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Building Types (Acorn magazine did a feature on the history of school buildings in the fall 2016 )


History of Schools in Ontario --- --- Types of Schools

One room schools--- Westfield Village ---- Canada Farmer -- Wesleyville-- Brant---- Nassageweya------ Union--- -
Preston-- Glenora--- Grenville-- Valens- Puslinch--- Dumfries-- Waterford- Borealis

Victorian to Edwardian--- Dickie Settlement ---Cambridge--Hamilton----Millgrove ----Glen Morris--- St. George----------------------- -
Curries-- Blandford--- Thunder Bay--

Collegiate Gothic -- monasteries-- Westdale Hamilton ---Sir James Whitney-----Albert College Belleville--- Stratford---

Buildings used as schools--- Mill Port Hope---Montessori Guelph --Montessori Dundas - ---

Mid-century---- Dundas--- Belleville--- - Toronto--- New Sarum--- - Picton--

1980s-- Hamilton---

21st Century -- Toronto-----


The first schools in Ontario, like the first church meetings were in someone's house, or the general store. Once a dedicated school was built, the teacher was a local member of the clergy or someone, generally of quite a high social level, who was interested in education. For the teachers, qualifications were not needed: how would they get them anyway?

In 1816, the Government of Upper Canada passed the "Common School Act", which allowed the residents of any town, village or community to establish a school providing they had over twenty children to attend. The Government offered to pay the teachers' salary up to an amount of fifty dollars per annum.

The Common School Act of 1846 elected superintendents and made them responsible for dividing the townships into "School Sections". By 1850, thirteen School Sections had been established in Ontario.

In 1847 the Toronto Normal School opened, these were the first teacher's colleges. Women were allowed to attend but were not permitted to speak with members of the opposite sex as of an official ruling of 1853.

1847 only one in five teachers was a woman. 1860 one in four. By 1870 the numbers were equal, and by 1880 women prevailed.

According to J.E. Marshall in Fifty years of Rural Life in Dufferin County, the teachers were often boarded with a local family and there were times when the teacher had to share a bed with one or two of the younger children. Teachers across Ontario were treated with respect and held quite a high place in the community. As a result, they were held to quite strict social parameters: no consumption of alcoholic beverages or smoking, and limited 'courting' opportunities.

Common schools and Roman catholic separate schools were found aplenty by 1850.

Segregated Schools
Separate schools for Black students were not the norm but were present in some communities. These were called segregated schools, and they were present in Canada throughout the mid-1800s and to a lesser degree into the 20th century." Often, segregated schools meant a lower quality education for the students who attended them. One notable exception was the Buxton Mission School in the Elgin Settlement, just south of Chatham, Ontario. When White families objected to having Black students in their local school, Reverend William King opened a school that before long earned such a good reputation the White community begged to send their children there as well. Over the years, the number of segregated schools decreased. There were some all-Black schools still in existence in Nova Scotia during the 1960s. The last such school (in Guysborough, N.S.) closed in 1983."[collectionscanada.gc.ca schoolhouse]

Early school buildings.

In 1866 a school house design and building notes was published in Canada Farmer newspaper. This set the standard for the gable front one room school house. School houses had existed in Ontario for at least 50 years by this point, but this set a pattern for many more that were built in rural communities. Already by 1850, schools with a much larger footprint were already being built as can be seen in Hamilton's Central School built to hold 1000 students in 1853. One room school houses were built as the need arose within a community. Often these school houses were in use for only a decade or two, until the land use or population changed.

By the end of the 19th century, schools in every Victorian style could be found in Ontario. Thunder Bay has a Beaux Arts school, Cambridge has an Italiante, Curries has an almost baronial facade while St. George has wonderful Queen Anne detailing. Hamilton's Central school was Classical then made over to a more pointed, late Victorian. Millgrove is Edwardian.

