Leaning on a Legacy: Tilting Finds its Future in the Past

Features
By Helen Dyer
Photos: Robert Mellin

As an architectural mecca, Tilting, Newfoundland, is literally and figuratively almost off the map. This tiny community seems at first glance to be little more than a collection of sturdy but insignificant buildings teetering on the northeastern edge of Fogo, the largest of Newfoundland’s offshore islands, located in a part of the north Atlantic known as “iceberg alley.”

Named, it is believed, for the “tilts” or small temporary sheds that sheltered the seasonal fishermen in the days before permanent settlement, Tilting has fewer than 300 residents. But neither its small population, its remoteness (Fogo Island is a three-day car and ferry ride from Montreal), nor its inhospitable climate has been a hindrance to the pride and the force with which Tilting residents have undertaken a renaissance of their community.

Architecture professor Robert Mellin

It’s here that McGill Architecture professor Robert Mellin comes to be inspired, to work, to do research and to renew his enthusiasm for rural Newfoundland’s vernacular architecture. One of the few Fogo Island residents “from away,” Mellin seems as unlikely a candidate for seduction by this chilly, homely place as it’s possible to imagine. He first discovered Canada’s most easterly province when, in 1973, as a young, American, city-dwelling graduate student, he went to St. John’s on a research visit.

“I liked what I saw,” he says. “I especially liked the old city of St. John’s. After that first visit I was determined to go back, and I actually had a job offer and went through the immigration process at that time. I’ve been there or had a connection ever since, although I’ve lived elsewhere at other times.”

Newfoundland – officially known as Newfoundland and Labrador since 2001 – is a place with a long history. The Vikings paid a visit to the province in 998, and it is believed that a group of medieval Irish monks crossed the Atlantic by curragh – a small, wood-framed boat – in the sixth century, presumably looking for potential converts to Christianity. Today, Newfoundland’s population of approximately 500,000 is concentrated in the greater metropolitan areas of St. John’s in the east and Corner Brook on the west coast. Until the demise of the cod fishery over the past decade, small, vibrant communities thrived in the “outports,” relying upon the ocean for their livelihood, and some of these remain, while the residents of others have been forced to seek a living elsewhere.

An example of fishing 'stages' on the shores of Tilting

In addition to teaching at McGill, Mellin maintains an architectural office in St. John’s and is the owner of the Dwyer house, a registered heritage structure built in 1888, in Tilting. In Newfoundland he has the opportunity to explore and solidify the connections between architec-tural practice, research and teaching.

“In the summer a large part of what I do when I get a chance to be in Tilting is volunteer conservation work,” he says, “helping out with heritage preservation technology, or doing a restoration study for buildings or the siting of buildings that are being restored. In my practice in St. John’s, I try to take on projects that explore some of the design and cultural issues that we discuss with our students at McGill.”

Tilting is one of few remaining Irish Catholic communities in Newfoundland. When the first Irish settlers arrived here in the 18th century, they beat the odds against survival, understanding just enough about the land’s potential to be able to eke out a living. They farmed and fished, and today the descendants of the Dwyers, Foleys, Greenes, Burkes and Keefes still fish, work the land, and tend sheep. Tilting’s buildings, its location and its robust and congenial residents make it a unique place to live and to visit, and in June 2003, it was declared a Registered Heritage District – the first in the province, and a distinction that has as much to do with its architecture as with its Irish Catholic roots.

Tilting is the kind of place where it’s considered “uppity” to take off your boots when entering a neighbour’s house, where the landscape is dotted with fishing “stages” (or outbuildings used for storing fishing gear and processing fish) and “flakes” where the fish were laid out to dry, and where the strong family and neighbourhood ties, language and architecture have all been informed and affected by the tempestuous history of the inshore cod fishery.

Cooperation is a survival skill passed down by the residents’ Irish ancestors, and there’s an unspoken imperative to “look out for the other fellow.” Activities such as “slide hauling” (harvesting wood using a horse and slide), fence building and house “launching” (moving a house from one location to another) are communal efforts.

A view of the historic fishing village

Traditionally, houses were sold separately from the land upon which they stood and were moved, or “launched,” to a new location, while the land remained the property of the original family. Moving the houses often entailed hauling them along the ice on sleds or floating them across the bay on barrels, using the pulling power of 75 or 80 men. Modern-day houses are built with foundations and are therefore sold with the land. Today, houses and outbuildings are still launched – now usually with the help of tractors – sometimes due to sales, but more often so that buildings can be relocated on a site belonging to the local heritage association, where they will be restored.

While the residents of Tilting went to great lengths to preserve existing homes, their attachment to the small buildings left over from the heyday of the now extinct cod fishery disappeared along with the fish. Things are changing, however, thanks in part to the efforts of Mellin and his colleagues at the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador (HFNL), a group dedicated to conserving historically significant buildings in the province. In addition to the town’s designation as the first Registered Heritage District in the province, in September, former Minister of Canadian Heritage Sheila Copps declared it the “Tilting National Historic Site of Canada.”

Mellin, who also designed the HFNL logo, has been vice-chair of the foundation for three and a half years, and he’s a fierce advocate for conservation. He is an active volunteer participant in the process of community renewal, so sorely needed in Tilting since the depletion of the cod stocks. One of Mellin’s long-term projects is working with residents of Fogo Island – home to 11 different and distinct communities – to stimulate interest in learning traditional building and renovation skills that will not only restore the cultural landscape, but revive the residents’ pride in their heritage.

