Built Like a Fortress

Our early history suggests the reasonable assumption that log homes were built for the protection of farmers, woodcutters, fishermen and others whose temporary huts offered scant security against Indian raids, not to mention our sometime ruthless weather. This is borne out by the character of the buildings, whose exterior walls are of square-hewn logs of hard pine, ash or elm, usually seven or eight inches thick and strongly dovetailed at the corners. The log construction shows such careful workmanship that the spaces between the logs are often no more than an inch or two apart. In the larger of these houses the second floor ceiling might be constructed in the seventeenth century manner with a ‘summer beam’ supporting the floor joists.

Communities were often poor and remote. These log houses and many of later date which still remain possess little elaboration either of plan or architectural detail but have a character by which they achieve a great measure od spaciousness and dignity. Built altogether of wood by men who learned its qualities in building ships as well as houses, they show throughout a right use of the material.

A common history, not overly dramatized, is somewhat representative of lives lived in a new land by courageous, hard-working families who use the material at hand for shelter and protection from natural elements, some of which lived on the land before them. The incredible amount of effort it took to erect four relatively impenetrable walls to create such a fortress-like structure was testament to their ingenuity and dedication to the safety of their community. The logs themselves tell their own long story in the countless rings that have witnessed every generation to settle the land since it first became a dream worth chasing.

If you are looking for a home or an addition to your home and hoping for incredible character, the likes of which we have supplied to families for five decades in the business, then perhaps this is a good choice for you. Why not live in an original log home with real history in its walls?

It will speak to your soul of real memories, of true craftsmanship and the spirit of those who built it. We are prepared to help you with historical architectural design to blueprint stage as well as fitting up each house with period pine floors, hand-hewn ceiling beams, period doors and hardware. And our state-of-the-art Tradition Windows keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We also offer period Canadiana furnishings to complete the ambiance.

Westward Ho

The Thibideau stone house north of Cobourg was one of our more ambitious projects. This classic five bay Georgian house was resurrected from Forfar, a small village in eastern Ontario. It took me years of search then negotiation to finally purchase the building that, although built solidly of the local sandstone, was not too far from dereliction. The magnificent interior certainly deserved saving. I was quite impressed with the quality of the woodwork, obviously produced by a professional cabinetmaker. Every care was taken to remove all of it as I intended to have every piece restored and put back just the way it was. And that went for the stonework too. Fortunately, we took the basement stones too, which came in handy when the Thibideau’s, the home’s new owners, decided they’d like it taken up to a two story. There was just enough stone in size and color to accomplish that. The eventual plan added a pair of log homes to each end, cladded in a lovely butter-colored yellow clapboard and trim to tie it all together aesthetically.

Research discovered that the house came with a name, The David Nichols house, and quite a history at that, the narrative containing several interesting aspects. Prominent among these, and the cause of some confusion, is the fact that there were four generations of David Nichols in the family. One of them, albeit briefly, became involved in the great Mormon trek westward. History confirms that he and his wife did return from this escapade, but we do not know when.

Neither is it certain when David Nichols purchased the present property. It could have been anywhere between the 1820s and the 1830s. At least, it seems clear that the Nichols family arrived as emigrants from the United States c1800. The first David Nichols, born in Rhode Island in 1730, may also have been the first of the family to arrive in Canada. However, it is also certain that his son, David Nichols the second, with his wife Susannah Sheldon, and their family also emigrated, settling near Delta (then known as Beverley).They were listed in an 1804 census of Bastard Township as living here with their children, Ruth, Sheldon, Phoebe, Sally, David the third, Hiram, and an unnamed infant.

As things turned out, no more is heard of the first David, but David numbered two died in 1812. Thus, it would seem most likely that David number three acquired title to the land on Lot 29, Concession 3. It had been granted by the crown to Isaac Lamb in1801, and sold eleven years later to Jonathan Stevens Jr.

David had been born in 1796 and married Sarah Judd, who had also come from the United States with her family at the end of the eighteenth century. The Bastard Township census of 1804 indicated that her father, Ezra Judd, his wife Lois, plus two children, Ezra Jr. and Sarah, were at that time residents of the township in the Plum Hollow area. (The Judd family eventually included fifteen children). By the 1830s Sarah was married to David the third and it is probable that they were already farming in the Forfar area.

And then the Mormons arrived! Together with a number of relatives and friends the Nichols joined the Mormon trek westward to the United States. Sarah’s brother Arza Jr., born in Bastard Township in 1798, had first married Lucinda Adams, and later Jane Stoddard. Together, arza and Jane travelled to North Dakota in a covered wagon, driven by a team of oxen. The story is told that Jane, on the long journey west, pointed to a large object in the field and asked her husband what it was. When he told her it was a stone, she replied, “I thought we were never to see those again.” The promised land was not to be found without its stones! But stones or not, The Azra Judds pressed on, eventually reaching their destination and remaining in the United States, as did Azra’s sister Lois, and her husband Arza Hinkle. But David and his wife turned back, although we do not know how far they travelled, or exactly when they returned to Forfar.

