An Inquiry for Readers: Does Your House have a Story?

First-time visitors often comment on the rich architectural heritage to be found in the Tantramar region. As a starting point, they may have been a guest at the Marshlands Inn, Sackville, the Gaspereau River Heritage Inn, Port Elgin, or perhaps enjoyed a meal at historic Bell Inn in Dorchester.

As they move about, they soon realize that these are but a fraction of our heritage in domestic architecture. Nor is this legacy confined to Sackville, Port Elgin or Dorchester. Scattered throughout the entire Tantramar countryside are numerous houses, both large and small, all bearing witness to a bygone age.

Unfortunately, there are no surviving examples of pre-1755 Acadian homes. The standing architectural history of the region begins with the New England Planters who migrated northward in the late 1750s and early 60s. Significantly, they brought with them years of experience in adapting buildings to North American conditions. Examples of 18th century Cape Cod style cottages may be found in many parts of the Maritimes. Are there any survivors in this region?

Simply defined, a Cape Cod is a single storey frame structure with pitched roof coming down to the first floor ceiling level. Three types may be found: the half house with two windows to the side of the door; the three quarter house having two windows to one side of the door and one on the other; and the full cape, usually one and a half stories high; with a centre door flanked by two windows on either side.

One variation found in parts of New Brunswick such as St. Andrews, is the salt box cape. When viewed from the front, it is a typical Cape Cod cottage; however, an extended rear roof line provides a distinctive appearance. It was so called because of a resemblance in shape to the old colonial salt boxes. Because of their energy efficiency and attractive appearance, Cape Cod style homes are still being built, more than two centuries following their introduction in the Maritimes.

The arrival of the Yorkshire and Loyalist settlers in the 1770s and 80s saw the introduction of the Georgian style, again with some variations. By the early 1800s the usual Georgian house consisted of two storeys, two rooms deep. The front door opening might be either square or round headed; the windows with heavy hung sashes usually held 24 panes of glass. The interior had a central hall plan, and doors and windows were made elegant with applied mouldings.

There are many local examples of this type of building. The two best known are: Rocklyn in Dorchester, once the home of Hon. Edward Barron Chandler (180080), a Father of Confederation; and Cranewood, official residence of the President of Mount Allison University.

In the 19th century a number of new architectural forms became common. This resulted largely from prosperity generated by shipbuilding and the fortunes made in overseas trading. Space will not permit discussing each of these in detail. In quick succession: Regency, Classic Revival, Gothic, Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival were among the styles introduced. Readers interested in pursuing details of these sometimes elaborate and decorative designs, are directed to a well illustrated Parks Canada pamphlet entitled: The Buildings Of Canada. It should be found in most public libraries.

In the Tantramar region, a number of Gothic and Queen Anne houses were built; however, some builders and contractors were not above borrowing details from other styles. Thus many local homes are a blend of several designs. For convenience, since this period coincided with the latter years of Queen Victorias long reign, these houses are often classified as Victorian, or sometimes High Victorian.

Victorian houses stand out in any streetscape or landscape. Pointed or arched windows, gingerbread trim, decorative barge boards and high steep roofs are important Gothic clues; while broad verandahs, offset round towers, and sheathing in varied patterns are characteristic of Queen Anne Revival houses. Some adaptations were overly ornate; however, these homes, often painted brown, grey, blue or moss green were high ceilinged and spacious qualities frequently lacking in modern construction.

More than architecture can set a house apart. Sometimes it is an association with a famous (or occasionally infamous) person born in the house or who once lived there. Tradition has it that Sir John A. Macdonald, Canadas first Prime Minister, slept one night at the Chandler mansion, Rocklyn, in Dorchester. Its a plausible story; but not one that I have been able to verify.

Equally interesting are houses that have a connection with the supernatural. Given the long recorded history of the Tantramar region, it is not unusual that several tales of haunted houses have come my way. One of these concerned a house with an unfortunate past. Because the story deals with a sensitive topic, I agreed not to reveal the identity of the various owners of this property or its location somewhere on the Tantramar. I can assure readers that the following tale was documented by a sheaf of property transfers, and buttressed with eyewitness accounts and data gleaned from the Canadian Heritage Information Network.

The house in question was built by one of the regions prominent master mariners. A wealthy individual, it was rumoured that not all his fortune was based on legitimate trade. The house had a curious outside door on one back corner. Always kept padlocked on the outside, it was never used, so far as anyone could tell. Following the sea captains death, it was revealed that the door opened into a secret stairway leading to the attic. Although the kitchen adjoined the passage, there was no connecting space or door. What was the mysterious stairway used for?

We now fast forward to the 1980s. By this time the property had changed hands several times. A son of the then owner was chatting with my e-mail correspondent, who had researched the property and uncovered the story behind the hidden staircase. The latter asked if the locked door was still there. He gave a puzzled look and replied in surprise, what door? The information mentioned above was then revealed. He replied that there was no longer a door on the back of the house. However, over the course of living there, he had been hearing strange noises steps going up and down the stairway to the attic. My informant then finished the story of the concealed staircase, telling him that the sea captain had been engaged in an illegal trade in slaves. The attic was used as a temporary holding cell, while his ships were at anchor nearby. So THATS it was the only reply! Shortly afterward the house burned to the ground.

Now back to the question behind this column: Does your house, or one you know, have a story to tell? What is the oldest house in the Tantramar region? Are there any nominations? Are there houses in your neighbourhood with important historical associations? Was your home once used for purposes other than living quarters? In remodelling, did you come across any interesting documents or curios? The space between walls has always been a traditional hiding place. Some 19th century homes in New Brunswick are noteworthy for walls bearing scenes or elaborate decorations painted directly on the plaster. Are there examples in this area?

Basic architectural details can be detected on the outside and these are an important part of any buildings story. In this inquiry I would like to hear from readers who are aware of older houses with architectural significance. In addition, I am also searching for tales from the inside of houses on the Tantramar with interesting and unusual stories behind them. These may be forwarded to me at the address provided below. There is one stipulation. I recognize that there are many distinctive homes in the region that were built during the 20th century. To limit the field, I would suggest the year 1901 as a cut-off date. More recent buildings will be explored in the future.

By now, most readers will know that I use the phrase Tantramar and Beyond to mean the provincial constituency called Tantramar. Thanks to the Internet, readers are not confined to this corner of New Brunswick. Because of this, respondents to the questions above, need not be local residents, so long as their stories are about the region or have some link with it. After more than three years writing Tantramar Flashbacks, I have been greatly encouraged by the widespread readership of the Trib and the keen interest in local history shown by its readers. I look forward to hearing from you.