How to Read an Ontario Town
In the middle of World War II, the poet John Betjeman published a slim, affectionate
book called English Cities and Small towns. Written
from memory, at a time when "Mr. Betjeman’s present work has taken him temporarily
out of England," as the jacket copy rather coyly puts it, the book begins with the poet’s way of deciphering a strange town. It’s an unhurried piece of detective work that takes him from
the railway station to the ancient alleys that radiate from the parish church
and the High Street; to the stationer’s shop, where he buys postcards of the
neighbourhood wonders, a relentlessly enthusiastic guide, and local newspapers
full of parish news; past the backs of houses in the High Street, which reveal
their origins far more honestly than their fronts; searching for the a key
to the eighteenth-century Unitarian church; attending morning service in the
sadly renovated Anglican church; listening to the local talk in the “Family
and Commercial” hotel properly redolent of HP sauce and brown wallpaper, and
By the time I discovered Betjeman’s book, I was a habitué of Ontario’s
small towns, from the heavy-lidded railway station to the “best street,” from
the bank-turned-country-inn to the local authors’ shelf in the oak-lined Carnegie
Library. I knew that a locked church can often be entered through the parish
office, and that the antiques-shop proprietor, having a vested interest in
the past, is frequently a good source of information about the town. There
are no Tudor churches or eighteenth-century Corn Exchanges in Ontario and
the visitor’s path is more solitary and less systematic, but Betjeman’s and
my methods were remarkably similar. Had he found himself in Perth or Cobourg,
he would have known how to proceed.
After, perhaps, an initial discouragement. Secretive
and proud, in the Upper Canadian way that masquerades as self-effacement,
Ontario towns would have you believe there is very little to read in their
regular streets and handsome, plainish houses. One
of the first things the curious visitor learns is that an interest in the
cobblestone houses of Paris or the Crystal Palace in Picton is likely to be
met with blank bewilderment or jocular indifference.
Like Betjeman, I tried to begin with a local guide, however sketchy and flattering.
In Ontario, when they exist, they tend to be leaflets whose location is idiosyncratic
— at the Town Hall here, the Chamber of Commerce there, the museum, even the
local constituency office in one town. The cards, maps, and books on local
subjects that Betjeman found reliably at the stationer’s shop surface here
in odd nooks and crannies. In Picton it was a camera store where I found The
Settler’s Dream, the invaluable architectural survey of Prince Edward
County; in Napanee, the local history is for sale
in the public library, in Stratford at the Perth County Archives, in Paris
at the stationer’s shop.
But, grudgingly or not, Ontario rewards patience, resourcefulness, and the
ability to smile vaguely at scoffers. The traveler who tours a nineteenth-century
town at the deliberate pace for which it was designed (walking when not on
a slow horse) finds instant gratification in the details — terracotta plaques,
bombastic keystones, leafy capitals. The occasional interiors available to
the walker can be almost spookily evocative: the sculpted Victorian fittings
in Andrews Jeweller (now Anstetts) in St. Marys,
the more workaday look of Hall’s House of Quality Linens in Paris, the gloriously
churchy courtroom in Stratford’s Perth County Courthouse. As for the real
churches, when the parish office is locked, before or after the 11 a.m. Sunday
service is a good time to admire the Anglicans’ hammerbeam
ceilings, the Catholics’ stained-glass fantasias, and the Methodists’ sloping
floors, which direct all eyes to the pulpit.
When you first savour an Ontario town, its particularity
is striking. Frequently it’s a result of the available building material,
which in the nineteenth century was difficult to transport even short distances.
The buttery sandstone that makes Perth look like Perth does not appear in
Merrickville, thirty minutes away by car. The terrain, the settlers’ social
and geographical origins, the date of settlement also determine a town’s character:
Perth, a Scottish settlement dominated by lawyers and retired military officers,
presents a very different face from Merrickville, a limestone village settled
by American, English, and Scottish small-scale industrialists.