The present stone house, undoubtedly built by the third David, appeared on the Bastard Assessment Rolls for the first time in 1846. The family must have certainly been living in another building prior to this, most likely the customary log dwelling. By the time of the 1851 census, David, his wife Sarah, also known as Sally, were listed as being here with their children Ruth, David the fourth, and Sally, as well as two children, David Dart, aged ten, and Anne Dart, aged seven.

Your Own Mini Country Estate

Mini Country Estate

What would it have …you might ask? Well there’s one available right now that may answer that question for you. Here’s a list of the features we would expect a “Mini Country Estate” to have. It should come off a good well-maintained road for easy access to schools, shopping, health clinic, etc. Probably in that part of Ontario where the land gets really interesting with lots of lakes, rivers and recreational trails for all kinds of outdoor activity. Like up just north of Tweed for instance, not so far away that its a chore to get to. And how big should this mini estate be?

An attractive three acres should be enough for an active family without over-burdening them with work. A nice mix of lawns and trees, both coniferous and deciduous for good year-round colour. Ample room for gardens, both vegetable and flowers. And what would your own mini estate be without a private swimming and fishing pond? You have it now. The lawn goes right around it …with even a bridge across the stream inlet. Of course, if it had a large building already on it, as big as a barn, with a new roof and a poured concrete floor, that would be a bonus wouldn’t it? And a septic tank already in place and a dug well too …even a 200 amp service panel. That doesn’t leave much out does it? Oh yes, A road of about 250 feet that winds back to the perfect house site (overlooking the pond of course), has been roughed in. And the forest behind the house site has been thinned out to make quite and attractive yard of maples and large pines. What kind of a house would suit this mini country estate? …you’re probably thinking? Why not one of those charming old early Canadian log houses if we’re really dreaming? They’re so warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Maybe about 1200 sq. ft. for starters? Yes it comes with the log shell, restored and ready to reassemble. The old wide pine floors, hand-hewn ceiling beams from c1850 come with it too. OK, you’re probably thinking this is going to cost a lot.


Yes, this dream is being passed on to you for the incredible price of $198K by a retiring architect/builder who, for personal reasons, cannot carry on with it. He will, by the way,  produce the final architectural plans for the eventual house for you …gratis! The costs to build have not been included in this offering but he will endeavor to guide you to the practical economics of it. It is doubtful you would find such an offering without searching it out for years as this vendor has done. You could, however, see many such sites that he has put together for others over many years (at considerably more expense) by visiting his work shown on www.traditionhome.com. Sound interesting?

Call Sharon Moorcroft, Sales Representative Sutton Group-Masters Realty Inc Cell: 613-329-5772 Email: sellmates613@gmail.com Web: www.sellmates.ca

Why Tradition?

After much deliberation, I couldn’t think of a better name for my log building company than Tradition. It seemed to exemplify everything I came to appreciate regarding the ongoing work of artisans that respectfully endeavor to preserve and maintain it.

The earliest houses were an example of the direct outgrowth of architecture from function and materials. They existed close at hand, thus the form of a house was determined in great measure by the natural environment. The wide trees, readily available to the industrious, yielded beams, planks, shingles and of carpentry stock as well as a vast array of the required tools to bend them. Men were privileged to pick and choose as to their house and its contents just as we do today. The houses that have survived from the early era are a monument to the taste and sensibility of our forefathers. They radiate a warmth of feeling that inspired their conception and tells, quite powerfully, of an attention to the first rule of architecture upon which to build: to attend to their own architectural traditions.

The populace of the past were not all hard-fisted pioneers and wilderness fighters but more often, a settled community of sophisticated citizens who were content with nothing but the best things in life. The houses and log buildings they chose to live in reflected their condition and their station and were the best examples of domestic architecture they could build. The businessmen and merchants with their newfound wealth were eager to make their affluence conspicuous. The means to make the final break from origins they considered too humble was provided by a more refined style we’ve come to know as Georgian.

Similarity of ideals and the lack of very developed mill machinery made for a simplicity which today is only the result of conscious study and effort. Today, if we care, we try to keep our detail simple by referring to early work even though today, the machine enforces duplication. Yesterday, the eye could gauge without caliper and  judge a turning on the merit of its singular grace. Each piece was made beautiful by a craftsman who took pride and pleasure each time he applied himself.

