Editor’s note: It is with sincere appreciation that I thank Portia Legatt for writing this very special book review. It not only pays tribute to Deming Pratt Holleran, whose generosity to Queen’s University is outstanding, but it also pays true homage to Portia’s former professor, Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey, Research Chair, Department of Art, Queen’s University.
In my professional life I was a development officer, raising money for institutions, including Queen’s. Throughout those years I wrote dozens of thank you letters. However the gratitude I have for Deming Pratt Holleran, the owner of Niagara Island, and to Professor du Prey, is difficult to put into words. Suffice it to say the late Paul Malo would be thrilled to learn how much effort has been expended to preserve architectural drawings for the “House the Jack Built” in his beloved Thousand Islands. This would never have happened without Professor du Prey’s interest and passion for our Island history. I truly hope this story will inspire others to take advantage of the Queen’s University Archives and allow them to preserve more architectural drawings for posterity.
Susan W. Smith
The House that Jack Built on Niagara Island, Ontario
Edited and with an Introduction by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey
With architectural drawings’ catalogue entries by Anne Brûlé, Brooke Charbonneau, Lara Connolly, Douglass Dawson, Sabrina DeSousa, Tammy Georgiou, Kyle Gonyou, Eliza Grossman, Dean Hamann, Olivia Hannigan, Jenna Jorgenson, Caylen Heckel, Alexandra Kirsh, Heather Montague, Stephanie Pacheco, Matthieu Préhu-Quillard, Rebecca Ross, Timothy Simpson, Brennan Smith, Colin Storrs, Kirsten Taylor, Jeffrey Thorsteinson, Hannah Tjaden, Angela Wright.
Queen’s University Archives, 2010
161 pages, illustrated
In 2004 Professor Pierre de la Ruffiinière du Prey collaborated with his Queen’s University art history students on a delightful exhibition and related catalogue entitled Ah Wilderness! Resort Architecture in the Thousands Islands (Kingston, Ontario: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2004) The exhibition and catalogue documented the heyday of the area as a fashionable summer destination for Canadian and American vacationers and focused on houses and hotels (most of the latter destroyed by fire) located on the islands and on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. In the course of their research, the students located fascinating archival materials including drawings, photographs and correspondence handed down over generations to the current owners of many of the Thousand Islands properties. Following the 2004 loan of several architectural drawings of her father’s 1930 building on Niagara Island to the Ah Wilderness! project, Deming Pratt Holleran decided to donate the entire corpus of 196 drawings relating to the house to Queen’s. Thus in 2009 Professor du Prey rallied another group of students to revisit the Thousand Islands – this time to undertake a thorough examination of one of the most intriguing summer houses in Canada.
The result of their year long study is The House that Jack Built, a 161 page illustrated catalogue that examines Sherman Pratt’s remarkable and little known residence on Niagara Island, located in the Thousand Islands near Gananoque, Ontario. Designed by New York architect John (aka Jack) Walter Wood III (1900-58) for his childhood friend Sherman Pratt (grandson of Standard Oil magnate Charles Pratt, the founder of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute), the house is one of the first modern residences in North America to incorporate innovations in design and construction thanks to technological advances made possible through the use of steel and reinforced concrete. Ah, Modernism!
Perched high on the crest of Niagara Island’s rocky and well-wooded eight-acres, the massive pink stucco house, with its three defining wing-like sleeping porches and tall communication tower, stands in striking contrast to the sloped roof, shingle-style houses on many of the surrounding islands – including architect John Walter Wood’s childhood house on nearby Hickory Island. In his introduction to the catalogue, Professor du Prey wonders why The House that Jack Built failed to ignite the popular imagination and why it has been eclipsed by Richard Neutra’s 1927-29 Lovell Health House in Los Angeles or by Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 Fallingwater, one of the most celebrated vacation homes in the entire history of architecture. Although published in several well-illustrated magazine articles in the early 1930’s, the Niagara Island property descended into obscurity during the years of the Great Depression and World War II.
