“Bulldoze it”, the man said. “It’s going to fall down; it’s too far gone”.
Editorial By: Marian C. Blott | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper
“Bulldoze it”, the man said. “It’s going to fall down; it’s too far gone”. We didn’t like what we heard, but we listened because he was the expert, and we were just two people with a dream. The house had been given thumbs down before, and we had summered in it long enough to understand it was in poor shape. Therefore, we were about ready to give in; had even begun to look for plans to replace it, but just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Our family certainly didn’t want to lose the old house, and there was a great hue and cry from our neighbours; the house had been part of their lives forever.
Marian & Bill Blott
When one of our neighbours, an engineer, stopped by to say that if we were really going to tear the house down, he would consider buying it and moving it, we were astounded. “That house isn’t going to fall down”, he said. “Look underneath, you’ll find it isn’t as bad as it looks”. He was right. An inspection of the house underneath (undertaken with great difficulty because most of it is crawl space) showed that the timbers were as fine as the day they had been put there. The foundation also was sound, although one corner, where water had collected, had sunk a little allowing the walls to slip off and causing cracks and bulges above. However, if the walls could be pushed back onto the foundation and held there, the upper parts might just fall back into place. We were off to the races again!
The house in question originated in 1839 when an 18-year-old immigrant named James Hoggan bought a little piece of land on the north shore of Lake Erie and named it Waterside after his family home in Scotland. The next year he bought another 53 acres, and in 1843 built the house for his bride, Mary. A kitchen with servants’ quarters above it was added soon after by a second owner who is identified in the 1851 Census as having arrived from India with his wife, two children and two servants.
The house, with its steep roofs and sharply peaked dormers is a fine early example of American Gothic Revival architecture, which was intended to relieve the bland, horizontal appearance of the prevailing classical style. Though doomed in the United States by its connection to Imperial Britain, it caught on in Canada and can still be seen lining Highway 3 from Fort Erie to Windsor. A distinctive feature of Waterside is the combination of this style with large Georgian windows on the ground floor.
After several subsequent owners the house and property were left to an uncle of Bill’s father in 1870, and sold to Bill’s father in 1938 by a descendent who wished to keep them in the family. My father-in-law intended to fix up and retire to the old house, but instead built a new one near by. Unlived in and uncared for, the house fell into serious disrepair, becoming a repository for furniture and “treasures” which members of the family and neighbours wished to be shed of, and home to a broad assortment of wildlife raccoons, squirrels, mice, birds and bats.
Our relationship with the house began in 1962, long before we actually owned it, when we spent a summer month with our two youngest children in a few rooms which Bill’s sister had cleared out on the main floor. Thereafter we spent all our summers in the house. It is the only “cottage” I have ever known where spring cleanup meant shoveling out all the leaves and other debris which had blown in through a huge crack in an outside wall, and where testing the ceiling with a long-handled broom was mandatory lest another huge chunk of plaster fall and injure someone.
As our family grew, more of the house was opened up. Drooping wallpaper was taken off and what was left of the plaster underneath painted, floors were washed and waxed, furniture was taken out of storage and put into use. For twenty years we spent all our free time there with our children, now numbering five, giving little thought to the gaping holes and cracks around us except when company was expected. If our guests noticed, they were too polite to comment; there was no mention of the extremely primitive plumbing and intriguing electrical wiring. Our younger children laughingly recall taking turns at bedtime running upstairs and along the spooky hall, to the one lamp that stood between them and an encounter with some horrible monster that was surely lurking there!
When the house and property were left to Bill in 1981, we thought to retire there. It was our dream to live in the old house. Thus, we were delighted to find out that, at least from the point of view of the condition it was in, restoring it was not so far fetched an idea. There could, however, be a problem with the cost. Once the structure was made sound, the interior would have to be restored, heating, plumbing, and electricity added and the whole house re-plastered. A cistern and a septic system would be needed. The cost of doing this could not be estimated with any degree of certainty since no one could foretell what problems we might run into. However, we had some money enough to get started. If we could keep the house standing, the rest could wait for some future generation.
We set out to find someone to work on it. This proved to be not-so-easy. People either were not interested or did not feel they had the expertise. But one local contractor was not only interested, but positively excited. He had a plan to make the house structurally sound. He also knew an architectural technician who could draw plans for an addition to replace the old summer kitchen, and for minor changes that would be necessary to bring the house into the 20th century, if we ever got that far.
The contractor repaired the structural damage by digging trenches in the lawn and using jacks set horizontally in them to push the south and west walls back onto the foundation, which, where necessary, had been shimmed up to meet them. The walls were then held in place by tie rods. It was a strategy which had been used at York Minster in England, and it worked for us. The house “closed up”, repairs to the damaged brick above were undertaken, the whole thing being re-pointed by a young craftsman just launching out on his own in his trade.
