ArticlesHistory & Heritage

Picton Homes Redux

Picton, red brick, renovations, restoration, Prince Edward County

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

When Bad Things Happen to Good Houses

Appreciating our built heritage is easy. Preserving it is another matter.

The subject of heritage listing and designation arises – often too late – when a significant older building is demolished or renovated beyond recognition. The Ontario Heritage Act came into effect in 1975; its purpose is to enable provincial and municipal governments to preserve Ontario’s heritage. Its power is largely the power of influence.

Designation makes owners twitchy, suspicious of external controls on their use of their property. Designation under the Act doesn’t mean an owner cannot paint, modernize, or add onto a heritage home. It doesn’t raise insurance premiums or affect property values. The Ontario Heritage Act recognizes significant buildings through local bylaws, and notes their heritage attributes; its role is to encourage owners to preserve those historic elements. Sadly, the Act is not really enforceable in this area of act-first-litigate-later development.

Manuel Perello and Raquel David, inn-keepers at Picton’s popular Brown’s Manor Bed and Breakfast, epitomize the spirit of the Ontario Heritage Act. “It’s about honouring your word. When you purchase a heritage designated building, you are committing to preserving its heritage character,” explains Manuel.

The circa 1900 Colonial Revival mansion on Johnson Street in Picton, designed by noted American architect Frank Lent, looks back to American Colonial forms of the 1700s. The dark shingle cladding is one characteristic. These shingles illustrate the owners’ deep commitment to preservation. The shingles were originally preserved with creosote, which produces the deep colour. Now creosote is no longer acceptable, but modern stains will not adhere to the old siding. When maintenance is needed, Manuel and Raquel will replace worn shingles with new, and match the stain to the originals.

Financial incentives might help owners who are making an investment in their historic homes. In fairness, they are working on behalf of us all through the preservation of our past. Bill C-323, an Act to create tax incentives for the rehabilitation of historic property, passed second reading in March 2017. The bill aims to provide a tax credit for expenses incurred by homeowners. Heritage groups are lobbying hard. Time will tell.

Nevertheless, the best ally in the struggle to save our built heritage is information. Letting us know what we’ve got before it’s gone, to paraphrase. When we tell the stories of our private and public buildings, we tell ourselves our own history.

“It’s like that building’s eyes have been put out!” sputters Shannon Kyles. Another fine historic home with modern replacement windows is the target of her ire. The loss of character when an old house is retrofitted with plate glass or fake sash windows is at issue. Shannon, owner of a rebuilt 1840s Regency cottage (CQL Summer 2012) regularly holds forth about the beauty and energy efficiency of rebuilt early wooden sash windows over too-expedient modern vinyl replacements.

Shannon, instructor in the architecture program at Mohawk College, recently conducted a demonstration comparing restored 1830s Georgian windows with new windows. The windows were installed in a 12 by 8 foot building purpose-built for the test, meeting Ontario Building Code requirements for insulation and vapour barrier. An Ontario government-approved energy efficiency test demonstrated there is no difference in air infiltration between new windows and restored pre-war windows.

Factors beyond aesthetics argue convincingly for retention and repair of traditional wood windows. Comparison of the environmental costs of manufacturing – and then consigning to landfill – modern aluminum and vinyl windows with a short life-span versus reusing 200-year-old wood and glass which will last indefinitely, is compelling.

It takes a bit more work. A bit more imagination. A bit more time. But there are heritage restoration companies who can help. Shannon Kyles urges you to take them up on their offer.

“When bad things happen to good homes,” observes Laura wryly, as she introduces her Edwardian home on King Street in Picton. Laura and Dale Smith are not easily intimidated by big restoration projects. Laura, a weaver and manager of Toronto architecture firm KSA, and Dale, a designer and fearless restoration carpenter, have a few projects on the go.

A few years ago, they bought a stone farmhouse and mill in Northumberland County (see CQL Winter 2013) and remodelled the 1830s house for guests. With six or eight fixer-uppers already under their belts, they have brought their tools to Prince Edward County and are tackling one of their biggest projects to date.