Between the First and Second World War the Neo-Gothic style was in use for many larger schools. Then in the 1950s, the post war years saw a boom in the population as well as a completely new building style, the mid-century modern. These schools are long and low with loads of light.

As the amount and size of schools grew, the amount of administration and school oriented research also grew. One line of research in the 1970s resulted in the idea that students in schools would be distracted if there were windows in the classroom. By 1970 the air flow was propelled by modern equipment, so it was decided that schools without windows would help in the general level of education. This trend did not last long, but there are schools, gyms and recreation halls all over the province that have no windows.

By the 1990s, many school boards were under the impression that larger schools with better facilities would be a good idea. Students in rural areas began to be bused to school in the 1960s, but the trend became the norm even for urban students despite the evidence that children were not getting sufficient exercise.

By the 21st century, one room school houses were being bought for lovely residential retreats and the trend was towards larger schools with bigger windows and food courts with popular food for the kids who could not get home for lunch.

In 1997 the funding for schools went from the municipal level to the provincial level. Since that time, there have been continuing battles with communities trying to save their local schools. Currently the state of the debate is that, on the one hand, the local schools provide safety and familiarity as well as a connection to the local community while on the other hand the larger schools may offer larger football fields and a wider variety of subject options such as music and/or arts. As people become more aware of the effect of large windows on the bird populations, perhaps the teachers and students may at least be able to enforce the use of bird friendly glass.

One Room School Houses

Basic Design

In the illustration in Canada Farmer (below) there are only two windows on each side of the building, but most one room school houses of the late Victorian age had three. These schools were built as communities needed them and then were either left or torn down, the materials being used in other buildings, as the land use and population changed.

One room school houses were first made of log or squared logs as you can see in the one in Westfield Village. These logs are almost 30 inches deep. This would have been the norm as there were giant trees aplenty and it was more costly to cut them than to just square them.

In 1866 the writer describes a frame building, but the same proportions would have been used for brick or, occasionally, stone.



These one room school houses are generally very well constructed using prime materials. In many rural areas of Ontario these schools have been purchased and turned into residences.The interior of the school is one very large room which can be added to with little trouble.

The obvious questions is about ‘the necessary'. There was a boys and a girls out house, often behind lilac bushes.

Many one room school houses have been dismantled, as were many mills, as land use and population changed.

Cathcart School, Brant County, 1840

Westfield Village

One of the best preserved of the pre-1846 schools, this restored building is made of massive squared logs. The bell above the front door was a regular feature and was used to call the children to school as well as to call the community together in case of important news or danger.


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Canada Farmer 1866

Canada Farmer published many articles containing plans and building methods for popular buildings. This shows a one room school house built in frame, but the same proportions are used throughout the province fore brick, stucco and stone buildings.

Here there are two side windows, but generally you will find three side windows on an Ontario one room school house.

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Wesleyville School 1899

This is a well preserved example of a lovely old schoolhouse that is waiting to be repurposed. The small Wesleyville community is along the old highway #2 and is home to this school as well as a lovely church, an unusual Y shaped house and many beautiful farms with original barns. This is a wonderful place to bicycle.

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Wesleyville Date

In 1846 with the Common School Act the townships were divided into school sections. A township might have as many as 15 sections. The sections were made with regard to geography. Each school was set within a certain distance that was considered reasonable travel distance for the children. This could be up to six miles.

On the front of each school is the designation number and often the date as well.


Pugin Church

MacPherson School, Brant County, 1869

This is a designated property that was restored by Paradigm Shift Customs in Brant County. The results are spectacular. You can see the windows before and after on the Paradigm Shift Customs web page.

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Nassagaweya SS 7 1872

This beautiful country school has been rebuilt by a local architect who really knows what she is doing. The outside is restored, including the belfry and bell. The interior is one large comfortable room detailed in reclaimed Victorian tin ceiling tiles. The windows that had been destroyed in the 1970s have been reconstructed.

The belfry contains a bell that the owner will let you pull if you prove yourself worthy.

