To understand the architecture of Muskoka, you have to look at the broader social, economic, political and philosophical context of Ontario and the United States over time.
The guide book called “Well Preserved” by Mark Fram is a reference that is invaluable in understanding architectural style in Ontario. It has contributed immeasurably to my understanding and has provided the language to assist me to verbalize what my eyes have been collecting over the years.
Our Architect told me that whether a building is architecture depends not on the size or grandness, but it depends on how “considered” or planned it is in relationship to the natural environment, its intended use, and the quality of its execution.
Muskoka has, in its inventory of built heritage, an amazingly diverse collection of architecture.
Buildings can be categorized by style. Elements such as materials, colour, dimension, profile, massing, balance, proportion, and workmanship create an architectural character. When the features of a building add up to something that is distinct and recognizable, it is said to have a style and that style is often named. Crucial elements of a style are the windows, wood work and the materials of construction. Room sizes and ceiling heights usually transcend style and share commonality with other structures built in the same era. Technological developments provided greater structural freedom, so ceiling heights became higher, making homes/cottages taller, as the century progressed.
In an architectural style you should be able to recognize a visual order and see symbols. Architecture, however, is more than just a style. Architecture is created, design by design, with a set of beliefs and cultural philosophies in mind. These can either be derived from the architect, if given a free hand to design, or from the client through the choices, dreams and philosophies articulated to the architect.
Native vernacular structures were the first of our built heritage in Muskoka. The “consideration” through relationship to the natural environment and effectiveness for purpose is readily apparent in these early structures. Style was also distinct among geographic areas. As the natives of Muskoka developed more stable settlements they created semi permanent buildings such as the longhouse. These were usually sited northwest by southeast so that the end of the building faced the prevailing winds. They had hearths in the centre and were well insulated against the cold. At Saint Marie among the Hurons there are prized examples of both longhouses and wigwams. Wigwams were more easily transportable, being a frame of saplings poked into the ground and lashed together at the top.
The outer covering was sheets of bark or reeds. When wigwams were moved, the outer coverings were taken, but the poles were left because trees were plentiful and the poles would be ready when they returned to the area or would serve as a gift to a traveler.
The ingenuity of these, among other styles of native structures, has long been inspiration for architectural innovation. They quickly spread by necessity through Upper Canada in 1784.
Other than the fur traders, the United Empire Loyalists were the first Europeans to after the American Revolution, for political and defensive reasons. They were followed by many more British and American immigrants.
The original buildings of the Europeans were crude, fulfilling not much more than the purpose of shelter. It was not until the first wave of prosperity, associated with the export of timber around the 1820’s, that there were sufficient funds for those who immigrated to Ontario to be able to express themselves through the architecture of their homes. As they became more prosperous they chose designs that reflected that prosperity. Being predominantly Loyalists, they expressed their ties to England through the styles they chose to build, which were usually Georgian.
Differentiation among English based styles related to the building materials available in each area of Ontario. In Eastern Ontario stone was readily available, while in the Toronto area the deeply hued clay produced red brick structures. In Muskoka, lumber was the building material in ready supply, and lumber continues to be the building material of choice even today.
In Muskoka, built heritage was created not only by settlers, but also by the hunting and fishing parties, some of whom chose to build permanent buildings to shelter them when they returned year after year for the summer. In the mid 1890’s the opening of both the railway and the steamship lines facilitated a well heeled group of people, who had their permanent homes in a city, to build elaborate summer homes on the lakes.
Availability of improved transportation also affected the styles and materials of homes being constructed, as new materials and new ideas were used, reflecting the backgrounds and experiences of the new population to an area.
Building styles were influenced by the area which the owner called home, especially on the lakes, as the Architect was usually from the owner’s home town. Many of the early architects never even saw the site that they were designing for. Their clients would put their mark on Muskoka by designing a cottage which represented their heritage and their economic status, using mostly materials indigenous to the area, supplemented by materials of choice shipped in by rail. If you go to Pittsburgh you will see home styles that reflect what we are used to seeing throughout Beaumaris. In the early 1900’s cottages that were done in historical revival styles represented tradition, stability and safety by their references to the past.
Does the current penchant for designing cottages to mimic the “old Muskoka” style represents a desire to return to simpler times and to have a haven in which the family can escape the harsh realities of the global political situation? Lively dinner conversation could take place around the symbols and references inherent in each person’s architectural preferences. What does your chosen style of home or cottage reveal about you? What symbols are inherent in your building?