Saturday, February 16, 2008

Mrs Angus

I was saddened to read about the passing of Mrs Angus this morning. I had the good fortune to meet her several times over the past 15 years and I thought that she was a grand lady. A few years ago, I transcribed a interview she did as part of an oral history project that was happening at the University. She led a fascinating life and will be greatly missed.

Kingston loses an 'Old Stone'; Margaret Angus was passionate defender of historic architecture

Margaret Angus wasn't born in Kingston, but she embraced the city as tightly as any Old Stone.

And that term - generally reserved for anyone who has at least five generations of predecessors buried in Cataraqui Cemetery - was one that she adopted for her own with the publication in 1966 of her legendary book, The Old Stones of Kingston, and a lifetime spent preserving the old stones that make up the cityscape.

Angus, a passionate defender of Kingston's historic architecture from the days when few people gave it a second thought, died yesterday morning, three months shy of her 100th birthday. Her landmark book on Kingston's history is still generating royalties; her passion for the city, its buildings and citizens is still fondly remembered.

"Mrs. Angus's great forte was making history come alive by telling people about the stories and the families, not just the buildings that they lived in," said architect Lily Inglis, who knew her for more than 40 years.

"She was a voice crying in the wilderness, a great many years by herself."

Angus, the grand-niece of former Civil War general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, came to Kingston in 1937 with her husband William and was instantly taken with the city's architecture and history.

She grew up in Chinook, Mont., just south of the the Saskatchewan border and earned her BA in history from the University of Montana, where she met a young drama professor and her future husband, William Angus.

The Anguses had two children, as well as seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Her husband William, who died in 1996, also at the age of 99, moved to Kingston to work in the drama department of Queen's, which he eventually headed. Between 1941 and 1957, Margaret Angus made all the costumes for the department. A number of them are currently on display at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre, where she served as curator of the costume collection from 1968 to 1985.

Angus also served as director of the campus radio station for nine years. In recognition of her achievements, she received a slew of medals, awards and other honours, including the Order of Canada, a lifetime achievement award from the Ontario Heritage Foundation and a research chair named after her at the Museum of Health Care in Kingston.

Her daughter, Barbara Morgan, remembers her mother as a woman who was enchanted with Kingston and who took on the job of heritage preservation at a time when it was not fashionable. Sixty years ago, the ethos of Kingston was not to protect old buildings but to tear them down and build new in the name of progress. Some people took issue with what they saw as an outsider coming in to tell them what they should be doing with their buildings, but her mother was undeterred, Morgan said.

Angus was also a driving force behind the establishment of Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committees across Ontario.

"When she wanted something done, it got done," Morgan recalled.

Sewing was also one of her mother's passions, and that led to her collection of historical costumes, which she developed by getting to know the older women in the community. When her husband staged a play, Angus would add a line to the program appealing for anyone who had old dresses or other clothes to contact her. In return, she literally received trunks of corsets, dresses and other items that local women didn't want or that didn't fit them anymore. Many of the items have been preserved in the collection that bears her name.

Her passion for costumes led to her interest in the families who lived and raised their families in the old houses of Kingston.

Angus was a pioneer in adding a social history component to architectural history. Those who study architecture alone either discount - or are deeply suspicious of - such elements as they often exaggerate family tales that surround old buildings, despite the fact that how a building looks and works is more based on the needs of the people who own and occupy it than on purely architectural considerations.

"She was ahead of her time," said Kingston architectural historian Jennifer McKendry, who in many ways has picked up Angus's torch.

She notes that Angus's book remains one of the authoritative texts on Kingston architecture more than 40 years after it was published. Helen Finley knew Angus for decades and said her efforts not only preserved many pre-Confederation buildings in Kingston, but inspired an interest and an understanding of them among local residents.

"The thing I remember best about her was her passion about Kingston and area, and how she inspired other people to look at the buildings around them," she said.

"She really made people realize what a wonderful wealth of fabulous architecture there was in this city."

Her daughter remembers her mother giving a commencement speech after receiving an honorary law degree and as her diminutive mother peered over the podium, she instantly put an auditorium of people at ease with her self-deprecating humour.

"She said, 'If all the historians who gave convocation speeches were laid end to end, it would be good thing,' " Morgan recalled with a laugh.

"She was a great lady."

Angus earned dozens of honours and awards during her lifetime, including the Order of Canada, the Silver Jubilee Medal, Citizen of the Year, an Honorary Doctor of Laws, the Montreal Medal, the Kingston Historical Society Award and the Distinguished Service Award from Kingston General Hospital.

She was also a prolific writer. In addition to the Old Stones of Kingston, she wrote The Story of Bellevue House, The Old Stones of Queen's, Kingston City Hall, John A. Lived Here, The History of Kingston General Hospital, and countless essays and articles.

Fittingly, Angus will be laid to rest in Cataraqui Cemetery, among many of the Stones whose stories she chronicled. Visitation will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Monday at the James Reid downtown chapel. A funeral service will be held at St. James Anglican Church, 10 Union St. W., on Tuesday beginning at 2 p.m.

A memorial celebration will also be held at Memorial Hall in City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 4 p.m.

No comments: