Georgian Architectural Styles appear on Prince Edward Island – Part 2
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The Central Plan House – Part 2
We resume here our discussion of the early Georgian central plan house as it appeared on the Island in the first six decades of the Nineteenth Century. As we advance with our survey, once again we begin with a very grand house set in picturesque grounds away from the city in green acres, yet within minutes of the centre of town.
Ravenwood House, 1820-28
In 1871 the painter Robert Harris produced a watercolour with a viewpoint near the bottom of Mount Edward Road. As cows return home to their town stables from their pasturage in the Common, we are drawn, in spite of their opposite movement, up to the road and the horizon. On either side of the road are green fields, some carefully fenced, and under the crest of the hill on the horizon are two houses. They are still standing in their original grounds and wonderfully, both provide access to students of architectural history.
Robert Harris – Mount Edward Road, w.c., 30.2 x 40.3, 1871, CCAGM, H-178.
The house on the right, with the double gables, is Ardgowan, built in the Romantic style around 1850 and now the Provincial headquarters of Parks Canada
The other house, on the left, is also still standing and surrounded by a ceremonial forest planted by notable people over the past century. It is kept in reasonable shape by the federal Department of Agriculture which, since early in the Twentieth Century, has had their headquarters on the Island. The fields in the large estate connected to it were set aside for agricultural experimentation.
The south boundary of the Ravenwood estate is at Allen Street where the ground falls.
When William Johnston (1779-1828) arrived on the Island from Dumfries, Scotland in 1812 to act as land agent for absentee landlords – the curse of the Colony – he somehow obtained this glorious piece of land at the bottom of the Royalty, about 30 acres, and set about to create his estate, which he called Ravenwood, one would like to believe in honour of the reigning corvids that infested his woods. His power grew quickly and in 1813 he was appointed Attorney General, a post he held for the rest of his life, some fifteen years. Johnston’s political career on the Island was full of controversy and confrontation with his deadly enemy James Barden Palmer. He was a nasty man, full of resentments, and while displaying skill as a politician he never forgot his reason for coming to the Island – to protect the interests of the absentee proprietors.
He did not rush to build his stately home and it was not until 1820 that work began and, incredibly, seems to have dragged on for the next 8 years, if the records we have are to be trusted. It seems like a very long time to build such a house and one wonders if the work was protracted because of all his very politically charged activities and travel to Britain may have been part of the problem.
The year 1820 is a critical one in the history of architecture in Charlottetown and on the Island. It is the year the great English architect of the picturesque, John Plaw, author of three books on building, died, having arrived in 1807. I have argued in my previous blogs that he created a refined architectural style, responding to the changing tastes of the times, that came to dominate a great deal of building in Charlottetown and the surrounding area from 1811 to his death.
The year 1820 is also the moment when a young Yorkshire man called Isaac Smith, who had arrived in Charlottetown in 1817 and had had the opportunity to get to know John Plaw well, and absorb some of his ideas, became the most prominent builder in the city, and would remain so until he left for Nova Scotia in 1848.
When William Johnston arrived from Scotland in 1812, two great houses, Spring Park and Belmont, would have been the talk of the town, with people wandering by on aimless errands just to get a glimpse of these architectural phenomena. Plaw’s Courthouse, completed in 1811, was the most beautiful and elegant public building ever built in the nascent city. Spring Park and Belmont had just been built in a style directly derived from Plaw’s courthouse. It seems very likely that Johnston would have consulted with Plaw about the design for the great house that would grace his estate. But nothing happened. Nothing was built for eight years.
Guided by instinct, and the circumstances of the early 1820s, I venture to propose that Isaac Smith, who had already absorbed Plaw’s new Greek Revival style, must have designed Ravenwood in its first state.
Today we cannot know what Ravenwood’s façade looked like when it was finished because in the early Twentieth Century the house received a very major renovation by the Canadian government that changed its appearance completely. We know its dimensions from the main body of the building itself. It was 42 x 36 feet, significantly smaller than Belmont (54 x 38 feet) but larger than Spring Park (approximately 32 x 28 feet). I think that it would have looked rather like the road front of Belmont, without the Palladian window and ornamental portico.
Belmont, road façade.
