Drawing on family and area history, the renovation of UcomeInn, a cottage in Pugwash, NS, is a story in itself
There is a strong history of storytelling in Atlantic Canada and this cottage has a story. Stories have always connected people and built communities, and this project, like a barn raising, was a community affair. Every detail, every item, every board and every nail reveal a history rich in this region’s way of life; the things we do, the people we love and the moments which define us as a culture.
Welcome to UcomeInn.
This is cottage country. Passed from generation to generation, surrounded by love, good times and the magnificence of the sea, these are the places that remind us of our heritage. UcomeInn boasts the warm waters of the Northumberland Strait, PEI is “across the way” as they say, Pugwash is “just in town” and on a clear day you can see the outline of The Bridge.
Originally purchased in the early 1930s by my partner Charley’s great-grandparents, we designed the cottage around some of the original floors and walls. It was important to us to maintain the history of this family space and to pay homage, in our way, to all the memories made here. From the beginning we decided we would be involved in every step, starting at the tear down stage. We carefully deconstructed the old cottage and re-purposed as much as we could. The old walls, made of pickwick pine, still had original paint, which we used to make the vanity in the bathroom and split doors upstairs. Among my favourite things here are the original doors on the pantry, as well used and well loved now as they were when Charley’s parents, Joan and Herbie Atkinson, used them. If you look closely, and you were one of the lucky kids who played here every summer, you might recognize several pieces Joan had in the cottage: the wrought iron anchors forged at the Lunenburg Foundry, her earring among the beach stones embedded in the bathroom countertop or the round red sink that reminds us of the original red shower that graced the old bathroom. (When Charley was a boy, that shower was a story in itself.)
Like every good story, sometimes you don’t know where the characters will take you. With this project, I was inspired by my love of the sea, the history of the cottage and my desire to create something where family and friends felt welcome.
But a story that was intended to take six months to build turned into years of collecting, 10 months of tear down and pre-construction, and two years before the outside was complete.
As I worked through many nights scrubbing barn boards and every weekend collecting materials, the people around me began to doubt this grand project. But, like any good story, as it began to take shape, those around me were drawn in; my brother, Tony, spent an entire weekend sanding barn boards for a bench, my mother, Mary Dee, caught the yard sale bug, my neighbours checked in every day and my friends began directing me to treasures they’d found that would fit with my vision. Imagine my surprise when neighbours came to the door with friends asking for a tour. Eventually, it didn’t matter if I was there or not; they conducted the tours themselves!
Charley always dreamed of building a two-storey cottage with a unique roofline and, with the help of Reg Brown, they created the plans on the original footprint. My vision for the cottage was an organic one; I wanted a new cottage, but I wanted it to feel weathered by time and the sea. Friend, builder, and contractor Wayne Downey from River Hebert made sure the cottage could stand the year round force of the Atlantic, just 20 feet away. Master cabinetmaker and movie set builder Richard LeBlanc helped me dream even bigger creative possibilities. (How Richard and I met is another story for another time.)
I have a passion for design and a natural instinct for what works, and when I decided the cottage would be a story of East Coast life and our relationship with the sea, we went to work. Richard found a barn in South Branch that had collapsed under the weight of a New Brunswick winter and we found treasures there that became our design framework. Rough-hewn beams, wide wood boards, boasting original saw marks from the mill, old wooden handles with leather strapping, and interesting bits of painted wood; we repurposed all into the new cottage.
I spent hours washing grimy boards, sanding floor planks and pounding straight the old square nails, so we could reuse them. I loved every minute of it. We struck gold under the old barn floor; hand forged rings and spikes that we painstakingly collected became our accessories. We bought that old barn floor, and used it to make the kitchen countertop and a harvest table to seat eight, 10 if you skootch in. I have never worked so hard and never with anyone like Richard. He taught me to envision and repurpose old wood in a way that only an artist could. Every day was truly an adventure. We designed the entire kitchen around an antique plow, a flat piece of board and two forged iron rings. From the hidden dog dish in the kick plate to the taps coming out of the barn beam in the bathroom, we were all about the details.
