My Canada, 120/150: Ontario Cottage country

In my life, I’ve owned two cottages. Not the kinds with a dock along a lake. These were Ontario Cottages, a form of house design that grew into a unique style in Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Academic Lynne diStefano is among the foremost experts on Ontario Cottages in the world. She taught at Western University in London, Ontario and was a curator at what’s now called Museum London before moving to the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong in 2000.

While the cottages, from the outside, can look small, photographer Steven Evans, who documented the houses for an exhibition curated by DiStefano, said he was “always overwhelmed by the proportions inside. They’re very deceptive.” DiStefano calls the design “among the most successful” of any dwelling found in these parts.

The style was imported by 19-century British migrants but, in time, developed a uniquely Ontario look. Those late 18th-century cottages found in Britain are usually flush with the ground, sometimes made of stone, and have no porch.

In the original template, there’s a central hall, off which the rooms open: usually two to the left, and two to the right. Sometimes, there will then be a room at back, into which the hall empties.

In Ontario, these cottages were built mostly of wood or brick and expanded to include ones where two, and occasionally even three, windows bracket either side of the front door. All have hip (four-sided) roofs.

120 Regency
My second “cottage”, from Stratford, Ontario: An early version of an Ontario Cottage, known as a Regency Cottage, where the four-sided roof has a flattened section on top. Painting by Edward (Teddy) Payne.

The earliest versions, built from 1820 to 1870, are known as “Regency Cottages” and often have larger windows and a window transom over the main door. The roof does not come to a peak but has a flat section at top, sometimes set off with iron cresting.

In large lots, the cottages were mostly rectangular, the long side facing front. In cities, the design became square to accommodate narrower lots. The Ontario Cottage evolved from the Regency to have a peak over the front door and a meet-at-a-point four-sided roof, which handled snow accumulation much better than the Regency roof.

The most noteworthy clusters of these cottages in Ontario are in London, Port Hope and Brantford, although they’re found as far east as Kingston and as far west as the Lake Huron shore.

As early as the 1830s, British settlers, overheated by Ontario’s feverish summers, started adding verandahs that extended the width of the cottage and sometimes wrapped it on three sides. Verandahs — essentially a roofed, but not walled, outer porch space — were popular in the 19th century in India and Portugal, DiStefano says, and the design likely found its way here via Brits who had been in India.

The earliest verandahs had no railings, DiStefano says. The column supports were lined with trellises, which supported summer climbing plants that helped to keep the house shaded and cool. In the winter, with no plants and lower sun angles, rooms would get some natural light and heat.

Ontario cottages like my first home in London, Ontario, built in the first decade of the 20th century, are knock-offs of the original design.

120 cottage interior
Standing in the kitchen doorway, looking to the front door and the centre hall, in an Ontario Cottage: living room and dining room to the right, two bedrooms to the left, with kitchen and bath behind. Photo: John Lederman.

While the original Ontario Cottage plan is symmetrical — a balance inherited from its Georgian architecture roots — some cottage layouts are off centre: Looking at the home I owned in London from the street, the door, which should be smack in the middle, is skewed to the right. That’s because, inside, the living room to the left of the centre hallway is about three feet wider than the bedroom/library/office opening off that hall, to the right.

“We call them adjustments,” DiStefano says, as the basic cottage design was squeezed into available space and altered by generations of builders.

Most of the cottages considered the best examples of the style are clad in brick or painstakingly preserved wood siding. Over the years, though, many cottages were covered with either insul-brick or aluminum siding. Modern safety regulations have led cottage owners to add railings between the verandah support posts.

After the First World War, the Ontario cottage design fell from favour, replaced by bungalows with gable (two-faced) roofs. Ceilings dropped lower, although a centre-hall layout was still popular.

Ontario Cottage design, Distefano says, “is as intuitively simple as a child’s crayon sketch of a house — a symmetrical, single-storey hip-roofed building with a door placed squarely in the centre and a window placed on either side of the doorway.”

When I first bought my house in London, Ontario, a young relative drew a picture of it for me and intuitively corrected its “adjustments”. She got the Laura Secord mint-green aluminum siding right but drew the door square in the middle, flanked symmetrically by the two windows.

That child, like many of us, tapped into her Platonic ideal of “house” and came up with a perfectly balanced Ontario Cottage.

Main photo of the “adjusted” Ontario Cottage in London, Ontario: John Lederman.

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