Picturesque Architecture in Canada

In England, the Picturesque philosophy could define structures as different as a medieval castle, a Gothic or Italianate villa or a Swiss chalet. In Canada, however, the Picturesque generally presents itself as either a small, one-story cottage orne or the larger two-story villa.

Domestic Canadian Picturesque architecture is often labelled as Regency style. According to Janet Wright in The Architecture of the Picturesque in Canada, this is because the British favoured this same terminology.

Early Canadian Picturesque Architecture

The Picturesque arrived in Canada before 1830. Its first interpretation was a crude version of the British original. Buildings of this period were usually derived from British classical, North American vernacular or military designs, with the addition of Picturesque details such as French windows and verandahs. This structure would rely heavily on its location to create an appropriate Picturesque atmosphere.

An early example was Castle Frank, (1796) a small log cottage built high upon the edge of the Don Valley in Toronto for John Graves Simcoe, the lieutenant-governor of Canada. Castle Frank was essentially a classical temple in design. Its front pediment was supported by four rustic, unpeeled logs. Combined with the natural setting, Castle Frank was in harmony with the Picturesque ideal.

Development of Picturesque Architecture in Canada

Villas and cottages constructed in Upper Canada after 1830 were more refined in their portrayal of the Picturesque, due to the arrival of British immigrants and British-trained architects conversant with current trends. Most patrons of the Picturesque identified with the educated and cultivated British middle and upper classes.

Areas such as Quebec and the Atlantic provinces did not receive as high proportion of this type of settler as did Ontario, so the Picturesque influence, as a British point of view, was not as significant.

Picturesque Architecture in Ontario, Canada

In Erindale, the Robinson-Adamson cottage (c.1830) as well as the simple but charming Colborne Lodge (1836) HIgh Park, Toronto, are two well-preserved examples of the cottage orne style.

SIr John A. MacDonald's Bellvue, (post 1841) in Kingston was the first true Italianate villa built in Canada. Sir Allan MacNab's monumental "castle" Dundurn (1834-35) on York Street in Hamilton also epitomizes the villa style.

Identifying Features of the Picturesque

After 1830, the typical cottage orne would possess several distinctive characteristics. It would usually maintain a low-lying profile and the low hipped roof would extend into wide eaves.

The facade, whether stone or stucco or more rarely, wood or brick, was simple and devoid of extraneous detail. This plain exterior would be enhanced by a wide verandah, perhaps with trellises and rambling vegetation.

Elements of Picturesque Design Unsuitable for Canada

The broad, overhanging eaves and tall French doors so popular in British military construction in warmer colonial climates were brought to Canada with little success. The wide eaves, meant to shade the interior from the strong tropical sun, kept out the necessary warmth of the winter sun.

French doors and windows, meant to let in cooling breezes, instead allowed frigid winter winds to enter. These elements of the Picturesque were not long-lived in Canada.

Creating the Picturesque Ideal

The play of light and shadow, so critical to all Picturesque design, would be created by surrounding trees, tall chimneys and wide eaves. The verandah provided the essential link between the structure and outdoors. Wild, scenic vistas, abundant in Canada at that time, were fundamental to the final Picturesque statement.