Showing posts with label architecture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label architecture. Show all posts

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Living Heritage Podcast Ep197 The Bowring Park Footbridge and Blanche Lemco Van Ginkel

In 2020, Heritage NL designated a concrete footbridge in Bowring Park as a Registered Heritage Structure, one of the first modernist structures in NL to be recognized as such. The bridge was designed in part by influential architect Blanche Lemco Van Ginkel, and it has been an object of fascination and study for Newfoundland architecture student Sarah Reid. Folklorist Dale Jarvis chats with Sarah about her interest in the footbridge, and shares some of the audio she recorded in conversation with Blanche Van Ginkel herself.


Living Heritage is about people who are engaged in the heritage and culture sector, from museum
professionals and archivists, to tradition bearers and craftspeople - all those who keep history alive at the
community level. The show is a partnership between HeritageNL and CHMR Radio.
Theme music is Rythme Gitan by Latché Swing.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Reddin' lines and ochre boxes - how many of you have one of these in your shed?

photo courtesy David Boyd, Twillingate 

The primary use of red ochre by settlers to Newfoundland and Labrador was as a paint or stain colourant. One small example of its use as a colourant can be found in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which includes the compound word “ochre-box” meaning a “container in which ochre and water are mixed and a length of string dipped to mark timber for sawing,” also called a reddening box (Story et al. 355). In July 1964, Dorman Miles of Herring Neck described the use of such a box for researchers John Widdowson and Fred Earle:

They’d have the reddin’ lines, the used to call it. They used to strike the [log] with a marking line, with red ochre on it. That would leave the mark on the log where he wanted to come along and saw (Story et al. 408).

In July 1967, Raymond Morey, a resident of La Scie, described the box for the same researchers:

A red’ning box, you know, but some people call it a ochre box. This is a old red’ning line I was telling about lining the sticks. You use ochre in there and a drop of water (Story et al. 408).
Carpenters today are familiar with the more modern chalk lines that work in a very similar way. The handmade example in the photo above comes from the collection of Mr David Boyd, Twillingate, who runs the Prime Berth Fishing Heritage Centre ( If you drop by this summer, I'm sure he'll show it to you!

Work cited

Story, George, et al. Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Second Edition. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A mystery in the attic! Adventures in built heritage.

Last week, I got an email from a local acquaintance doing renovation work on their old house in St. John's. The email subject: "Mystery in my attic!" That is the surefire way to get my attention. They wrote:

"The opening to the attic is a small port, 20 inches square, but the only thing up there is a very large wooden box that is bigger than the opening; 69" long, 29" wide, and 20" deep. It seems to be lead lined, and has two long bolts attached on the outside short end. There doesn't seem to be a lid for it but the wood throughout is quite thick, so is likely very heavy."

I dropped by today, got a tour of the house, and then climbed the ladder up into the very short attic space, to try and photograph the very coffin-like mystery box. It turned out not to be lead-lined, but it did have a remnant strip of lead or zinc along one edge, so perhaps it was lined at one point. At the bottom of the box were a number of holes, which look like they were covered with some sort of flange or gasket, possibly to fit a pipe. Due to the confined space and angle, it was hard to get good photos, but this will give you an idea of the box:

My theory was that it was part of a cistern or water basin, possibly to power a gravity-fed flush toilet or shower. The use of the reinforcing rods might support this theory, if the box was meant to hold a heavy quantity of water. 

I came back to the office and did some searching, and while I can't say exactly where the box came from, it is very similar to two boxes I found in old catalogues, digitized as part of the rather fascinating Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), which is primarily a collection of American and Canadian, pre-1964 architectural trade catalogs, house plan books and technical building guides. If you are a buildings nerd, don't go there unless you have some time to kill!

The first example is from the circa 1912 Wood Tanks catalogue of the New England Tank & Tower Co, made of cypress. Note the rods:

The second is a slightly later example, from the  1937 "Wood Tanks Catalog No. 37" by the National Tank and Pipe Co out of Portland, Oregon:

Mystery solved (with no corpse to dispose of).

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What is the "Topping Out" ceremony? #Work folklore for #FolkloreThursday

Members of Team Holloman and construction workers gather to witness the “Topping Out” of the last beam being placed on the new medical facility at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. on Feb. 10, 2016.

The Folklore of Topping Out

If you time it just right, and happen to be looking far up off the ground, you might catch sight of ironworkers hoisting a tree, wreath, or flag up to the top storey of a framed-out building. This is what people in the construction industry call “topping out” - a ceremony held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building. It is a piece of modern, occupational folklore that may have deep and ancient roots.

