Ruins in the Ontario landscape, part two

Ruined structure
Run-down, collapsed building in field

We’re ruminating on ruins, exploring the meaning and value of Ontario’s ruined structures.

Part of ruins' appeal is their perversity. The very existence of a ruin seems to defy the norms of a society where land is real estate, its value determined by the real estate market. Not functional or useful through this lens, a ruin has no worth. What “value” it has is basically aesthetic and historical.

In the common lexicon:

  • “building” signifies a structure that gives shelter within which a human use can operate
  • “abandoned” or “derelict” building means one which isn’t used but retains the basic prerequisites for use — especially a roof; this is an intermediate stage on the transition to …
  • “ruin,” a structure that has lost, usually irretrievably, its ability to shelter or maintain use — and is therefore use-less.

Neglected farm structure entrance
Farmhouse, near Iona, Ontario

As we well know, without active use an old building can go downhill fast and the normal outcome is demolition and replacement, skipping the ruin stage entirely.

But now and then a building reaches the point of no return, and is just allowed to keep going — through a long falling-down process into ruination and, unless there is some form of intervention, ultimate dissolution and disappearance. [1]

The most common example in our landscape is farm buildings

Demolished barn foundation and chimney in field
Barn foundation, near Campbellville, Ontario

Old, unused barns start to lose their siding; then more and more pieces fall away. The timber structure with its massive beams can survive for decades before complete collapse. Eventually what remains are stone walls, foundations, often a cement silo.

Stone silo in background of cornfield Silo, near Shakespeare, Ontario

Two roofless stone arch doorways with silo behind, surrounded by grassStone barn, near Eden Miils, Ontario

Farmhouses are sometimes left to rot away too.

Neglected stone barn in background of field with treeFarmhouse, near Campbellville, Ontario

Neglected ruins of farmhouse in field with fence in frontFarmhouse, near St. Agatha, Ontario

And what’s left of old stone walls and rail fences — these too are remnants and reminders of our farming past. [2]

Forest with fence surrounded by trees and branchesFence in the woods, near Bobcaygeon, Ontario

Instead of a protracted mouldering-away, the ruinous state can come suddenly, the result of a precipitating event like a fire or other calamity that destroys the building. Old mills especially were notoriously subject to fires. Economic conditions and changing technology sometimes meant it was not feasible to rebuild a mill following a conflagration, and if no other use for the property presented itself ….

Ruined stone walls of a mill, roofless foundation and degraded walls with forest in backgroundMill, Rockwood, Ontario

Fire was also the culprit in the creation of what is perhaps Ontario’s most spectacular ruin — the hulking shell of St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church northeast of Cornwall.

Neglected church ruins, walls intact, roofless, with graveyard in frontSt. Raphael's Church, St. Raphael's, Ontario

Unlike many of the ruins we’ve looked at, the “open air museum” that is St. Raphael’s today is the result of major intervention. After the church, built in 1821, burned 150 years later in 1970, the Ontario Heritage Foundation (now Ontario Heritage Trust) was responsible for the stabilization and restoration of the surviving stone walls and the landscaping of the site. The magnificent National Historic Site is protected by one of the first OHF heritage easements. [3]

Church transept, stone wall with windows, no roof and stairsTransept, St. Raphael's, courtesy Cathy Nasmith

Church nave, interior view of neglected walls, foundation with grassNave, St. Raphael's


Note 1: The frequent use of the word “fall’ in describing ruins reminds us that there is something about a ruin which implies a losing battle with the force of gravity. In fact, “ruin” is derived from the Latin verb ruere, to fall.

Note 2: Fences figure in another part of Al Purdy’s poem, “The Country North of Belleville”:

And where the farms have gone back
to forest
are only soft outlines
shadowy differences –
Old fences drift vaguely among the trees
a pile of moss-covered stones
gathered for some ghost purpose
has lost meaning under the meaningless sky

Note 3: For (much) more on heritage easements see the four-part OHA+M series beginning “Heritage easements 101 — Easements come to Ontario.”

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About Dan Schneider

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Dan Schneider is a heritage enthusiast, policy wonk, writer and professional heritage consultant. Formerly senior policy advisor with the provincial culture ministry, Dan has much experience with the Ontario Heritage Act and heritage policy issues. A lawyer by training, he was lead policy expert on major changes to the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005 and 2006. His advice is frequently sought on questions related to Ontario's legislative and policy framework for heritage. Based in St. Marys, Ontario, Dan is Principal of Dan Schneider Heritage Consulting. He can be reached at