“If people can use local materials and local labour,” says Mellin, “the money stays in the province and you can train future generations to do this kind of work.”

In the past ten years, outbuildings and fishing stages have been rescued from the ravages of neglect and have new and honourable status as historical artifacts. The urgency of the conservation task is evident when Mellin talks about his restoration work.

“These small, everyday outbuildings have disappeared almost everywhere in the province except for the Fogo Island and Change Islands area, and maybe a couple of small places in Labrador. When you go to the Avalon Peninsula, let’s say, near St. John’s, yourarely see a fishing stage. So part of my interest in going to Fogo Island was that these small outbuildings, used for many different purposes, still survived there, and I was interested in learning more about these, especially for the fishery.”

Working with Tilting residents on the community’s structures is only a part of Mellin’s architectural mission when he’s in Newfoundland. In St. John’s there is a trend away from maintaining the historical appearance of the city and towards more elaborate house designs.

“People haven’t yet quite understood what the historical character of the city was,” says Mellin. “A lot of people add inappropriate ornamentation to their houses just through lack of knowledge or awareness.” The Heritage Foundation, Mellin says, is trying to move the province away from giving grants for individual house repair and towards creating heritage districts that focus on the cultural and historical aspects of the architectural integrity of each region.

The architecture in St. John’s is of stolid 19th- and early 20th-century vintage (much of the east end of the city was destroyed in a great fire in 1892), with church spires dominating the skyline. Commercial and residential buildings, often attached in rows, formed the context for post-Confederation architects attempting to create a more contemporary environment for the province’s capital city. Part of Mellin’s research involves the documentation of this dynamic period of Newfoundland’s early modern architecture, a period when architects sometimes acted as contractors for the buildings they designed.

What Mellin learns in Newfoundland he brings back to his studio classes at McGill. The role of architecture in building or maintaining a community is a favourite topic.

“The things that you can learn from Newfoundland’s architecture include the ways the towns were laid out in identifiable neighbourhoods,” he says. “There’s a sense of scale and identity that was developed here. St. John’s in the early 1800s was a congenial, compact city where people could travel to most places by foot. In the late 1800s a street car system was installed. And the first planned community in Canada (although when it was conceived, Newfoundland wasn’t yet a part of Canada) was the St. John’s suburb of Churchill Park, constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was a very interesting, historic episode in Canadian planning, and an attempt to provide a kind of identifiable village centre. The project was proposed by quite forward-looking housing and planning commissioners who were influenced by some of the ‘garden city’ and ‘new town’ developments in England.”

As for the more humble architecture of Tilting, Mellin’s McGill office is adorned with fine pencil drawings of some of the more eclectic examples from the village. Depictions of a group of neat little houses show the settlement pattern, and a determined gang of “house launchers” pulls a house to its new location. An image of a root cellar made from an upturned rowboat shares wall space with another of a rocking chair fashioned from a barrel.

“There’s hardly anyone doing research on this kind of architecture in Newfoundland,” says Mellin. “Some professors at Memorial University and a few grad students are involved in research on vernacular architecture and the more anthropological side of things, but not very many, so it’s a great opportunity to have this material to work with.”

Mellin’s work and passion for conservation have made as strong an impression on the residents of Tilting as on his students – perhaps more so. Jim McGrath, who has chaired the local heritage group, Tilting Recreation and Cultural Society, since its founding 11 years ago, says that the conservation work on the buildings has restored the pride and the interest of Tilting residents in their small but very particular community.

“It’s not only about pride within the community, though,” says McGrath, who speaks with an identifiable Irish brogue. “It’s being able to show visitors around and talk about the way people used to live, and the hardships that the fishermen and their families had to endure.”

Mellin views his summertime activities on Fogo Island as an essential part of his professional life. “The teaching, research and practice involving architecture in one location relates in an interesting way to lots of issues that we cover with our students. We are a professional school and a deeper understanding of the cultural aspects of particular communities is important to highlight. It’s almost the equivalent of a medical student working in a clinical setting – bringing the atmosphere of an architectural practice into the studio, where students can sample the kind of rigour and dedication that’s required for this kind of work.”

Mellin notes that some students, particularly those from urban areas, arrive at the School of Architecture discounting rural architecture as inconsequential or irrelevant. Students from developing countries, however, are eager to learn about conservation methods, and to see how entire communities can be revived if the necessary skills and understanding of the value of the community’s architecture can also be revived.

This past summer, Mellin published a book on his research and conservation work in the community. Tilting: House Launching, Slide Hauling, Potato Trenching, and Other Tales from a Newfoundland Fishing Village is a lively, literary and lavishly illustrated depiction of all aspects of life in Tilting and includes conversations with some of the community’s residents. The book, exhibitions in Montreal and Toronto of Mellin’s photographs and drawings, and that good old standby, word of mouth, have helped draw tourists from all over North America as well as from Ireland.

Although some local residents may be concerned that they will have to start dressing in period costumes, the isolated location and rugged environment will likely ensure that Tilting never becomes a tourist trap. But Robert Mellin has no doubt that visitors will always be able to experience the atmosphere of “another time and another place, where it is impossible to pass someone on the road without saying hello, and where you are always welcome in a warm kitchen for a cup of tea.”
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