» “A Cheap Farmhouse”, c. 1864 onwards (2023)

“A Cheap Farm House”, near Markdale, Ontario (photo: Peter Coffman, 2021)

As you walk through any city in Ontario, Canada, or drive along any of its country roads, if you look closely at the old houses, you will notice that many of them bear a striking resemblance to one another. This is no accident. In the 19th century, asdevelopment of settlersexpanded throughout the territory, architectural plans were distributed in print to prospective owners. The aim of the published designs was that anyone could build a comfortable and attractive home with local materials, even in remote locations beyond the reach of trained architects. Although labeled a farmhouse, the design of “A Cheap Farm House” has become popular both in the countryside and in the city.

the canadian farmer

Elevation, "A Cheap Farmhouse",the canadian farmer1.22, November 15, 1864, p. 340 (Canadian)

The house pictured above is the result of a project published inthe canadian farmerin November 1864 called “A Cheap Farm House”. [1]Founded that same year by George Brown, owner and editor of Globo, the fortnightly periodical was dedicated to agricultural interests. The publication was founded on the belief that Canada's future prosperity was inextricably linkedto its agriculture, part of the broader colonial-colonial project extended to the construction and appearance of rural houses. [two]

“Architecture is perhaps a complementary word when used in reference to most of the structures that have been erected on farms across Canada,” he wrote.the canadian farmere ffor this reason, the periodical intended to “do something to improve the style of rural architecture in Canada”. [3]The aimsOcanada farmerThe aim of the editors and authors was to spread what they considered good taste and architectural ideals to those who lived in rural areas, out of reach of architects, who lived and worked mainly in big cities.Since its first issue, the magazine has featured a series on rural architecture that has included general advice but, more importantly, architectural drawings, cost estimates and building instructions to help the average person build a home. The “Cheap Farm House” elevation we see here was attractive, but also simple enough to be easily achievable without an architect.

Model “A cheap farmhouse”

The drawings of the various houses printed on the pages of thethe canadian farmerwere created by James Avon Smith,a Toronto-based budding architect who would go on to have a prolific career.Although several models in different styles were published, “A Cheap Farm House” was one of the most popular. Its simple form was easy to recreate and modify, even in the absence of an architect. He used the most basic form of a building, using simple techniques based on the vernacular – that is, local knowledge and traditions – so that any builder could execute this project.

Plano, “A Cheap Farmhouse”,the canadian farmer1.22, November 15, 1864, p. 341 (Canadian)

Built on a simple rectangular plan, the house is two stories tall. The façade is defined by a roof with a steep slope and a central window, framed by agable. There is also a windowless cellar, intended for food storage. The interior layout is divided in a simple and symmetrical way with a central corridor and staircase. Each room is accessible from this central hallway. The kitchen at the back of the house was considered optional, or at least its construction could be postponed to make the initial cost of the house more affordable. Kitchens did not play the same essential role in the home as they do today. They were often placed in outbuildings to reduce the risk of fire, to moderate heat in summer, and to keep unpleasant food odors away from the main house. Likewise, without indoor plumbing and sewer infrastructure, until the turn of the century (and sometimes even later) homes like this would have had an outhouse instead of a toilet.

220 Center Street North, Whitby, ON (foto: Jessica Mace)

The instructions stated that this model could be built in brick or wood, depending on locally available materials and the future owner's budget. The project was even more customizable with the option of a balcony, shutters and picket fence.

29 Guelph Street, Georgetown, ON (foto: Jessica Mace)

Window and porch detail, 81 Main Street, Unionville, ON (photo: Jessica Mace)

In addition to these modifications described in the design brief, in practice the pointed (or Gothic) window used in the central gable was often converted to a round or square window. Similar liberties were taken with wood.barge boardefinish, which could be further embellished or omitted entirely. Overall, the cost of the model shown on the pages of thethe canadian farmerit was estimated at $600 to $800 if it were made of wood.[4] That equals about $10,500 to $14,000 CAD today.

