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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian’

A few year’s back MacLean‘s magazine published a cover titled, “Lawyers are Rats” that had the brotherhood of the bar up in arms and denying that the erosion of civil society occurred as a consequence of their handiwork. Recently, Chistopher Hume, of the Toronto Star, has directed his attention towards the conduct of developers who, among lawyers, share a special place in the imagination of a damning public.

Toronto’s record of historical preservation is shoddy, spotty and replete with many missed opportunities. According to Hume, Toronto’s weak historical preservation laws are open to exploitation by inviting nefarious developers to behave like barbarians that broke through our gates.

Sentiments build and are invested in spaces and buildings and this is what the buyer of a historical home or an authentic industrial loft sees as value. Destroying a house with that value for the sake of domino townhouses means, as a buyer, your new digs have a dirty secret – and in Toronto, the neighbours talk.

John Todd, president of 1626829 Ontario Ltd (not a snappy corporate acronym meant to be remembered) has deliberately destroyed the historical features of Toronto’s 7 Austin Terrace – designed by John Lyle who is also responsible for Toronto’s Union Station and Royal Alexander Theatre. As the home’s current steward, to little surprise, John Todd seeks to demolish the historic house and throw up some townhouses.

Original Windows Being Ripped Out, Along with Portico Torn Off. From Macleans Magazine: http://macleans.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/december162009.jpg

Apparently, destroying the architectural features of your home is enough to duck a historical designation in this city. According to Hume, the laws of civilization could not anticipate the actions of Barbarians.

“Todd may be an embarrassment to the city, but clearly this doesn’t concern him. Why should it? Eventually, he will build his townhouses and people will buy them blissfully unaware of their shameful history. As long as his actions are not illegal, it doesn’t matter if they’re wrong.”

If only the objectionable professions did not share such close quarters…

There is probably more stigma to living in a townhouse built on the ruins of an important historical structure than Hume accedes. Cultures and meanings people have of their built environments endure once the destruction is done. Sentiments build and are invested in spaces and buildings and this is what the buyer of a historical home or an authentic industrial loft sees as value. Destroying a house with that value for the sake of domino townhouses means, as a buyer, your new digs have a dirty secret – and in Toronto, the neighbours talk.

Stepping foot inside a 120 year old  Victorian in Toronto’s Rosedale or Annex neighbourhood with anticipation only to find MDF mouldings, prefinished flooring, ripped out walls and ubiquitous pot lighting is a bit like being witness to a crime scene.

That being the case, most Rosedale and Forest Hill century home “renos” approximate barbarianism, if only the actions of the owners were more willful. Stepping foot inside a 120 year old Victorian in Toronto’s Rosedale or Annex neighbourhood with anticipation only to find MDF mouldings, prefinished flooring, ripped out walls and ubiquitous pot lighting is a bit like being witness to a crime scene. Toronto’s historic preservation laws have nothing to say about how one can best protect the interior features of a historic property. Newly gained professional salaries, an HGTV habit, precious little knowledge and big ideas combine to create interior designs that will  soon be abandoned as a signifier of pop cultural capital.

Perhaps, we are content with surfaces in this city, as the numerous “preserved” historic building facades would suggest. Eerie architectural artifacts lingering on a PoMo streetscape reminiscent of an old western sound stage or a New Urbanist “Main Street”. Though I suppose seeing at least some old brick in place is better than the alternatives.

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Occasionally in Toronto, one can find an original Queen Anne Style window in a Bay and Gable, or other Victorian, styled home. Apparently, improved glass making in the 1880s meant that designers could build larger windows with fewer small mullioned panes, however, mullions were still appreciated for their aesthetics.

Queen Anne window style, the result of improved glass making, was a completely new style of window that did not exist in previous historic styles.

Queen Anne style "Fancy Top" window

Queen Anne style "Fancy Top" window

At this time, public preferences and architect recommendation called for widows with divided, or “fancy top” upper windows and single full lower windows that would allow for unobstructed view while still maintaining the look of a divided window in the top pane. In different windows the divided lights march around the casement, allowing for a larger central window. The look of multiple mullions of varying coloured antique or muffle glass can be very spectacular when sun shines from behind. Due to the era, these windows were largely installed in Queen Anne houses, from which they are named, but are also called “cottage” windows. This window style, the result of emerging technology, was a completely new style of window that did not exist in previous historic styles.

Reproduced Casement Window

Reproduced Casement Window

One will need to find a good carpenter when trying to replace a Queen Anne window given the intricate mullion that comprises the panes. Luckily southern Ontario has many good carpenter that specialize in keeping alive the large Victorian housing stock in the province. Hoffmeyer Mills in Sebringville specializes in period millwork and made a perfect sash to custom specs.

Glazing stained glass lights on a Queen Anne window requires a bit of knowledge of period glass used in 1880s windows. A local stain glass supplier was very helpful in locating the perfect classic Victorian cobalt, red and amber glass that was so often matched together in Queen Anne windows of the period. While the cobalt blue, red and amber was a popular combination, Queen Anne windows were glazed using multiple coloured and textured glass that was produced at the time.

