The Spider’s Spinning
by Marian L. Thorpe
Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground. — Frank Lloyd Wright
If you drive through the village of Campbellville, heading north to the racetrack, or south, perhaps to shop or work in Burlington, you may see, if your eyes are sharp, the small sign at the traffic lights, pointing east. Dougal Firth, Architect, Canyon Road, it says. By appointment only. Underneath, that is the phone number.
Occasionally, I know, people do see the sign, for they call. And one or two commissions have come to me in this way. But if you want me as your architect, you must come to me and brave the winding, narrow road that climbs to my house, for I rarely leave it. I did not build this house but, from the moment I crossed its threshold, and came to realize what it was, it has held me.
Long before I ever entered its doors, the house was famous. It clung to the side of the escarpment like a shelf fungus, octagonal in shape, suspended on the edge of the Nassagaweya Canyon, anchored in the living limestone. Its architect and builder had been one of Wright’s last students at Taliesin. The house, hanging cantilevered over rock and space, nearly three hundred feet above Limestone Creek, owed much to Fallingwater. No-one I knew had ever been inside.
In the summer of which I speak, I was a young architect with the beginnings of a good practice, gaining a reputation for designing houses sympathetic to their natural surroundings. After a major commission designing a theatre on the banks of the Otonobee River in Peterborough, my bank balance was reasonably healthy and, on that basis, I had contacted a real estate agent in the late spring with a request that he look out for a piece of land, preferably on the escarpment, where I could build or, failing that, a house in a similar situation that I could renovate and extend. I expected this to be a long search, given the limitations created by both the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the conservative maximum price I had given my agent. I was, therefore, surprised when, on checking my messages after a series of meetings, there was a text from my agent.
I called him, and he picked up immediately. “Dougal,” he said, “something’s just come across my desk. It’s not quite what you wanted,” he warned, “but I thought of you immediately.” I mentally prepared myself for an overpriced limestone farmhouse, the most-desired of local properties. “Do you know Tinsparad? That’s what the locals call it; I can’t pronounce its real name, it’s in Irish or something.” He paused.
“Tigh an Spiorad,” I said. “House of the Spirit. Scottish Gaelic, I believe. I know of it, of course, and I’ve driven up Canyon Road to look at it from the road, but that’s about it. Why?”
“It’s for sale,” he said. “Sutherland died a little while back, and the estate needs to be settled. There’s a pile of conservation easements and restrictions on the property, both the house and the land. You know it was built before the Commission had control? The old man didn’t want it messed with. He gave a lot of the land to the Conservation Authority before he died, but there’s still about ten acres around the house, as well as some on both sides of the entry drive.
“But it’s the restrictions on the house — heritage building and all that. So what it comes down to is that the buyer would have to hire you — or someone like you — to do the repairs and renovations, and that would probably price it out of most clients’ range.”
I thought about it. What could I lose in looking at it? Not only would I see an architecturally interesting house that perhaps none of my contemporaries — or even the previous generation of architects — had ever seen, but if I had some sense of it, structurally, then I would be in a good position to bid on any restoration work that arose. “I’ll look at it,” I said. “But I’m probably wasting your time.” We made an appointment for the next day.
Over the course of the evening, I researched what I could on James Sutherland and Tigh an Spiorad. There wasn’t much: the Wright-inspired personal home had been an aberration in Sutherland’s career, which had mostly been spent designing office and public buildings that owed more to Bauhaus than Taliesin. I did learn that he, like me, had made a trip to the outer islands of Scotland, to the windswept and rocky Orkneys, and the tiny islands that made up Shetland. The coincidence pleased me. Perhaps Sutherland was my conceptual predecessor, I thought.
At midnight, I gave up and whistled my dog, a border collie named Cuilean, out for his pre-bedtime stroll. We walked along sleeping streets for ten minutes, and then returned home to bed.
At three the next afternoon I met my agent at the foot of the long drive that climbed up the escarpment to the house above us. He arrived a minute or two after me, and we talked, after pulling off to the edge of the dead-end road.
“We can take my jeep,” I offered, noting his doubtful look at the pitted gravel drive and his own Lexus. He agreed and climbed in beside me. Cuilean sat obediently in the back as I swung the jeep around and, in low gear, climbed up the narrow road. Cedars and maples crowded close, and we negotiated several switchbacks.
Part of my mind noted the work needed to make the drive usable while wondering how it was kept ploughed in the winter, but mostly I focused on the driving, not wanting to take my eyes of the road to glance upward, toward the house. As we neared the top, Cuilean whined.
