migration. The original breaking and clearing of the land for agriculture, in the early to mid-eighteen hundreds, supplied the stock of stone used to construct these unique buildings. Their finished look derives from the work done on these available materials by people with craft skills of differing origins. This plume of buried granite boulders only covers certain parts of Ontario, explaining why stone buildings in other areas tend to be of materials like the limestone in Elora and Fergus that was quarried from river gorges. 

A plain farmhouse made of irregular fieldstone overlain heavily with mortar

The two most frequent types of granite masonry work in Waterloo and surrounding counties differ completely in approach, texture and effect. One, pictured above and below, involves a loose and generous use of mortar, to the point of obscuring the individual character of the stones. It doesn't try to achieve more than a rudimentary impression of courses (horizontal layers of stone). The rocks are held in place by the matrix and no trouble is taken to disguise that fact. While this could be read as crude or rustic work, the effect with aging is soft and appealing to the eye and the structures themselves have proven durable. When carpentry touches are added, like the porch with turned columns below, the results are aesthetically pleasing.

 Granite boulders float in broad mortar seams in a loose, utilitarian style of stonework

Here some effort has gone into squaring the boulders, producing a neater finish

Above and below, granite blocks have been more neatly trimmed and set in regular courses

The differences in approach and style are accounted for by the two distinct building traditions imported into Ontario via immigration in the early and middle nineteenth century. One group of settlers came from parts of Germany where there were traditions of building with random fieldstones, which allowed farmers to take immediate advantage of the plentiful supply unearthed by breaking the soil. The German way of working with this stone is utilitarian and rustic, involving no real effort to dress it or even to carefully select a presentation face. The effect of this matter-of-fact use of stones in a great deal of matrix can nonetheless be quite appealing, as illustrated below.

A fine old building, once a church or school, in the German style of stone building

The example above superbly illustrates this masonry style, in which structural elements like corner quoins or lintels above the windows are fancifully used rather than precisely worked for solidity of effect. The German masons used mortar lavishly in order to develop their ultimate structural integrity. This would have been a relatively quick way of building with available stone (assuming a dependable supply of materials for mortar), with little time and effort invested in squaring up resistant boulders. The architectural effect however exceeds the utilitarian quality of construction, its own particular beauty softened and polished by weathering.

The soft brown mortar lines blend multi-hued granite into a pleasing whole

Stone building was being supplanted by rail-supplied brick buildings by the time this was built

A modern cement chimney rather mars an otherwise pristine stone facade

Mortar applied copiously with little effort to refine or tidy the presentation

The second pattern of stonework is a product of Scottish immigration, which brought skill in controlled splitting and careful shaping of even very hard stone. It also brought a distinct aesthetic sense expressed through a tendency towards careful selection. This masonry style achieves a much more precise and expressive use of granite boulders, which as pictured below have been made rectangular and carefully selected for colour harmonies. The technique is impressive, as granite is among the hardest of stones (some say second only to diamonds). As found, the boulders would have muted colour due to glacial grinding, but once split reveal incredible diversity and vibrancy of colour. And these interior colours have remained fast over their 150 years of exposure, their denseness having inhibited weathering and kept organic action at bay.

Entry facades often received a formal treatment with tightly coursed granite blocks

I owe much of my recent insight into the Scottish style of stonework to a chance encounter with Bill Shivas, owner of a stone farmhouse who also restores these heritage structures. He was outside when I stopped to ask permission to photograph his house, and a fruitful conversation ensued. Bill understands how these structures were put together and why various things were done, and he comes to it all from the perspective of a practicing stone mason involved in repairing and maintaining them. His splendid 1864 farmhouse is pictured above, here showing the original entry-wall to which the farm driveway once conducted visitors. Bill says the masons took particular care to dress this facade, giving it a high degree of formality by shaping large, irregular granite boulders to look like blocks of quarried stone. These are of more subdued and subtle colour variation than the adjacent walls, which are comprised of more random shapes. Also, windows and front doorway have been set into a gently contrasting hue of stone, for an even more subtle effect. It's fascinating that these masons were able to achieve such refined looks from such tough raw materials. The time it would have taken to split it so evenly and trim it to fit so closely suggests that the original farmer was a person of considerable means, an inference reinforced by the many artful touches in the home's fine interior joinery.

