The Canadian Bureau of Agriculture established in 1852 heralded the beginning of the dairy industry in the Province of Canada. Immigrant farmers who had cleared the land, changed from the production of wheat for their daily bread, to butter and cheese to spread on that bread. An age of prosperity dawned for the farming profession.
Modest, picturesque brick or stone farmhouses in southwestern Ontario began to take the place of log shanties and frame houses. One of the enterprising builders who met the demand for this new housing was a stonemason named John Thompson Crellin (1837-1922) an immigrant from England. In Oxford County evidence of the new fashion for good farm housing beautifying the countryside is demonstrated by Crellin’s twelve custom built farmhouses.
Crellin built for famers in the area between Woodstock and London, Ontario from 1870 to 1891. He used the colourful stones from the farmers’ fields where he was building. It probably took Crellin and his crew of about a dozen men from early spring to late fall to complete the stonemasonry on a single farmhouse. On the farms where he was building the farmers’ heroic wives and daughters prepared meals every day for Crellin and his workers.
Along with being an exacting stonemason, Crellin was a skilled carpenter who constructed all the woodwork for his houses. This included decorative bargeboards for the roof gables as well as interior components such as spindles for staircases. For his own stone house, he crafted a built-in china cabinet and a roll-top desk with a glass-fronted bookcase and made games and toys for his eight children. It seems that there was nothing that Crellin couldn’t create and he achieved it all without electricity.
Crellin’s trademark as a mason was Aberdeen Bond, a stone pattern which originated in Scotland. His use of Aberdeen Bond emphasises the colour and the natural cleavage of stone that gives his houses an overall rocky aesthetic that signals his distinctive style to passers-by. He began at each corner of the house front with a squared block or quoin of St Marys white limestone. Immediately adjacent to each quoin he stacked three small squared “snecks” of black basalt over pink granite over black basalt. The stack of snecks is followed by a single large block of rough stone, followed by three snecks, and so on across the house front. Aberdeen Bond was used by other stonemasons in Ontario, but none used a regularized colour pattern. Crellin’s farmhouses give the impression of a definite overall design that from a distance looks like the weave of a textile or a pattern in tile.
Despite the remoteness of Crellin’s twelve stone farmhouses, they may be linked to ideas about the aesthetic properties of stone described by the British author John Ruskin (1819-1900). Crellin is an outstanding example of a builder who implemented Ruskin’s dictum that “the only true colours in architecture are those of natural stone.” Notable instances of nineteenth-century architects whose buildings rely on the natural colour of materials are William Butterfield (1814-1900) in England, who used coloured brick in patterns, and H. H. Richardson (1838-1886) in the United States who experimented with patterns created by different coloured stones. This colour patterning is what makes nineteenth-century architecture distinctive. Crellin, Butterfield and Richardson exemplify the Ruskin-inspired vision of colour. Ruskin also valued the use of rough quarry-faced stone, writing “it is wiser to make the design granitic itself, and to leave the blocks rudely squared.” Some instances of the rough quarry-faced stone in common with Crellin’s farmhouses that can be found across Canada include the Amherst Post Office in Amherst, Nova Scotia; Windsor Station in Montreal; the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa; the Ontario Legislature in Toronto; St Andrew’s United Church in Moose Jaw; the Court House in Cardston Alberta; and Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria.
A likely starting point for the overall design of Crellin’s farmhouses were architectural plans published in The Canada Farmer. It was printed bi-weekly by the Toronto-based Globe newspaper beween1864 and 1876. The plans, were produced by the prominent Scottish-born Toronto architect James Avon Smith (1832-1918). The designs and the accompanying articles written by Smith discussed the construction of picturesque farmhouses that would contribute to beautifying the countryside. His articles reveal that he was reading Ruskin and American house-pattern books. In several of his pieces Smith talked about the use of stone, saying that it is the most beautiful and longest lasting of all building materials. His thoughtful and versatile designs were aimed at farmers, but contractors used them too when building homes in towns and cities across southern Ontario. Smith’s architectural plans were so popular with builders that when their newspaper designs fell apart from overuse, they asked the Globe to reprint them.
In addition to ideas from American pattern books, the facades of Smith’s designs included Ruskin-inspired details such as Gothic pointed windows that were out of date when Crellin began building. This is apparent with his incorporation of the new French Second Empire windows characterized by round arches. Crellin used those windows along with rectangular “two over two” windows until his last two farmhouses in 1891 where he introduced the flattened round arch (segmental arch) and the “one over one” window. Progress during the Industrial Revolution meant that sheets of window glass became larger so that Crellin’s two over two windows became one over one as the century advanced.
Although Crellin left no written records, there exists a substantial amount of information about one of his farmhouses that he built in 1891. This house is of special interest because the owner, David Lawrence (1849-1915), was a farmer who spent one year working in an architect’s office in Scotland before immigrating to Canada. He wrote an article titled “How the New House was Built” published in the New York-based farm journal named the American Agriculturist in July 1894. In the article Lawrence discusses his ideas on building with stone and includes photographs of his house during and after its construction. That article went global and was published in the Australian newspaper The Sydney Mail in October, 1894. Crellin’s unique Aberdeen Bond stonemasonry travelled to the other side of the world and had its moment of international fame.
Nineteenth-century houses were built to last for centuries and each owner is the custodian of their house. The Canada Farmer and the host of nineteenth-century American house-pattern books now available online, may be searched by readers who own nineteenth-century houses to find their house design.
Karen Armstrong may be reached at email@example.com
Permission has been given to publish this condensed version of the author’s article that appeared in the Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada in 2018.
Karen Armstrong is a graduate of the School of Fashion at Ryerson Institute of Technology (Ryerson University). An Independent scholar, her interests are centred on Nineteenth-Century buildings in Ontario