If you have ever visited downtown Guelph Ontario and paused for even a moment to admire the Limestone-laden, Victorian era architecture, chances are good – really, really good – that Doug Burpee has had more than a little something to do with preserving the historic look and keeping the aesthetic alive and well.
Doug is a stone carver by trade, which certainly falls under the umbrella of stone masonry, but it’s even more specialized. By definition, stone carving is a controlled shaping of natural stone where the carver slowly, methodically and skilfully removes pieces, segments or even layers from a larger stone until the desired shape and size is crafted. Think of it like whittling wood, except it’s less of a pocket-knife hobby and doesn’t usually involve sitting in a rocking chair on a wrap-around porch with a nice cool glass of lemonade in reach. It’s a back-breaking, heavy-lifting, precision-intense trade that results in a type of accurate, intentional suedo-erosion. Needless to say, it’s not an easy trade to master.
“There’s a lot of architectural details around windows and arches and even figurative carving – tops of cornices, corners of buildings, gargoyles, etc.,” Doug explains.
It’s also not an easy trade to apprentice or go to school for. “They don’t really offer opportunities like they do for an electrical apprenticeship or a plumbing apprenticeship.” And unfortunately, as is the case with many trades, there are less and less people seeking it out, making good trades-folk harder and harder to find. But lucky for Guelph and the greater Waterloo region, we have Doug.
In his formative stone cutting years (pun intended), Doug was fortunate to begin honing his craft at one of the very few educational programs offered outside of Europe.
“Someone told me about a program being offered by a Scottish Stone Mason in Whitby Ontario – Bobby Watt – and that program began because there was a demand for restoration masons. And in restoration masonry there’s a lot of stone carving.”
From there Doug cut his teeth (and many of his first stones) working at the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, with a lot of time spent restoring the Peace Tower. But it’s Guelph Ontario where Doug has forged his career and made a name for himself. Burpee Stone Masonry is focussing on highly skilled craftsmanship in stonework in the Guelph community for over 15 years. Doug’s talents can be seen at just about every vantage point in the downtown core as he’s done restoration work on “pretty much every church in downtown Guelph.”
“We really like large restoration projects. And each year it’s sort of a different proportion of working on old buildings and working on new buildings. So we do all things in stone. Whether it’s doing an addition – actually building an addition on a house that was built 150 years ago in either limestone or granite and having to match that – the stone style and mortar style – that’s a huge challenge and we just love that.”
We prefer natural stone
A few more prominent locations on Doug’s resume in the region to note: for starters, the Basilica of Our Lady (formerly Church of Our Lady). You know that gorgeous cathedral-like structure that rests at the highest point in downtown Guelph with most major arteries leading to it – yeah, that one.
“We’ve been working there over the course of about 3 to 4 years – actually 8 years, really starting with the reconstruction of the front steps, restoring different parts of the church a variety times, different walls.”
And then there’s the current reconstruction and restoration of the Elora Mill, which when finished will become one of the most sought after wedding venues in Ontario and once again, become a highlight attraction in the beautiful small Victorian village that attracts thousands of tourists every summer.
“So the stone that we’re using came from an old church from Hamilton and it was brought over and dumped across the river. Last winter we went and sorted all of the usable stone – we sorted about 250 skids of stone all by hand, through the winter breaking the snow and the ice off of the stone piles.”
Oh and of course, there’s one of Doug’s most recent and newsworthy jobs completed, the restoration of the Petrie Building on Wyndham Street in Guelph. The Petrie Building is clad in machine-stamped metal, built in 1882. It is Canada’s last remaining example of this unique pre-1890 style of architecture.
“It was designed by architect John Day for businessman A.B. Petrie, who ran a pharmacy on the ground floor. Petrie was an entrepreneur, community leader, bank president, and city councillor.”
So what’s driving the need and desire for this important restoration? There’s an interesting juxtaposition that is currently happening in the startup world. In an era where the remote worker is becoming more and more commonplace, the demand for large, open, high-ceilinged workspaces conducive to a productive and enjoyable team atmosphere is also on the rise. The truth for most downtown cores is that you aren’t going to be able to put up new buildings for every new venture. Which means the existing spaces – the manufacturing buildings that have stood for well over a hundred years – become the sought after spaces – and restoration and reconstruction plays a key role in making that a revitalized reality.
And almost as important as the skilled tradespeople who meticulously restore these buildings to their former glory are the municipalities, companies and private investors with the foresight (and pocketbooks) to back these important projects. And in the cases of the aforementioned Burpee projects, the Diocese of Hamilton, Pearle Hospitality and the Tyrcathlen Partners deserve a big shout-out.
Through restoration, these buildings are allowed to continue to bring architectural beauty and relevance to our cities, while in many cases housing the newest and brightest ideas of the day. Or in the case of the Petrie building – a fantastic place to buy someone a delicious cold one. Kudos Doug, for keeping it real – real stone that is.