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The teachers in these one room school houses had a formidable job and, since they taught the children for many years, must have had an impact on the local community as a whole. In appreciation for this, Nassageweya S.S. 7 has a footpath with stones engraved with the names of the various teachers. Hugh Mead and Letitia Mead were two of the earlier personalities to affect this school.

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The section stone is not quite semicircular.

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This beautiful old school is just up the road from the Lake on the Mountain pub, should you care to visit. If it is true that the education system must be judged by the achievements of its graduates [John E. Marshall], then one graduate of this school could indicate its value.

The blog Ancestral Roofs is a wonderful font of information created by educator and author Lindi Pierce.

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Often the bell has been removed either for safety or for the value of the metal. There is a collector of bells on the road to Goderich, should you happen to be the owner of an empty belfry.


Pugin Church


This school, now a residence, is also in Prince Edward County. It was called the Union School because it was on the edge of two school sections.

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Preston District

This school house was once the location for the local girl guides as can be seen in the lunette. It has been purchased by someone who is in the midst of restoring it for use as a residence.

It is a bit larger than most one room school houses and has wonderful quoins and window cornices in brick.


Pugin Church


Another lovely little one room school turned into a residence can be found near the Glenora ferry.

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Grenville S. S No 6, 1905

The people of Grenville decided that the gable front was not for them. This little gem has a hip roof and is made from the same stone as many of the Georgian buildings in the area. Note the detailing on the fascia and the cornice brackets, all in perfect condition.

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The gable on this school faces the road, but the entrance is on the side making it just about the same design as an Ontario Cottage. The setting and attention to detail in the landscaping and the building make this a local gem.

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Puslinch SS 7 1905

All across Ontario you find this type of stone building called, variously, pointed stone, filled stone and gumdrop. Only a few schools have this exterior finish. The one in Puslinch is now an antique store with wonderful local goods.

The central window is rounded with decorated Gothic interlaced arches. Over the doors are semicircular fanlights.

This wonderful store is literally two minutes north of the 401 at the Highway 6 exit going north.

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Section stones can be in the shape of lunettes, rondels, or simply rectangular.

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North Dumfries

This local school has been changed quite a bit but the original shape is still intact. A front gable has been added. The belfry is gone, and the window shapes have changed.

Sometimes it is hard to recognize one room schools, but if you look hard enough, it's still there.

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Cherry Valley School, Waterford, 1866

Currently in Backus Mill Heritage Village

This may be the only octagonal one room school house in Ontario, I would love to know about others. There was a movement towards Octagonal buildings as they were meant to enhance energy etc.

Kings College Cambrige

Borealis School, Kitchener

This is a very large and well kept one room school house that is now a restuarant in Kitchener. The building has been restored and is in great shape. Sadly the S.S. marker is gone.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Kitchener, Ontario

Borealis School, Kitchener

Inside there is a bar and restaurant addition on the ground floor. A pressed tin ceiling on the original building can be seen through the windows. This is a great example of a repurposed building.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Kitchener, Ontario

Belfry Blandford

Here are just a few belfrys to compare. This one is from 1909 and is found in Blandford.

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Dickson School, Cambridge

This belfry is almost in a lantern design as found in the Renaissance.

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This is a lovely old belfry from a one room school house.

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Victorian to Edwardian

Once urban centers started to grow, during the Victorian age, schools with many rooms became needed. Hamilton Central school was built in 1853 to house 1000 students. Originally it was mostly Neo - Classical, but it was renovated in 1890 to conform to the higher roofs and more pointed leanings of the late Victorian age.

Other towns and cities needed to find style solutions as well, so this period has everything the Victorian age has to offer from Classical Revival, Gothic Revival and Italianate to Renaissance, Arts and Crafts and Beaux Arts.

Dickie Settlement, 1912

Here is an example of a simple Edwardian school with large windows and lovely brick work. The Edwardians loved the corner brick quoins.