A random assortment of split fieldstone pleasingly fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle

Compare the front entry wall to the side wall pictured above, which is of more randomly shaped fieldstone, yet closely fitted into courses with what appear to be ultra-fine mortar bands.The exuberant use of these stones, coupled with the feeling of close aesthetic control, is absolutely stunning to my eye. It's very difficult to conceive of modern masons being able to achieve this sort of fitting with hand tools.

Corner blocks align with rubblestone on this side wall

Bill revealed several significant facts about the Scottish style of masonry practiced in nineteenth century Ontario: these buildings are erected so carefully that they would stand securely without any mortar at all - the bonding agent between stones is not in fact structural. When he repairs one of these walls, he finds every stone is chinked, rock is resting directly on rock. The Scots are said to have used the mortar only to make the building draft-proof and to prevent water penetrating. The second thing Bill revealed is that the practice of applying a thin band of white mortar over a seam, or originally of running a thin groove through the centre of the mortar and whitening it, is an aesthetic device used to enhance the impression of preciseness of fit. Practically this technique serves to diminish the visual weight of the mortar bands and increase the impression of regular coursing. 

While the skill in splitting, trimming and close fitting of hard stone was imported, the application to granitic boulders dispersed eons before by glaciers was a unique, on-site response to local conditions and building materials. Boulder splitting per se wasn't a building tradition from their native Scotland, but rather evolved as an adaptation to the nature of materials available in abundance. Stone in their native Scotland was typically quarried from a source and dressed into regular shapes. A more traditional application of these skills is the church in Galt, Ontario pictured below, made mostly of quarried stone.

Church of the era made largely of quarried stone

Bill shared an interesting story about how his own place came to be that gives context to this emerging response to local conditions by people with masonry skills. He said the masons who built the house first dug and constructed a basement during the building months, then built a temporary roof over it so they could inhabit it for the winter. Throughout the long, cold winter they completed the selecting, splitting and shaping of the stones for future walls, so their materials were ready for the main build when spring 1864 rolled around. It's hard to imagine living in a basement and working in winter temperatures at splitting and shaping fieldstones with a hammer and chisels - these were definitely hardy folk.

The following pictures illustrate the application of decorative mortar lines to reduce the apparent width of the true mortar bands necessitated by irregularities in the stone shapes. These thin, more regular lines give the finished wall an even more fitted look.

Close-up showing thin decorative bands placed on mortar seams

Chunk of original exterior wall showing rectilinear grooves with vestiges of white paint

Below is a restoration project that Bill is picking away at on a neighbouring farm (stone work is slow, methodical work, and Bill now works alone). This lovely stone farmhouse is complimented by a little dairy shed (near dilapidation) and an original blacksmith's shop, where the metal tools and hardware needed on a farm could be manufactured. Once the house is done, Bill intends to tackle both dairy shed and smithy.

Repointed and repaired facades of an early stone farmhouse (circa 1860)

A wall that Bill has been carefully remaking, without the white banding

A dilapidating dairy cooler, partly in-ground, likely one of the last of its kind in Ontario

A blacksmith's shop, soon to be restored and recycled as a working farm building

My exposure to these 19th century stone buildings has led me to wonder if there's a heritage inventory of all that remain, and whether there are tools in place to help stabilize and repair them authentically. I didn't get to that point in conversation with Bill Shivas, but I intend to canvass the topic down the line. These artifacts deserve preservation, as they enrich our access to our history immeasurably. They also embody skills no longer common, and aesthetic senses that should inspire us towards effects today. There should be an agency of some kind that helps keep the skills needed to maintain these buildings alive and vibrant.

Pinks and blues, rusty browns, buffs, many more

For information on Ontario's fieldstone buildings and the geology underpinning stone resources, Gerard Middleton's article is an excellent source: