Historic buildings are omnipresent throughout Canada, but many people may not know the meaning they hold. These buildings are windows into historic events, Canada’s ties with other countries and past artistic movements. This article explores some of Canada’s most prominent architectural styles, their defining features and how they came to be. The architectural styles discussed below were chosen for their popularity across the country, leaving out some important styles like the buildings of New France in Québec or Prairie-style buildings in Western Canada, but will provide readers with insight into easily recognizable architectural styles that are encountered in most Canadian towns and cities.
It must first be acknowledged that the following architectural styles reflect Western culture and sit on stolen Indigenous land. Additionally, with the use of Black and Indigenous slaves, it is important to remember that many buildings in the architectural styles outlined below in Canada and the United States were built using slave labour. Bearing this in mind, the architectural styles outlined below can be appreciated as long as Canada’s colonial history is not forgotten.
Early 1700s – 1830s: Georgian
Before the 1700s, Canada was known as New France and was primarily occupied by the French. Over time, British influence in the area increased. Waves of British immigrants came over to Canada with the founding of Halifax in 1749, Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War in 1763 (thus giving them control of the colonies), and the arrival of the Loyalists after the American Revolutionary War. Therefore, Georgian is the first prominent European architectural style seen across several provinces outside of Québec.
Georgian is a blanket term for the styles of architecture that were popular from the rise of King George I of Britain in 1714 to the death of King George IV in 1830. Georgian styles are simple yet stately, defined by symmetry and influenced by the architecture of ancient Rome. The popularity of this style rose in Canada thanks to British immigrants as well as Loyalists who fled from the United States.
The typical Georgian house has a box-like shape and features a five-bay front, meaning that there are five columns of windows down the front of the house with the front door in the middle. This allows lots of sunlight to enter the house, in contrast to post-medieval architecture, which preceded Georgian styles. The windows have many small windowpanes, such as 12 over 12 (12 panes in the top sash and 12 in the bottom) or 9 over 9, because at the time it was expensive to produce large panes of glass. Georgian homes often don’t have much ornamentation, though they typically have details such as columns, a pediment and a fanlight or transom window over the front door.
The Grange (1817) is a Georgian house in Toronto that is now part of the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Image Source: ERA)
A Georgian house (c. 1833) with a five-bay front, columned entrance, and 12 over 12 windows in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
1820s – 1840s: Greek Revival
In the early 1800s, North America saw a shift toward architecture based on Greek temples from the fifth century BC, which came to be known as the Greek Revival style. This interest in Greek architecture arose due to archaeological endeavors in Athens in the mid-1700s that uncovered ancient Greek structures, including temples. This led to an increased public interest in ancient Greece and the widespread circulation of images of major Greek temples and art. The British architect James Stuart helped popularize the style through his 1762 book, Antiquities of Athens, which detailed the beauty of the architecture he saw on his trip to Greece. Architectural pattern books also helped the style reach many architects, contributing to its popularity. John Ostell, a major Montreal architect in the early 1800s, helped bring the Greek revival style to Canada.
Greek Revival buildings replicate the look of ancient Greek temples through features such as columns, pediments, pilasters, porticoes, and white paint to emulate marble. Greek Revival homes most often have 6 over 6 windows.
The Redpath Museum in Montreal (1882) is a late example of Greek Revival. (Image Source: Montreal Museums)
The Charles Connell house (c. 1839) in Woodstock, New Brunswick. (Image Source: Maritime Mac)
1840s – 1880s: Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire
The Gothic Revival style, which began appearing in North America around 1840, was a stark departure from the symmetry, box-like shapes and simple elegance of the Georgian and Greek Revival styles. Inspired by medieval Gothic architecture, which was most popular between 1140 and 1520, Gothic Revival is defined by whimsical, irregular structures and intricate ornamentation.
The shift toward Gothic Revival was inspired by Romanticism, an intellectual and artistic movement spanning the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. Romanticism stood for imagination over reason; individual thought and strong emotional experiences were the foundation of the movement, with emphasis on emotions evoked by the greatness of nature. With Romanticism came an increased interest in the intricacies of medieval architecture, such as its elaborate churches and stained glass windows, which was the spark for the Gothic Revival era.
Important features of Gothic Revival include an irregular shape with vertical emphasis, detailed woodwork (particularly along the roofline), pointed arches on windows and doors, the use of a variety of materials, bold colours, and lots of decoration.
