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The winter closet - a Canadian adaptation

By Charles Beale, For Northumberland Today

A practical and unique architectural feature that graced some Canadian homes in early Upper Canada remains to this day. Known in the vernacular as the winter closet, the structure was used primarily to keep the harsh winter at bay from the front door, especially when most early houses did not have central heating. As many homes were built with direct entry into the main hall, nothing was worse than stepping in from piles of snow into the entry in the days when guests were received most often at the front door.

As far back as the Troglodyte era thousands of years ago, reed-matted 'porches' were added to the south side of caves to protect them from the burning sun of summer. However, the concept of the winter closet was developed in more modern times, perhaps with the introduction of the porte cochere for visitors who would arrive by horse and buggy. The porte cochere allowed those getting out of their carriage some coverage from the elements of the season while protecting their dress attire. This entryway was not meant as a parking spot like today's carport, but defined the term that we know today as a 'drive-through.' At the base of the porte cochere were often guard stones to prevent carriage wheels from damaging the wall. The Chateau Laurier in Ottawa is a fine example of this structure.

So, you know a winter closet is not a porte cochere or even porch, per se and it is also not a portico, from the Latin 'porticus' meaning entryway. Known as a coach gate or carriage porch in modern times, the portico is a point of entry still in use at major public buildings, hotels and embassies.

While we have often see in Canada the adaptation from a full verandah to an enclosed porch with screens for summer, the winter closet is a much more confined unit - a bump or glass vestibule, if you like, attached to the front of some homes. Quite a few houses along Lake Ontario sported belvederes atop their roofs that are akin to the winter closet structure. The familiar roof cupola allowed people to watch for the coming and goings of ships in and out of harbour; the lady of the house could espy her sailor or captain on his return.

Winter closets are bigger than a sentry box, but smaller than an enclosed glassed-in porch and many of the homes which added a winter closet in the early days were smaller, simpler and often constructed of wood. And while the design was often plain, the detailing was not necessarily so.

One such local winter closet has married brick with wood handsomely. The Brand farmhouse on Lakeshore Road, circa 1860, has a winter closet built in what is referred to as carpenter's gothic - simple but effective in its statement. The arched glass frame fenestration is constructed under the eaves of the larger main porch that abutt plain pillars set against the brick. The overall affect is quiet elegance.

Another fine example is found at 15 King St., also in Port Hope. Similar in simplicity to Brand House, yet less classical in design, the King Street add-on was also built under the eaves of a full verandah. This particular winter closet is partially shaded by wide scalloped facer boarding. Simple French-style double doors lead us into this inviting entrance.

To counter the fact that the winter closet when added would shade the front entrance, the design often included glass panels on three sides, a glass insert in the outer door and perhaps an overhead transom and sidelight panels of glass. None of this 'lightening up' was possible until the mid-1800s when larger pieces of glass were invented and used in a variety of ways. That is why the winter closet dates from that period forward. In fact, some of these front 'bumps' had quite intricate stained or etched glass. Commonly, solid blue and or red glass panels were used along the periphery of the roof line which added colour and also refracted the sun in summer when the winter closet could be used as a solarium for hearty plants.

Although you wouldn't know it today, another fine example of the marriage of a brick and wood in a winter closet is found on the E. Francis Burnet Junior House at 163 Ontario St. in Cobourg. It was one of four houses built by the Burnet brothers as residences for themselves on that street. In an early photo dated 1832, the wooden winter closet was already attached. This Burnet house also has details surrounding the winter closet reminiscent of the portico at Victoria Hall and not surprisingly was built by two of the brothers, David and William Burnet. The arched surround at 163 Ontario Street has gothic sidelights and a semi-lune transom supported by large square pillars against a six-paneled entry door. Below the winter porch roof line is a detailed frieze banding. Over time the brick has been painted white and the side windows altered to create a more unified appearance.

Another good illustration of the winter closet style is found at 165 Chapel St. in Cobourg. It may appear as a plain example built of wood, but on closer inspection you would be wrong. Quite possibly the exterior door was once an interior one and the glass panel fenestration surround was made to match it. Reeded pillar-like trim adorn the edges. A dentil molding wraps around the cornice with additional droplet finials at each corner. An iron cresting above a cedar-shake mansard-style roof completes the pleasing composition.

One of the finest winter closets I have seen is on Thornton House at 3 King St. West, Colborne, previously seen in this column. Again, we see a wooden structure attached to the main house but in this case, it blends wood against wood smoothly. A gently sloping roof leads to a dentil banding at the roofline with the addition of ornate bracketry on the corners. Thornton House has double French-style entry doors matching the glass panel fenestration. Its crowning glory is the unusual upper Palladian window.

I challenge Northumberland Today readers in 2015, and only when the weather is warmer, to count the number of winter closets they can find. You'll be surprised by the number and variety.

Charles Beale is a former educator, historian, freelance writer and author of Manly E. MacDonald - Interpreter of Old Ontario. For more information visit his website, www.charlesbeale.ca.


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