The early architect, who was often carpenter and builder, referenced the available pattern books of the time that contained good and consistent detail. The lack of pretension in these details is given over to lovely scale and proportion in all parts. The carving, ornamented mantels, staircases, door and window work with its trimwork in general, show admirable restraint. With well-placed decorative features and good arrangement of simple mass, the early work gives pleasure that even an untutored layman unconsciously feels and admires.

The true craftsman has a responsibility to create and execute pleasing, substantial and honest structure. Our responsibility is to demand good form and live with nothing less. Otherwise delinquency overtakes good taste. Our civilization is reflected in our homes and its furniture. Haste, we know, definitely makes waste. Now, deception rules. The quick dowel replaces the mortice-and-tenon. We seldom see the evidence of hand-wrought wood.

In the woodwork and furnishings of the 17th and 18th centuries the element of craftsmanship was paramount. Intelligent men, proud of a manual skill passed on from master to apprentice or father to son, produced an ever-fresh handling of traditional forms that were acceptable to several generations. In their early work we may be aware of the classic origin without being conscious of imitation for the charm of style often lies in naïve interpretation.

These joiners, cabinet-makers, carpenter-builders and housewrights worked in the style of the time freely interpreted. Molding work, whether of the cornice of a linen press or cornice of a schoolhouse, was cut by hand with planes formed to make the curved elements of a simple architecture of classic design. Quarter-round, half-round, cymas, ogees, scotias, etc. of graduated sizes were pieced and played together to delight the eye. The moldings are never petty or tentative as is so often the case in modern work. Satisfying sections, robust 

Log Homes by Tradition Home Designs.

while restful, warmed by the patina of time, possess an individuality that forever brings warmth to the owner’s life. He is rewarded by the projection of the inner spirit of the craftsman and stimulated by his sensitive and sensible perceptions. If we are capable of understanding the artifact he has created and left for us, his objective and beauty will be his gift to us as well.

I don’t think TRADITION could have served me better after fifty years of dutiful service.

A Post & Beam Hidden Treasure

Southern Ontario is a treasure trove of early architecture for those inclined to history. And it is the abundance of its various histories represented in visual architectural form that adds to its interest and beauty.

In my expeditions through the countryside and towns I always spare an eye for the homes of our past. Often these are in need of salvage or preservation though vestiges of their former prestige may be glimpsed if one were to look carefully. Going through Bolton one day many years ago I stopped to inspect a brick house in the process of demolition. What caught my eye was not so much the definitive Italianate aspect of it dominating the scene, but an earlier house that peeked out from under the brick veneer. Seldom had I seen such a graphic example that shows how existing architecture is manipulated to showcase the perceived refinement that happens to be popular at the moment, the moment in this case being about 1890 or so.

There, behind the bricks that were being stripped off, in seemingly great condition, was a clapboard house of great proportion that I suspected was a mid-nineteenth century timber frame that had been hidden for about half a century. I had to check this out. Yes, it was intended for demolition …destruction actually, except for the brick that the salvage yard had purchased. I very soon determined its underlying construction. It had excellent bones—hand-hewn timbers in fact, that I knew dated it to perhaps 40 to fifty years before the disguise it now wore. It was a house of straightforward honest expression with little use of intricacy and unwarranted expression; deep window jambs that housed the posts, beautiful wide pine flooring, a panelled wainscoting and other lovely features deserved a better fate than this. the central hall plan with its generous front entrance sported sidelights and transom still intact. A particularly spacious upper hall was a surprise that would allow for furniture not normally found in an upper hall. I would have liked to have thanked that someone who very carefully ‘bricked it’ so that the original structure was left pretty much unharmed. No, the garbage dump was not going to swallow this one!

My offer was accepted and I sent a crew to dismantle it with care. Surely, someone would appreciate this one. Not that this house with its brick veneer was not appreciated. It was a most handsome representative of an era that followed the more simple, quiet aesthetic of Ontario’s early settlers. The early house became old and change was due. a house that served for many decades had new owners. The house has always been a product of its time, circumstance and personal taste. Why not resurface a building? dressing up, veneering and recycling were part of a progressive society that insisted on moving forward. A brick house was considered ‘first class’. The more modest beginnings were disapproved and too often lost to memory and decay. It was not uncommon that the new, popular gothic details would be superimposed over the more chaste lines that had lasted for more than a century, if not centuries. In this vanguard of change it would not be remiss to consider some attempts to be pretentious. every man’s home is his castle, or at least, his interpretation of one. It’s all ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ as they say.

But this house was certainly to my taste. I guess I’m a throwback to the more distant past. sometimes I wish I could be thrown back. I live as close as I can to it, surrounded as I am with the furnishings of previous centuries. Fortunately, there are others who aspire to the style too, who choose not the palace but the simple farmhouse with its comforting hearth and quiet, country setting. This has kept me and a few able craftsmen busy for decades.

