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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)
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)

Obituary

Architect Peter John Stokes brought heritage to life Add to ...

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.

“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.

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.”

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