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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