What are we to make of Saint John’s Church, VanKleek Hill? It is one of those rare houses of worship that defies all the categories of church architecture that architectural historians love to prate on about. Does it fit as an example of High Victorian Gothic Revival? No. Can we slot it in as an example of what used to be called Regency Gothic, with the lines of a Neoclassic building? Not really. What, then, is it?
Clues are found in the context. And context comes in four parts. First, the earliest services were conducted in the VanKleek Hill school in 1846, just two years after Holy Trinity Church was built at Hawkesbury. Second, the person holding services, significantly, was the Rev. John Travers Lewis of Hawkesbury. We are told Saint John’s Church was built in 1854 and the first service was held in it on 13 August 1854, by Lewis from Hawkesbury. Third, Saint John’s was put up just five years before the church at Hawkesbury was rigorously gothicized.
The fourth piece of context is the setting. The land on which the church was built was donated by Colonel Thomas Higginson, a prominent local patriarch. The church stands atop a ridge at the end of a grassy avenue of trees. What we can’t see is the round stone tower to the left of the church that is reputed to have been built as a fort at the time of the Rebellion of 1837, and later is said to have served as an astronomical observatory. In a word, the setting is Picturesque with historical overtones. VanKleek Hill was part of the Parish of Hawkesbury in 1854, with the other outstations being located at Alfred, East Hawkesbury (Barbe?), L’Orignal and Plantagenet.
Saint John’s, begun two years after Holy Trinity, Hawkesbury, eight years later copied much of the detail of that estimable house of worship here. We must surmise this for the simple reason that we don’t know exactly how Holy Trinity looked when built, before it was gothicized five years later in 1859. In short, VanKleek Hill seems to have copied the original pitch of roof at Hawkesbury, the large windows, the positioning of the entrance in the front gable wall, but instead of opting for the expense of building a tall tower and steeple from the ground up, plopped a square belfry with Greek details at its upper corners atop the front of the church roof.
By 1854 Neoclassic temples looked old-fashioned, but Gothic Revival had not yet made complete inroads. On this auditory box, high side walls imply a gallery over the door. For lack of a cross, large pointed arches declared this was a Christian house of worship. A small frame porch kept winter blasts out. The sole conceit was its expensive brick construction, as a cheap way of making brick had yet to be invented. When the expenses of construction were paid off, Saint John’s Church, VanKleek Hill was consecrated on 18 October 1863 by their old rector, now the first Bishop of Ontario, the Right Rev. John Travers Lewis.
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