I pulled into the parking area and stopped. A few yards away, the house spread itself towards the edge of the escarpment. Low to the ground, with one side an open patio cantilevered over the escarpment edge and a second floor crouching on top of the first, it was sided in cedar board-and-batten, glowing silver in the afternoon light. What paint remained on window and door frames was a faded grey-brown, and the foundation was local limestone, probably quarried on site.
“Do you want to go in?” the agent asked. I shook my head.
“Not yet,” I said. “I want to look at the outside, get a feeling for the structure.” I whistled for Cuilean and began to walk toward the house. I was several yards away, beginning to examine the foundation for weaknesses, when I realized that the dog, usually completely obedient, was not beside me. I looked back. Cuilean was standing in the back of the jeep, head down, whining slightly, hackles raised. “Cu, come,” I said, my voice firm.
“What’s wrong with the dog?” my agent asked. I shrugged.
“He had a bad experience with a porcupine as a puppy. He can probably smell one; they’re common here.” As I spoke, Cuilean jumped down and slunk across the drive, clearly unhappy. He crowded beside me, still whining. I bent down, both to lay a hand on his head and to look more closely at the foundation.
“That’s odd,” I said. “Look, Mike, between these two stones: that’s the skull of something — maybe a rabbit?”
“How did that get there?” he said.
“It’s mortared into place,” I said, “so it was either put in when the house was built or during a later repair. Weird. But otherwise this foundation looks good, although I’ll need to see all sides.” We continued to circumnavigate the house. I could see significant cosmetic needs and a few structural ones: rotting sills, a loose foundation stone or two. I found another animal skull, and what appeared to be leg bones of something small mortared between the rocks. The dog hugged my side and ignored the chipmunks that skittered across the clearing.
The foundation of the eighth wall was hidden beneath the cantilevered patio: I would have to look at it from inside. Mike unlocked a door at the rear of the house, and we walked into a wedge-shaped mudroom, tiled in terracotta on walls and floor and holding a wooden bench, sink, and cupboards. “The tiles are from the old brick works down in Milton Heights,” Mike said. I nodded. The room was dank, but it was the dankness of neglect, not rot.
We walked through a kitchen, again wedge-shaped and unchanged from when it was installed, I thought, noting the rewiring that would be needed, and into a huge room: half the octagon. Narrow hardwood was laid parallel to the walls, creating a sense of expansion. Slightly wider boards ran from each corner of the room towards the wall behind me, sectioning the floor and pulling the eye outwards.
I walked over and looked out the huge art glass French doors. The concrete of the cantilevered patio was flaking, but there were no major cracks. Beyond the patio wall, twelve feet from the windows, the view was of the fields below and the rise of the escarpment wall again, to the east, at Kelso. At the beginning of summer, the trees and fields were a deep, rich green; Limestone Creek glinted in the sun.
“Wow,” I said, inarticulately.
“It’s something,” Mike said. “There can’t be another house in the region with a view like this; most of them look out towards the lake and Toronto. Here you mostly just see fields and horses and trees.”
I turned to look back across the room. Now the lines of the floor brought the eye in, to a huge fireplace dominating the wall. Its hearth, I noticed, was limestone, curving outward to make a semicircle in front of the fireplace. The surface of the limestone, varnished but not smoothed, was pocked with fossils, the shapes of long-dead sea creatures frozen beneath the varnish. I put my head into the firebox and looked up the chimney: blue sky shone above me.
“How’s it heated?” I asked Mike, who was turned, looking outward.
He hesitated. “Electricity,” he said. I winced. “There’s an old boiler in the cellar. The house used to be hot-water heated. Originally, there was a service drive coming in from the west, off the Guelph Line, or maybe off the base line, but that’s all Conservation land now. That’s how the coal truck would have come in. When Mr. Sutherland ceded that land to the Conservation Authority, he switched the heating over to electrical.”
“He didn’t keep an easement for the service road?”
“Don’t think so, but we’d have to check the titles to be sure,” Mike said. He looked at his watch. “I shouldn’t do this, Dougal, but seeing it’s you... I’ve got another appointment. Do you want to stay here, lock up when you leave, bring me the keys later? I can walk down to my car.”
I considered. “Sure,” I said. “I would like some more time.” He tossed me the keys and walked towards the door. Cuilean, who had flattened himself against the far windows and lay panting, raised his head expectantly as Mike opened the door.
“Stay,” I said to the dog. I looked up. The pattern of the floor was repeated in the beams and ceiling, tongue-in-groove cedar. The walls had been painted in the same greyish-brown as the window frames, and the paint was webbed with fine cracks. On the far side of the fireplace was the door that led upstairs. I opened it and climbed up the narrow spiral stairs to the second floor.
Copyright © 2017 by Marian L. Thorpe