However, the west side of Ravenwood, was not touched by this work and we get a very clear idea of what the house looked like: it was a smaller version of Belmont.
West façade of Ravenwood with cupola deleted with Photoshop.
The corner pilasters in the Greek Revival style invented by John Plaw on his courthouse were used, but the component parts were doubled, presenting the viewer with a much more massive and masculine profile where the corner boards projected dramatically from the siding of the house. You can still experience the effect this had on the design if you go and look at the house from the west side where later renovations did not touch the original design.
It is when you examine the corner pilasters that you get a shock from the complexity of the arrangement where pilaster seems to be superimposed on pilaster. As you see in the photograph below, these superimpositions are at first confusing and you are never quite sure what is going on from a design point of view.
With all those angle cuts the pilaster base becomes very complicated and heavy. Perhaps this was the intent. The pilaster plinth should have been the bottom-most moulding where everything ended; instead, there is the baseboard that adds a second plinth, hence the awkward heaviness.
This photograph of the corner of the house illustrates very clearly the effect that the architect intended. Unfortunately, that is diminished by the presence of the drainpipe which adds a confusing vertical element.
Johnston died in 1828 and we have no information about the fate of the house up to the time it was rented or bought by James Colledge Pope (1826-1885) perhaps as early as 1864. It was probably his base in the city when he acted as the last colonial premier, and his home when he was made the Island’s first Premier when it became the seventh province of Canada in July of 1873. Ever on the move Pope entered federal politics representing Prince County. Sir John A. Macdonald appointed him fisheries minister from 1878 to 1882 after which he retired in Summerside.
We wonder what James Pope did to Ravenwood during his unknown period of tenure which could have been from 1864 to 1882. We only have a very vague view of the house in the Harris painting of 1871.
Detail from a print of the painting.
It is difficult to describe and interpret what we see. Various sources describe the house in the painting as being surrounded on three sides by verandas. Looking closely, we can see this is not the case. There is something on the lower part of the front of the house that could be a veranda. What we might be seeing may be an ornamental fence going up to the level of the high foundation. Indeed, in this detail from a map of the estate prepared for James Pope by John Ball we clearly see the outline of such a fence.
Plan of Ravenwood Estate, Hon. J. C. Pope, in the Royalty of Charlottetown. Surveyed by John Ball LS, c. 1875. Ink and wash on glazed linen. PARO
The complete Ball plan of the estate is of the greatest importance in studying the gardens set up in the grounds and the general topography of the estate in relation to the city. Since at various times the property was mined for clay used in the pottery industry, and for making bricks, large pits became filled with water and were converted into ornamental ponds. One, the famous lily pond, survives and draws many visitors.
(As an aside, Pope was a great advocate of the railway and so it is not surprising to see it cut through the southwest corner of his property. That would have been worth a hefty sum in expropriation compensation.)
An Architectural Mystery
Ravenwood is not without its mysteries. In the Agriculture Canada booklet prepared on the history of the Research Station is this photograph of the house, with no date and no source given, but with a very splendid austerely designed veranda in full view. When was it built? Is it visible in the Harris watercolour of 1871?
This particular design for the trellis work was used on other Island houses and provides material for both useful and difficult comparisons. For example, in the 1850s, along the Brackley Point Road, and within view of Spring Park and Belmont, Henry Longworth built Glynwood, named after his family estate in Ireland.
He would become very prominent in farming circles and as an importer of thoroughbred stock. We are fortunate to have a clear drawing of Glynwood in Meacham’s ATLAS. (Glynwood survives today as an apartment house at 36 Maxfield Avenue, having lost all its architectural distinction.)
Glynwood, Meacham’s ATLAS, 1880, p. 46
Glynwood is a six-bay house, unusual for the time which sought symmetry everywhere on either side of the front door. It has a veranda that looks almost exactly like the one in the Ravenwood photograph, and one can confidently date it to the 1850s when the house was built.
There is one more piece of enigma to add to the mystery of the Ravenwood veranda. In the 1980s I photographed this beautiful veranda on a house at Crapaud with a fully developed centre gable design from the 1840-50 period.
So, is it possible to come to any conclusion about the veranda at Ravenwood? Is it contemporary with the house or a later addition?