Pugin Church

Dickie Settlement, Ontario

Dickson School, Cambridge, 1877

So here we have a school built in Cambridge (actually Galt), and who is surprised to find that it is a monument to glorious stone masonry. Built in 1877, it has many Neo-Renaissance features and an Italiante cornice and cornice brackets. The belfry is almost a lantern, as in the lantern of the Duomo in Florence. Understated elegance and the touch of the fine craftsman. This has been recently purchased and we are hoping that it is turned into wonderful condominiums.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Cambridge, Ontario

Dickson School, Cambridge

Note the doubled cornice brackets, the fascia, the exquisite stone work in the quoins and lintel of the window surrounds. The corner quoins are rusticated in the Renaissance tradition.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Cambridge, Ontario

Central Public School, Hamilton, 1853, 1890

This school was "the largest graded school in Upper Canada" in the 1850s and 1860s. It was remodeled in 1890 by Hamilton's premier architect of the time, James Balfour. It currently has a Victorian flavour and is, miraculously, still used as a school. What are the chances????

Gothic Revival in Picton

Central Public School, Hamilton

Millgrove School, 1914

Communities change and the needs of the public schools change as well. Originally, in 1914, the school had a variety of classrooms in the building. In the 1970s, more room was needed, so a public school building in the style of the time was added onto the southwest of the building. The main building was then transformed into a gym.

The detailing around the doors and windows is a good example of Edwardian detailing.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Millgrove Ontario

Millgrove School

This wonderful school with its Florentine Arched entrance was slated for demolition and saved by a group of local activists. A mid century school addition attached on the west side provides school rooms while the old school building has become a gym. The students of Mohawk College provided measuring and a CAD drawing of this school for the community trying to save the building.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Millgrove Ontario

Glen Morris S. S. No. 18 1909

This is a spectacular school with a beautiful setting. The entrance is everything you could want from a prestigious school and the building is beautifully maintained.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Glen Morris Ontario

St.George Public School, 1893

This is a good example of the really fine brick detailing of the late Victorian age. Note the terra-cotta floral pattern in the upper gable as well as the intricate brick work above the door.

Gothic Revival in Picton

St. George Ontario

SS No. 3 Curries 1905

The central entrance and towers are the distinguishing features of this school in Curries. The windows are simple segmental arches, but the central door has a four centered arch and an impressive gable with a bell tower behind it.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Curries Ontario

Blandford ON

This lovely school is nestled into the country side and is now a residence. It still has the original bell and most of the other features remain intact. Well done.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Blandford Ontario


Brick detailing around the section stone is very fine.

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Fort William Collegiate Institute 1907

Originally opened as a secondary school for Fort William, and at that time a secondary school education was still primarily aimed at the upper middle classes, the offspring of the professionals in the community. [Fort William Heritage Registry notes].

In 1918 a vocational wing for the school was added. The school was an important part of the community for many decades. Under pressure to close down, the building was turned into the School Board building.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Thunder Bay Ontario

Collegiate Gothic

Gothic Revival was the term used for buildings constructed in Ontario using the actual building methods of the Gothic period. The structures were of stone or wood, and the construction was done by craftsmen trained in that tradition.

By the 20th century, steel frames were being used on larger buildings, but Gothic detailing was added.

This style was particularly favoured by architects of schools and universities because of the history of education starting in the monasteries of the middle ages. The term Collegiate Gothic refers to educational buildings of the 20th century constructed with Gothic detailing. There is a nostalgia associated with the style which is similar to the nostalgia many people feel towards their own high school years - an era lost for ever.

Tinturn Abbey Wales

During the 13th and 14th centuries, monasteries grew in size and importance until they were very powerful forces within the society wielding immense fortunes and huge tracts of land. By 1530, Tinturn Abbey in Wales had 20,000 sheep and over 1 million acres of land. In his attempts to unite the country, Henry VIII dissolved the monastery system in the 1530s. Of the 650 monasteries in England and Wales, a third have gone completely, another third were transformed into churches, and the final third were left in ruins.