The repurposing was not solely based on environmental values; it was also about history, creativity and craftsmanship, and things evolved along the way. We decided early on we needed a storage cabinet. I had an old folk art table and my Mom and I found six cupboard doors at a yard sale in Wallace (for 25 cents each). We started to create. Using the disassembled doors, we framed a folk art table and built shelves inside and above it. We were delighted to find a handwritten price list on the inside of one of the cupboard doors from its original home, Drysdales’s Meat Shop. We happily displayed that list–on the outside, of course–and often laugh at the cost of inflation. The tiny, old porcelain knobs were carefully removed from each door and used in the bathroom cabinet upstairs; another example of the community history that lives in our cottage.
It’s fun to watch people come through the cottage the first time. When they realize the table is made from floor boards, the pictures are framed with parts of an old hay wagon, and the stair railing is made from the handles of farm tools, they aren’t sure where to look next. Barns dot our East Coast landscape and, like the sea, they tell a huge part of the story of what it means to be from this place. I am thrilled we were able to so creatively incorporate that into our cottage.
Richard gets credit for the staircase, a labour of love. I will never forget the day he asked Mom and me to collect broken wooden handles from rakes and shovels discarded during spring clean-up. His plan was to use them as balusters. We scoured the area for a month. Initial hesitation soon became a quest and we were thrilled every time we found one! I have to admit, I still keep an eye out for them.
The wheels of a hay wagon were retooled to make strapping for the newel posts and the barn door frame, wooden handle still intact, forms the main handrail running the full length of the staircase. The lower section is the handle from an ox drawn plow. It’s well worn and curved perfectly from hours of hard work in the fields. The plow itself sits above the stove in the kitchen, hiding the stovetop fan. Like every other part of the cottage, each piece of wood was chosen carefully for its character, grain, patina and “live edge,” showing saw marks or a rough-hewn notch. History tells a story every time you hold the handrail.
At the top of the stairs is the Pirate’s Den built for Connor, our nephew, who visits from Ontario every summer. Constructed of knarled barn board that looks to have come straight from a tall ship, the den offers a view, through windows of the Lunenburg bump, across the ocean to one of our favourite spots, a place we call Seal Point. Looking out those windows, I recall tales of the women who paced widow’s walks, wondering when their families would be together again. The ship’s wheel on the front deck steers them safely home again.
One of the remarkable things about this cottage is the view from the kitchen table. It genuinely looks as if the cottage is floating at sea. The ocean is the backdrop to everything, here. Decorate as you like but nothing compares to the panoramic view of the sea.
I spent countless hours seeking the perfect accessories, the perfect piece of art, the perfect piece of history. From dusty attics in Great Village, on Nova Scotia’s Cobequid Bay, to yard sales and flea markets from Shediac to Mahone Bay, and antique stores on the back roads of PEI, I scoured every nook and cranny for the perfect piece with the perfect fit. I stood in line at the Lunenburg Folk art festival and then visited the artists in their own homes to collect art. As a matter of fact, I can tell you where Ian Fancy, Paul McFadden, Faron Young, Colleen LaRou and the Nauglers live!
Our cottage is filled with extraordinary art, created by ordinary artists from the region expressing their unique passion with colour and simplicity. Yet one of my favourite pieces is not colourful, it is not the vibrant art of an East Coast artist; it is my father’s work. He carved a mermaid for the cottage, not to warn sailors away from the beach, but to welcome them home, to welcome all to UcomeInn.
There is a connection to the sea in Atlantic Canada that perhaps other Canadians might not understand; it is that essence I have tried to create here.
The beach tumbles into the cottage on sandy feet and in wet bathing suits. It lives in the stones on the countertop, the weathered wood everywhere and the sand in the cracks in the floor. It was a labour of love that expresses what being an Atlantic Canadian means to me—simplicity and tradition, hospitality and good times, and connection to family and friends. This cottage is filled with warmth, friendship and much storytelling.