We know that Glynwood was built in the 1850s, as was, by its style, the house at Crapaud. Some years ago, there was a circa 1850 house with such a veranda standing on the north side at the start of the Saint Peter’s Road.
Architectural history is full of questions. They can, as in this case, cause agony. I had always associated this kind of veranda with the Romantic styles that replaced Georgian architecture in the 1840-50 period. We still have no idea when the Ravenwood veranda was built. It remains a mystery.
Ravenwood’s Later History
It has been impossible to assemble a chronology of the occupants of Ravenwood House over its long life. All the same, the property was well taken care of, and the estate was destined to increase in size, something that has not happened with any other of these large grants of land in the Royalties.
The Dominion Experimental Farm
In 1909 Ravenwood estate was purchased by the federal government as the Island’s Dominion Experimental Farm. This was set up was to conduct field research to discover what land was suitable for various crops. There were also laboratories for more focussed scientific research. The house was set aside as the Superintendent’s residence, and this continued until 1990 when it became vacant.
Today, at first glance, the house set in its grove of trees, some of them with historic associations, is a picture of beauty. The combination of horizontal and vertical elements creates visual excitement both for people driving by and for visitors to the house itself.
15 Crown Dr, Charlottetown, PE, C1A 5S1
When we look at the house square on, we are able to see clearly the various elements that create this visual excitement. When the federal government gained control of the property in 1906 it engaged in major renovations to the Greek Revival façade, now considered dull, and completely rearticulated the space between the corner pilasters to bring the style up to date, as it were.
1906 was a confusing year for choosing which architectural style was the most fashionable. As the Nineteenth Century rushed into the Twentieth Century architectural styles which in the past had remained constant for relatively long periods, now appeared in rapid sequence. By 1906 Charlottetown was in the throes of rejecting the Queen Anne Revival style which had become popular in 1885. Its most famous manifestation is seen on those houses that have a huge turret occupying a whole corner of the building. By 1900 this Romantic style that had nothing to do with Queen Anne had already been replaced by a revival of Georgian styles when the United States celebrated its bicentenary in 1876. They called it the Colonial Revival style and by 1900 it was established in Canada. Charlottetown did not rush to build in this style which closely resembled the Georgian architecture of the first half of the Nineteenth Century that had never really gone out of fashion. Maybe that was why the style was slow to reach the Island.
Ravenwood House was given a pair of Queen Anne angular towers projecting from the façade as bay windows and a Colonial Revival porch supported by paired Tuscan Doric columns.
There was great interest at this time in studying the weather, so a cupola was built at the apex of the roof to house a collection of appropriate instruments. It is believed that this bastard style was created by Lowe Brothers, a Charlottetown building firm.
And so, at one glance, we have the Queen Anne Revival style and the Colonial Revival style both enclosed in the austere pilaster arms of the Greek Revival style. If you are not aware of architectural styles the house as it stands today can be a thing of beauty. Indeed, it is. But if you can tell style elements apart then it becomes an excruciating experience to contemplate that tasteless confection.
The Ravenwood Gardens
All these big houses in the Royalty estates had ornamental gardens. Their design and choice of plants would no doubt have been inspired by what was left back in Britain. Again and again, there are references to plants being imported and in time there was a brisk trade in flower and shrub seeds.
There were many garden plans easily available in the works of various architects. In John Plaw’s three books there are plans for small gardens. It is not until we come to the middle of the century that we find plans of gardens, and very extensive plant lists of every size and variety produced by Eastern American architects and gardeners, the most famous and influential of them being Andrew Jackson Downing (1815 – 1852) who began as a horticulturalist then became a most influential landscape designer before he turned his attention to producing houses for North Americans suitable for the landscape designs he promoted. We will discuss this in some detail in a later post. For the moment I want to show you what garden design in the first half of the Nineteenth Century was like by looking at a plate from Downing’s 1847 book.
Downing 1847 p 153
Downing was an advocate of the Picturesque Style in England but much reduced in scale to what was appropriate to the American rural landscape and American ideals. Everything was small and rural and was not meant to conflict with Nature. Following more ancient traditions in this concept he places a formal octagonal bed that projects from the front of the house and encloses the veranda. An ornamental fence separates this intimate formality from the grounds which are laid out in a more “natural” style but still planned carefully for effect, down to the last tree and shrub.