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Tinturn Abbey

Those responsible for dissolving the individual churches were happy to do so. They helped ‘redistribute' the steel, glass and wood to make their own barns and homes. The square blocks disappeared like popcorn. Within twenty miles of all of these monasteries are gorgeous old homes with very sturdy foundations. The designs made for a particular spot, however, the arches, capitals, and pinnacles, would be a dead giveaway if found in a house, and would remind the occupants that a holy site had been desecrated. Many of these were consequently left standing. It is these ruins, scattered across the country, that left a lasting impression on the followers of the Romantic movement.

Tintern Abbey alone inspired countless paintings, poems and stories by Romantics as celebrated as Turner, Wordsworth and Tennyson. In describing Tears, Idle Tears, Tennyson said he was inspired by bygone memories.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken'd birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

The settler's of Upper Canada were defenseless against such lyrics. Gothic arches popped up everywhere.

Pugin Church


Westdale High school.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Westdale High School Hamilton Ontario

Sir James Whitney
School for the Deaf

Schools in the 21st century are all equipped with ramps for wheel chairs and other facilities to accommodate a wide variety of student needs. In the 19th century this was not the case but there are examples of schools that were built to accommodate special needs students. The Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb was opened in 1870. It was rebuilt in 1913 as the building you see now, and renamed in 1974 in honor of Canada's sixth Prime Minister.

The building is red brick with stone quoins and window surrounds. There are two central towers decorated with ogee curved blind arches. The front door is under a Tudor style arch with carved spandrels.

Gothic Revival in Picton

Belleville Ontario

Sir James Whitney
School for the Deaf

The residences are a completely different design. Here you see a Renaissance design complete with round-headed arch, large cornices and two loggias.

Gothic Revival

Belleville Ontario

Sir James Whitney
School for the Deaf

The brick and stone detailing are wonderful on this false front with carved detailing.

Gothic Revival

Belleville Ontario

Albert College

Albert College is also in Belleville, in fact it is just up the street. This school was intended for the well healed, and a significant number of high profile Canadian politicians and business people have graduated from this institution.

Gothic Revival

Belleville Ontario

Albert College

Stone carving is the most prevalent characteristic of the Gothic period. Here you can see wonderful stone tracery with ogee curves. The hood mold has human face label stops. Similar faces can be found on the corbel table.

On the spandrel are carved crests and a coat of arms all in coffers. Quoining on the window surround created a formal frame for the more rustic stone wall.

Gothic Revival

Belleville Ontario


Here is another 19th century silo and barn.

Gothic Revival

Hickson Ontario

Albert College

This small finial with a bear with a human face - or possibly demon face - is reminiscent of the medieval monastery carvings.

Gothic Revival


Albert College

Here is a label stop of an angel.

Gothic Revival

Stratford Ontario

Other Buildings Used as Schools

In the 21st century it may appear that the focus of education is on more new schools, bigger sheets of glass, and bigger computer rooms with more computers. While studies keep showing that children are overweight and need to walk more, school boards keep closing local schools and making kids spend hours every day in buses. More studies show that neither educators nor students like computer based learning and that the standards of education are dropping with increased computer based learning. Screens are everywhere both in the classroom and all through the halls.


On the one hand you have new schools, new buildings, and huge new school board offices. On the other you have independent schools that are using old buildings and repurposing different environments for education not based on screen time. Independent schools are using summer camps, civic buildings, and even an old mill to educate young people having the focus on smaller class sizes as a main element of the process.

Mill, Port Hope

This gorgeous 19th century bank barn has been restored and supported by concrete abutments to ensure its continued use. Lightning rods have also been added. Many a fine barn disappeared in fire as a result of a strike of lightning.

