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Simplicity and Survival:
Vernacular Response in Newfoundland Architecture

The following article is adapted from Shane O'Dea's "Simplicity and Survival: Vernacular Response in Newfoundland Architecture" and from a subsequent lecture of the same title given to the Newfoundland Historical Society and the Irish-Newfoundland Society on January 31, 1980.

Because of its unique settlement patterns and economic development, Newfoundland's architecture has been characterised by a greater simplicity and endurance of style, than that of its North American neighbours.

For the first two centuries of permanent settlement in Newfoundland, dating from the seventeenth century, residents were more concerned with functional attributes rather than the aesthetics of their buildings. Consequently, the various styles of architecture were slow to develop. The initial building forms were the "tilt" and full-studded structures, both of which tended to be limited in terms of stylistic diversity. The influence of these early structural forms continued to be apparent well into the twentieth century.

In nineteenth century Newfoundland most outport homes shared the same basic external appearance — a centrally placed entry and an essentially symmetrical façade. A distinctive feature of the houses of both English and Irish ethnic groups was the "linhay" or "lean-to" frequently added to the rear of the house. In most houses the linhay provided three extra rooms serving varying purposes. It also provided the rear and everyday entrance to the house.

Variations in form between Irish and English settlers appeared in the plan of the house. Generally Newfoundland-English houses have a central-hall plans with the stairs rising from the back of that hall. Newfoundland-Irish houses tended to use the massive central chimney and consequently eliminated the possibility of a central hall. The use of the central chimney is associated with the use of the hipped roof.

In contrast English-Newfoundlanders tended to use a peaked, or gable roof. The difference in roof form could possibly be explained by the transference of forms by the inhabitants from their original towns. The English settlers had essentially urban origins while the Irish settlers tended to come from rural communities. In the urban setting attached houses using gable end chimneys were common.

The mansard roof, the hallmark of Second Empire style buildings, became popular in Newfoundland after St. John's Great Fire of 1892. It became the preferred roof type in the rebuilt capital because it allowed more headroom in a building's top story. The influence of the mansard roof extended beyond St. John's and was popularly — if not extensively — used in the outports. This popularity was evidenced by the conversion of many gable roofs to mansards.

Newfoundland architecture, governed by a conservative sense of economy and tradition, never really fell prey to the great range of styles that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Old forms persisted long after an available technology made them obsolete and style was never crucial, except perhaps in the larger towns where it was somewhat outmoded when applied.

© 1998, Shane O'Dea

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