Elizabeth Cottage (1843) in Kingston, Ontario is a stunning example of Gothic Revival. (Image Source: Pinterest)
It was believed that Gothic Revival’s irregular form fit well into natural landscapes, making it a popular choice for rural and country homes. Therefore, a simple Gothic Revival-style cottage evolved for small towns and rural settings, which contained a single steeply pitched, front-facing gable (roofline) with elaborate woodwork. The woodwork along the roofline gave these houses the nickname of “gingerbread” cottages. These cottages were also popular because property taxes used to be based on how many storeys a home had, and by having only one and a half storeys, these homes came with reduced taxes.
A Gothic Revival “gingerbread cottage” in Ontario. Houses in this style are very common in rural Canada or small town settings. (Image Source: Urbaneer)
Gothic architecture is also closely tied with Canada’s Christian religious buildings. The first significant Gothic church built in Canada was Notre-Dame in Montreal, opened in 1829, which was designed to be grander than any other church in North America. This led to a wave of Gothic-style churches being constructed throughout Québec, followed by the Maritimes, as these regions were experiencing the most rapid growth in Canada at the time. Gothic Revival churches began to appear in Ontario throughout the 1830s and 40s, though they were initially much more quaint since Ontario had a smaller population and did not become grandiose until the late 1800s. Due to the population growth during the Gothic Revival era, many churches were built during this time, so most historic towns in Canada have at least one Gothic-style church.
Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, Québec (completed 1829; left) and Trinity Church in Saint John, New Brunswick (completed 1879; right) were the first Gothic churches to appear in their respective regions of Canada. (Image Sources: The Canadian Encyclopedia, Uptown Saint John, respectively)
Another style that grew in popularity starting in 1840 is Italianate. As its name suggests, this style is influenced by Renaissance-era Italian palaces and Tuscan farmhouses. Like Gothic Revival, Italianate was part of the Romantic movement that aimed to shift away from the severe classical features of Georgian and Greek Revival. Italianate was suitable for different budgets because it allowed many possible variations in building materials and the degree of ornamentation.
The style was further popularized by Osborne House, Queen’s Victoria’s vacation home. Since it was partially inspired by countryside homes, Italianate is another style that is popular in rural areas since it blends well with the natural landscape. Key features of Italianate buildings include a tall structure, overhanging eaves with decorative brackets, tall windows with intricate trim, entry porches, bay windows, towers, and belvederes. Many of these features, including the brackets and window trim, were enabled by advances in cast-iron production.
Castle Kilbride (1877) in Wilmot, Ontario is a great example of high-style Italianate architecture. (Image Source: Explore Waterloo Region)
Carr House (1863) is the childhood home of Canadian painter Emily Carr, located in Victoria, British Columbia. (Image Source: Visitor in Victoria)
The Second Empire style, which was popular between the 1850s and 1880s, shares many similarities with Italianate: overhanging eaves, decorative brackets, intricate window and door trim, and bay windows. However, while Italianate draws influence from Renaissance Italy, Second Empire developed in France under the reign of Napoleon III. Second Empire’s primary defining feature is its Mansard roof — a roof that comes down vertically on all four sides, allowing the construction of another floor or a spacious attic inside the roof space. The Mansard roof typically contains window dormers and may have decorative elements such as patterned shingles and wrought-iron railings on top. Additionally, the Mansard roof is useful for extending the height of a building without using more expensive masonry.
A very elaborate Mansard roof in Kingston, Ontario. (Image Source: Pinterest)
A row of Second Empire townhouses in St. John’s, Newfoundland. (Image Source: The Toronto Star)
Montreal City Hall (1878) is another example of Second Empire architecture. (Image Source: CBC News)
1880s – 1930s: Queen Anne, Craftsman, and Tudor Revival
From 1880 to 1910, an architectural style emerged that pushed Victorian ornamentation – from woodwork to stained glass – to extremes: Queen Anne. Ironically, the original Queen Anne architecture that emerged in Britain during Anne Stuart’s reign (1702-1714) was similar to Georgian in its simplicity and symmetry, but when the style was revived in North America in the 1880s, it was combined with elements of medieval architecture from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, resulting in its grandiose form.
Queen Anne homes feature highly irregular and asymmetrical floor plans, including elements such as towers, turrets, bay windows, and oriel windows. They typically include large porches that wrap around the front and side of the house. The houses can be made of wood, stone, or brick, include patterns in the masonry whenever possible and often combine various building materials. It was popular to build Queen Anne houses out of wood so that they could be painted in a variety of bright colours, earning them the nickname “painted ladies”. These houses also include lots of stained glass and intricate woodwork at every opportunity, particularly spindlework – three-dimensional woodwork typically found on porches.
