UNCLE REG SAYS:

Lyle House (1836) and its Architectural Tradition

Dotting the Eastern Seaboard of North America are hundreds of simple houses that have several things in common: they are symmetrical, with windows flanking doors, doors often have windows flanking them and above, matching the door arrangement, there can be three-part windows if the house is large enough. Generally these houses also have relatively complicated and elegant trim, especially around the doors and windows and often the corner boards are given major treatment.  

Where does all this come from? Is there a history of design that can be traced back through the centuries? The answer is simply “yes” and the most convenient starting point is the period we call the Italian Renaissance which reached its peak in the 1500’s.

The Renaissance (or rebirth) consisted of a powerful new interest in the art, architecture and literature of Ancient Rome. Inspired by Greece, but more flexible and inventive than the Greeks, Rome developed a series of ornaments and trims that they applied to their architecture. Obviously the most elaborate forms of this were saved for huge public buildings like temples. The Roman temple had features that were repeated again and again. They stood on a massive base called a podium. Rising from the base were columns, generally 4, 6 or 8 in number. Depending on the elaborateness of the temple these columns could be in either Doric (or Tuscan as the Romans called it), Ionic or Corinthian style. Each one was fancier than the next. These columns supported a beam called the entablature which in turn supported the roof. The gable end of the roof always faced the front and so formed a low triangular area called the pediment. All these different parts of the building could be simple or quite complicated, depending what style you wanted and how much money you had to spend.

 

During the 1400’s and 1500’s the “temple front” design began to be applied to both churches and country houses as a new way to bring central focus to the building. The front door was under the porch formed by the pediment and its supporting columns. By the mid-1500’s this style had become very popular in the agricultural area of the Veneto, near Venice. The principal architect of that area was called Andrea Palladio and he built many fine farm houses having a Roman temple front as their main focus. His best-known one was the Villa Capra (or Villa Rotunda as it was also known because of its dome).

The elements described above are clearly visible: the high base or podium, the temple-fronted porch and the upstairs rooms or attic story behind the pediment. In this case Palladio gave each side of the house a similar arrangement although this was not usual; one side only was given the important focus.

About 175 years later a cultural phenomenon called “The Grand Tour” was in full swing in England. Everybody who could afford it travelled to continental Europe to see the sights and to polish off their education. One such traveller was Lord Burlington. He and his architect, William Kent, travelled extensively looking at architecture and wrote a book about what they saw, which featured the new Italian Renaissance styles and suggesting that this should be the new direction for English architecture. By the 1720’s Burlington was back at home and decided to rebuild his country house at Chiswick outside London in this new style.

This house, and others like it, were to have a profound effect on the direction British architecture would take in the next hundred years. Popularised by dozens of minor architects and their many pattern books, the style, which gradually became known as Palladian (or Georgian, from the kings who ruled Great Britain at that time), spread throughout the country. It reached its highest point of popularity just at the time England took North America from the French. There was an immediate need to give the newly-conquered lands a “British” look and the most obvious way to do it was the pepper the landscape with the latest style in British country houses.

Pattern books found there way to North America by the thousands and obviously many of them made it to what was to be Prince Edward Island. The earliest of these we know of in PEI was a book of house patterns by a famous architect about whom, curiously, we know almost nothing. He was called William Halfpenny. This edition of the book, published in 1749, had belonged to Samuel Holland, the great surveyor, who divided the Island into lots. A typical example of this new style is this five bay house elegant only in its symmetry and fine detail in the doorway. (Below)

 

 

About this time a quite famous English architect, John Plaw, who had published several books of designs for country houses, came to make his fortune in the new world. He settled on the Island and is buried here. His designs tend to be fancier than those found in the earlier books because by the late 1700’s a new style called the Picturesque was becoming fashionable and he helped to define its details. The cold simplicity of the earlier Palladian was softened by the addition of mood-enhancing details such as the occasional pointed or “Gothick” window, more surface articulation and the use of new textures and patterns. Spreading classical trim to the entire building also became popular and when Plaw designed this building for the British Admiralty in Halifax (it was never built) the classical focus of the front entrance was enhanced by wide corner boards or pilasters which suggested columns and gave a grand appearance to a modest building.

 

 

Plaw was asked to design a courthouse in Charlottetown and this design was chosen and actually constructed as you can see from this 1864 photograph.

Wide corner boards or pilasters define the dimensions of the small building and give it a sense of monumentality it would not have had without that ornament. The siding consists of wide planks set edge-to-edge with a groove between each suggesting the texture of a stone treatment called French rustication.  Cheap wood is meant to take on the appearance of expensive stone.

At present, I do not know of any domestic structures designed by Plaw but this sketch in the Glenbow Museum, of a house called “Ringwood” formerly at Rocky Point, seems to reflect both the style shown in the Courthouse and the Admiralty House. Many Island houses were to share that basic design up to the time of Confederation.

 

 

There is a huge gap in our knowledge of the origin of a certain architectural styles in PEI and that concerns what we called “Greek Revival”.

In the 1830’s this architectural rage that had been sweeping North America crested and resulted in the construction of many houses with “correct” Doric architectural detail such as these columns flanking the doors to Province House and which, in the original design, were not meant to be obscured by the present portico.

 

 

 

This Doric style became all the rage in New England, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and could even be employed in small unimportant buildings such as this tiny farmhouse called “Westover” built circa 1840 on the Fort Lawrence Ridge in Pointe de Bute NB.

 

The only comparable example in PEI consists of the Doric colonettes flanking the front door of “Norwood” near Wright’s Creek and built around 1835. These are tiny, not very majestic and easy to miss, but nevertheless are there, fluting and all.

 

What is not difficult to see however are the massive corner pilasters topped by very dramatic brackets called modillions.

These, first observed on Plaw’s Courthouse building in Charlottetown, can be found on quite a few buildings dating from the 1830’s in and around the city.


It is my belief that these pilasters and brackets represent the most dramatic form of Greek Revival in PEI and derive directly from Plaw.  I also believe that Isaac Smith,the most prominent builder of the 1830s, adapted Plaw's details and used them to interpret the Greek Revival in his own way.

“Fanningbank”, the Lieutenant Governor’s house in Charlottetown is the grandest example of Greek Revival Architecture on the Island and originally had the French rustication siding and these massive corner boards with brackets.  Like Province House it was designed by Isaac Smith.

So how does the Lyle house fit into all this?

 


Its symmetry places it in the Palladian tradition and its massive corner boards place it within the Greek Revival style popular in the 1830’s.

There were no brackets or modillions attached to the soffit as that seems to have been largely an urban style element.

The façade of the house is modest, consisting of only three bays, but it is given a bit of importance by the upstairs hall window placed directly above the door.

The presence of a massive central chimney did not encourage the construction of a dormer window because the expense of it would not justify the small area it would provide light for.

It is very easy to deceive oneself and say the Lyle house is just a simple country box house with nothing noble about it. That is very wrong. This little essay has tried to show that this discipline, restraint and also very significant sense of order are ultimately inspired by Antiquity as interpreted by the Renaissance architects of Italy and then by the English amateurs of the Grand Tour. The fortunes of world history led this new style, so recently adopted in the mother country, to be the first and foremost expression of British colonialism in North America. Looked at in that way, the modest little Lyle house tells a grand story for those with eyes to see.

 

© Reg Porter. Used with permission.

 

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