We began the process of careful salvage. Every piece of woodwork was numbered and documented, even the clapboards, though it turned out they would not appear again on the reconstruction. They were worn a little too thin, the natural consequence of age. We were most happy to find the post-and-beam frame itself was as sound as the day it was built. that being so, I was confident about the reclamation and its future as a home for someone. And, shortly after we had it carefully stored away, I was to meet the Chants, Don and Merle, who would become the new custodians of this house, the former Taylor house, one of the oldest house in Bolton.

Thus, a legacy is passed from the homeowner in one century to the homeowner in another. I think the craftsmen who first built the house would be happy to know that it still lives and is lovingly cared for today.


 “We have been city-dwellers most of our lives, in the sixties through the eighties, in Toronto. In the late eighties, with retirement peeking over the horizon, we decided to leave the city for all the usual reasons: congestion, smog, noise, lack of privacy, and so on. That meant finding a place in the country.

We both like old houses with a sense of history and past lives lived. We had spent many happy summers in Prince Edward County so that is where we began our search. At first we looked for an old house on an interesting property. after a year of fruitless searching, we abandoned this approach. At about that time we came into contact with Mel Shakespeare and learned that he had a circa 1837 timber-framed house stored in a barn west of Toronto, each piece numbered and ready for reassembly. From that point on we limited our search to a piece of suitable property to which this house could be moved. Again, we had no luck in Prince Edward County, so we switched our focus to Hastings County, north of there. Eventually we found the perfect place; 50 acres with wooded hills, a small creek and a finger of the Canadian shield poking down from the north. It is about six miles north of the town of Madoc, near the hamlet of Queensborough, once thriving during mini gold rush but now a quiet backwater.

We chose a site well-removed from the road and here the reconstruction began in late 1991. The process of reconstruction was interesting, to say the least, much like putting together a Lego set, with care taken to insure that each numbered piece fitted into its proper place. The basic house was in remarkably good shape after 164 years of life, though some parts were simply too old to be used again’ for example, the original clapboards.

Nevertheless, the house was ready for occupancy in the spring of 1992 and at that time was transformed from being a structure into being a home. We have lived in it happily for many years and feel totally committed to it. When we moved in, the land surrounding the house was a barren building site but over the years we have changed that with extensive, mostly native tree and shrub planning and the nurturing of gardens all around the place.

We value the land as much as the house, with its varied topography and vegetation, and many species of wildlife, from bears, foxes and coyotes, to raccoons, muskrats, beavers and many species of birds, including wild turkeys. In order to protect this environment in perpetuity we entered into a covenant with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which does not permit any disturbance of the land.

One thing we learned from this adventure is that no matter how we cherish the old house, the need for maintenance and plain old fixing up is endless and unrelenting. Even this process however, though irritating at times has helped us learn more about the house and to bond with it even more closely. Each year that passes we feel that not only has our home become part of us, but also we have become a part of it, writing the next chapter for a building that has lived through so many decades and experienced so many other lives about which we know so little.”       DON AND MERLE CHANT — LARK RISE

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Restoring an 1840 Tavern/Inn

“There’s a house I think you’d better look at west of town.” This from a realtor friend who knew the kind of place that might interest me. I’d been looking around Port Hope, Ontario for about seven years for something worth restoring. When I saw the house, such as it was, set well back from the road with beautiful grounds surrounding it, four acres in all, I started to get excited. “How did I miss this one?” “Maybe you didn’t,” said my friend. “Put in an offer.”

Well, even at a glance, I knew I would. The house had some great features, that of course, had to be coaxed back into life; and others that demanded an immediate demise, such as the “Tara” two-story porch that would come down with a good tug. It did. Only because I didn’t ask for inclusions or offer less than the vendor asked for did I successfully outbid the four other offers presented that day. Sorry!

Compared to other houses in the area, this is a large house. It has a mid-century Georgian centre hall, almost a full two stories, actually what I would call a one-and-three-quarter, having a six-foot kneewall which allowed for eight-over-eight panes that sat down close to the floor There were only two original sashes left. Measuring the lower window jambs told me that twelve-over-twelves would be appropriate. Sometime later a neighbour provided an early turn-of-the-century photo of a funeral party standing in front of the house and I was glad to see the entire sash intact. Supporting evidence can come from unexpected sources. There was a kitchen addition that begged help and an attached woodshed that was just an eyesore. The interior had suffered one of those sixties “renovations” that it could have done without.

With four acres of grounds, I would now have lots of room to pre-build the period log homes in my inventory. It would involve, however, digging out about an acre of topsoil to the west side of the property and hauling in an equivalent amount of gravel for a good base. This, in itself, was quite an undertaking but one of the main reasons for this decision was business oriented.

