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64 Aberdeen Ave. (Graham Crawford)
64 Aberdeen Ave. (Graham Crawford)

An exhibit of Hamilton’s mansions for the inner voyeur Add to ...

With video screens his stock-in-trade, Graham Crawford broadcasts seductive images of well-heeled Hamilton homes, sets them to a languid soundtrack and, while he doesn’t pay attention to syllable counts, writes a sort of architectural haiku that slides over those tableaux.

Label him a video-voyeur-slash-poet-slash-architecture-buff. Call him crazy. Just don’t call the police if you see him snapping photos of your house: he means no harm, and he’s got a gallery at 165 James St. N. to prove it.

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“I actually know most of the homeowners,” laughs the affable owner-curator of HIStory + HERitage. “They know not only that I’m a neighbour, but many of them know about my gallery – I’m no longer a crackpot.” On now until Dec. 14 at the tiny-but-powerful space is Mr. Crawford’s sixth architectural video-exhibit, The Grand Durand – Hamilton’s Mansions, which follows two successful shows on Hamilton’s mid-century modern homes, SLEEK and SLEEK II.

In preparation for The Grand Durand, the 58-year-old retired management consultant first pointed his camera at his own 1907 South Durand home at 1 Turner Ave. That way, when he asked other owners of late-19th and early-20th century mansions to follow suit, he could point to his own involvement. And speaking of suits, Mr. Crawford divided the 16 participating homes on streets such as Aberdeen and Ravenscliffe avenues, into five colour-coded areas – oxblood red, olive green, royal blue, mustard and grey flannel, like you’d find in any Beau Brummel’s closet – and assembled a video tour for each. The sixth screen provides an overview and history, including the years before development when there were only four grand mansions in the area (three of which are still standing).

When gallery-goers step into the cozy 12-by-50-foot storefront space, they’ll read introductory wall text by architect Ken Coit, who positions the neighbourhood as “infused with a culture of conservation and an understanding of the uniqueness of [the] homes.” This is due, he continues, to the “activism” of the Durand Neighbourhood Association, which celebrates its 40th year in 2012; this anniversary is one reason Mr. Crawford mounted the show, even though the neighbourhood has been on his radar since he was a 16-year-old living in a 1950s ranch home.

“That’s when I got my driver’s licence,” he says, “and was driving around that neighbourhood looking at houses because I just loved the architecture.”

This love has finally found an outlet with the Grand Durand videos. Onscreen, major architectural details, such as roof shapes and big stained-glass windows, or minor ones, such as door handles and newel posts, are treated with the same reverence, as slow pans and tight framing force viewers to linger much longer than they would while standing on a street corner or looking at realtor’s photos. “I think fundamentally people are just nosy,” he chuckles, and then quickly places his own nose in that category. “I want people’s appreciation of architecture to go up so that they fight harder to save this stuff in the future.”

To further convince viewers to enlist in that future architectural army, Mr. Crawford shares historical and folkloric information via easy-to-digest onscreen text. For instance, while admiring the ionic columns that hold up the front porch of steel executive Francis Whitton’s 1898 Queen Anne on Bay Street, one can’t help but notice the word “Norton” carved into the stone, with what looks to be a sliced off “ia” at the end. Seconds later, text reveals that the home was named after the Nortonia, the ship that carried the home’s building materials over from England, and further, that the “current owners do not know why, or how” the last two letters were removed.

Even better, while admiring painted ceiling panels at William Gillard’s 1877 stone house on Aberdeen Avenue, viewers learn a drop ceiling covered these beauties until the current owners (who purchased the home in 1989) had an electrician come over to hang a chandelier. He cut a hole in the ceiling, shone his flashlight into it, and, like Howard Carter in 1922 Egypt, told the owners to come and view the treasures inside.

The 1930 house of Joseph Pigott, of powerhouse Pigott Construction, has a strange and wonderful early air conditioning system, which used massive blocks of ice and a fan to send cool air through ductwork, and an enormous gas-powered clothes dryer that involved placing clothes into thin metal drawers. While these units were retired long ago, the homeowners appreciate them for the industrial sculpture that they are, says Mr. Crawford.

Two of the houses featured contain ghosts.

“I find architecture fascinating, and I could listen to endless facts and details about it,” offers Mr. Crawford, “but I think it’s adding this folklore that makes these richer stories.”

And to make sure they are accurate stories, professional archivist Robert Hamilton verified all construction dates, architects of record, and other assorted bits for each home, and Bill Manson contributed the historical overview of the neighbourhood.

With his unique curatorial style, Mr. Crawford’s The Grand Durand has succeeded, yet again, in bringing an esoteric topic down to street level by appealing to the inner voyeur in all of us. “I really want this to work for any person who walks through my door,” he finishes.

 

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