2 - Georgian

While it has its share of sprawl and malls, Oakville, of course, is hardly the "pure" suburbia so despised by critics in the early post-war years.

The northern-most section, between the toll-road 407 and Highway 5, is slated for future development, but is presently rural. The most recently built-up part of town, south of Highway 5 down to the Queen Elizabeth Way, dates back only a few decades--and knows it. "I live on the wrong side of the QEW," said Doreen Blake, former owner of Oakville's only taxi service. "When I was growing up, the town was on the lake. Then when I was a teenager, my ex used to race stock cars at an airstrip on the North Service Road. That's what brought us to the wrong side of the QEW. Downtown is more the lifestyle I'd like to have. You would not expect any rowdiness. You would expect clean-cut businessmen in suits."

The southern tier of the town, the lakeshore below the Queen Elizabeth Way--what Ms. Blake would call the "right" side of the QEW--is in fact a mixed bag. West of Sixteen Mile Creek, a stark dividing line in Oakville's geographical vision of itself, lies the working-class district that sprang up after the Second World War, and especially after a huge Ford plant opened nearby in 1953. There one finds Kerr Street, the least self-conscious and toney thoroughfare in Oakville, and attractive for that reason alone.
The richest people in Oakville--commuters to Toronto, for the most part, who give the town its special air of anxious nouveau-riche conservatism--live east of the Creek, as close as possible to the shoreline Lake Ontario. As in Rio de Janeiro, but not Toronto, proximity to the water is an almost infallible guide to relative affluence. The very rich live closest to the shoreline, the less rich a little inland, and so on, up to the Queen Elizabeth Way, which is, to old Oakvillians, what the lagoon is to old Venetians I know: the boundary between civilization and absolute nothingness.

Toronto quickly abandoned the fine little Georgian town plan created by Col. John Graves Simcoe in the early 1790s. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the people who counted in the city had moved west, and especially north, in the direction of present-day Rosedale, leaving the original townsite to become a zone of warehouses and other port facilities and factories. Oakville, in contrast, never forsook the splendid grid that its founder, William Chisholm, drew upon the earth east and west of Sixteen Mile Creek in 1833. Nor has the town allowed its best, earliest houses to be utterly erased.

This architectural continuity is, in itself, remarkable. While the town has endured severe economic knocks, and, in more recent times, an influx of extravagant and ignorant new wealth, the plan and most excellent elevations of the old town have survived to bear eloquent witness to the Georgian culture from which early Oakville took its shape. And according to the Right Reverend Ralph Spence, bishop of the Anglican diocese that includes Oakville (the home-town of his wife), that culture has endured along with its visible manifestation in building. "Bishop Strachan is alive and well and planted in Oakville," Bishop Spence told me. "The war of 1812, the colonial highway, the Yankees over there on the other side of the water, the old palatial estates--That psyche is there."

I was introduced to that sturdy culture by its guardians in the Oakville Historical Society. My guides to the "high-street" stretch of Lakeshore Road, the old town's principal thoroughfare, were Harry Barrett, a former mayor, and Walter Jennings, a retired management consultant and architectural enthusiast. Among the few notable buildings on or near the main street, the former Murray House Hotel (before 1857) is perhaps the most typical of Oakville architecture and culture at its best: high-minded, serious, gracious in a thoroughly down-to-earth manner. The stone Granary from the 1850s, recently overhauled to provide office space, is another instance of Georgian no-nonsense, along with numerous small shops and such along Lakeshore Road.

Much good work has been demolished along the way. But few main-street survivors are remarkable. What has persisted, remarkably, is the integrity of the streetscape. While individual nineteenth-century buildings along Lakeshore have come and gone--victims of fire, dilapidation, demolition and sometimes hideous renovation--the visual sense of an English high street of late Georgian times is reasonably intact. The Victorian extravagance of, say, Queen Street West in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood is almost completely absent. The architectural messages given us by the low facades of downtown Oakville are Tory restraint, a certain reticence about consumerism, and the feel of good, useful things, like rope and bolts and saddles. (For readers not familiar with Oakville, I should add that this is all purely a matter of architectural effect. The reality, behind the Georgian shopfronts, is merely Affluent Suburbia Anywhere, including a couple of the most appallingly ritzy and pretentious pet boutiques I have ever seen.)

Later on the afternoon of the main-street walkabout, I was toured through the residential streets of oldest Oakville by George Chisholm, a former president of the Oakville Historical Society and a scion of the town's founding family.

Though he dutifully stuck to his notes during our delightful walk together, Mr. Chisholm belongs wholly to the place--at home and at peace in the civilized corner of the world known as Oakville, whose old homes are more like old friends to him than historic buildings. The dates of the best surviving structures--1835 for the plain, fine David Patterson House on Navy Street, to name one--are either very late Georgian or early Victorian. But all the finest ones, even those built far along in the Old Queen's reign, look back to an earlier ideal of unaffected classicism, of rational balance and plain service to the needs of ordinary people. While a few instances of extravagant and quite bad nineteenth-century taste (and more recent examples of gruesome architectural judgement) can be found in the old town, the characteristic aesthetic is simple and practical, and, one might even say, moral, if that word can still be used to indicate what's old and upbearing and good.

comment on this article      back      next article