Architecture and Construction

by W. John McIntyre

In the architectural style of the Middle Ages, the nineteenth century found the perfect expression for much of its own restlessness, its vivid imagination and its growing dislike of the industrialized, machine-oriented society it had begun to create. The Gothic style, the style of the cathedrals, brought to mind an allegedly gentler, more spiritual time. With its pointed arches and innumerable possibilites for intricate effects of light and shadow, space and confinement, it appealed to the imagination and provided the perfect backdrop for popular novels and poetry. It brought to mind a world that never was, yet a world which the nineteenth century sought desperately to make its own.

Probably the most ambitious example of Gothic Revival domestic architecture in Canada is Whitby’s Trafalgar Castle, now the Ontario Ladies’ College, designed by the architect Joseph Sheard in 1859. Yet Canadians seldom indulged in such conspicuous abandonment of domestic economy and it remains for The Manor to illustrate the best of a style which, in a new and developing land, found expression in vernacular building.

For the nearest roots of The Manor, we must leave the soil of Canada and turn to the American social critic and architect, Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). Downing was the author of The Architecture of Country Houses, first published in 1850. By the end of the Civil War, Downing’s book had gone through nine printings and sold well over sixteen thousand copies (2). In it, he described and illustrated houses in several styles deemed suitable for rural building and included sections on proper methods of heating, ventilation and interior decoration. He emphasized fitness and utility, paying careful attention to a house’s relationship to its natural surroundings and the day-to-day needs of its occupants. He eschewed extravagant ornament and slavish copies of ancient buildings. Yet unlike the form-follows-function critics of the twentieth century, Downing was a Romantic, found inspiration in the past and used freely its ornament and forms. While designing buildings of essentially Georgian plan and proportion, he enhanced them with Gothic gables, bargeboards, labels and arches. “The architect will be most successful,” Downing wrote,

who, after mastering that which has been done in other countries and in past time, works freshly from the inspiration of his own country — its manners, institutions and climate. Such an artist will absorb the past as Raphael and Shakespeare absorbed it, not to reproduce it in feebler forms, but to give greater meaning and stronger vitality to productions that belong wholly to the present. (3)

1975_Hillary_House_The_Manor041-11tA design by Downing’s contemporary, A. J. Davis, included in The Architecture of Country Houses and entitled “A Cottage-Villa in the Rural Gothic Style,” shares many features with The Manor. Much of what Downing wrote about it could also be said about the house in Aurora:

The body of the house is nearly square, and the elevation is a successful illustration of the manner in which a form usually uninteresting, can be so treated as to be a highly picturesque. There is, indeed, a combination of the aspiring lines of the roof with the horizontal lines of the veranda, which expresses picturesqueness and domesticity very successfully… The character expressed by the exterior of this design is that of a man or family of domestic tastes, but with strong aspirations after something higher than social pleasures. (4)

While A. J. Davis’s design differs from that of the Aurora house in numerous small details, it can he said with some certainty that the architect of The Manor had seen designs like it and had adapted them according to his own talents and the needs of his client, Dr. Walter Bayne Geike. Dr. Geike purchased land on Yonge Street North from Robert Penrose Irwin on January 14, 1861, and moved into his new house on November 26, 1862.(5) While the house was under construction, the doctor rented a frame cottage belonging to Charles Doan on the opposite side of Yonge Street, one block to the south.(6) From it, he must have had an excellent view of the builders’ progress.

1. See Marion Macrea and Anthony Adamson, The Ancestral Roof (Toronto and Vancouver: Clark Irwin and Company, 1963), pp. 174-179.
2. J. Stewart Johnson, Introduction to A. J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses (1850; rpt. New York: Dover, 1969), p. vii.
3. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses, pp. 275-276.
4. Ibid., p. 295.
5, Dates derived from photocopies of deeds and notes on Dr. Geikie’s diary in the possession of Miss E. Nora Hillary, Aurora.
6. Aurora Banner, Feb. 19, 1864.