Category Archives: Bricks & Mortar

Everything Changes: Shooting the Domtar Lands

Since mid-winter, I’ve had the pleasure of photographing the Domtar lands with a team of volunteers from the Workers History Museum in Ottawa.

Windmill Development Group, Inc. is poised to re-develop the land which has been home to pulp and paper giants E.B. Eddy and Domtar since 1891. Because of the placement of the buildings, there isn’t much of a view of Chaudiere Falls from the street. However a few interior windows provide a broader look at the topography. It takes little imagination to see why this land – islands in the middle of the rushing river between Ottawa and Gatineau –  is the most coveted real estate in the city and a traditional sacred site for the Algonquin people.

Our work is an exercise in documenting and cataloguing. It requires systematically photographing each building from top to bottom, beginning with overviews (ceiling, walls, floor) followed by detail work, including room and object measurements. It’s intense and methodical work that requires us to always keep moving forward. Taking part in the project meant developing some new habits: I needed to slow down, use a tripod, and become more measured in my approach. It was the perfect excuse to dig deeper into my camera’s manual and stretch beyond my photographic comfort zone.

But because too much work and not enough play makes Jack a dull boy, we steal the occasional break to take advantage of the light, shadow play and textures which are ubiquitous inside and out. It’s like recess when we pause at a logical place, set our white boards and measuring tapes aside, and run around like kids, exploring with our own personal mind’s eye view. Today, working outside in the sunshine, an enormous pool of overhead light became a natural theatre set. It didn’t take much arm-twisting to marshall the boys into the spotlight.

Photographing the Domtar lands

And then it was my turn. Paul directed me forward by a foot and I became a glorious shadow. The best things about hanging with other photography enthusiasts? You don’t have to explain the rule of thirds or tell them what button to press. They see what you see and more.

Andrea Cordonier

Most of the buildings we’ve explored are astonishing and dream-like; patinas, colours, markings, signs, graffiti, textures, the old-growth timber beams and even the detritus add to the delight. It’s every urban explorer’s dream-come-true because of the shear volume of everything. For my first few shooting days I was overwhelmed, my vocabulary reduced to a monosyllabic “Wow!”

The team has been working for nine months and Paul Harrison, the project lead, anticipates it will take another six or so to reach completion. We are fortunate to be part of the living history of the place, creating a snapshot in time when everything about the land and buildings is about to change.

Here are two mini-galleries to compare and contrast between our mid-winter shoots, deep in the bowels of the buildings, and today’s spring foray to shoot exteriors. Winter was particularly intriguing because of its steam heat fogs, massive icicles dangling outside the windows, icy pools trapping bits of interesting objects, and the sculptures created by the hot drips of leaking pipes landing on the frozen floors.

But spring offers its own delights and a different kind of visual treasure-hunting. I can hardly wait to see what comes next.

Further reading:

A Day in the Life of a WHM Volunteer at the E.B. Eddy Mill – Part 1
A Day in the Life of a WHM Volunteer at the E.B. Eddy Mill – Part 2
A Day in the Life of a WHM Volunteer at the E.B. Eddy Mill – Part 3
A Day in the Life of a WHM Volunteer at the E.B. Eddy Mill – Part 4

Ellis Island: JR and the Art of Immigration

The United States, like Canada, is a country of immigrants. Between 1892 and 1954, twelve million citizens of other nations landed at Ellis Island seeking asylum in their new homeland. Close to 40% of Americans can trace their genealogy through these early immigrants.1

There are two kinds of Ellis Island tours available. The first is a free audio tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and is included in the general $18 ferry ticket. (Note: most of the museum’s artifacts have been removed due to water damage incurred during  Hurricane Sandy.) The ferry also makes stops at the Statue of Liberty, but does not include admission to the top of the statue.

The second, a 90-minute docent-led tour, permits access for a limited number of guests to the unrestored hospital and some of the other buildings that are not open to the general public. Within these buildings, French artist JR has installed photographs of some of the immigrants who passed through the hospital, breathing new life into the space.