It seems the house was known for many years as “Brandon Manor” and before that it was a tavern stop and inn, situated half way between Newcastle and Port Hope. The public entered the centrally placed tavern door on the east gable end. A staircase from the tavern led to flophouse rooms on the second floor. This explained the lack of doors into these rooms from the upper hall. The owners at that time lived privately on the west side of the house. The tavern room, being the largest room in the house, would, of course, become the living room. When I happened across an original nine-foot-long bar with beautiful panels and a marble top, I had to find a place for it in this room. It was as if it had come home.

The front entrance was a scream …one of those Victorian remakes with coloured glass. Zowie! It soon became obvious that the interior would have to be gutted. Start over. Save what we can of the original: three door frames, the floors, and three or four open-spring latches that are usually quite rare, but I had a few in inventory to replace the ones that were missing. And of course, the great timber frame that was no worse for wear after 160 years of service. This was not a building where the timber frame was meant to show on the interior. That’s another fad that has become a huge industry in itself in recent years But originally, they were just structure.

It was a wonder the jerry-rigged addition walls held up the roof. And the openings were in the wrong place to allow for a good kitchen design. So the walls had to be rebuilt. A great mantelpiece was chosen for the north wall and an exterior stone fireplace was planned. I thought too, that shaker-style cupboards would look good in this room. A three-stage paint job took some time but gave that soft, worn look I wanted. Fortunately, I found a Kingston limestone for the countertops and country sink. A rough pine ceiling latexed white would give it a rural feel to contrast with the more “rural formal” look I wanted in the main house. And, just for a change, I decided on cedar shingles for the three exterior walls. It gave it the “Hamptons” look that I’ve always liked.

There were remnants of panels below the parlour windows that inspired the style to be duplicated in the living room. The remaining door casings set the style for the new millwork. A cornice was added in the principal rooms as well as a boxed beam through the centre of the room that allowed for wiring for the chandelier. There are some very nice period-style chandeliers available and I found a few at the Boston Restoration show. They work well if a dimmer switch is installed because ambiance is always a requirement. The slip room off the parlour became the draughting room. A modern pair of French doors was replaced with an early glazed door with transom above. This would lead to a large deck on the north side for those summer parties. Have to think ahead!

The wall treatment in this room proved challenging but fun. I wanted an early nineteenth century colour on a hand-wrought plaster texture. I mixed fine sand into a latex white paint and brushed it on. Then came the more difficult step: I put about half a tube of yellow acrylic paint in a bucket of water and mixed thoroughly. With a large wallpaper brush I painted the textured wall. Because it was a watery thin coat, It would drip, leaving an uneven, unsightly look. I had to follow each stroke with another brush (kept as dry as possible) to absorb spillage and even out the colour. The overall effect turned out better than expected. On the opposite wall I ganged up four tall doors to create a panelled wall that we painted a blue-grey to complement the yellow walls.

Now it was time to attend to that problem off the upper hall. I had to access the east rooms. It seems that over the years no one had the nerve, or the need perhaps, to cut through the tie beam at plate level that traversed the width of the house. Well, there was no getting around it—I had to go through it. I gauged where the brace connected the plate to the main floor tie beam and proceeded to cut just beyond it while leaving that support, at least, intact. The frame gave a momentary shudder as the saw parted the beam then settled down to its new fate. No cracks have since shown up so we got away with it- and gained two bedrooms. I added access to the back bedroom by adding a short staircase off the main stair landing. A new panelled wall on the landing with an almost secret door became one of the most popular features of the house. There was a five-foot square room under the stairs that would serve perfectly for a two-piece washroom and laundry.

We had a couple of large holes to fill. New twelve-over-twelves and some siding patched the old/new ten-foot picture 

window hole. The front entrance was a bit more work. Friends in Grafton, Ontario lived in a house, actually the Spaulding Inn, of the same period. Because I always admired their classical front entrance with its tapered pilasters, I included its detail into our design. Having an original pair of sidelights and fanlight to start with, the new entrance came to life. An early door with its original blue paint and an elbow rim lock with some brass inlay completed the unit.

There were a number of incidentals that seemed to appear, as if to say. “fix me too.” For instance, the missing hearth in the parlour, the holes in the cornice that let bees in, awful Victorian era wallpaper or linolium to strip, the decrepit  basement windows and the plumbing, wiring and ductwork that had to be redone.

I like a wood-burning fireplace as well as the next guy but I had one being built and another repaired. So did I need another one in the living room too?  I decided on a gas insert set beneath a mantelpiece. We even cut a thin veneer of antique brick around it as though it was set in the original firebox. With just the push of a button—instant heat! The pets loll in front of it all winter. Tough life. So two new chimneys: one for the parlour fireplace that had to be torn down because it was badly spalled and the other for the gas insert flue. They gave a nice balance to the roof with its new cedar shingles.