Print media and the built environment

From the late 18th century onwards, the tiny house became a matter of direct architectural concern in industrialized nations, including the British colonies that later came to be known as Canada.With the rise ofIndustrial Revolutionsocial structures have changed dramatically, demanding more variety in domestic architecture and, in particular, smaller, more affordable housing. It also made building materials more accessible and easier to transport. Also at this time, printing technology and distribution made it easier and more accessible to print and circulate publications of all kinds. Both of these important social and economic factors have changed the architectural industry in practice and in print.

British culture had considerable cultural and political influence on Canada throughout the 19th century. British architects had already turned their attention to the country house, providing detailed advice, plans and cost analysis, speaking directly to the growing middle class. Publications calledpattern bookswere started by the Scottish landscape artist John Claudius Loudon in 1832 withAn encyclopedia of country house, farmhouse and villa architecture and furnishings. The format has become a popular and accessible way to spread architectural knowledge and taste. Likewise, at this time, architecture periodicals were created that gave advice to architects, builders and traders, but also to ordinary people with an interest in architecture. As with model books, they also occasionally offered models for small houses. Examples include the influential British periodicalsThe builder(est. 1843)eThe building news(est. 1854), which were distributed to the British colonies, including the territory now known as Ontario.

Why gothic?

The prominent pointed window and the wooden board inO canada farmerdesign connects this small house to theGothic Revivaltrend. This was one of the most popular architectural movements of the 19th century, spreading like wildfire, in particular in the English-speaking world. First appearing in England in the early 18th century, Gothic Revival architects looked tomedieval gothic architecturefor inspiration.

» “A Cheap Farmhouse”, c. 1864 onwards (7)

The Center Block, Canadian Parliament building, with the Peace Tower in front,1859–66,Ottawa, Southern Ontario (photo: Saffron Blaze, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The popularity of Gothic architecture would inevitably impact Canadian popular taste, but also because most of the colony's early architects were educated in England. As in England, Gothic was mainly used in church architecture and prominent secular buildings such as the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

As time went on, the Gothic style was also used in smaller, less architecturally significant buildings.This is because in the 19th century Gothic was believed to be the most adaptable of architectural styles. Understood then as a counterpoint to classical architecture, Gothic was seen as having less precise rules. For example, oneclassical doric templemust follow exact plans, geometry and measurements. Architects and patrons found classical design more difficult to translate into different contexts without careful consideration. On the other hand, Gothic could be communicated with just a steep roof and a few simple ornamental details (the pointed window, the board or finial). And so, the Gothic Revival provided a path towards an elegant and affordable statement for small houses, and one that was well suited, due to its steep roof, to avoid heavy snowfall. These are some of the reasons why these minimal Gothic designs became popular in Ontario.

36–40 Amelia Street, Toronto, ON (foto: Jessica Mace)

a versatile model

54 Spruce Street, Toronto, ON (foto: Jessica Mace)

The gothic design of “A Cheap Farm House” was not just popular in rural areas – we also find many examples of this model and related models in towns and cities across the province. This was particularly the case for those who built in bulk or speculatively to sell. There are many such houses, even in Toronto, Ontario's largest city.

“A Cheap Farmhouse” andthe canadian farmeracted as a common thread in the architectural fabric of the province, speaking to a moment in time and a desire for style and comfort. This modest house is part of an important network of architectural ideas in Canada and other countries, demonstrating that the trajectory of architectural knowledge in the 19th century was not always simple.

Next time you're wandering around, take a look at the old houses. There is much more behind its design than meets the eye.


[1]“Rural Architecture,”the canadian farmer1.22, November 15, 1864, p. 340.

[2]“To the farmers of Canada!”the canadian farmer1.1, January 15, 1864, p. 8.

[3]“Canadian Farm Architecture,”the canadian farmer1.1, January 15, 1864, p. 7.

[4]“Rural Architecture,”the canadian farmer1.22, November 15, 1864, p. 340.

This essay is brought to you through a partnership with Open Art Histories.

additional resources

James Avon Smith.

An encyclopedia of country house, farmhouse and villa architecture and furnishings.

Jessica Mace,Beautifying the Countryside: Rural Gothic and Vernacular in Late 19th Century Ontario,Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture of Canada38, no. 1 (2013): pp.

Jessica Mace, "The Evolution of Toronto's Bay-and-Gable Home",an ornament(Spring-Summer 2021): pp.


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