I was really at Ellis Island to access the JR tour. Not only do I like exploring abandoned buildings, the subject matter is particularly relevant to my field of interest: the relationship of people to their homes and communities. And while I wholly subscribe to the idea of Ask and you shall receive, on occasion – and much to my chagrin –  I don’t always get what I want.


Me: Hi. I’m in from out of town and I really want to see the J.R. art tour of Ellis Island.

Her: Do you have a ticket?

Me: No. I called this morning but no one called me back.

Her: You must buy tickets in advance.

Me: I tried, but I thought I’d just come down and see if there’s a “no show.” There are always no-shows, especially on an awful day like today. I’m happy to pay.

Her: You can’t do that.

Me: Why not if there’s room?

Her: Those are the rules.

Me: Ummm, is it a security thing?

Her: Those are the the rules.

Me: But there’s always a way around things.

Her: (Laughs) There’s no way around this. I’m the person you have to talk to. You have to call Statue Cruises. And all the tours are sold out through next month.

Me: So I guess I have to be a local or on a foreign tour that books months in advance? So much for accessibility.

Her: (stares)

A few minutes later, Buddy In a Dark Suit is standing next to me while I photograph the Great Hall.

Over the years, millions of people have passed through the old hospital at Ellis Island on their way to freedom in America. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be one of them.


Here’s a peek at the JR tour:

And a photo tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum:

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
The more things change…
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
All immigrants climbed these stairs. Doctors, placed along their lengths, were quickly able to identify disabilities and other health problems. They would be chalked accordingly.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Great Hall which, at first, contained livestock-like pens, then later, long wooden benches. The typical immigrant spent 3 to 5 hours here prior to release.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Detainee bunks
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Graffiti-covered walls
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Window of Freedom

Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Additional Reading:

The Library of Congress: Topics in Chronicling America – Ellis Island Interactive Tour of Ellis Island

History Channel: This Day in History – Ellis Island

New York Public Library: Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed on Ellis Island


Tyndall Stone: Hidden in Plain Sight

A few weeks back I was taking my morning coffee on the expansive patio of a friend’s house in Winnipeg. My bare feet had graced this space a number of times, but I had not, until just then, grasped the obvious: I was walking on fossils – a LOT of fossils – which are 450 million years old.1

XCTyndallStonePatio Tyndall Stone Patio XCTyndallStonePatio-8 Tyndall Stone TyndallStone Tyndall Stone Tyndall Stone Tyndall Stone

It’s called Tyndall stone, a dolomitic limestone quarried about 40 kilometres north of the city in the Gillis Quarry at Garson, Manitoba.  It’s famous for its cream colour (the limestone) and striking mottling (the dolomite) caused by the burrowing of marine creatures during its creation.

It contains gastropods, brachiopods, cephalopods, trilobites, coral, and stromatoporoid fossils.2

Several Tyndall stone buildings number among my favourites: the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, the Manitoba Legislature, the Museum of Civilization (History) and the Empress Hotel in Victoria.  So how, I ask myself, can I NOT have known about the fossils? What have I been so busy looking at that they didn’t sink in? My ignorance underwhelms me.

The stone is fascinating and beautiful beyond compare and, apparently, ubiquitous in these parts. Once I knew what I was looking at/for I began to see it on buildings, walls and pavers everywhere.  An architectural tour of Winnipeg’s Tyndall stone buildings can be found here.

Talk about a living museum.

TyndallStone TyndallStone

Further reading:

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Canada Rocks: The Geologic Journey, by Nick Eyles and Andrew Miall

Tyndall Stone, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation 





Would You Let This Man in Your House?

I happen to catch him on the phone.

“I’m passing the prison farm at the moment,” he tells me.  “I’ll be right there.”

“Great,” I reply. “I’ll put on some pants.”

