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Restoring a craftsman-style house

Melody and Brad Morse love their 100-year-old home, which sits on three acres in Berwick, NS. Brad’s grandfather, P.L. Morse, had the house built in 1912; his wife, Martha, gave birth to their nine children there. Melody and Brad’s children are the fourth generation of Morses to live in the house, which is surrounded by trees and shrubs; P.L. planted one each year he lived there. When landscapers suggested getting rid of the two 80-year-old caragana bushes out front, Brad refused, Melody says. “We have stories of his father and his brothers, five of them, sliding down the front hall banister, charging out the door and jumping over the caragana bush to run down to do chores at his grandfather’s farm.”

Hiring local artisans

Just as the couple values the family history of their house, they value local artisans and tradespeople who can contribute to their goal of restoring as much of the character of the early days as possible. They’ve added stained glass windows made by local artists Raven Hazelwood-Clark and Troy Wood, an original kitchen backsplash—a ceramic farm scene mosaic—and countertop by Karen Keddy, a post and beam sunroom with a wrought iron railing, made by blacksmith Scott Hamlin, and a garage/carriage house in keeping with the home’s craftsman style.

Melody says she loves the look of similar-aged homes in Lunenburg and Mahone Bay, NS, and drove around those communities looking for restoration ideas. This summer when the veranda was showing signs of wear, they initially thought new steps, a railing and a coat of paint would do nicely. Renovations, particularly on older homes, are often more extensive than first thought and finding a contractor to work on an older home is not easy. Fortunately, a contractor Melody had hired when she had the stained glass windows installed had already demonstrated his appreciation for older homes and his skill to restore them.

Back to the drawing board

Contractor Kim Thorsen says, “Once we started to tear the veranda apart, we just kept looking at each other and saying ‘this is not good.’ The further we went, the worse it got.” He says, “Over the 100 years, this veranda had one major renovation and possibly four or five minor renovations. We could see the work of different tradespeople, going from the traditional craftsman-style house that would have been hand cut, hand built, hand mortised, up to today’s technology and how we put things together.” Thorsen says the floor was hemlock, but he wasn’t sure if that was the original or not.

Where some would see rot as a problem, Melody saw an opportunity. Since the whole veranda would have to be replaced, she got out a photo of the house taken in 1912 and asked Thorsen if he could make it look like the original. He could, and was excited by the challenge.

“When we do renovation work, 98 per cent of the time, we have no plan (blueprint). We listen to what the customer tells us, envision it and build it,” Thorsen says. He and his senior carpenter, Larry McClare, have a combined 60 years experience in the trade and do mostly renovation work. He says many younger carpenters learn to build from a blueprint and often don’t want to work on older homes.

Mutual respect

Melody’s clear vision of what she wanted—cedar shakes, real wood and some stone work along the veranda skirt—made Thorsen’s job much easier. He suggested they use western red cedar for the flooring, a product he used on his own home with great results. Melody loved the idea. Thorsen says she was decisive every step of the way. “When I’d show Melody the wood or stone, she’d say, ‘done’ and I had my answer.” They chose a cultured stone for the skirting and cedar shakes for the veranda walls. Melody says she got daily emails with updates from Thorsen. “They kept the picture with them and would ask for my opinion on materials and I would tell them they were the artists and I trusted their judgement,” she says. This kind of mutual respect and communication made the project run smoothly.

They replaced the entire veranda and while they were digging the trench for the flagstone walkway, McClare found an 1896 Newfoundland penny, which he gave to the homeowners. “It was about the size of a nickel or quarter,” says Melody. This little brush with history just sweetened the day.

Thorsen hired stone mason Gary Russell from New Germany to do the stonework. He did the veranda skirt, the base of the newel posts and when the job was finished Melody asked him to continue the stonework on the base of her sunroom at the back of the house. He also did the house chimney. Stonework, Thorsen says, is another trade that can be a challenge if you can’t find a good mason, and there are fewer available these days.

The carpenters also did the cedar shakes below the sunroom windows, to match the front veranda. The new cedar shakes were sealed with a clear stain to keep their colour.

The house also has cedar shakes but they have always been painted and will stay that way. The painters who painted the front of the house will return in the spring to paint the remaining three sides and the garage.

To conclude the project Melody threw a party and invited the four remaining (adult) children who were born in the house. They wanted to meet the people who worked on their childhood home. She included their families and everyone who had a hand in the project: the contractor and carpenters, stone mason, painters, landscapers and the greenhouse who supplied the new plants.

“I am really pleased with the contractor and the tradespeople,” says Melody. “They really are craftspeople, to take a little black and white picture, 100 years old, and restore that design.”

For the Morse family, lovingly renovating this wonderful home is a passion and an homage to those who have gone before.

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