When each town is a social history to be decoded, the architectural alphabet
becomes a rich source of information. The presence of Greek Revival
buildings, a republican style much favoured by Yankees, usually indicates
American settlers, as in Paris. The virtual absence of Second Empire buildings
suggests a town that had finished growing before the 1870s, when that showy
style arrived, peaked, and declined: Cobourg is a case in point. Towns that
began in the mid-nineteenth century, such as St. Mary’s or Stratford, missed
the Loyalist, Greek Revival, and Regency styles almost
If the individual distinctiveness of the towns impresses a visitor first,
a deeper acquaintance unmasks the common elements. There remains something
very Ontario about Ontario towns, most obviously a plainness in the buildings
that ranges from elegant to dour. The prevailing Scottish ethos, which distrusted
display and prized straightforwardness, was influential here; so was
the settlers’ poverty and the dearth of easily workable stone. Using
the repertoire of nineteenth-century styles common to Britain and the United
States, Ontarians built more simply (and often smaller, because of the cold
and relative lack of servants). Compared with those of Australia,
a sister colony with workable stone, abundant convict labour, and a certain
national joie de vivre, Ontario’s Gothic Revival and Italianate buildings
can look downright severe. Commodity and firmness were in good supply, to
cite two of Vitruvius’s criteria for architecture;
his third, delight, is here too, but most characteristically it is a delight
that arises from proportion and restraint.
Ontario towns in the main were the creation of builders, not architects.
And those builders could be stubbornly conservative, constructing a Gothic
villa forty years after the style’s peak in the U.S. or Britain. Next door to the villa
the same builder might build an up-to-the minute Queen Anne house, based on
the latest pattern book from Britain or the U.S. Next door to that he
might concoct a patchwork of a house from two or three styles. Just because
a new style was ŕ la mode was no reason to jettison an old favourite, and the builders’ reliance on
pattern books left them free to mix, match, and improvise when they saw fit.
All of which makes Ontario buildings maddening to date, bewildering for the
purist, and diverting for the walker.
In 1789 Lord Dorchester, governor general, prescribed that inland settlements
in Upper Canada be laid out in a prim gridiron, and many towns obediently
tried to impose that regularity on hill and dale and river. The flatter the
terrain the better it worked, as in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Merrickville.
A hilly town like Port Hope was by necessity laid out more naturally. A town’s
first buildings were close to the all-important Great Lake or river, as at
St. Marys and Port Hope, but the water meant industry and transportation to
the nineteenth century, not leisure or a picturesque view. Prosperity, as
in the case of both St. Marys and Port Hope, often entailed a move away: the
“best streets” are high above the water.
Even the street names of Ontario towns are suggestive. Queen, King, Victoria,
and Church Streets cross-stitch their way across the province, constant reminders
of church and state. St. Patrick’s Street will be close to the Catholic church
or perhaps the Irish quarter, St. Andrew’s to the Presbyterian church, St.
George’s to the Anglican. The plethora of streets dedicated to the heroes
of the Napoleonic Wars — Wellington, Wellesley (the Duke’s family name), Picton,
Waterloo — commemorate one of the great settling forces of Upper Canada. Judging
by the number of generals and administrators honoured by Ontario’s surveyors and town fathers, it was a society that held them in much higher esteem than artists and thinkers. The exceptions are memorable
because they are exceptions: in Perth, Herriott Street is a misspelled tribute to George Heriot
(1759-1839), a watercolour artist better known in
Canada as head of the post office.
Byron and Ricardo Streets in Niagara-on-the-Lake are anomalous tributes to
a poet and an economist.
One of the most appealing things about the towns is their completeness. The
limitations of nineteenth-century transportation and communication made, to
paraphrase John Donne, one little town and everywhere, with poignant results.
Small as it was, a town might have a Corktown or
an Irish section, and upper town and a lower town, a fashionable side and
an unfashionable side. In these Lilliputian kingdoms, two shopping streets
perpendicular to each other could compete hotly for supremacy.
Along with completeness came a self-importance and
great expectations. With the single arguable exception of St. Marys, the towns
in this book believed they were destined to become important cities, centres of industry and power. They were equally vain about
their beauty, and the hyperbole with which the historian of Brant County described
Paris was not unusual. The town was “beautiful from every point,” it hills
just high enough to be picturesque, its river rejoicing in “the Wordsworthian
charm of quiet,” even its gas-lit factories “starring with dancing
lights the impetuous stream below.” Paris was unique in managing to bill itself
simultaneously “the Manchester of Ontario” and “the prettiest town in Canada,”
but each town was convinced that it was an unparalleled beauty spot.
Their dreams of power and influence came to nothing, fortunately as it turned
out for their nineteenth-century aspect: charm and the keen sense of the past
that these towns sustain have proved more durable. Their very lack of architectural
masterpieces has helped in this regard. The walker who encounters the variety
of Ontario’s “derivative” and “typical” buildings encounters, in Alan Gowans’s
words in Building Canada, a popular architecture “in which the past
exists most concretely and vitally.” Which is not to say that an Ontario town
is a poor thing but our own: it is our own, and a fascinating thing. And the
ten here are only a beginning.
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