Less than four minutes later Doug Phillips is through my back door and the kettle is whistling. Ostensibly, he’s here to talk about chimneys, fireplaces and wood inserts, but ten minutes on we haven’t left the kitchen. We’ve exhausted Six Degrees of Separation and are moving to Guess My Profession.

In Doug’s case, what you see is not exactly what you get.

While the trades own his hands, the other parts of his mind, body and inner workings belong to the theatre. An actor and playwright, he came to his avocations just six years ago, with an energy and passion that could swamp a less sturdy listener. (Luckily for both of us, theatre is another of my favourite topics.)  He apologizes for his scruffy appearance and scrolls through his phone to show a poster for his upcoming production, Empire of Dirt. Yup, it’s him alright.

He says he doesn’t write sweetness and light and he’s not that into Shakespeare. What he  loves are the difficult, modern stories of painful experience, of the nitty-gritty homeliness swept under the couch. In Empire of Dirt, there is grittiness in spades: When Derek, a husband, father and alcoholic becomes dependent on prescription drugs, how will his wife and daughter survive this new dynamic?

Doug leaves, running late for a client who’s had the nerve to book an appointment. I feel no guilt about being a buttinsky and jacking his time. He is the second of four strangers who have walked in my door, hailed me over, engaged in conversation, or sat down next to me just this week.

And what I’ve been reminded of is this: Strangers give something, take something and create something utterly unique for each of us. They are our Scheherezades and our Solomons. They are not stones that we trip over, but the treasure we search for.

The thing is, with strangers, you can only meet them if first you let them in.

Empire of Dirt


The Lost Villages of the St. Lawrence

Lost Villages St. LawrenceThe vintage homes and buildings look picturesque and inviting under the winter sky. They’re clustered together, in traditional village style, interlaced with Christmas-like trees frosted with snow.

But what I see is not a real village. The clapboard church, barbershop, school and other buildings grouped by the side of County Rd. 2, near Long Sault, Ontario, arrived on the backs of transport trucks from living villages, now long dead, drowned by a risen St. Lawrence river. They are silent shells of their former selves, stranded in a tiny park, miles from their homes.

In post-war Ontario, the possibilities of hydro-electric power generation and deep draft navigation – of major industrial progress – trumped the personal histories of 6,500 souls living on the north shore of the St. Lawrence near Long Sault Rapids.  A 26-metre drop of the river was a natural fit for two power stations that would straddle the border, generating electricity for Ontario and New York State. The encompassing Moses-Saunders Power dam would play a key role: It would control the flow of water to the turbines and help maintain critical water levels in the river. Combined with an improved lock system, the river would become the St. Lawrence Seaway, an engineering wonder, capable of accommodating the world’s largest freighters.

But the projects couldn’t be achieved without the planned flooding of private property, of homes, communities and farms adjacent to, and upstream of, Long Sault Rapids. Residents would have to be moved.

In 1954, with bi-lateral project agreements in place, the process of land expropriation began. Expropriation “describes the right of the government (the Crown or one of its agencies) to legally take real property (land), that is in private hands and apply it for a greater public use or benefit.”1

According to the terms of Ontario’s Expropriations Act “Where the land of an owner is expropriated, the compensation payable to the owner shall be based upon: a) the market value of the land; b) the damages attributable to disturbances; c) damages for injurious affection; and d) any special difficulties in relocation”2.

There seemed to be no question of opposing the St. Lawrence project, or objecting to the relocation sites. The plan had massive government and industry backing in an era when people still believed politicians knew what they were doing and bosses were to be obeyed.3 

Many traded old homes for new ones in the purpose-built communities of Long Sault and Ingleside. These homes had furnaces, indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences, their communities – paved streets, sidewalks and shopping malls. Others opted to cling to their sliver of history. More than 500 homes were transported to new locations.4  The remaining were bulldozed or burned. The village of Iroquois was reconstructed, and repopulated, 1.5 kms north of its original townsite. 