While the contractor worked on shoring up the house, Bill and I worked on the interior. Bill carefully removed and labeled for storage every piece of wood trim, all the doors and windows, and all the hardware except the nails. Screws that had not moved in 150 years had to persuaded to turn; nails that had rusted into now brittle trim had to be eased out without damaging the pine. It was an occasion for the invention of new tools, and the imaginative use of others.
Bill made some wonderful finds: 4 over 6 and 6 over 9 windows were originally intended to be 6 over 6 and 9 over 9; an opening from the upstairs hall closet was actually a full window, further evidence that the kitchen wing had been added after the main house had been built; a wall hid another door from the kitchen outside, possibly to a porch. He also made some not-so-nice finds. One was what the raccoons left behind in the attic over the servants’ quarters. All told it was a great adventure.
My job was to strip the layers of shellac, paint and grime off every piece of wood that was taken off — trim, stair spindles and banisters, mantles, windows, and doors. I had no experience, but our son Christopher, by then in the business of reclaiming heritage architectural pieces, had done plenty of wood stripping, and gave me several recommendations. I put up sawhorses and set to work!
I tried every paint and varnish stripper on the market, to find one, which would work for the particular combination of finishes on the wood I was dealing with. Most of the wood had been painted several times, and much of it had been grained, a process which involved the use of copious amounts of shellac. It was the dickens to get off! Twenty years ago, what worked best, for all the finishes, though not always in the same way or at the same speed, was Mastercraft Paint and Varnish Stripper followed by a Varsol “chaser”. To-day it would no doubt be something else. I used whatever tools I could find that would go where they needed to (some actually intended for removing paint), and I single-handedly kept the steel wool industry alive and thriving for years. I discovered that temperature and humidity and also the amount of air moving over the surface of the piece being stripped affect paint removal. I used to think it was affected by the mood I was in, but it might be more accurate to say that paint removal can’t be rushed. If you haven’t time for it, better leave it for another day. I happen to love removing paint from wood. It is time -consuming to do well, but for me it is no chore.
Once the house was secure and a new room added to replace the old summer kitchen, this, together with the kitchen/servants’ wing (the only part of the house with basement under it) would give us a sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. It could house the utilities and be shut off from the rest of the house. It would be adequate space for us to live in while we worked to restore the rest of the house or lived in it forever if the rest proved to be beyond our means.
When the structural work was complete our contractor turned the project over to two local finish carpenters, brothers who had been brought up in the building trade by their father. They were the find of a lifetime and they stayed with us through the many years we worked on the rest of the house. Bill found a plasterer who with his son was willing to take on the main house. Twenty years later, we have just been in touch with his son about re-plastering a 19th century church. Outside it took an infinite amount of meticulous piecing on the part of our carpenters to repair the soffits and fascia damaged by water, and by shotgun blasts which had been inflicted by an irate former owner intent upon ridding himself of starlings nesting in the open eaves.
A last major step in restoration was to put back a replica of the original front porch. It was designed and built by an amazing young friend of our son Christopher, from an 1880’s photo, which turned up in the archives of a family living next door. He also restored the decorative work over the bay window.
Work began on the house in 1983. We moved into the back section in 1985 and over the next ten years continued to work on the house ourselves with professional help as we could afford it. In 1994, with work still not complete, we moved into the main part of the house. We are still working on it! The next step is to build and put back the decorative molding around the ceiling in the parlor, and the medallion in the middle. Somewhere in the barn there is a picture rail, which really should go back in the dining room. Someone some day may decide to put back the wallpaper (all the rooms in the house were papered) but we decided to paint the walls using historical colours. In addition, the pine trim, which had originally been painted, was painted again. I put on everything a base coat and three finish coats. It creates a finished appearance, which is well worth the extra work.
We tried to maintain the integrity of the main house, but there have been compromises. Though we used most of the original hardware, we did not re-use the square nails. A bedroom, probably the nursery, was sacrificed for two bathrooms. The windows are original – Bill repaired and re-glazed them – and they all work. Keeping the original windows meant we had to add storms and screens. Folding shutters would not fit with the storms in place, so the shutters we have are purely decorative. A house of this quality would not have unpainted pine, but we have finished pine floors and a fair bit of unpainted trim in the back of the house.
I like to think that the old house is a reason for our family’s love of heritage architecture. Three of our five children own 19th century homes and are forever working on them. A fourth, if and when she buys, will probably follow suit. Our son, Christopher is the owner of Artefacts Salvage and Design in St. Jacobs. I can’t think of anything that has given me more pleasure than the restoration of Waterside. I feel sure that James and Mary Hoggan would be delighted too.
This editorial is dedicated to the memory of
The Reverend William Richard Blott | B.A., S.T.B., M.A.
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