With the assistance of University Archivist Paul Banfield and his staff, the 196 drawings relating to The House that Jack Built were photographed by Chris Peck, encapsulated by Queen’s conservator Margaret Bignell and Heather Wolsey and arranged by Pierre du Prey into six thematic groups: earth, fire, air, water, interiors and addenda (devoted to the minor repairs that the architect carried out on the Niagara Island buildings after 1935). The themes aided the students in their research and helped them follow the unfolding evolution of the work on Niagara Island: the section on earth deals with excavating the granite island, landscaping it, and the use of natural materials; fire pertains to the large concentration of steel in the reinforced concrete buildings and to the cooking and heating systems; air focuses on the sleeping porches, roof terraces, and cross ventilation; water relates primarily to the boathouse; the section on interiors highlights Wood’s concern for built-in furniture, cupboards, and Dark Room. Following a lively class trip to Niagara Island in September 2009, each of Professor du Prey’s 24 students was given a group of architectural drawings to analyze. Assisted in their research by architect Tony Barlow (Dip. Arch RIBA), the students prepared term papers that appear as the 196 catalogue entries in The House that Jack Built. These entries are interspersed with 48 illustrations of architectural drawings (sketches, drawings, plans, elevations, sections, details, schedules, revisions, and a key blueprint) from the John Walter Wood architectural fonds now permanently located at Queen’s. The students were also required to catalogue each drawing according to a system developed by the Architectural Drawings Advisory Group convened by The Getty Art History Information Program in the mid 1980’s, and refined by Jill Lever, consultant to the drawings cataloguing project for Sir John Soane’s Museum.
The student entries are prefaced by Professor du Prey’s insightful 30-page introduction in which he tells the story of the virtually unknown vacation home and matching boathouse, power house, servants’ house and 1934 tennis court designed by John Walter Wood III for Sherman Pratt. Illustrated by period photographs, the introduction tells the story of the friendship between architect and patron and retraces John Walter Wood’s architectural evolution following his years as a student at Middlesex School outside Concord Massachusetts, to Harvard (1919-1923), Rome (where he was a Rome Prize in Architecture finalist), Harvard (where he received in M.Arch in 1928), France (post-grad year of study) and New York City where he practiced architecture following his studies.
When Sherman Pratt purchased Niagara Island in 1929 he consulted his friend Jack Wood for advice regarding the type of house he might build. Having recently returned from post-graduate studies in Paris, Jack showed Pratt his elaborate grand scale Harvard thesis design for an imaginary Mediterranean Despot’s Retreat. According to the anecdote often related by Pratt’s daughter Deming, her father commissioned Jack on the spot to replicate the design on Niagara Island and gave him carte blanche to do so. How a young architect’s fantastical thesis design was adapted to reflect the personal requirements of Sherman Pratt and the specific needs of living in the Thousand Islands is the subject of many of the student catalogue entries. Sherman Pratt’s determination to build an economical, simple, easy to maintain, and above all fireproof house, dovetailed perfectly with Jack Wood’s early advocacy of the strength and durability of reinforced concrete.
One of the most striking and perhaps most interesting aspects of the Niagara Island House are the three sleeping porches and adjacent dressing room/studies. Originally designed wire mesh screen for protection from bugs, the porches were large enough for two single beds. The detailed drawings of the adjacent dressing rooms reveal ingenious built-in furniture that could be folded and flattened out to make room for the beds to come inside from the porches during inclement weather. Designed for Sherman Pratt before he married, the club-like features of the dressing room/studies and the communal living spaces below were built to meet the needs of the bachelor owner and his friends. The days of bachelor parties are over and the terraces of the house are now covered with tricycles and other children’s toys. The tennis court is still in use - by three generations of Sherman Pratt’s family - and the boat house still houses their canoes and motorboats. Many of the timeless interior details from the 1930’s remain, such as the built-in furniture and the hand-painted mural in the tower room, as reminders of the friendship between two childhood friends who collaborated to create one of the most fascinating summer getaways in the Thousand Islands. The House that Jack Built reflects the inspired present day collaboration and friendship between Professor Pierre du Prey and his appreciative students at Queen’s University and its Archives.
Copies of The House that Jack Built can be found at Queen’s University and at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.
By Portia Leggat
Portia Leggat studied architectural history at Queen's University before completing a Masters Degree in Library Science at the University of Toronto.She has worked at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Harbourfront Reading Series and several Canadian publishing firms. Portia currently lives in Kingston where she works part-time at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.