McCulloch House in Pictou was built by Thomas McCulloch, probably about 1808. The bricks used were of poor quality, carried from Scotland as ballast in ships. They have not stood the test of time well. Repairs will keep the house closed for the next two seasons.
The house is pure Scottish, with walls that are harled, or rendered over and finished with pebble dash or paint.
THE REV. DR. Thomas McCulloch arrived in Pictou in November 1803, on
his way to Prince Edward Island. Delayed by ice in the Strait, he was
recognized by Pictonians as worth keeping, was called to a church and
never reached P.E.I.
McCulloch settled, bought land, ran a school, which became Pictou Academy in 1816, and finally built a house.
His students included some taking doctoral degrees in theology from Glasgow University. John Audubon visited him to view his collection of stuffed birds and declared it the best he had seen in North America.
McCulloch, minister, theologian, and educator, raised the standards of education in the province.
McCulloch was appointed the first president of the new Dalhousie College in 1838. He won the job despite a feud between non-conformists and Anglicans, focused on King's College's exclusive rights to grant theological degrees, thus eliminating Presbyterians from earning degrees in Nova Scotia.
His house in Pictou has been altered, but most remains and is of great interest. Like so many houses in the province it is of imported design, pure lowland Scottish middle-class cottage, typical of houses still to be seen in the town where McCulloch grew up. His choice of style is understandable if one accepts the need of the immigrant to build quickly based only on foreknowledge. What better than a usual house?
Unfortunately, the house would have been cold. Solid brick provides poor insulation and the open fires were inefficient, with typically 85 per cent of the heat passing straight up the flue.
As a home for a poor cleric-teacher, the house has a presence and scale in its setting which is much more than the average Renfrewshire kirk minister would have expected. Here is an internal finish in the woodwork well above the average standard.
In his letters from Mephibosheth Stepsure, published originally in the Acadian Recorder in 1822, we can still taste McCulloch's ascerbic wit, his satirical comments on society, and his critiques of those in charge, with parodies equal in their message as those of Jonathan Swift. Here is a man transported out of his context, who nevertheless carries on the practice of fine teaching and mind development, irrespective of location.
His house is interesting for the interpreter. Built most probably in 1808, the house is pure Scottish, built with bricks from England. These were of poor quality, rejected in England, and sold for ballast to the colonies. The walls are of brick, but each opening is framed in local stone, and so are the corners. This framing projects half an inch in front of the brickwork.
If one compares the typical houses in the area from which he came in Scotland, the walls are harled; that is, they are rendered over and finished with pebble-dash, or paint.
The bricks have begun to crumble in recent years from the action of moisture and frost, and so the house has to be repaired.
One feature that will be lost in repairs is evidence of the roof being raised. The end walls clearly show where the roof was raised, in the brickwork.
It appears that the roof was raised about 1907 when the house was rented out as a summer cottage.
The inconvenience of few bedrooms was a deterrent so the mansard roof was installed.
For the architectural conservationist, whose standard is "minimum intervention," the issues raised by a crumbling house are important.
In this case, would the house have been better off if the rules of conservation had been changed, so that the outer surface could have been harled?
As the house has failed to pass the test of time in its walls, and the water side has already been replaced, there is a possibility that the common language of the architecture from Neilston, Scotland, might have been more appropriate in an even more rugged climate.
That the bricks have failed to last is not surprising; rather we should be surprised that they have lasted so long.
While we might debate what Thomas McCulloch might have done in the same circumstances, there is always the problem of the stitch in time saving nine.
The compromise between the historical veracity of the form and the major change in unmaking a roof have to be balanced against the ability to pay and the need for historic authority.
Given the dilemma of owning an unfinished house dating from 1808, those in authority have made a decision to change as little as possible, even though this turns out to be a large change. For those of us interested in questions of historical integrity, building conservation and interpretation, at the present time we can at least record the present debate for the future, declaring our reasons.
The best part of the house is not its Scotch design, but the woodwork and panelling it contains, and the museum visitor should consciously absorb the stylistic connections to the Scottish origins.
From relatively humble beginnings, Thomas McCulloch rose to be a founding university president. His house captures him in mid-flight, reflecting the essential refinement of a man fit for high office, complex, sensitive and very deep.
The Chronicle-Herald: Sunday, August 23, 1998