On Canada Day, 1958, the plug was pulled on a cofferdam that held back the waters of the St. Lawrence. It took four days for the river to swallow nine villages along its banks: Aultsville, Dickinson’s Landing, Farran’s Point, Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Santa Cruz, Wales and Woodlands. One hundred square miles of habitable and arable land became Lake St. Lawrence in just 96 hours. The local Akwasasne Mohawks were impacted, in a number of ways, by this loss.5

That same year, hydroelectric generation began. In 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened for business.







Additional Resources:

“The Lost Villages”: Writer Tony Atherton’s multi-media project documenting the stories of people affected by the expropriation  

The Lost Villages Historical Society




  4. “The Lost Villages”, Ottawa Citizen 


I Have Shingles



“You must be so excited to get it done?” most people ask, a reasonable question after two years of exposed insulation, peeling windows, and flapping Typar.  But I scramble for an answer. “What I love most is the adventure,” I tell them, which isn’t enough. There is no possible pat answer for a project underway for more than a decade that weaves so many carefully considered parts of my life into one.

So the long answer to what I love more than the idea of closure is this:

I love being outside all day. I love the changing leaves, the flocks of migrating birds, and the muted grey-blue of the river under an autumn sky.

I love the constant contact with my neighbours, the daily dog parade, the enthusiasm of Sharon our bus driver, and the exchanges with strangers who pause to watch the show.

I love the paint scheme so intensely I cannot look away.

I love that I found the scheme on a building in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia when my babies were small and I’ve carried it with me ever since.

I love that I designed and planted all my gardens with these particulars in mind.

I love that I went to trade school for construction carpentry. I love that this “fancy dress” marks the culmination of my (self-induced) apprenticeship.

I love that I have had to, and continue to have to, figure out all the minute details, fix mistakes, and really nail the “money” cuts.

I love the brainwork that takes me so deep into myself that other parts of my life have temporarily disappeared.

I love the rippling of my biceps when I dead-lift a ladder twice my height.

I love being physically spent at the close of the day and sleeping the sleep of the dead.

I love that it says “I can do this” and, more importantly, “I can do way more than this, too.” I love that my confidence and skill are, for the moment, in perfect alignment.

I love the power I feel because “I get it.”

I love showing my daughter what is possible. I love that my boys see this as normal.

I love working alone. I love problem-solving and whinging with my carpentry-inclined friends.

I love that winter is almost upon us and I have a compulsory completion date that looms large and real. I love not knowing if I’m going to get snowed in.

I love the press of useful work. I love that some doors have slammed shut and I am unable to move anywhere but forward.

I love dreaming of house-swapping for bucket list locales.

I love the mind-blowing, soul-expanding promises of what’s to come.

I just love the whole damn thing to bits.


Eats Shoots and Frames

I couldn’t have ripped-off a better title for today’s piece.

This week I sandwiched the framing of a friend’s bunkie between shooting the glories of summer on Waupoos Island, Prince Edward County. The county is a renowned foodie heaven, overflowing with traditional farming, artisanal food producers, cideries, vineyards and fine craft, all underpinned by the history of the United Empire Loyalists.  Fortunately, a work focus provided the blinders I needed to keep from dashing off madly in all directions.

By their nature, small islands, like Waupoos, are cut off from the rest of civilization. This is a slow-life blessing or an inconvenient curse, depending on the point of view. Everything has to be hauled onto and off the island, more than a kilometre from the mainland.  Christoph makes the supplies list – 3/4″ plywood, concrete footings, PL, and 30 kg bags of stonedust – and fires up the barge, which manoeuvres like a leaden football field. God forbid we should forget something.

Eats Shoots and Frames
Christoph steers and docks with admirable patience

Off we go, first to Waupoos to pick up the van, then on to the Home Hardware in Picton. Back we come, unloading and humping the materials up the embankment to the work site.

After two days we have levelled and re-laid the concrete footings, sheathed and screwed the floor, and framed and sheathed the last two walls.  I recruit the other adults for the wall-raising the next morning at 9:30am. An hour later the four walls are up and secured. My work here is done.

