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Crowning Glory: A Glance at Notable Roofs and Rooflines

Look at some of the roofs in your own town and you might be surprised at the diversity of forms and different materials used. Early Canadian settlers used whatever material was at hand and adapted traditional European building methods to local conditions. Simple plank and shake roofing, however, soon evolved into more complex forms such as the steeply pitched roofs of Quebec's French colonial buildings, or the gambrel roofs with flared eaves favoured by Dutch settlers. As people moved westward to the plains, where trees and stones were not readily available, early settlers often used sod walls and roofs to build their pioneer homesteads. Clock Tower, Parks Canada 2003 / L'Horloge de la ville, Parcs Canada 2003

After 1750, the Canadian colonies began importing cultural and architectural tastes from Europe including Palladianism, which was used mainly on public buildings and resulted in some interesting rooflines. One such landmark is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the glacis of Halifax Citadel. This is the splendid Town Clock (first built 1803). In true Palladian fashion, its rectangular base storey supports a three-tiered clock tower with round-plan colonnade, an octagonal clock storey with blue clock faces featuring copper hands and numerals, and an octagonal arcaded belfry crowned by a copper dome with a copper ball. Those arriving from Great Britain would certainly have recognized this familiar style.

Tinplate was a popular roof material for Québec churches and those often silver-painted roofs and spires that remain are extremely eye-catching.  The fire-proof qualities of metal as a roofing material also attracted English military engineers. Note for example Fort Frederick Martello Tower (1846), a massively built stone tower surmounted by a timber snow roof clad in sheet metal to protect the structure during a possible bombardment.

While rooftops can be practical, they can also be full of symbolism. The roof of the Sharon Temple (1825-32) carries a golden sphere that represents unity and peace, while twelve rooftop lanterns at the roof's edge symbolize God's light and also the twelve apostles.  Its three storeys represent the Holy Trinity.

By the mid-19th century many European Revival styles had been introduced to the Canadian colonies. Some roofs became so overloaded with eclectic details that specific influences are hard to define. Larger private buildings, churches and government buildings saw exuberant designs, many with vertical proportions, adventurous decorative treatments, multi-coloured brickwork and coloured slates.

One particular style that is filled with variation and freedom of form is known as the High Victorian Gothic Revival style. Buildings constructed in this style often have irregular silhouettes, and lively rooflines with numerous dormers, finials, decorative iron cresting and chimneys. The style is linked to Canada's emergence as a young nation, and was self-consciously distinct from the neoclassical style associated with the government in the United States. This found full expression in University College, Toronto (1856-59) and in the first Fuller and Jones' Parliament Buildings (1859-76) in Ottawa, partially lost to fire in 1916. Both featured decorative patterns in their roof-slates.  The Parliament Buildings in particular featured bands of green and yellow slate.

The Library of Parliament, which survived the fire's destruction, retains its spires and flying buttresses, but later had its decorative slates replaced with copper roofing. Its interesting form imitates a medieval chapter house and its complex polygonal roofline with decorative iron roof cresting forms an eye-catching element within the complex of government buildings.Craigdarroch, Parks Canada 1994 / Craigdarroch, Parcs Canada 1994

Slate roofing was at its most popular during the late 1880's. It was at this time that Craigdarroch was constructed in Victoria, B.C. This landmark residence asserted the owner's wealth and status by evoking a Scottish castle with grey sandstone walls, eaves and pediment trim, magnificent tall chimneys and a contrasting red-slate roofline with terracotta roof ridge and hip caps. It was also at this time that the Department of Public Works began to specify the use of galvanised iron and copper roofs for government buildings. As copper prices fell copper roofing increased in popularity replacing slate on the front of the Centre Block in 1890 and also on the new Langevin Block (1888-1890), both located in Ottawa.