I tend to believe that what Harris represented in his 1871 watercolour may have masked a similar fenced-in arrangement, perhaps even inspired by Downing and mistaken by later observers as a three-sided veranda.
We have support for this argument in the plan of the Ravenwood estate drawn by John Ball in the early 1870s. With dots Ball indicates the presence of a fence that goes along the front and sides of the house. Here, one imagines, would be those precious flowers brought from home that would have taken root in the Island soil. They could have been arranged in formal beds.
When we look again at this detail of the Ball map, there is a large drive to accommodate many carriages coming in and out, but in the centre of this irregular oval space is what must be a pool, or a public flower bed, probably built up on a mound of earth to give it sculptural prominence. It is odd that the contemporary Harris picture gives no hint of such a thing. But the perspective in the drawing is at a low angle so such a feature would not necessarily appear. Note behind the house the presence of a large kitchen garden, perhaps much like the one at Government House today.
The Royal Forest
Of great importance in the history of Island landscape gardening is the Royal Forest that was initiated in 1912 in the grounds of Ravenwood by Superintendent J. A. Clark. The first tree was planted by the Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught on July 30, 1912. He planted and American elm. The Duke was further honoured by having Pownal Square in Charlottetown named after him.
The grounds of Ravenwood today, and the maturing trees in the Royal Forest. Google Maps.
In 1983 our present King, Charles III, accompanied by his first wife, appropriately planted an English oak. The trees and their planters are all identified when you wander around the grounds. Since the Royal Forest was limited to spadework by blue bloods only, something had to be invented to appease the ego of the local aristocracy and so a tree planting area was set up in the picnic area and the event could end with a jolly barbecue.
Our discussion of the origins and evolution of Ravenwood was lengthy and detailed, often excruciatingly so, but its importance as a complete – indeed vastly expanded – landscape in the Royalty is of the greatest importance in the history of Island landscape architecture. That it should have survived into our time at the very core of a rapidly expanding city is an amazing thing. We must thank the federal government Experimental Station for that. For many citizens a visit to Ravenwood Estate is far more exciting and varied in detail and vista than any of the other public parks in the city of Charlottetown.
Introduction of the Roof Dormer
In my previous post, I finished a long discussion of two very early city estates with an exploration of the introduction of Georgian neoclassical style in rural architecture. Following that pattern, I conclude this section with a look at a house built by a Scottish immigrant that featured the centre dormer style, the new light-filled direction for the small house in the country and the town.
Providing light in the upstairs hall.
You may recall that the central chimney house had no source of light in the upstairs hall. Whatever light penetrated was from the bedrooms on the ends of the building. In my previous post we saw, in the Wright house at Bedeque, an ingenious way of providing enough light so as to not stumble around by inserting a small window between the floor and the rise of the eaves. Very soon this was replaced by a dormer – an ancient device – that flooded the upstairs hall with light.
The Norton Bellevue Cottage at Brudenell – 1822
Ian M’Naughton (1769-1830) was born in Scotland around 1769. He became a botanist – a very exciting career choice at that time of botanical frenzy in Europe – and family tradition has him employed by King George III who himself was an avid botanist. King George grew up at Kew and experienced hand-on gardening at an early age. It was his favourite place and in time he would build a greenhouse that would be the inspiration for the great gardens at Kew, still a world-famous site for those who are botanically minded.
Apparently, because of the hatred directed at the Scots at that time, M’Naughton changed his name to John Norton. Around 1803 he married Eleanor Jones and in 1821 they emigrated to Prince Edward Island with their nine children. Their grant of land was on the Brudenell River, and the vistas must have been very beautiful at that time, and for years to come as fields were developed, demarcated with hedgerows. The Meacham map for Lot 53 shows us the extent of the property as it survived in 1880.
Detail of Lot 53, Meacham’s ATLAS, 1880.
At first the Nortons lived in a log cabin located near the Brudenell River but by 1822 they had built a house inland, with access to the Georgetown Road. This decision marked an important change in the development of the colony where a settler would leave water transportation to hope instead for inland transportation on the evolving road system.