Eats Shoots and Frames
End of a good first day
Eats Shoots and Frames
All hands on deck
Waupoos Island Bunkie-10
Oh yeah
Eats Shoots and Frames
Tired. Unwashed. Content


The Most Magical Apartment in Paris

Built in 1407 and reputed to be the oldest house in Paris (though other buildings claim that title), this abode has a mystical history. Harry Potter fans should take note: this was the real-life home of Nicolas Flamel, the alchemist whose sorcerer’s stone is the source of immortality in the popular book series. A wealthy scribe, merchant, and dabbler in the mystical arts, Flamel willed his home to the city as a dormitory for the poor, on the condition that boarders pray daily for his soul. Today, the building is home to apartments and a restaurant.  – Fodor’s Travel Guide, Paris

There was definitely some magic to how my brother-in-law Marco and his partner Rod came to live in Nicolas Flamel’s house in Paris.

Paris is choc-a-bloc with architectural eye candy and with creative and interesting people scrambling for creative and interesting living spaces.  The market is very competitive, made more difficult for foreigners, like themselves, without a local history of rent-and bill-paying. Would-be renters rely on credentials, luck, timing and, according to Marco, the ability to charm the keys out of owners’ hands.  It’s about flattery, connection and the weaving of tales that convince them that you are “the one.”  North Americans might consider this manipulation.  In France, it’s the everyday business of seduction.

Whether it was his inherent charm, good looks and style, impeccable French,  personal history, or educational pedigree, he and Rod won the the rental lottery.  And they have been kind enough to share this wealth with those of us who are more geographically challenged.

Unlike the hordes of Harry Potter fans who huddle outside gazing up, I had the good fortune this summer to explore the unique characteristics of the apartment building I’d heard so much about.


Dance of the Appliance Delivery Men

I’d rather be buying art

The moment I touched the Haagen-Dazs carton I knew it was all wrong. Ice cream doesn’t normally make lapping sounds when you pick it up:  it just sits there looking good.  Our 14-year-old refrigerator had clearly lost its mojo.

There had been warning signs of imminent failure. The previous Saturday, Husband and I had a date with several appliance stores.  I stood in the corners, arms crossed, glowering at the salesmen who made the tragic mistake of assuming the Little Lady loved to shop.

“I want a SMEG.  Go talk to my husband,” I grunted and pointed to the tall guy examining the specs.  I want to spend money on appliances like I want a hole in the head, particularly when there’s so little real choice.  But in reality, fridges occupy the same utilitarian plane as toilets: mostly impossible to live without.

I spent the week in denial until the ice cream episode on Friday afternoon.  On Saturday morning Husband, again, made the 45-minute trek to the appliance store to solve the issue once and for all.  Corbeil Appliances had two in stock and offered next day delivery.

Just after 7:00am on Sunday morning we received the confirmation call and by 8:00am the elegant orchestration had begun.  Cue the music.

Delivery Man 1, all courtesy, efficiency and charming Quebecois accent, flies through the house, measuring tape in hand, to confirm door openings and set the scene. His movements are fluid and efficient and his body is in perpetual motion.  He’s had nine years, he tells me, to master his technique.

Delivery Man 2, in the meantime, has worked the truck single-handedly, stripped and prepped the fridge and and freezer, and positioned them on the curb.

Together they sling one large loop of thick, woven belt across their two bodies and simultaneously lift and remove the old fridge and return with the new one.  They shuffle-run with a 300-pound behemoth between them, mirror images of one another, effortlessly negotiating shrubs, stairs and door openings.  They are Fred and Ginger without the high heels.  The refrigerator slips into place and we applaud.

They repeat their performance with the basement freezer and are done in about 20 minutes.  We have exactly what we ordered, the transaction was pleasant, the delivery on time, there were no pieces missing, no damage, and no packaging leftovers, and the products worked as expected.

I still don’t like appliance shopping but I sure appreciated the installation show.