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What makes up the Waterloo Vernacular residential architectural style?

Inspired by the City of Waterloo Museum’s fantastic exhibit on our different residential architectural styles in Waterloo, this next Foundations post will examine our very own vernacular architecture. But first, what does “vernacular” mean?

Vernacular buildings are those built to suit local climates and conditions, and can be vernacular in local style and/or the use of local materials. In Waterloo, the style is typically from the late nineteenth century and often features 1.5-storey dwellings with a front gable roof, asymmetrical front entrance, and segmentally arched (round topped) windows and doors. While some Waterloo Vernacular dwellings were very plain, others displayed decorative wood details known as “gingerbread” under the eaves and on their front porches. It was a style popular with German and other European settlers.

65 Dorset St

65 Water (Dorset) Street, a Waterloo Vernacular style dwelling located in the MacGregor-Albert Heritage Conservation District.

John English, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus with the Department of History, University of Waterloo, attributes the uniqueness of Kitchener’s architecture (which is similar to Waterloo’s) to the city’s German heritage. In his book Kitchener: An Illustrated History, English notes “They were solid, practical homes, with a…verandah or a “stoop” at the front entrance. There was none of the “aspiring, imaginative feeling” often associated with the Gothic, pointed styles of architecture. Nor did they have the solid rustic appeal of the contemporary communities such as Galt or Guelph which had been settled by Scots. The homes of Berlin’s workers were plain, unadorned and generally often lacking even such modest detailing as return eaves to balance the main gable or façade facing the street.”

An example of the Waterloo Vernacular style can be found at 65 Water (Dorset) Street. It is one in a series of Waterloo Vernacular dwellings located in the MacGregor-Albert Heritage Conservation District, although the style can be found throughout the city. This particular dwelling was built in 1886 by John Letter, a local mason who built many homes and factories in Waterloo. It features buff brick, made from yellow clay. Buff brick was produced locally and predominated west of the Niagara Escarpment prior to 1870, at which point the railways made bricks increasingly mobile. In Waterloo, clay had been the cheapest form of durable construction material, leading to the use of temporary kilns and an early brickyard.

65 Dorset St (historic)

A historic photograph of the Waterloo Vernacular style dwelling at 65 Water (Dorset) Street. Photo: Brenner Family.

Although very common, buff brick was not the only construction material used with this style of dwelling. Richber House, designated under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act, is a rare and early board and batten example of the Waterloo Vernacular style. The structure’s battens are individually moulded and topped by capitals which are connected by arches. The dwelling features typical elements of the architectural style, including its 1.5-storey height, front gable roof and an asymmetrical front entrance, which has been enclosed.

Richber House

Richber House, an early and rare board and batten example of the Waterloo Vernacular style, located at 222 Mary Street.

Styles that are similar to Waterloo Vernacular can be found elsewhere, such as in New York State and Pennsylvania. Early Waterloo Township Mennonite pioneers were from several Pennsylvania counties, mainly Lancaster County and Montgomery County. Where else have you seen dwellings that are similar to our Waterloo Vernacular architectural style?


Kitchener: An Illustrated History by John English

Looking for Old Ontario by Thomas F. McIlwraith

Waterloo Township through Two Centuries by Elizabeth Bloomfield