Everyone asks about the original siding. Though somewhat unusual, there are several examples in Port Hope. It’s called wooden ashlar—with wood, it simulates dressed stone blocks popular in old and new England. It was formerly called rustication; being the manner of treating the exterior of a wooden building to make it appear as if it is made of stone. Cutting and bevelling the wooden siding boards at regular intervals achieved the effect. A thorough job would include an application of sanded lime to the surface to imitate the rough texture of stone. I chose not to go that far. Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, is one of the great surviving examples of the technique. I guess he could afford it. Oddly enough, after stripping off later layers of siding, the wooden ashlar boards were missing on the front façade. Just another surprise. We duplicated it with one-by-ten clear pine boards, cutting in the beveled grooves every two feet or so.

Most of the floors were in good shape. I like to see various finishes and colours on floors. The kitchen floor was pickled, the living room left natural, the  parlour blue-grey, Two bedrooms in beige and the master left natural as well. With so many rooms, the opportunity for great wall and trim colour choices can be exciting. It is seldom realized how bold people were in the past with colour. Today, those analogous biscuit colours are far too prevalent. I like to do a test wall in each room to see how they play off each other. Even the best planning sometimes calls for an adjustment: tone down, brighten up, less or more of this or that shade; sometimes even an umber wash will help give the desired effect.

After a year of concentrated effort and attending to odd jobs in the following year, things had taken shape to our satisfaction. There was a barn/shop to be built on an old foundation out back to restore and house the period doors, mantles, and other old artifacts that usually found a place in one of our company restoration projects. The large deck came a little later. The garden was put in at the expense of my back. the front steps were put in hurriedly to aid the flow of fifteen hundred spectators attending the architectural tour. Many things to numerous to mention, such as hanging the artwork and sprinkling a few antiques here and there, came together eventually to create an environment to be proud of, and, I think, that reflected the taste and craftsmanship of another era. I think we achieved that. It was worth all of the work.

I might pass on a few tips however, to those with a substantial restoration project ahead of them. First, don’t bite off more than you can chew …or afford. Have patience and be prepared for the unexpected. Have faith in your crew. And get good advice that allows you to make the right choices when confronted with so many options.

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A Successful House

A successful house, particularly one that has survived centuries of living will be invested with soul. How did it come to inhabit the house? Perhaps it was passed on by the original builder that sought shelter for his brood who put his heart into every stroke of the broadaxe. Perhaps the first tree that offered itself up to him has contributed. You might thank the generations that may have lived fruitful lives therein and passed on in nature’s way to leave it in our hands. An historic house comes with a kind of promise, a promise from past to future occupants of peace, safety, beauty and shelter, all of which are a duty with soul built in. This is its true prosperity, its triumph and its legacy.

 These houses have character. We would be very remiss not to notice and appreciate the spirit behind the crafting of them. To turn an oak tree into a few square timbers by the strength of one’s arm was no mean feat. They were meant to stand for the generations to come and it seems that’s us. We have been given a gift we must recognize, the advantage of the monumentality of effort that created them in the first place. These natural materials with the earnestness that shaped them in evidence will cradle us as lovingly as they ever have. The house then becomes the haven that nurtures the soul, that inspires and gives meaning to our lives.

 When these houses are threatened, often by the urban sprawl, sometimes by neglect, a few of us choose to save them and with care and diligence they can be saved. They are often reconstructed as they were first intended but sometimes need to be tailored for today’s homeowner. An architectural designer with traditional design experience can be of great assistance in this regard. It is important, if introducing modern elements, to add them without sacrificing the vitality and ambiance of the original structure. Needless to say, a particular sensitivity is required to marry the old and the new.

 The psychological power of rooms is often underestimated. Some rooms, particularly venerable old rooms, cannot be improved upon and we are well served to keep them intact, even to furnishing them with our prized antiques.

But there are opportunities for drama. Take the current interest in converting an old barn into a home for instance. We have recognized that space was not meant to be contained. It wants to soar. As do our souls.

 As Thoreau put it “We are but a sojourner in nature.” Man’s journey has always followed a trail that steps from the past to a future where on both sides of the road are lined homes where souls may rest and share their lovely rooms.

Stone “L’Atelier”

If you were to look for Canada’s earliest tradition other than the aboriginal you must start with the French style. I’ve always been intrigued and beguiled by it, particularly those field stone cottages often whitewashed over with their multi-paned casements and colourful shutters. I think of the habitants themselves, who have shown us their strength of character and perseverance to carry such a simple, bold form to a new land with faith and self-confidence. This architectural form, adapting itself with Nature and its natural providers, water, land and forest, thus came to rest honestly and comfortably in their new environment. Of their water I have some experience. In my more adventurous youth, favourite tales of the courier-de-bois eventually led me into their wilderness. I’m sure I shot many of the same rapids they met up with centuries ago. The few homes I saw along the river trails always impressed me though at that time I had not thought architecture would be become so much a part of my future. It did occur to me at the time however, that there was little else that could carry one back as far to the first days of colonization whose merit lies in their being of another age. I used to travel extensively and particularly remember one trip across the breadth of France where patient old houses stood for generations to watch us grow from barbarians to something somewhat more human.  I came to understand that it is architecture that joins yesterday with tomorrow and the march of tradition must be guarded with a good heart and a definite will to do so. 

