“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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