Why does the Ontario countryside look so different from that of upstate New York, across the river? It is largely because our typical buildings differ, because of a different history.
Whereas the most common house of northern New York is built of wood, painted (usually white), the generic house of Ontario is red brick. More than materials vary, since these buildings differ in style. Ontario buildings of the nineteenth century are generally “Victorian,” whereas as only the late-nineteenth century examples in the US are generally of this character. The typical houses of the early nineteenth century are Greek Revival in style. There was virtually no Greek Revival period in Canada, whereas that period was the very time of intensive settlement of upstate New York, hence the striking difference in the character of the rural landscape. [The helpful web site, Ontario Architecture (http://www.ontarioarchitecture.com/index.html) does not even mention the “Greek Revival” but merely the “Classical Revival” style.]
Why was there a widely popular Greek Revival style in the U.S., but hardly a trace of this style in Canada? The popularity of Greek forms had ideological and political bases. In almost every country where the style became popular, it was regarded as becoming a new, local national style, not merely an ancient, alien Greek style. Greece had been dominated by the Turks, and with decline of the Ottoman empire, there was widespread sentiment for a new Greek nationalism. The style was associated with rebellion in the cause of freedom.
The United States was particularly receptive, eager to supplant the prevailing colonial mode that represented the past. Obviously, there was not the same incentive in Canada to change the colonial tradition—which was basically British Palladian or Wren Baroque in style. Hence in Kingston we find typical British buildings such as the Customs House appearing at the same time as the new Greek Revival Architecture was becoming a new, national style in the United States.
On the other hand, New York state was exceptionally fertile ground for proliferation of the new Greek Revival style. Talbot Hamlin, in his magisterial book, Greek Revival Architecture in America, says:
“Nowhere is Greek Revival work more vital and varied, Yet about the personalities, even about the ideals, of the actual designers and builders who took and merged and changed these influences and from them created new buildings we know almost nothing. Wherever they were, again and again, they built well, and the houses they put up do much to make the character of upper New York what it is.”
So the rural landscape on the U.S. side of the river is strikingly different in character from that on the Canadian shore. While the New York State houses were being built of wood in the early nineteenth century, Kingston urban buildings were employing limestone masonry (Cartwright house, 833), while brick was introduced into the countryside (Gardiner house, Portsmouth, 1819).
A familiar form of rural house in Ontario, virtually unknown in Upstate New York, is the one-and-a half-story cottage with a dormer located above the center entrance, which provides natural lighting for the second floor, supplementing windows in the side gables:
House, Simcoe, Ontario. The Gothic Revival style trim suggests the mid-nineteenth century, while the Georgian entry probably is a vestige of the original house, before fashionable remodeling.
Variant of typical Greek Revival House
Grand public buildings in Ontario, usually acquired a classical character (e.g. Kingston city hall, regional court houses) but these buildings were not Greek in style, but more Roman, in the Renaissance and Baroque tradition of Wren.
Frontenac County Court House, 1858 Edward Horsey, architect.
Across the river from Kingston, at Cape Vincent, New York, we find two fine wooden houses with characteristic columned porticos.
Near Kingston we find Rockwood Villa, likewise with monumental columns, but George Brown’s design is not at all Greek, but recalls the British baroque, as does his Kingston City Hall.
Separated by only of few miles of the St. Lawrence River we find two cultural landscapes, one perpetuating the British tradition, the other developing an new American architectural language.
Far more may be observed about the more general difference in the two cultures, but we will save that discussion for a future article.