It is obvious that these dwellings had been designed with an eye to pleasant proportion, the idea of which the French Canadian ancestor brought from Normandy, with their pointed roofs sloping down steeply to the single story snugged to the ground, lending them an appearance picturesque and original. Made for the climate and customs, they sheltered families, often large, from Canada’s extreme winters while, with their thick walls, in hot Quebec summers they retained a soothing coolness. The stability of the wall was given by its thickness, often two to four feet depending on the size of the house. There they stand, houses supported and carried easily as a child in its father’s hand by over-strong masonry walls. With little decoration to temper the severe aspect of these houses every line comes to symbolize the soul of countless generations that have known life, death, birth, marriage, happiness, sadness, war, peace and every other emotion of man. Just a glance of the actual construction with its elegance and purity of shape gives one a sense of beauty, which is, after all, the essential thing. How could we not lend our hand to hold them up when they offer us such beauty, security and relative permanence? The old building traditions of Quebec, while allowing us to proceed visually from the nineteenth century to the eighteenth century, sometimes make the dating of them difficult. Walls seldom held out against the natural agents of the slow destructive elements, fire, war, or the changes of more modern taste, not to mention the more effective agent, man. Some, fortunately, have survived with careful preservation by the few and have been restored to former appearance to be appreciated yet again.

With this appreciation in mind it did not seem so unusual for one man’s folly to turn in a particular direction. I needed another building. A painting studio. A place for some of the best of the French Canadian antiques spilling out of the log house. Of course, what could be more appropriate than a habitant cottage? I had a great spot in mind on the other side of the pond up against the hill. There was the stream however, tight up against that hill so it might be a tough squeeze. I know I had the manpower. A great stonemason, good carpenters. We just came off a large stone house reproduction so I knew we could meet the challenge. And we had rebuilt a French Canadian log house from Rimouski just last year. How would I free them up for a non-profit endeavor?

Well, not to worry. Let’s get that foundation in. Easier said than done. With a stream in the way and foundation footings about three feet wide and a foot thick needed way below the streambed our talents were truly tested, not to mention the potential disturbance to the home of native trout. The Conservation authorities watched our every move.  But we managed. We dragged in more fieldstone than most thought we’d ever use. The pile looked like the fourth pyramid. But the walls and gables of stone inside and out, two feet thick, inside and out would require all we could manhandle. It was basically two walls almost a foot thick each with a two-inch core of SM insulation in the center. Thought I’d give myself a little edge. There was a through stone every four feet or so to lock and stabilize the wall. Many cut stones were needed at corners and around window and door openings. These we found from barn foundations going to waste.

The interior floor was to be one-inch thick random cut ledgerock laid on a well-compacted gravel base. Although I intended to lay an electric cable beneath the rock I elected to install heat ducts in the gravel as backup. I was very lucky to find a set of 18th century casement windows from a dealer south of Montreal, complete with hardware. I had four of them arranged on the south façade for some useful passive solar that the stone floor generously gave back. With the deep window sills you could sit with your legs out over the stream that washed the base of the building. I had a couple of two hundred year old Quebec doors in inventory that would do nicely. Some period paneling in denim blue would become the room end with a rumford style fireplace centered in it. We had to thicken up the east gable wall to accept the depth of chimney. It all made for a cozy underloft that contrasted dramatically with the high cathedral ceiling at the other end. Visitors often felt it to be chapel-like. 

As in the days when heavy timbers were axed, hand planed and pegged together, the roof rose to an incredible height. Wide, lapped pine boards were laid over the six by ten rafters and left to age naturally. Over this a practical, insulated structure was laid and sheeted to accept cedar shingles. Because the house/cottage/studio, whatever, had a loft at one end I had a small dormer put in to look over the pond. Each gable had a pair of windows as well with medieval-like sloped sills to allow for maximum light. A nice touch I thought was the hollowed out cedar log eavestroughs hung on forged hooks I had made. When I elected to paint the interior stone walls white some were aghast. They were soon accepted and appreciated. The early, colourful Quebec furniture looked fantastic against them… and at home. The heating system turned out to be very comfortable and I didn’t need the ductwork after all. 