The couple’s gracious red brick Picton home was built in 1890 for Dr. Edward Kidd, on a corner of the original Benson farm. An elegant curved veranda with iron cresting on the roof shaded the entrance to the physician’s office; two additional entrances served the family. A one and a half storey carriage house probably sheltered a team of steady horses or a Model T ready for those house calls.

By the 1940s, the home had been subdivided into four pleasant apartments. The 1980s saw a conversion of the once elegant home to institutional use. As a seniors’ home, the old place grew a wing clad in incongruous Arizona stone to link the two buildings (and a spa pool in the old coach house!) Things went rapidly down-market, and an alarming interior remuddling (to use another of Laura’s expressions) created a rabbit warren of 15 rooms for a juvenile centre, later a half-way house, ending up as a rooming house.

Dale and Laura are not people satisfied with stripping floors and repainting. Dale is returning the generous interior spaces at 62 King Street to their earlier elegance, exposing original beadboard and mouldings, uncovering buried pocket doors, lifting carpets to reveal maple and oak parquetry flooring. Upstairs, in the maze of tiny rooms (each with a nest of phone and Internet cables, a reconstructing nightmare) Dale is peeling back layers of past bad decisions to release a light-filled private suite.

Salvaged tub and tiles, maple squash court flooring, and a barnful of mouldings scored on an Ottawa trip are brought into play. Discoveries and theories abound. A pocket door, why hidden? Why are the stained-glass windows asymmetrical? Does the oak and tile fireplace work? Design touches like a modernist chandelier, freestanding limestone tub, and reclaimed pool table slate repurposed as kitchen counters promise a happy marriage between traditional and updated living on King Street.

The exterior will be next. Photos taken in the 1970s during the Pierce family’s residency will aid with the restoration of the veranda. The coach house (Dale’s first love), where the couple and their pets are currently living amidst 1980s flashbacks of shag carpet, spa tub, rock wall fireplace, and lots of lots of mint green and brass will get a much-needed update, and a private courtyard in front. Those original wide brick doorways facing both Ross and King Street will be filled with an arched set of Douglas fir carriage doors custom-made by a Rhode Island master carpenter.

Their vision for the house? A live-work home with room for all their creative passions. Light-filled studio and office for Dale’s graphic design, and a weaving studio with plenty of space for Laura’s curated collection of traditional Canadian-made looms.

‘Dream Big’ encourages a banner posted in the couple’s home. Laura and Dale admit to a sense of a responsibility to save neglected houses and create something beautiful. Laura urges, “Get past the smells, visual noise, and shabbiness and ask, ‘what can this really be?’” They enjoy the hunting and gathering of sourcing missing bits and the sense of accomplishment with each restored home. Their inspiration: a lifelong commitment to the salvage and repair ethic. Their approach: utilizing local architectural salvage companies, replicating missing pieces, creative re-use, and work, hard work.

Thirty-something Alex Fida is the creative force behind several house rescues in Prince Edward County. The Swiss-born entrepreneur, and second-generation owner, with sister Melanie, of Angeline’s Inn in Bloomfield, has a passion for old buildings. Where does it come from? From travel and study in Europe, and from meeting PEC built heritage head on as a child. (But can one really learn to read from The Settler’s Dream?)

Alex has revisioned Angeline’s, creating unique guestrooms in the red brick 1870s home built for Henry and Angeline Hubbs. He has reworked the 1953 Walters family motel next door (PEC’s first) into The Walter, decorating it with his trademark layering of vintage pieces, local art, and Kate Golding’s audacious wallpaper. To the hospitality complex Alex brought (literally) a squared timber house from an isolated road in South Marysburgh. Christened The Babylon, the little log house charms visitors as a guest cottage behind Angeline’s. Another import, a tiny reconstructed frame house accommodates the Tuck Shop.

Alex’s biggest project (so far) is Grove Place built around 1858 by Captain John Pepper Downes. It’s probably no surprise that when Alex chose a worthy Picton house to rescue, he selected the town’s most exotic dwelling. And rescue it was. The house at 1 Walton Street bore a sign reading ‘For Sale, Lease or Development Opportunity.’ And we know what ‘development opportunity’ could mean. With its crumbling stucco, weatherworn trims, and chimneys, and sagging sheds, bordered by a mall and a bank property, the home was fast losing its dignity.