Thanks to technological advances in mass production and railway transportation, it was easier to create spindlework and distribute it. This made Queen Anne the hallmark style of the upper class as it provided an opportunity to showcase their wealth; however, more modest versions of Queen Anne homes built by middle-class citizens also exist.
The Shand House Museum (1891) in Windsor, Nova Scotia is a great example of Queen Anne architecture. (Image Source: Shand House Museum)
Dalnavert Museum (1895) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (Image Source: Wikipedia)
At the turn of the century, however, there was a shift away from the opulence and excess of Queen Anne-style buildings. The population wanted a return to simple, handmade craftsmanship after years of mass-produced extravagance in the Queen Anne era. Thus began the rise of the Craftsman style, which emphasized quality and local sourcing of materials. This style goes back to basics with features such as large, covered front porches supported by columns, low-pitched roofs with exposed rafters, and earthy colour palettes. Most Craftsman homes are one or one and a half storeys tall.
Craftsman House (1912) is a bed and breakfast in Bragg Creek, Alberta. (Image Source: Craftsman House)
Alongside Craftsman, another style was popular in the early 1900s: Tudor Revival. This style began making appearances in North America as early as the 1890s, but gained the most traction in the 1920s and 30s. Most people will recognize this style by its distinctive half-timbering — a feature that was popular in England during the Tudor reign between 1500 and 1559. Unlike true Tudor-era buildings in which it provided structural support, half-timbering is purely decorative on Tudor Revival buildings. Other prominent features include steep, sweeping rooflines, large prominent chimneys, overhanging second storeys, decorative stonework or brickwork, the use of stucco, and grouped casement windows.
A Tudor Revival home (1920) in North York, Ontario. (Image Source: Toronto Life)
The Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. (Image Source: The Algonquin Resort)
Early 1900s to Present: Modernism and Beyond
After the First World War, the world began to change quickly, with increased industrialization, social changes such as women gaining the right to vote, and scientific advances. People began to feel that the romanticization of Victorian ideals in art and architecture were incompatible with this changing world due to the difference in morals and customs. This sparked Modernism: a movement that rejected traditional Western values and techniques and sought new forms of expression. Architecture began to move away from the romanticized styles of the past, which can be seen in more modern, streamlined styles such as Art Deco in the 1920s.
The Commodore Ballroom is an Art Deco-style music venue and nightclub in Vancouver. (Image Source: Vancouver Sun)
In the 1930s, Canadian architecture was influenced by the functionalism movement in Europe, which prioritized utility over aesthetic. It is characterized by boxy shapes, straight surfaces and large sheets of glass (a purely stylistic choice, as brick is cheaper). This style, known as the International Style, gained little traction at first since the Great Depression slowed housing construction. However, functionalism was taught in architectural schools around the country, and by the 1950s a generation of modernist architects were born. The demand for new residential and commercial space after the Second World War, along with the rise of the suburb in the 1950s, sparked a wave of modern, functionalist architecture across Canada.
Single-family homes were still the dominant form of housing constructed in Canada throughout the 1950s, but the 1960s saw a shift toward multi-family buildings such as apartment buildings and condos. This reflected the population growth that resulted from the post-war baby boom, as well as an influx of immigrants – both as a result of Europeans fleeing countries that were devastated by the Second World War, and Canada’s Economic Point System, a system that provided a racially neutral method of accepting new immigrants introduced in 1967.
The TD Centre in Toronto (1969) is an example of International-style architecture. (Image Source: Urban Toronto)
While modern buildings are functional and sleek, there is nothing like the character of historic buildings – from the simple yet dignified Georgian styles, to intimidating Gothic churches, to colourful and whimsical Queen Anne homes. Each home is unique, unlike the copy-pasted houses found in subdivisions today, calling back to a time when aesthetic and craftsmanship were valued more than quick economic growth, and details were created by hand rather than by machine. Every style carries its own personality and insight into the sociopolitical landscape of the time. As one report on Canadian architecture puts it, architecture creates visual metaphors that convey the ideas of a society – therefore, old buildings are not only visually pleasing, but function as important historic sources.
Furthermore, old buildings carry stories that can’t be found in the structures built today. Walking into an old house, church, or shop can make you wonder about who used to live there, picture someone carving the woodwork or creating the stained glass window by hand, or think about the historic events the building has seen: wars, social movements, natural disasters — it creates a feeling of being surrounded by something bigger than yourself. When an old building is destroyed, the stories are lost with it, both the good and the bad.
More efforts should be made to keep old buildings alive, particularly in big cities like Toronto that are experiencing rapid growth. Without efforts to save them, neighbourhoods that once held charm and character will be replaced by homogenous glass walls, and all traces of Canada’s past will be gone.