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Architect Peter John Stokes brought heritage to life

Peter John Stokes’s last project was the 1861 stone farmhouse of Susan and Robert Mitchell in Sunderland, Ont., where he helped plant trees appropriate to the building’s era.

Robert Mitchell

It was the late 1970s, and Peter John Stokes was contacted by a student of urban and regional planning at the University of Waterloo.

Mr. Stokes was running a private practice as a consulting restoration architect out of his home off the main street in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The student, Paul Dilse, was interested in heritage buildings but finding few resources to help him learn about Ontario's historical structures. Georgian style, regency, neoclassical – "It was all mixed up in my head," Mr. Dilse said, "and there was no easy guide in those days, and nothing geared to Ontario."

Mr. Stokes invited him to visit, and so Mr. Dilse ended up being chauffeured around town by the architect as they looked at old buildings. He was the reference guide Mr. Dilse was looking for, a living encyclopedia eager to share his knowledge of the design, building methods, uses and lasting value of some of Ontario's earliest architecture. Mr. Stokes even had him over to his house for afternoon tea with him and his wife.

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"I had the whole day with him. He was so generous," Mr. Dilse said. "He gave a lot of volunteer time."

This inspiring encounter proved to Mr. Dilse that he, too, could make a living in the field. He went on to become a heritage planner, based in Toronto and working across central and southern Ontario.

A mentor to Mr. Dilse and many others, Mr. Stokes helped define and shape the field when he started his practice in Ottawa in the early 1960s. He was said to have been the first in the province to call himself a consulting restoration architect. Over a career that lasted until his death from natural causes at 87, on July 29, he left his mark on countless buildings in towns and cities from Ontario to New Brunswick.

Fuelled by his childhood experiences exploring historic abbeys, churches and museums in Britain, Mr. Stokes sought to save and restore this country's built heritage at a time when more people were interested in progress and looking forward than preserving the past. He had no interest in building new structures that replicated 19th-century architectural styles, nor did he have patience for sloppy renovations and adaptations of old properties. Firm in his opinions, unafraid to walk away from a project that wasn't going as he envisioned it should, he travelled the highways and byways of central and eastern Canada – often accompanied by his beloved wife, Ann – to visit and work on old buildings, consult with governments and educate the public.

"Being a consulting restoration architect was not so much a business enterprise for him. It was his passion and his way to engage with people," said Julian Smith, executive director of Niagara-on-the-Lake's Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, where students combine academic and hands-on work on a 13-acre National Historic Site.

Mr. Stokes had a hand in the school's founding seven years ago, and spent several days each year teaching there. Sharp-witted and demanding, he served up harsh criticism of poorly done work on heritage buildings, and wanted students to learn how to read, or understand, a structure. "He was able to go into a building he had never seen and interpret the way it was built," Mr. Smith said – from the trim inside (hand-planed in the early 19th century) to the bricks outside (the size denoting when and how they were made).

His stamp and influence can be found in buildings all over Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he lived for decades, and in Port Hope, Ont., where he spent the later years of his life. Among the many structures he worked on were the Grange at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Galt Town Hall in Cambridge, Ont., and the Old Carleton County Court House in Upper Woodstock, N.B.

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From his work in the early part of his career as a restoration architect at Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Ont., to the last home he consulted on, an 1861 stone farmhouse in Sunderland, Ont., he never strayed from his principles.

"When he started, he was sort of a lone call in the wilderness, in a way," said architect Phillip Carter. "… I think he was key to helping raise the awareness of heritage, not just among architects but the public in general."

York Minster's influence

Born in London, England, in 1926, Peter John Stokes was the only child of John Ansell and Irene Susan Stokes. His father worked as a sales manager for IBM in Yorkshire.

Peter showed an early interest in old buildings; his second passion was steam locomotives. On his summer holidays from school, his father would take him along on business trips and leave Peter to explore historic sites while he visited customers, "York Minster being a favourite haunt if not the railway museum, a close rival," Mr. Stokes wrote in a short autobiography.

Then came the war, and an IBM-sponsored program to send children of the company's employees to Canada. Peter arrived as a war guest in the fall of 1940. (He didn't go back to Britain until 26 years later, when reconnecting with a former girlfriend whom he'd met in Toronto, Ann Tompkins. They married in 1967.)

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After a difficult adjustment, Peter was placed under the guardianship of English-Danish architectural sculptor Jacobine Jones, who had a home studio in York Mills. Over her career, she created works for many public buildings, including the front facade of the Bank of Canada in Ottawa and the marble bas-relief in Toronto's Bank of Nova Scotia building.

Her influence furthered Mr. Stokes's exposure to art and architecture. After graduating from high school, he entered the University of Toronto's architecture school, graduating in 1953. He went to work for architect Howard Chapman, and in 1957 took the planning course at the University of Toronto.

His career path became defined when a colleague asked if he'd be interested in working on the development of Upper Canada Village in Eastern Ontario. Heritage buildings were being moved to the site before the flooding of villages to build the St. Lawrence Seaway. Mr. Stokes spent three years as a restoration architect on the project, travelling the area looking for mid-19th-century buildings for relocation and helping to restore them, "in a total immersion course in early building conservation," he wrote.