With furniture and supplies moved in, the edifice took on a life of its own. It seemed to have jumped through a wormhole in time bringing with it a spiritual dimension that all who entered would respond to. Artist friends came from far and wide to draw and share their talent and ideas. It became a true “atelier”. Every Tuesday for years was set aside by all as community art day.  The pond three steps from the door gave us trout by fly for lunch with swimming and general frolic among friends. I remember too, beautiful evenings when we’d shovel off the pond to skate under the big lantern above with smaller tin ones flickering around the edge. It was music. It was magic. It was a time forever etched in fond memories. I miss it to this day.

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Tradition Home Builds a Log House in Montana

Montana. The word evoked the old west for me. Winchesters, Colts, Buffalo, Antelope, vast hills and plains, mountain streams full of trout.  When a client with a small ranch of 1500 acres (yes, the neighbour’s was rumoured to be 50,000 acres) called me for a design for a ranch near Big Timber, I couldn’t wait to take on the project, perhaps having a chance to go there to build it. He chose three of our best 19th century log houses, the ones with the biggest timbers of course. A period hand-hewn barn was also chosen for the attached garage addition. The scope of the project took a few months of planning and drafting and shaped up in so many exciting ways.

Yes, we were to go there with a crew and build it for his family. We sent our tools ahead with the building parts, packed our gear, anticipating an eventful project. Ever hopeful, we took our fishing gear along in case we ever found time. The four of us arrived at O’Hare airport at the terminal ticketed to us. For some unknown reason we were redirected to another gate on the other side of the airport and we were told we were late. So we ran for our lives, carrying lots of gear. Great for my bad knees. We didn’t run fast enough. We missed the plane. The airline put us up so I notified our client of the new arrival time.

The next morning we were met and quartered in a nice motel before driving to the ranch site. I was happy to see the foundation in place as designed so we could begin setting up the log walls right away. The machinery for heavy lifting was a welcome sight too. The off-loading took some time as there were so many parts to become the large ranch house. Besides what seemed to be a forest of logs there were the hand-hewn period beams to carry the second floor, all of the wide pine flooring to lay throughout, the period-style kitchen cupboards we made, even painting them in period colours. The load even contained some 19th century furnishings from our inventory. Of course they chose our Tradition Windows and Doors, custom-fitted to every log opening. A grand country staircase from one of the earliest houses in Ontario would eventually lead to the upper floor.

We were surprised at the changeable weather. It varied from sweltering heat to gale force winds, even snow in the last week there. The house parts went together as planned and everyone seemed proud of the result. Others came in to build the roof and build the fireplaces. I was there just long enough to correct the client’s mason’s mistakes. They wouldn’t have worked at all. We were taken to one of the client’s favourite parks one day. We could see the fish in the clear stream from the ridge above but no, we didn’t have time to make one cast.

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Chinking a Log House

Chinking is the stuff you put between the logs to keep the weather out. That’s why we like to build an insulated sandwich in the spaces to insure against a Canadian winter barging uninvited into our livingroom and making itself at home. The ideal space to work with is about three inches of height by the thickness of the log, usually about eight inches. Historically we’ve found some ingenious methods that the pioneer builder used to fill the spaces; cedar rails hewn to fit, cedar shingles wedged together, horsehair or stones set in lime and sand mortar, and other natural materials that often did little to insure interior warmth.

Today we like to improve on their ideas of weatherproofing and there are some great products available to do just that. Those little cans of spray foam are just the thing. So much easier to use than that two large canisters we’d haul around that became foam when you pulled the unreliable trigger that messed up in seconds.

So here’s the sequence of events, using our tried and true method. We begin on the exterior, cutting the wire lath in strips that match the height (and a bit more) of the spaces. We tack the wire with large-headed 2” galvanized nails about every 10” to the upper log and the log beneath it, careful to keep the wire edge within the log’s exterior surface. When the weather is right, (and this is important) usually in the spring or fall when it is damp, we trowel on the mortar. We like to use slaked lime in the mix, especially if you’re looking for that nice white chink line. Many do. There are dyes available to add to the mortar if your taste goes to other shades. If the chinking space is large the mortar may have to be applied in two stages. The weight of the mortar may fall otherwise. The mortar must be kept damp for many days. Too much sun would dry out the mortar, leading to cracks later. A light spray of a hose or soaked burlap bags hung on the walls usually suffice.

When the mortar seems stable we go to the interior and spray in the foam insulation. It expands to close up the spaces. Not a whisper, not a gnat can get through. Unnecessary foam excess can be cut off easily with a kitchen knife or serrated scraper. Then the wire mesh is applied over the foam in preparation of the mortar, which should also be kept damp. Before the mortar sets up check for sags, patting them out if necessary. Wiping over the entire length of the chinking with a synthetic sponge gives a nice texture overall. Best wipe off any mortar spill on the logs before it dries.

That’s about it. Maybe a do-it-yourself project. Put the kids to work!