This is the house that was built in 1822 to accommodate John Norton and his family of nine. Where did they all sleep? Someone would sleep in a downstairs bedroom to tend the fire, upstairs there would be four bedrooms that would hold up to 12 persons, and, miracle of miracles, the upstairs hall could become a bedroom because half of it was illuminated by a large Palladian window.
This is an elegant house that has been given an abundance of exterior ornamentation in the door with its transom, the temple-front window frames, the corner pilasters allowed to invade the façade to provide an architectural framework for the central door, and above the eaves, a dormer!
Bellevue Cottage, (L-R Fred Moar, Miss Bessett, Homer Norton, Edison Norton, Catherine Dewar Norton and Helena Norton) ca. 1905. Photo courtesy of Harry Norton.
But such a dormer it is! It is treated little a little house in itself – it has its own life – because the trim does not blend with the pattern on the house façade. The dormer front is a small Doric temple with a pediment supported by four columns (pilasters) that do not relate to what is below. The three-part window, which has the same proportions as the door, is filled with small panes – all 28 of them! – that allow light to flood into the upstairs hall.
This very fine house loses some of its integrity because the dormer, as an architectural unit, is not connected in any way to the details of the house façade, which is what sets the tone for the whole. Nevertheless, the effect is powerful and graceful because of all the flower beds, shrubs and trees that surround the house.
The next step in the development of this kind of central cottage with dormer can be seen not far away at the Brooke farm in Murray River.
Brooke Farm – Murray River, c. 1990.
Here, in this smaller house, you can see that the dormer Palladian window is perfectly aligned with the proportions of the main entrance, which has been graced with a pediment. There is no conflict between the architecture on the roof and the house resting on the ground. This would be the trend followed by others who built using the central plan with a dormer above the door.
The Bellevue Gardens
Along with the photograph of Bellevue I was allowed to copy in the 1990s was an accompanying plan of the grounds which, as one would expect from a veteran of Kew Gardens, were carefully planned and elaborately disposed. I was allowed to photograph this plan by Scott Buchanan the archaeologist who was doing archaeological work in the area at the time when the Norton estate was being converted into a Provincial golf course. The plan is fascinating to study and was drawn by a very elderly member or friend of the family (I have lost that information). It shows Bellevue House and its kitchen garden, and also, at the bottom of the sheet, the location (in reality much farther away) of the original log house.
Sketch by Jessie N. Dick (?), Reconstruction from memory of original garden at Bellevue Cottage
What is of the greatest interest is the highly articulated garden in front of the house. The house itself is fronted by flower beds, then there is a drive leading to the barn yard at the rear, and then across from the drive, a very elaborate garden enclosed by a lilac hedge on a raised dyke. Beyond this enclosed space are apple and cherry orchards.
The main garden features a croquet court which is anachronistic to the building of the house in 1822. Croquet would only become popular in Europe and America in the 1860s, so this is a memory of the artist’s youth. Various trees, shrubs and flower beds are identified, and the labels are hard to make out at this scale. Perhaps later I will introduce a transcription of this garden below. But for the moment we will look at what we have. The centre of this rectangular garden is dominated by a mound planted with annuals, and a path circling the bed so that these rare and expensive flowers could be examined closely.
The documents we have of the Norton house and its garden are priceless individually but even more so in combination. They provide us with the most valuable information we could desire about the house itself, which would soon come to dominate cottage design all over the Island, but also the rare garden vision of a trained horticulturalist who brought his knowledge – and no doubt shared it – with his neighbours along the Brudenell River.
Today all is a golf course – rather mediocre I have been told – that dominates this beautiful farmland once dotted with productive farms. Pools have been excavated and placed in rather curious locations, perhaps to evoke memories of Scottish lochs. It is all deeply uninteresting.
What survives, and is exciting to contemplate, is the memory and dreams of Bellevue Estate with its dramatically articulated house and absolutely beautiful garden.
The Google satellite image of the area says it all.
To Faye Pound for obtaining the dimensions of Belmont and Ravenwood.
Kind persons have provided support for the expenses incurred in producing this blog. I wish to express my deep gratitude to these individuals who have helped me cover the costs of archival scans, photographs, learned journals, books and professional services.
Dr. Edward and Sheila MacDonald
Robert L. Scobie
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