Rooflines can also signal different cultural and social ties. One such place is the the Baroque Revival Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral in Montréal (1870-78). Inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, it offers an impressive roofline. The oxidized copper roof of the 77 metre high dome dominates the façade with its 13 statues. Its clear reference to Rome underscores its support of papal authority. Ukrainian Catholic Church, Govt of Manitoba Historic Resources Branch 2005 / Église catholique ukrainienne, gouvt de Manitoba, Direction de ressources historiquesThe cathedral's Baroque style breaks with the Victorian Neo-Gothic architecture of both Protestant and Catholic churches in Montreal during this period, helping to set it apart from these other Christian denominations.

The distinctive silhouette of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (1930-38) dominating the flat landscape of Springfield, Manitoba signals to the faithful that this is a place of worship. Built in the "prairie cathedral style" it displays one of the busiest and most flamboyant rooflines in Canada. Nine domes of various shapes and sizes compete in Byzantine stepped massing.Chinese Public School, City of Victoria 2005 / Ecole publique chinoise, ville de Victoria 2005

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Chinese Public School building (1909) in Victoria, B.C. makes direct reference to its cultural roots offering an eclectic blend of architectural detailing and Chinese characters with its unique pagoda-style roofline and tower. This freestanding two-and-a-half storey building is located in Victoria's Chinatown, one of the oldest in North America. It is distinguishable by the elements of its architectural design which contribute to its uniqueness. The building features trefoil fretwork in the second floor balcony, the orientalized bracketed eaves, and the first and second floor window muntin pattern, all of which are traditional Chinese forms.

Rooflines can also convey a clear message. Military strength and solid impregnability is implied by the roofline of Mewata Armoury (1917-18), Calgary's impressive example of militia architecture. This large Tudor Gothic style structure conveys fortress-like imagery with its roofline of crenellated battlements and turrets. It is a large, low-massed structure constructed of red brick with stone and sandstone trim, its Mewata Armoury, DND 1983 / Manège militaire Mewata, MDN 1983rugged façade conveys solidity and impregnability. The main entrance is a low central troop door flanked by projecting three-storey crenellated towers in the manner of fortress architecture. The building has small narrow windows, and small turrets complete with firing slits. The building's form is a clear reference to the function of this place.

The 20th century Modernist Movement rejected historical references and ornamental rooflines in favour of flat roofs, and plain, simple forms as well as novel rooflines full of expression and symbolism. Note the "hydrid" roofline of the Supreme Court of Canada (1938-40). Originally designed with a modern flat-roofed its exterior now has two distinct elements: the severe Classical granite clad base and the borrowed "château" roof, added by the architect at the federal government's request to maintain a vocabulary established by the Parliament Buildings located only a short distance away.

St-Louis-de-Gonzague Church, Bernard LeBlanc / Église Saint-Louis-de-Gozague, Bernard LeBlancA striking conical roof graces Vancouver's Museum and H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (1967-68). This expressive modernist design perhaps influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, reflects the optimism of space exploration in the 1960s. On the east coast, an animated roofline is provided by Saint Louis de Gonzague Church (1964-65) and its adjacent bell tower on Main Street in Richibucto, New Brunswick. The elegant roof is composed of twelve parabolic groin vaults containing stained glass windows. The form of this roof could be associated with the rolling waves of the nearby Atlantic Ocean or be reminicent of a scallop shell while the bell tower could be seen as a lighthouse - a beacon of hope for lost souls.

There are some noteworthy but overlooked features to be found on our historic buildings. Look up and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Check out the rooflines of our towns and cities as you walk around - just be sure not to bump into anything!


Brosseau, Mathilde.  Gothic Revival in Canadian  Architecture, Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, 1980.

Clark, Nathalie.  Palladian Style in Canadian Architecture, 1984.

Cullen, Mary.  Slate Roofing in Canada, 1990.

Kalman, Harold.  A Concise History of Canadian Architecture, 2000.

Maitland et. al.  Canadian Architectural Styles, 1992.