Historic photos provide a glimpse of the encircling treed lawns of this picturesque low-profile stone cottage on the edge of town – the Regency sensibility. Over the years the property was sacrificed to encroaching commercial development. Alex caught it just in time. Already the house is regaining its presence. It sits tranquil and aloof from the hubbub, thanks to landscaping by Ben O’Brien, and Stacey Hubbs’ gardens.

The house is Gothic in inspiration – Tudor chimneys, vestibule with buttresses and weatherworn wooden label above doorway, steep gable with Elizabethan bargeboard and Jacobean oriel window (Alex’s view from the spare elegant second floor suite, created by builder Dan Manlow).

Alex chose the name House of Falconer to honour Thera Falconer, whose antique business operated from the house until her death in 2008. The buildings had sat empty since, waiting. Alex picked up the key during the winter of 2015. “Treading lightly,” he de-cluttered the interior, making discoveries – from a ‘three-hole’ privy hidden off the back kitchen to a gold-leaf sign advertising former tenant Dr. Walton, Dentist – among the detritus. Stripped of all but mouldings and mantels, the rooms regained their dignity. Alex’s goal is to preserve everything possible of the home’s original fabric. Photographer Johnny C. Lam is recording the journey for an eventual book about House of Falconer.

The pop-up shops began organically, that first May. Alex explains. “It means a lot to offer creative space to others wanting to try something.” The idea was six winter months of work on the house, followed by six spring and summer months of shops, galleries, and creative activity. Although in 2017, the work just kept on.

Exploration of the limestone kitchen tail revealed the original layout, which is being reinstated: a main room with cooking hearth (a recently acquired Georgian mantel will fit nicely), several original sash windows, side pantries, and a sheltered porch. “We almost lost the kitchen.” Alex calmly recalls the day when the stone kitchen wing, supported on steel I-beams and lifted on hydraulic jacks for foundation work, began to sag and crack.

The massive adjoining timber-frame drive-shed which had earlier been numbered, dismantled, and stored was rebuilt in the summer and fall of 2017. Heritage master-builder Kip Brisley, with the project from the beginning, assisted by Duane Allory, spliced old beams. Thirty-foot timbers past repair were replaced by beams from the Smith family’s donation of an1850s Milford house.

Next steps will include restoration of the original sash windows and wood trims, recreating shutters, repointing stone, and repairing stucco. Resident artists like Caitlin O’Reilly of Cylinder Studio and painter Jonathan Kaiser, and future guest accommodation, will make the House of Falconer a creative hub in the town.

“Preservation, adaptive re-use, and design are what make [Alex] tick,” confides the House of Falconer website. “I’ve always been up for a challenge; I like to show people what can be done,” he adds. The world needs more Alex Fida.

Change is inevitable. Houses, like people, need work. Ideally, craftsmanship is the watchword. Too often, things are added or removed which change a heritage property forever. Those ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ Victorian bay windows or boxy 1940s additions long ago compromised the character of simple Georgian houses.

Wood deteriorates. Fact. But is it inevitable that aging wood gets ‘vinylized?’ Chimneys are often the first to go. But removing the end chimneys from a 19th century house destroys its character and beauty.

And those additions. Our need for space has vastly increased since our ancestors built in 1850. We have more stuff. Kudos to owners who add appropriately scaled kitchen wings, or adapt carriage shed forms to accommodate family rooms or open plan kitchens.

There are plenty of success stories. Tree lined town streets are graced with restored or re-imagined porches and veranda. And landscaping; bless those who choose old-fashioned flower beds over paved parking patches, and add historic details like garden fencing, outdoor art, and trees.

Development takes place, inevitably. But need it be at the cost of our built heritage? Fires and careless demolitions (and their cousin demolition by neglect) claim too many older structures. Happily, adaptive re-use is becoming a new standard. The loss of historic streetscapes is yielding to appreciation for those remaining. Historic sites like Macaulay House are prized community assets.

Heritage heroes like the Gibbins (CQL Summer 2014), Sorbaras (CQL Summer 2017), Kyles, Smiths, and Fidas continue to inspire us.

Change happens. When we are looking at our built heritage, shall we opt for change for the better?

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