In his book High Steel Jim Rasenberger describes the tradition in this way:
“Topping out is an ironworkers’ tradition marking the setting of the highest piece of steel in a building or bridge. The beam is decorated with an American flag and frequently with a small fir tree as well. Despite the fact that the ceremony had long ago been seized by publicists and financiers as a photo-op, topping out was something ironworks took seriously. To be the foreman whose gang raised the topping-out flag was an honour.”
James A. Newman, fabrication division vice president with AISC-member Art Iron, Inc., wrote an article in The Ironworker (December 1984) which describes the tradition thusly:
“No one seems to know exactly when or how it started, but the tradition of ‘Topping Out’ has become a cherished custom of Ironworkers whenever the skeleton of a bridge or building is completed. Topping Out is a signal that the uppermost steel member is going into place, that the structure has reached its height. As that final beam is hoisted, an evergreen tree or a flag or both are attached to it as it ascends. The nice thing about Topping Out is that no two ceremonies are exactly alike. For some, the evergreen symbolizes that the job went up without a loss of life, while for others it’s a good luck charm for the future occupants.”
Researcher John Robinson notes, “The topping out custom is most widely practiced in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In Germany, where the custom is known as Richtfest, the ceremony consists of fastening a small fir-tree (or in some areas a wreath made from the branches of a fir-tree) to the top of the newly completed frame. Dignitaries are invited to make speeches, or recite poems for the occasion, and food and drink are served to the assembled workers and visitors."

On 18 October 2012, folklorist Nicole Penney conducted an oral history interview with retired ironworker Joe Lewis, of Conception Harbour, Newfoundland, who had worked high steel, building a number of well-known structures including the twin towers of the original World Trade Center in New York City. He remembers topping-out ceremonies from projects he had worked on.
Nicole Penney: Tell me about topping out? 
Joe Lewis: Topping out is when we're finished; like that's when everything is done and they'd throw us a big party for us - not a big party - buys us all pints of beer and sandwiches and we'll have a half a day just, you know, just doing nothing. Then we'll have a last beam and they'd put the American flag on it and we would write all our names on it, the whole job, then we'd bring that up and we'd set that, that's the last piece if steel that goes in that building, that's why it's called topping out. 
Nicole Penney: Okay and was it always a flag that was put on top of- 
Joe Lewis: That's all I know, I remember it was a big American flag. 
Penney: Okay, so would that flag usually stay there for a while then? 
Joe Lewis: It stays on that corner of that building wherever they put it, usually on a corner; it will stay there for a while and then we'll take it down and take it away.

Dick Conway is another Newfoundlander who worked high steel, who was interviewed by Penny and Dale Jarvis on 23 October 2012. He too remembers topping out:
Dick Conway: Topping out is the last piece of steel going up is the topping out and usually what you do with -- different places do different things, like here in Newfoundland you put up a tree. We worked on a German hanger down in Goose Bay, it was the first time I’d seen it, and the topping out, the last piece of steel went up, we were the last guys up, I had a crew up doing the decking on it, right, and before the decking went down, we had the topping out party and that’s what we did, we put up a tree, on the end of the hanger, and decorated it almost like a Christmas tree.

Dale Jarvis: So where do you think that comes from, that tradition?

Dick Conway: I don’t know. I guess again, coming back to the fishing probably, the flags. Because again you set the flag on steel, the flag is usually welded at the end of the steel, whichever flag of the country, United States or Newfoundland flag.
The origins of the ceremony are uncertain but may trace back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites of placing a tree atop a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits displaced in its construction. The tradition was clearly linked to the building trades in the English-speaking world by the 19th century, and in 1900, a correspondent named Alice Milne noted in the journal Folklore that “when the first chimney is finished he himself [the builder] will have to give the men a pint of ale apiece, after which they will hoist a flag on the roof-tree. If they do not get the ale, they will likely hoist a black flag, and perhaps even refuse to work.”

A Richfest ceremony in Atlanta.

I’ll leave the final words to Mr. Ed Cray, who wrote the following in the journal Western Folklore in 1963:
“The ceremony has a solid basis in history. In ancient times it was traditional to appease the gods when a building was finished, sometimes with human sacrifices, also to exorcise any evil spirits which might have taken residence in the framework during construction. Bridges presented special problems and goaded the fears and superstitions of the ancients. John Warner of Bethlehem Steel found that Xerxes, the Persian military leader, blamed recalcitrant river gods for the collapse of a pontoon bridge over the Hellespont. To punish them the water was given 300 lashes and a pair of manacles thrown into the strait. In more recent times it became traditional to attach an evergreen tree or a sheaf of corn, flowers or a handkerchief to the final beam. At present a flag is usually hoisted to the top of the structure. Iron workers deny they're superstitious but they say it brings good luck.”
I suspect modern building inspectors would much prefer workers hoisting a fir tree to the top of a new building, rather than have to deal with the paperwork that a human sacrifice would create.