Panes pressed into glazing putty and secured with baton strips

Panes pressed into glazing putty and secured with wood stop strips

Reproduction “Antique Glass” can be purchases in varying qualities from mouth blown to machine rolled. In both cases, a glass that is dynamic and brilliant in light is produced. The high quality mouth blown glass is exceptionally brilliant given the random striations and swirls produced as the glass maker spins the glass to fabricate the panes. In many instances, other rolled textured glass, such as muffle glass, were used in these windows.

Individual panes can be either be  secured with glazing points and putty or set in a small bead of putty and secured with small wooden stops. I would recommend using the wood stops since glazing points may be hard to secure given the small pane sizes and the increased chance of breaking a pane given that reproduction antique glass is more brittle.

Installed window

Installed Queen Anne casement window

The final window was installed using four inch reproduction Victorian hinges and window hardware. A minor amount of wood planing was needed to get a snug fit in the window jam. Given that it was installed in a humid bathroom, it will eventually get a good coat of oil based paint.

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The Cabbagetown Historical Preservation Association takes the preservation of Toronto’s Victorian housing seriously and with good reason – Cabbagetown is the largest stretch of Victorian housing in North America. On their homepage they have made available the resource, “What Style is My House” which is good reading for anyone who can’t identify the historic home they live within.

This is an invaluable resource for those of us who had no idea they had bought a Century Victorian because there was little left to identify what the original house had looked like. For whatever reason, downtown homes, outside of the trendy preservation districts, tend to be hidden under layers of aluminum siding, inappropriate additions and a host of other measures over the years that often results in a house that stylistically “does not make sense”.

The Cabbagetown Preservation guide is oriented to Torontonian architecture with detailed styling points for Georgian, Queen Anne,  Romanesque, Gothic and Arts and Crafts styles. Two styles of housing are unique to Toronto: The Bay and Gable and the Annex House. The guide, however, only identifies the Bay and Gable. The annex home is a unique combination of Romanesque and Queen Anne that is characterized by mass, permanence and the exuberance of Queen Anne features. These houses are seldom seen outside of Toronto’s Annex.

This guide may also be of interest to Americans who are curious how uniquely American styles departed from English architectural heritage.

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West Toronto Junction, or just “The Junction“, is unique in stade Toronto “The Good”. The Junction, named for the crossing of the Canadian National (CNR) and the Canadian Pacific (CPR) railways, was a booming prosperous late 1890s town with businesses breaking the bulk of the railway, lumber yards, stock yards, a flour mill, a foundry, and included factories that manufactured Nordheiner and Hienztman pianos, in addition to the Canadian Cycle Manufacturing company. Founded in 1884, the Junction later amalgamated with Toronto in 1909 and is currently celebrating the centennial since becoming part of Toronto.

Up until 1997, the Junction exercised local option in being a dry community after prohibition in 1904 (Fancher). At the turn of the century the area had the reputation for heavy drinking, street fights and prostitution that came with many young men migrating into the city for jobs in the new industrial factories.

The active West Toronto Junction Historical Society maintains an archive of Junction historical documents and photos, in addition to producing publications and historical tours of the Junction.

Some of oldest houses in West Toronto Junction date to the 1880s. Many Victorian Bay-and-Gables, identifiable by their tall narrow stance, octagonal or square bays, and steeply pitched peaks can be found closer to the heart of the original town. Larger commercial buildings line the central strip of the Junction along Dundas Street along with many church steeples, library and Mason’s Lodge that were and are a part of the City of West Toronto Junction. Later Edwardian homes were built as part of the expansion of Toronto suburbs located farther away from the “main strip” of the town.

THE LEADER & RECORDER’S: History of the Junction. Diana Fancher, Editor. ISBN 0-9686636-1-3

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The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach.

Faux finishes are not limited to late 1980s interior decor or to low budget “trading rooms” television programming. The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach. I found some original Victorian wood graining under layers of paint that easily peeled off. The art of trompe l’oeil, “to trick the eye”, used an elaborate painting technique to simulate quality hard wood grain on softwood or marble on plaster. More elaborate applications would apply decorative frieze or even painted simulated scarves over doors or birds on ceilings (Guild, 2008). As I expected, there is very little new in post-modern aesthetics… Apparently, trompe l’oeil applications were most popular near the lat 19th c. and used in small and grand houses alike. Skilled artists gained prominence and were sought after for their work in the best homes.

Original Oak Painted Finish

Original Oak Painted Finish

The oak appearing on my door would have first been painted with a deep beige base colour that would then have been glazed with burnt umber and ocher to give it light and dark highlights. The artist would then pull a multi-toothed brush through the glaze to produce the grain by revealing the base coat, then finish by flogging with the brush to break up some lines (Guild, 2008).

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Many homes will still have these finishes preserved under layers of paint. These finishes can actually be restored by using solvents to rub down to the trompe l’oeil finish that is protected by glaze (Nigel, 1997). Paint stripping will destroy these original features. Leaving the finish under paint is an accepted preservationist approach.


