Thursday, September 21, 2017

Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part three

Railway bridge abutments, near Milverton, Ontario

The aesthetic value of a ruin is pretty obvious (or, depending on the observer, it isn’t).  What about its historical value?

Looking at ruins and how they’re created, we can say they are a result of two, sometimes three, historical decisions.  It is these decisions, and the circumstances surrounding them, that give ruins their historical significance.

As with intact structures, the first is the original decision to build the (now ruined) building and use it for certain purposes.

The second is the decision to abandon, responsible for the metamorphosis of the structure into a ruin.  As we’ve seen, an apparently “healthy” and functional building is sometimes deserted by its owner, left to fall down and moulder.  In other cases a precipitating event such as a fire or other natural or man-made disaster has damaged or destroyed the building.  But even here the source of the ruin lies not so much in the calamity as in the failure to repair or rebuild or otherwise re-use the site — to abandon the remains to their fate.

Mill, Glen Morris, Ontario

In either situation, with or without a calamity, the decision to abandon would almost always have been the result of the owner/user’s determination that the repair and continued use of the structure, or the re-use of the site, was not economically practical.

Behind such a determination would be one or more potentially far-reaching historical factors.  These include things like changes in industry conditions, such as depletion of natural resources; technological obsolescence; change in market conditions; decline in population (most likely to affect buildings such as schools and churches – St. Raphael’s, for example); and changes in land use patterns and transportation routes.

Road bridge piers, Elora, Ontario

For any ruin the association with these larger social and economic factors — those responsible for the futility or inutility of the old use, as well as any new or adaptive use — are a key part of its story.

The ruin, then, is uniquely the product of both decisions — to build/use and to abandon — and stands as a reminder of the fateful and often poignant change in historical circumstances that resulted in the second decision effectively reversing the first.

Interpretive signage at Maitland windmill ruin
Windmill, Maitland, Ontario

For some (lucky?) ruins there is a third decision. This is the decision to intervene, to do something to conserve the structure and its values. Intervention runs the gamut from a plaque or other form of interpretation, to the isolation of the ruin for safety purposes (through the erection of barriers to access), to the stabilization of the structure (by capping and repointing of masonry walls, for example), to selective demolition or re-construction of the structure.

Mackenzie printery in ruins, Queenston, Ontario circa ?
In the extreme, very rare case the ruined structure is completely restored!

Mackenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum today

Intervention, especially in its more major forms, also becomes an important part of the history of the ruin property.

But — and herein lies the paradox of “saving” ruins — just as a ruin is a destroyed structure, so intervention inevitably destroys the ruin qua ruin to a greater or lesser extent.  Something is lost.

Mill, Rockwood, Ontario

Of course, without active intervention, a ruin, by its very nature, will ultimately disappear, or at least disappear more quickly.  So, the question about what to do, or what not to do, must first look at all the values of the ruin site — aesthetic, physical, historical, contextual — some of which will be competing.

The Maitland windmill ruin in its landscape setting

To put it starkly, would you rather have hoary remains or an all-cleaned-up archaeological site?  A structure melting under the “green waves of time” or one preserved indefinitely?  A site redolent with “spirit of the place” or an “open air museum”?  (Perhaps my bias is showing.)

In practice, some middle ground can usually be found.  But, with ruins, active preservation will mean a challenging compromise. [1]

St. Raphael's church ruins, St. Raphael's, Ontario

Note 1: Interestingly, the “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada” does not directly mention ruins. The document does address structural remains under “archaeological sites” but little attention is given to above-ground remnants.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part two

We’re ruminating on ruins, exploring the meaning and value of Ontario’s ruined structures.

Part of ruins' appeal is their perversity.  The very existence of a ruin seems to defy the norms of a society where land is real estate, its value determined by the real estate market.  Not functional or useful through this lens, a ruin has no worth.  What “value” it has is basically aesthetic and historical.

In the common lexicon:
    • “building” signifies a structure that gives shelter within which a human use can operate
    • “abandoned” or “derelict” building means one which isn’t used but retains the basic prerequisites for use — especially a roof; this is an intermediate stage on the transition to …
    • “ruin,” a structure that has lost, usually irretrievably, its ability to shelter or maintain use — and is therefore use-less.

Farmhouse, near Iona, Ontario

As we well know, without active use an old building can go downhill fast and the normal outcome is demolition and replacement, skipping the ruin stage entirely.

But now and then a building reaches the point of no return, and is just allowed to keep going — through a long falling-down process into ruination and, unless there is some form of intervention, ultimate dissolution and disappearance. [1]

The most common example in our landscape is farm buildings.

Barn foundation, near Campbellville, Ontario

Old, unused barns start to lose their siding; then more and more pieces fall away.  The timber structure with its massive beams can survive for decades before complete collapse.  Eventually what remains are stone walls, foundations, often a cement silo.

Silo, near Shakespeare, Ontario

Stone barn, near Eden Mills, Ontario

Farmhouses are sometimes left to rot away too.

Farmhouse, near Campbellville, Ontario
Farmhouse, near St. Agatha, Ontario

And what’s left of old stone walls and rail fences — these too are remnants and reminders of our farming past. [2]

Fence in the woods, near Bobcaygeon, Ontario

Instead of a protracted mouldering-away, the ruinous state can come suddenly, the result of a precipitating event like a fire or other calamity that destroys the building.  Old mills especially were notoriously subject to fires.  Economic conditions and changing technology sometimes meant it was not feasible to rebuild a mill following a conflagration, and if no other use for the property presented itself ….

Mill, Rockwood, Ontario

Fire was also the culprit in the creation of what is perhaps Ontario’s most spectacular ruin — the hulking shell of St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church northeast of Cornwall.

St. Raphael's Church, St. Raphael's, Ontario

Unlike many of the ruins we’ve looked at, the “open air museum” that is St. Raphael’s today is the result of major intervention.  After the church, built in 1821, burned 150 years later in 1970, the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now Ontario Heritage Trust) was responsible for the stabilization and restoration of the surviving stone walls and the landscaping of the site.  The magnificent National Historic Site is protected by one of the first OHF heritage easements. [3]

Transept, St. Raphael's, courtesy Cathy Nasmith 

Nave, St. Raphael's

Note 1: The frequent use of the word “fall’ in describing ruins reminds us that there is something about a ruin which implies a losing battle with the force of gravity. In fact, “ruin” is derived from the Latin verb ruere, to fall.

Note 2: Fences figure in another part of Al Purdy’s poem, “The Country North of Belleville”:

And where the farms have gone back
to forest
     are only soft outlines
     shadowy differences –
Old fences drift vaguely among the trees
     a pile of moss-covered stones
gathered for some ghost purpose
has lost meaning under the meaningless sky

Note 3: For (much) more on heritage easements see the four-part OHA+M series beginning “Heritage easements 101 — Easements come to Ontario.”