Gothic Revival Cottage

Port Hope

Montessori Guelph

This lovely old Beaux Arts building provides an alternate location for the Montessori in Guelph.

Georgian House in Dundas


Montessori Dundas

Adolescents in Dundas and Hamilton area have the opportunity to attend a school situated in a forest. There are bees on the property and the emphasis is on the natural environment. This school was once a summer camp facility. It is in the mid-century style and has many of the original elements still intact.


To be continued

These grain processing plants can be quite attractive.

Mid Century Modern

Mid Century Modern schools are where many baby boomers went to school. They are designed by architects who were excited about the new materials and free designs that allowed them the scope to experiment with swooping lines and unexpected shapes. In a word, they are fun.

These schools are generally made with very sturdy cinder block and poured concrete. They lend themselves well to reversion to condos and alternate living arrangements.


There is an idea that is passed around that since many of these schools were built with asbestos in certain places they are unsafe. In fact there has never been much reported in the way of illness as a result of asbestos in schools. Far more evidence can be found for poisoning through carpet underlay and glued wood products. If left intact the asbestos is not harmful. Most contractors simply take it out and the school is fine.

Park Side

Parkside High School in Dundas won international awards for design and for the use of aggregate in poured concrete panels. It is a truly unique school in a simply divine setting. Currently it is not in use and we hope that it is converted into condos soon.


Gothic Revival Cottage

Dundas Ontario


Long and low with a generous fenestration and the use of earthy brick, this is typical of the mid-century school.

Gothic Revival church


Lord Landsdowne Junior and Senior Public School

Toronto school board's chief architect Frederick Etherington is generally given credit for this but the design architect was Peter Pennington. The shape of the school, like the shape of the Stratford Festival Theatre, was influenced by the Festival of Britain. The building is round and echos the shape of a tent. Part of the structure are exterior steel pylons which, for all intents and purposes, are flying buttresses. This, like Parkside, is an architectural gem of the era.

Gothic Revival House


New Sarum

The new materials used in the middle of the 20th century included poured concrete walls both patterned and plain. The concrete structures led to the term 'Brutalist', derived from the French term 'Beton Brut' which is roughly translated into 'raw concrete'. This school in New Sarum is made of that material and fits into that style. The bell tower is a nod to the past supported by a tower of patterned concrete.


Period Revival Mansion

New Sarum Ontario


This kiln in Port Burwell has been modified for use as a machine or drive shed.


Gothic Revival Cottage

Port Burwell Ontario

To be Continued


Gothic Revival church

Port Burwell Ontario

21st century

The one room school house was overseen by three trustees who were not paid, but who were responsible for the school and did repairs and maintenance as well as hiring and firing. In 2016 there are huge school board buildings and many levels of administration.


Teachers in the 21st century have pensions and freedom to follow any path they choose outside school hours. The list of restrictions for school teachers in the 1800s is astonishing including no drinking, smoking, spitting, and even attending ice cream parlors.


Thunder Bay

While this is a university, once a college, and not a school, it is unique. The board and the architect realized that the old OCA had a presence and a personality, and that those should not be destroyed simply to provide more space. The design allows for the existence of the old building as well as the new table top design that houses many new studios while promoting the personality and the focus of the school. The table is supported by giant pencil crayons. It is brilliant.


Gothic Revival Cottage

Toronto Ontario




Gothic Revival Cottage

Thunder Bay Ontario

contact - shannon@ontarioarchitecture dot ca





Schools Extra Reading and Films


Althouse,J. G.The Ontario teacher, Ontario Teachers Federation, 1967

French, Doris . High Button Bootstraps, Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1968

Joy Forbes,. Perseverance, Pranks, and Pride: Tales of the One-Room Schoolhouse, Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1968

Rempel, John I . Building with Wood. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1967.

For information on where to get restoration materials, chack Historic Lumber and other suppliers in the Resources page


Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Matthew Broderick

Peggy Sue Got Married - Kathleen Turner



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