“Their architecture might have seemed a troubled dream, or even a nightmare, to an aspiring member of the Royal College of Architects. They looked, indeed, like the sort of cottages in which Snow White and her seven dwarfs might have lived.” THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, 1941
Editorial By: Charles Macdonald House of Centreville Society
Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper
Charles Macdonald spent most of his twenties and thirties as a wanderer. Several years at sea were followed by several years in British Columbia. Only in 1912, at the age of 38, was Macdonald ready to come home to Nova Scotia and to settle down. He would devote the next forty years of his life to manufacturing, promoting, and using concrete.
Concrete had been used on a large scale since the 1850s, and on a small scale since the heyday of the Roman Empire, but it still seemed like a new and unusual material in 1912. Certainly, the residents of Centreville (just north of Steam Mill) made fun of Macdonald when he started his cement brick factory on Saxon Street. The concrete business cannot have been terribly lucrative at first, for Macdonald was driven to live in a tent outside his factory. Before long, though, World War One created a market for concrete – an important war material.
In 1916, Macdonald got married. Mabel Meisner of Chipman Brook helped her husband turn the former factory into a house.
And what a house it is! Macdonald built something that stands apart from just about anything else in the province. Not only did he build his home entirely from reinforced concrete, but he built in his own style, a style influenced by the buildings he had seen as a sailor in South America and the Mediterranean, as well as by his own eccentricity and sense of humour. Sunshine yellow paint, concrete stucco, tree-shaped columns, and flat roofs come from Santos, Malta, and Naples. The concrete bathtub, the hand-prints on the concrete windowsill, and concrete animals on the lawn could only have come from Charlie.
With his Centreville factory now his house, Macdonald opened a new plant in Yoho, just outside Kings County’s shire town of Kentville, and conveniently close to a gravel pit. Kentville Concrete Products made their own concrete into a wide range of pre-cast products – pipe, blocks, well curbs, septic tanks, lawn furniture, and more.
Kentville Concrete Products is just as notable for the way it was run as for what it made. When Charlie lived in Vancouver, he joined the Socialist Party of Canada and became a trenchant critic of capitalism. Accordingly, he decided that his company would operate to benefit his workers rather than to make him rich. The company ran cooperatively. Workers at Kentville Concrete did not receive wages, but “drew what they needed” from company coffers. Charlie believed in social progress and the company embodied it. Even company advertising promoted concrete as only one part of a vast movement of social change.
The Great Depression of the 1930s did not spare the Annapolis Valley, and the men of Kentville Concrete Products soon found themselves without paying customers. Charlie had been foresighted enough in the good times of the 1920s to sock away a little money “for a rainy day,” so the company did not have to let anyone go. Instead, they embarked on a great building project.
The Green Cottage
Charlie and his wife Mabel had gone camping every summer since 1919 at Huntington Point, just west of the fishing village of Hall’s Harbour. The windswept seaside locale had made a great impression on Charlie. It occurred to him that other people might enjoy it too. With that thought in mind, and with the depression of the 1930s halting other projects, Charlie and Kentville Concrete Products built five concrete cottages at the Point between 1934 and 1938.
Built of concrete reinforced by iron and driftwood, brightly painted, and infused with a whimsical sensibility, the secluded cottages have charmed countless visitors who have stumbled upon them. A Christian Science Monitor correspondent had it right in 1941 when she declared that the cottages were the sort of houses “in which Snow White and her seven dwarfs might have lived.”
The seven dwarfs really did not live there, of course. Charlie and Mabel took one cottage for themselves, and the others were rented very cheaply until Charlie met prospective buyers whom he trusted to care for them properly. Four of the cottages survive today: the Green Cottage, the Jefferson Cottage, the Blue Cottage, and the Macdonald Cottage. The fifth, called the “Teapot Cottage,” was destroyed in 1982.
Charlie oversaw the day-to-day operations of Kentville Concrete Products until one day in 1951 when he walked up to the foreman at quitting time, handed over the keys to the plant, and proclaimed, “It’s yours!” He was 77 years old. While Charlie would keep up his association with Kentville Concrete, he would enjoy a long and comfortable retirement – much of it spent at Huntington Point.
Charles Macdonald was, at various times in his life, a carpenter, a sailor, and a manufacturer. But he was always an artist. In perhaps 200 paintings and several surviving sketchbooks, Charles Macdonald has left us an invaluable record of his Nova Scotia, especially the Annapolis Valley on the mainland and the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton.
Rural Nova Scotia where Charlie spent most of his life has changed a great deal since his day. Small towns have lost their wharves, farms have become larger and fewer, roads have been paved. Macdonald’s paintings have great value as historical documents, showing us what Nova Scotia looked like in decades past.
If Macdonald had a credo as an artist, it was that “for the real beauties of nature, you have to go to where nature is left alone.” Many, if not most, of his paintings originated as watercolour or pencil sketches done in the field, and later turned into finished works.
Charlie’s oeuvre merits attention by any standard, but it is even more impressive when one considers that he was completely self-taught. His formal education ended when he was only fifteen, and his youthful dream of attending art school never came true.
Charlie could only devote his spare time to painting and so he probably never could explore his evident talents fully. We are the poorer for it.
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The Charles Macdonald Concrete House is arguably one of the most unique heritage buildings in the Canadian Maritimes, and the Charles Macdonald House of Centreville Society is tasked with maintaining the legacy of this “Uncommon, Common Man”. The Society maintains both the Concrete House Museum and the Blue Cottage at Huntington Point, their corresponding properties, a collection of Charlie’s paintings and sketches, and his archival material. In the summer, we employ government subsidized student guides who offer tours of what was once the original concrete factory and then the Macdonald’s home; sharing more about Charlie’s life story, his Socialist ideologies that shaped his Concrete Company, his artwork, and his architectural approaches.
While the Concrete Museum has stood for more than 100 years with little issue, there are now some major structural concerns we must address to ensure that the building will continue to stand for future generations to enjoy. Throughout 2020, the Concrete Museum’s Board of Directors worked with many professionals to develop a rehabilitation plan and budget. In 2021 we applied for government grants to assist with the restorations, and in December 2021, we launched our own Capital Campaign with the goal of raising $90,000 to perform some of the most urgent of the repairs needed.
For those interested in following along with our restoration endeavours or learning more about this fascinating piece of Annapolis Valley history, take a look at our website: https://www.concretehouse.ca/, Donations to support the restoration project can be made here: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/charles-macdonald-house-of-centreville-society/.
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