Happy Folklore Thursday, and good luck on all your new projects for 2018!

- Dale Jarvis


Cray, Ed. "Topping out" Buildings. Western Folklore, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Oct., 1963), p. 275.

Melnick, Scott L. Why a Christmas Tree? A look at the origins of “topping-out.” Modern Steel Construction: December 2000.

Milne, Alice M. 1900. "Customs in the London Building Trades." Folklore. (11): 457-458.

Penney, Nicole. “Memories of Working High Steel: Joe Lewis of Conception Harbour.” ICH Update No. 038: October 2012.

Rasenberger, Jim. High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Robinson, John V. "Topping out" Traditions of the High-Steel Ironworkers. Western Folklore, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 243-262.

Topping Out. Wikipedia.

The “Topping-Out” Ceremony.

Topping-out ceremony for Thales Germany HQ in Ditzingen

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Download the Architectural Inventory of Heart's Content Heritage District

In late November, the Heritage Foundation staff members travelled to Heart's Content to launch Architectural Inventory: Heart's Content Heritage District. This inventory was conducted by Eddy O'Toole, a past student with the foundation, and myself.

The inventory took months to research and compile; containing architectural inventories of the various pre-confederation properties in the Heart's Content Heritage District, as well as the intangible information that was learned through oral history interviews with older community members.

If you would like to read the inventory, click here to access the PDF.

-Katie Harvey

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Workshop on how to document old buildings! Nov 3rd and 5th.

The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Youth Heritage NL are co-organizing a workshop in field-recording for heritage buildings. The workshop will be lead by preservationist Emily Wolf and will cover field measurement (including US HABS standards), recording techniques, and documentary photography.

The workshop will take place in two sessions, from 7-9:30pm on Thursday, November 3, and from 11am-4pm on Saturday, November 5. The evening “classroom” session will take place at the Newman Building, 1 Springdale St., St. John’s. Techniques covered in the evening session will be practiced on-site during the afternoon session at the Squires Barn and Carriage House Registered Heritage Structure (part of MUN Botanical Garden on Mount Scio Road, St. John’s).

This workshop will be useful for architects and enthusiasts, folklorists, historians, or anyone interested in hands-on research in built heritage. The cost for this workshop is $10 and space is limited to 15 participants. No experience is necessary. Volunteers are encouraged to bring a camera (or a cell phone camera) to practice their architectural photography.

Warm drinks and snacks will be provided but do dress appropriately. The workshop will be rescheduled if the weather is uncooperative.

For more information contact Youth Heritage NL at or Michael at 709-739-1892 ext. 3.

Emily Wolf is a historic preservationist and lecturer in Boston Architectural College’s Master of Design Studies Program in Historic Preservation, teaching courses in architectural history and research and documentation. She formerly served as Architectural Historian/Assistant Survey Director at the Boston Landmarks Commission. A resident of St. John’s, she is a director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Wandering Pavilion - Call for Volunteers

We were asked by the folks at Wandering Pavilion if we could pass along their post!
We're looking for volunteers to collect stories using the Wandering Pavilion

The goal of the Wandering Pavilion is to empower individuals, groups and organizations to use architecture and urbanism to make their communities better. The pavilion brings people together to start a proactive and positive discussion about built environment, public space and community. What does your neighbourhood need, a vegetable stand? If so, what does that look like, where would it go? The Wandering Pavilion provides the physical building blocks to see what this would look like, it makes your ideas a reality for a brief period. This temporary installation serves as a catalyst to show people what their ideas look like and bring the people together who can actually make it happen.

In a similar style to the Story Corps project, we will be collecting stories at the Wandering Pavilion this summer from July 10-22 tentatively. We need people to help us get these stories. We'll have a list of questions focused on the built and natural environment that can help start conversation. We're looking for volunteers to fill one or more 3-4 hour time slots recording audio and/or sorting through the audio we receive.

To say thanks for helping out, we'll give you a certificate for a free lunch. To record the stories you'll be able to use the University's sound recording equipment. We'll use the stories we record to put together a podcast released as a season of a show called Sounds like an Earful. To confirm your participation and reserve a time slot please contact Emily Campbell at For more information about the Wandering Pavilion, visit our website.