Upper Canada Village opened in 1961, and that year Mr. Stokes started his own business as a consulting restoration architect in Ottawa. He worked on the restoration and renovation of the South African embassy, and was hired by the National Capital Commission to survey buildings on Sussex Drive's Mile of History. He travelled across the country looking at buildings being considered by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, and completed a study in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a national inventory of historic buildings.

This led to his 1967 book, Early Architecture of the Town and Township of Niagara, published by the Niagara Foundation and reprinted last year to mark the organization's 50th anniversary. The reference guide became influential in the profession with its details on the architecture of local historic properties.

A new home base

It was in the town that served as the first capital of Upper Canada, rich with pre-Confederation buildings, that Mr. Stokes decided to make his home. When he arrived in the 1960s, Niagara-on-the-Lake was nothing like the quaint tourist destination it is now. "Niagara-on-the-Lake was a bit of a forgotten backwater," said the town's senior planner, Leah Wallace. "… Buildings were slowly dying and rotting away until Peter came and started work and brought other people with him."

Mr. Stokes took a traditional approach to historic buildings, she said, wanting to restore them to a certain point in time as authentically as possible. That could be an expensive and unpopular proposition, though, and he often found himself up against municipal governments, developers and property owners.

"It did become very frustrating for him in many ways because he was a stickler for perfection," Ms. Wallace said. "He was very passionate. I've seen him lose his temper. It was a sight to behold." But he was always quick to apologize afterward – his only interest was maintaining a high standard.

"A true restoration follows original methods and materials," Mr. Stokes said in a 1988 profile of him and his work in City and Country Home magazine. "Any deviation therefrom will cause you a problem – sooner or later. If you do something wrong underneath, it will come shining through on top."

His opinions could be surprising at times. Ms. Wallace said that while many people had a problem with the contemporary design of the post office nestled amid the historic properties on Niagara-on-the-Lake's Queen Street, he liked the building's look. Better that than an imitation of an old structure.

He brought the same attitude to Port Hope, where he and his wife moved after some four decades in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Always dapper and smiling, Mr. Stokes lived around the corner from Rod Stewart, who works on plaster conservation in heritage buildings. Mr. Stewart recalls Mr. Stokes's strong opposition to the replacement of the town's street lights with replicas that would be far bigger and brighter. "Authenticity was very important to Peter," he said.

'A perfect English gentleman'

During his career, Mr. Stokes volunteered with many organizations, was widely published and received several honours. In 1968, he helped found the Association for Preservation Technology International. He received the Heritage Canada Foundation's Gabrielle Léger Medal for lifetime achievement in heritage conservation. In addition to serving as president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, he was awarded the organization's first lifetime achievement honour, and had a restoration award named after him.

Mr. Stokes retired from his practice in 2005, but he continued to do what he'd always done, this time as a consulting restoration advocate – educating communities and councils on their built heritage, serving on volunteer boards and committees and examining old buildings to advise on their restoration.

His last project was the home of Susan and Robert Mitchell, clients who wound up becoming like family. The couple lived in Unionville, Ont., and had no intentions of moving when they saw an ad in the paper for an open house in Sunderland, 100 kilometres northeast of Toronto. Built in 1861, the two-storey stone building had plenty of charm. "We thought it was just about the most perfect house," Ms. Mitchell said. They bought it in 2007 and moved in two years later.

When trying to find someone to help advise them on building an addition, "all the roads led to Peter," she said. Mr. Stokes visited with his wife, Ann, and offered plenty of opinions on the state of the farmhouse. "It was in perfect condition, I thought," Ms. Mitchell said. "Once Peter got on site, we realized it was less than."

Drawing on a team of crafts-men, he oversaw the restoration of the farmhouse's front porch, chimneys and cove moulding, and even helped the Mitchells plant trees appropriate to the building's era. His architectural drawings were all done by hand – he didn't use a computer – and he considered them as much a craft and part of a building's heritage as the woodwork or masonry.

"Peter always arrived in a suit and tie. It didn't matter how hot it was," Ms. Mitchell said. "He was a perfect English gentleman."

Then there was the issue of the windows. The originals were single-pane glass with muntin bars separating the panes. But the building code required double-pane glass for energy conservation, which in turn would mean the muntin bars being an eighth of an inch thicker. "Peter was just horrified. Absolutely horrified," Ms. Mitchell said. So he had his window-maker create thinner muntins to fit the double-pane glass.

"He'd tolerate and listen and then do exactly what he wanted to do," she said.

Over the past couple of years, with Ann in a home suffering from Alzheimer's, Mr. Stokes spent part of most weeks with the Mitchells, becoming "so much more than an architect on a project," Ms. Mitchell said. "We miss him terribly."

Mr. Stokes was buried in the cemetery next to St. Mark's Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He had worked on the restoration of the 19th-century building.

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