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Boathouse, the last surviving of five houses built in the 1820s

How a 19th century home in Halls Harbour, NS, got a whole new look

It’s a cold, grey day in Halls Harbour. Large waves crash against the beach, and the wind blowing in off the Bay of Fundy feels as cold as the ice covering nearby cliffs.

Heather Lohr sits in front of a wood-burning fireplace insert in the cosy living room of the home she and her husband, John Lohr, bought in 2010. Scrolling through photos of the property’s outbuildings on her laptop, she says, “Look at this. Look how bad it was.”

Halls Harbour was settled by people of European descent in the early 19th century, and the Lohr property contains the last of the five original homes in the village, built in the 1820s.

For 30 years, the Lohrs ran Farmer John’s Herbs in Canning, in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. (John was elected to the provincial legislature in 2013, and he and Heather recently sold the farm to their two oldest sons.) They decided to renovate the buildings and rent out the main house, while blocking off enough dates for them to enjoy it with their family as well.

The property had been empty for two years when the Lohrs bought it from artist John Neville, who had grown up there (see sidebar on page 82). The first order of business was the barn, which was open to the elements. Carpenter Dwayne McCulley replaced the large doors, which had rotted off, put in a new sill, and built new doors to secure the building.

Next up was the adjacent building, the property’s original 1820s house and now referred to as the boathouse. Heather says it too was “ready to go into the ocean.” The old home was reshingled (they found birch bark used as insulation under the old shingles) and they added windows on the side facing the bay. “Because of the weather, [people traditionally] didn’t want windows there, but we want to see the sea,” Heather says. “I found a guy in the Valley who had all these collections of old windows for sale. And none of them were intact. I [eventually] found two matching pieces and the carpenter made a frame, so they look like they’ve been there forever.”

When it came to refurbishing the interior, Heather says, “We put plastic wrap around the original hand-hewn beams to protect them, and whitewashed the interior because it was so dark and ugly.” The floor had rotted out, so they replaced it with one made of pine boards from their farm.

The space is now a cosy spot with a woodstove for the winter. There’s a crokinole board on the table, and décor items mostly salvaged from the old barn. Apart from the fridge, the other concession to modernity is an outdoor hot tub. “This is a great space,” Heather says. “When we’ve got the fire going, everyone’s here. We usually eat up at the house, but we hang out down here. We love this room.”

Another outbuilding—once used as a small shop—has been turned into a simple apartment for Heather’s mother to stay in.

Heather and John Lohr have meticulously renovated the former Halls Harbour home of artist John Neville.

Tough decisions

Renovation decisions in the main house—which dates from the mid-19th century—had to balance old and new: preserving much of the wood in the house, but not wanting to be overwhelmed by too much of it.

But first, the place needed a heating system. The house had old radiators, but they were no longer connected to a heat source. After using electric heat for a winter, the Lohrs put in a fireplace insert and tested the radiator system. Once they knew it would work, they added a glycol-water mix and connected it to a propane heater.

While some old radiators can be gorgeous, Heather says these were not much to look at. “All the radiators were ugly—there was a black one and some were dark grey. I went through and painted them all, except for the one in the kitchen. The patina on that one was gorgeous. I couldn’t paint that.”

They avoided the temptation to completely redo the kitchen, but put in a full-sized fridge to replace the “tiny” one in the house, and added a dishwasher and a new sink. They kept the pine cabinets, but decided to paint them a neutral tone. John, who built the beautiful oak table in the dining room, counts woodworking as a hobby. He says, “It’s hard for a woodworker like me to paint wood, but too much of it is overwhelming.” The pine cabinets would also have removed some of the spotlight from the spectacular original floors. They had been covered in layers of paint that the Lohrs had sanded and refinished. Some of the floorboards still have the original hand-forged square nails.

Another tough decision involved the beautiful pressed-tin kitchen ceiling, which dates from around 1910 and cost $9.60, including installation (Heather found the receipt). The kitchen lighting was inadequate, and Heather wanted to add a couple of fixtures. That meant having to cut two more holes in the ceiling—a proposition that John says was “hotly debated.”

The upstairs, Heather says, was “pretty rough” with snow and wind coming in. One of the rooms had a tiny closet with a window and toilet; “no washbasin, no nothing,” she says. By tearing down the closet and moving the toilet they were able to add both a bathroom and additional bedroom upstairs. Heather also stripped off “layers and layers and layers of wallpaper” on the stairs. The original lathe and plaster in the upstairs hallway “was all hanging down,” she says. But it was salvageable after being cleaned up and sanded. And while the Lohrs decided to sand the downstairs floors, upstairs, they’ve left the original paint, which they found suits the colour of the house. It also doesn’t distract from the old doors, with original hardware, in that part of the house.

When it was time to decorate, Heather had lots to work with. When she and John looked at the property, it was filled with all kinds of items—from decades-old paperwork to boat-building supplies, wooden chests, and original artwork. John says “One of the conditions of sale was ‘Do not clean up.’” While the Lohrs did wind up throwing away a lot, they retained all kinds of items, both functional and quirky: a poster with fishing regulations from 1937, breathtaking John Neville engravings, beautiful rocks and minerals (now displayed on shelves), stools and chairs, whale bone, and a collection of items used for boat-building.

Although the renovation was multi-faceted—and there is still more to come, with the Lohrs planning on replacing some windows that don’t match the era of the house—Heather says she didn’t go in with a written plan. Instead, she just visualizes the final result. “I can see it all finished. I can see it in my mind, and then I work backwards, going through all we need to do,” she says. “I don’t actually ever write anything down.”

Former home of artist John Neville

Nova Scotia artist John Neville—known for his etchings and paintings depicting traditional life in coastal Nova Scotia—sold the property to Heather and John Lohr. Born in 1952, he grew up in the home, which was built by his grandfather, and later lived there with his wife, Joyce. The outbuilding now used as an apartment was once a small shop. A day planner left behind in the house shows totals for art sales, as well as dulse.

Neville’s presence remains strong in the home. The Lohrs have kept many distinctive items they found, such as a boat template that now hangs on the outside of the barn, and a number of pieces of Neville’s art—including a piece they commissioned from him—adorn the house.

At one time, the house also housed the Neville gallery, and Heather Lohr says when they first owned the place, people would occasionally walk into the living room, thinking it was still a gallery space. ~ PM

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