Guild, R. (2008). The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decorating. Firefly Books.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

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I caught a bit of luck in that the POs (Previous Owners) did not remove the antique pine front door and replace it with a Big Box pre-hung door. Of course the door was layered in paint and the original antique mortise lock was replaced with a typical off-the shelf lock for a bored-door.  This is the modern way in which locks are fitted to doors, while antique houses would largely have had their doors fitted with mortise or rim locks.

The not completely unattractive, but completely inappropriate new lock

The not completely unattractive, but completely inappropriate track mansion lock

While the new lock was not completely unattractive (relatively speaking I suppose), it unfortunately meant that one of the POs bored a hole in the door, right through the mortise so that a modern lock could be installed. This meant that a antique mortise lock could not just be fitted into the door without repairing the hole that was made for the lock. Minor headaches, but not an impossible fix.

To fix the hole in the door, I had a local carpenter fix a “plug” to the diameter and width of the door. A bit of sanding, carpenters glue and wood epoxy and I had restored the door. Some chisel work removed wood from

Wood plug to fill bored door hole

Wood plug to fill bored door hole

the plug to restore the space for the mortise.

The inner workings of the lock are fascinating and it still has a solid and clean working mechanism.

The reason for all this was because I love house hardware and really wanted to make use of the antique bronze Eastlake styled mortise lock I picked up. It is a great piece of hardware made by Corbin in 1878 and matches some existing Eastlake hardware within the home.

Corbin apparently still manufactures door “furniture” (a UK and rarer Canadian usage) or hardware at a factory in Berlin Connecticut. The company started off as  Corbin Russwin in 1839 manufacturing plate locks.

The escutcheon plate has a swing key hole cover that is meant to prevent outside drafts. The inner workings of the lock are fascinating and it still has a solid and clean working mechanism. Of course, a deadbolt should be used for real “security”.

The anatomy of a mortise lock

The anatomy of a mortise lock

Luckily, the mortise lock’s face plate fit my mortise well. It is important to get the “back-space”, that is the distance from your door’s edge to the centre of the door knob accurate if you are fitting a lock into an existing mortise. Since the door was bored, I could re-drill the appropriate length backspace into the new wood plug, meaning I did not have to endlessly search for the perfect mortise lock with the right backspace for my door.

Eastlake Corbin bronze hardware

Eastlake Corbin bronze hardware

Now I just have to get rid of that Big Box storm door...

Now I just have to get rid of that Big Box storm door...

After fiddling with repairing the door, it was simple to install the mortise lock, the escutcheon plate, attaching the door knobs to the spindle, securing the set screws on the spindle and enjoying a moment of amazement that a downtown Toronto dude once living in a concrete box on the 22nd floor of “apartmentopia” could somehow pull it off! Houses are fun that way. It was amazing how easy it was once the door was repaired. It just worked the way it was intended to. No headaches trying to force new hardware or materials that were not intended to be a part of an old house.

And done.

And done.

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Industrialism resulted in the wide availability of architectural millwork that was once only available to wealthy clients building the best of homes. Late Victorian or “High Victorian” millwork was the most elaborate and suited popular Victorian revival styles of the time including Queen Anne and Eastlake. Hull (2003) refers to the period 1890-1910 as the “Golden Age” of American architectural millwork. During this period wood was plentiful and cheap and there existed the right mix of artisans, craftsmen, and manufacturers that produced styles that were ornate, elaborate and expressive. According to Hull, the end of this great period of millwork followed the Depression era, when wood was no longer affordable and modern options, such as hollow core doors, became widely used, marking the end of historic millwork.

Many of the early millwork companies started off as lumber yards and success and growth was the result of industrialization and proximately to the railroad (Hull, 2003). It is probably no coincidence that my old Vic was built in 1889 by a local lumber barron whose business was located near the railway in the emerging industrial city of West Toronto Junction.

The Victorians did not consider most softwoods to be noble enough to stain and hence most pine interior trim would have been painted or artistically grained to reproduce the look of solid English oak.

Wood mouldings were produced from various hardwoods and softwoods with hardwoods, such as Oak and Mahogany, limited to the public rooms in grander homes. Characteristic of Victorian domestic culture, there was a strong demarcation between public rooms, that received the most ornate moulding, and the private spaces of the house that received more modest treatment (Webb, 2002). The ornate, thick and deeply milled door and window casings made mitre work more challenging for carpenters. Corner blocks, while seen as added ornamentation to contemporary eyes, were used to increase the efficiency of building wood casings and avoided highly precise mitre work (Webb, 2002).

The Victorians did not consider most softwoods to be noble enough to stain and hence most pine interior trim would have been painted or artistically grained to reproduce the look of solid English oak. Frequently the original painted graining is preserved under subsequent layers of paint. Patient restorationists can use methyl hydrate on a cloth to rub down to the original painted grain that is protected with shellac (Nigel, 1997).

Hull, Brent. (2003). Historic Millwork: A Guide to Restoring and Re-creating Doors, Windows, and Moldings of the Late Nineteenth Through Mid-Twentieth Centuries. Wiley.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

Webb, Kit. (2002). The Victorian House. London: Aurem Press.

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