Blue Heron House

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Cape Cod Charm on the shore of Lake Ontario

On the north shore of Lake Ontario, snuggled naturally and with great intention, is a charming Cape Cod style home, created to provide a hometown retreat for its owners. Elegant, inviting, and warm, designed with great attention to detail, this waterfront home is also somewhat accidental.

“We weren’t looking for a cottage,” laughed Susan, adding she and her husband Louis had just transformed the backyard of their Toronto home into a cottage setting. “We thought that would serve as our getaway.”

A summer weekend in 2013 celebrating with family changed that idea. “They have a home just down the road and we were headed to the golf course when we noticed the place was for sale. By the end of the year, we owned it,” said Louis. “We weren’t quite sure what we were going to do and how to make it work.”

The couple has strong ties to the area. They were both born in the Quinte region, and met in grade four. Louis recalls meeting Susan’s father as a four-year-old. They were friends throughout school, and started dating the first week of university, travelling between McMaster and Western.

After graduation, they settled in Toronto and began building a life together with their two children, returning to their hometown often to visit with a large extended family. Susan’s parents had a cottage on the Bay of Quinte, and their children spent summers enjoying the water. After Susan’s father passed away, her mother sold the cottage, leaving them without a space of their own when visiting.

A drive to the golf course along a waterfront trail provided a solution, and a lot of questions. “We spent the winter planning the design,” recalled Susan, adding some elements were carved in stone. “We wanted a Cape Cod; we never considered anything else, and it had to be accessible for everyone, regardless of their mobility now, and what the future may bring. It had to have multi-generational compatibility.”

Enlisting the help of award-winning Gordon Tobey Developments, Susan and Louis began transcribing their ideas onto paper, and then to the property. They worked with Wayne Storms, a draftsman in Foxboro on the main floor design, perfecting its seamless flow from driveway to the welcoming entryway, through the house, and out to the lawns and waterfront. “The root concept came from Wayne, and that helped us convey our ideas to Stephen (Tobey). We loved the first-floor layout and Stephen helped us figure out the second storey, and together we brought everything together, including the connection between the house and the lake.”

The property had an existing cottage, and the plan was to remove it and rebuild on the same footprint, which meant the new home could retain its proximity to the waterfront. Stephen brought in Stu Seabrook, a hydrotechnical engineer with Riggs Engineering in Kingston. With expertise in coastal engineering, Stu conducted a wave study – from high and low water levels to how a wave would break across the lawn – which in turn helped develop a design for the retaining wall.

“Lower Trent Conservation was really helpful throughout this project,” acknowledged Louis. “We did everything they asked and they helped us get everything we wanted, and it resulted in a healthier shoreline compared to what was there.”

With designs, permits, and contractors aligned, construction began in November 2014. Steve Crowe of Brighton brought in heavy equipment, and gently helped remove the existing structure. “We didn’t want truckloads of usable material going to the landfill, and Steve and Stephen made sure as much of it as possible was salvageable and repurposed.”

Construction worked backward from the waterfront, starting with removing and improving parts of the existing retaining wall. Steve Crowe and his mammoth machines worked delicately along the shore, cutting away sections of the seawall to soften the access to the lake, creating a circular seating area.

Susan and Louis were continually impressed with the level of expertise and camaraderie of the contractors. “Mike Boers and Hollandale Landscaping fit into the project perfectly,” noted Susan. “He and Stephen work so well together, and they both understood the importance of a smooth transition from the driveway to the waterfront.”

For the family retreat, Hollandale was another perfect fit. “Mike’s father Bart did the landscaping for both of our parents’ homes,” smiled Louis. “I remember standing in mud in the early 1960s while my father was speaking with Mike’s father. I was just a young boy, and Mike’s father was wearing wooden shoes. I was fascinated and kept trying to get my father’s attention, pointing at them.”

The family relationship came full circle, as Mike and the Hollandale team created the outdoor lakeside paradise to perfectly complement the Cape Cod home. “Hollandale did such a great job,” said Susan. “It’s just perfect.”

It’s perfect for the entire family. One family member is in a wheelchair, and he can access virtually the entire property, from the curved driveway and interlocking stone walkways through the low sill entry, through the sunroom to the lakefront landing. There’s an accessible main floor bedroom and washroom, including a wheel-in shower as well.

“When Susan and Louis first contacted me, from the start, they made it clear this house had to be enjoyable for the entire family,” recalled Stephen Tobey. “That was a huge priority. Family is extremely important to them, and everyone had to be part of the party.”

Stephen and his father Gordon have built more than 400 R-2000 and Energy Star homes in the Quinte area, and have won regional, provincial, and national awards for their stunning designs and über-energy efficient homes. Stephen, an engineer like his father, particularly enjoyed this project. “Susan devoted herself to this full time,” he noted. “This was her project, and she had very definite ideas, and at the same time placed a lot of trust on us to execute them in the best possible manner. She was open to new ideas, and we were loyal to her vision. She wanted a beautiful Cape Cod home where their entire family could gather together and enjoy the lake.”

Stephen was impressed with the level of detail, including input from Susan’s designer. “We do big heavy stuff. We build houses. We don’t do colour and texture and pillows. If it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done by someone else,” he smiled, although for the record, Tobey homes are beautifully designed, and Stephen plays a large role in that. “Susan had a designer involved from the beginning. That helped all of us create the vision.”

Working with Timothy Badgley from Acanthus Interiors, Susan developed a design to bring all the elements together. “Susan wanted a cottage feel, with lots of natural materials, starting with predominately whites and blues; she wanted a Nantucket essence,” explained Timothy.

The result is a cohesive, pleasingly relaxed and eclectic interior, harmonized but not homogenized throughout the main floor and three bedrooms on the upper storey. White custom linen drapes flow in the breeze, and on a warm spring day, Timothy said it’s hard to remember the view is of a lake and not an ocean.

True to the homeowners wish to keep it local, all the drapery, cushions, headboards, and bench seats were created at Acanthus in Port Hope; the furniture is custom designed and made in Canada.

Inside and out, the Blue Heron brings Cape Cod to Lake Ontario, and the lake itself is a personality at the home. “The lake was a big part of the design decisions,” said Susan. Whether it’s a calm spring day, a blustery winter afternoon, or clear summer night, it’s always a new experience.

“It’s a cold lake, and takes time to warm, and it’s unpredictable,” noted Louis. “One day last year, it was really rolling, and we insisted everyone wear a lifejacket if they were going swimming. Our son-in-law walked into the water and a while later walked up the road. The waves took him down three cottages.”

“The water surprises us, said Louis. “The calmness, the violence, the noise, the quiet. We love it, and the light of the skies, the constantly changing skies, and the view, the images we couldn’t imagine when we bought the property.

One evening, Louis was relaxing, looking over the lake, and thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. “We saw what looked like sand cliffs across the lake. We’re used to seeing the island reflected on the water, but this was different. We checked an atlas and realized we were seeing Chimney Bluff State Park, just east of Rochester. The atmospheric conditions were just perfect and we could see the bluffs reflected. We often see the glow of the lights at Rochester, but never this, and perhaps never again.”

They love exploring the area, visiting farmers’ markets in Codrington and Wellington, shopping in Bloomfield, touring wineries in the County, and reconnecting with old acquaintances. The Gables in Brighton is a favourite dinner destination, and they dropped into Cheer Farms and ran into the family of Susan’s grade five teacher.

Finding magic in their new retreat is part of the charm. Toronto will always be their base, but the Blue Heron is their getaway. The interior is familiar and welcoming, the lake unpredictable and captivating, family is close, and new adventures await.