Thursday, 20 September 2012

Living in Heritage

We are currently measuring and drawing plans for houses and outbuildings in Keels. Before setting out, Jerry talked a bit about the study of vernacular architecture. He described architecture as “fossilized thoughts”. I remember earlier this summer, walking around Montreal and thinking about all of the houses and apartment buildings in my neighbourhood. I was living in a working class neighbourhood, that I suppose was built up in the 1950s. There is a particular style of apartment building that is commonly nestled in amongst the brick duplexes, usually three story brick buildings that contain about six or seven apartments, all with matching balconies jutting out the fronts. Many of them have faded gold painted lettering over the entrance ways with grand building names like “Chateau Brebeuf” or “El Presidente”. Today the buildings are dirty and faded, but I imagine their beginnings as shiny and full of promise. Another style common in that neighbourhood was a one story brick house that was designed to have another story added above as the family established themselves and grew. I thought of these buildings as embodiments of hope, once fresh and new, ripe with possibility.

I think of the houses in Keels somewhat differently. Many of them go back to the beginning of the 20th century, but you'd never say it to look at them from outside. Clad in vinyl siding and mounted with satellite dishes, they live firmly in the present. And yet, when you examine them from the inside, you can see the traces of their former lives. They have sheltered families which expand and contract through generations, and are subdivided or opened up accordingly. Roofs are raised, bedrooms are joined, and extensions built. They contain many layers of fossilized thoughts. 

 A couple of the houses in Keels are designated heritage homes, adorned with a plaque to prove it. They are a reflection of a past aesthetic, one that recalls the “good old days” when everything was homey and “authentic”. As far as I know, these houses are owned exclusively by “summer people”, that is, the ones who don't require that their homes function in the same practical way that the permanent residents of the town prefer. They are full of antiques and old things, while the houses I've been in that are inhabited by year-round Keels residents are a mish mash of tastes, much more modern and clearly reflective of the lives that have most recently been lived within the walls. Photos of grandchildren, plaques with religious and sentimental phrases, and the occasional lewd joke.

William Wheeler House (Photo: Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland)

There is a sentimentality about Newfoundland, about the loss of a traditional way of life and a forced entry to the modern world. It is reflected in songs like “Saltwater Joys” by Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers. I don't believe it's a sentimentality that prevails over the lives of the people here. Sure, we all get nostalgic and misty eyed from time to time, but I think people here are inextricably linked to the past, to their family heritage, and they are unlikely to forget that. But they are mostly engaged with the business of the present, and with the constant desire to shape the world around them to suit their needs, just as their ancestors did. 

John Ducey's house, built 1901. (Photo: Erin Whitney)

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