by Sandra Phinney
photography Jackson Productions Inc
Lucy Maud Montgomery once wrote, “Houses are like people—some you like and some you don’t like—and once in a while there is one you love.”
Welcome to Lunenburg’s oldest house at 80-82 Pelham Street, a home that’s been well-loved. Also known as the Dowling House, Dowling-Romkey House, Romkey House and Ältestes Haus (meaning “oldest house” in German), the Pelham House is not only rooted in history, it has a most unusual feature.
Paula Howatt is the current and fifth-generation owner and enjoys recounting stories of her father, the Hon. John James Kinley, a local businessman, who served as the province’s 29th Lieutenant Governor. He loved his hometown of Lunenburg and especially treasured this historic property.
When Kinley inherited the home from Ina Romkey in 1972, he was concerned about a sagging ceiling that had occurred when Ms. Romkey added a third staircase to provide easier access to the downstairs, so he hired a contractor to take corrective measures lest a disaster occur. In the process of jacking up the ceiling and using sister beams to provide support, it became evident that another structure was co-habiting within.
“This turned a horror story into a silver lining,” Howatt says. In effect, they discovered a house within a house. “My father immediately consulted building inspectors, architects, and experts with Parks Canada. They confirmed that the earlier and much more primitive house was an Acadian-built structure so the house could have been built as early as 1630.” Written historical records confirmed these lands were occupied by Acadians who were fishing and farming, and living peacefully with natives also living in the area known then as Merligueche Bay, now called Lunenburg Harbour.
For years, this home served as the Customs House, a centre of commerce where those entering the harbour came to register their merchandise. “I was always told by my family that the rooms on the left side along Duke Street, with the double doors, served as the customs office,” Howatt adds.
During the Second World War, both Howatt’s grandfather and father assisted Norwegian sailors who had been fishing off the coast of Nova Scotia and were unable to return to their homeland. The Norwegians built a training camp in Lunenburg, called Camp Norway. “My dad’s notes indicate that during this time Norwegian naval and army officers and their wives rented this home and it became a gathering place for them while they were displaced from their home country.”
Although the exact age of the house is unknown, Howatt says, “Various experts have examined the house, particularly the construction materials, and found evidence of Acadian design which would date it in the Acadia period of the 1600s, more than 100 years prior to the settlement of German and French Huguenot immigrants who received grants from the British government after the Expulsion of the Acadians, around the town of Lunenburg’s incorporation in 1753.”
Howatt adds, “Many years before my father’s death, he and I worked together for months organizing information about the history of this house. I am a practicing lawyer who had done a lot of property work, so my knowledge of land transfers and estates was helpful.”
The family presented all this documentation to the Town of Lunenburg and the Lunenburg Heritage Society which, in turn, led to the official recognition by the town that the Pelham house was indeed the oldest house in Lunenburg. A metal plaque now appears on the Pelham Street side of the house which says “Plaqued Heritage Property Known As The Oldest House In Lunenburg.” As well, her father arranged to have a wooden sign placed on the home that reads, “Ältestes Haus circa 1760 known as the oldest house in Lunenburg.”
Everyone who enters the home is surprised, as it is much larger it is than it appears from the outside. Built close to the waterfront, on a side hill in the centre of the town’s UNESCO Heritage district, it has a panoramic view of the harbour from each room in the back of the home, which is finished on three levels.
A family treasure previously handed down through the family is a christening dress that Aunt Ella made for her daughter, Ina Romkey. “I am told by my dad that his sister and I wore this dress at our christening. My three children, and recently my grandson, were all christened in this dress.”
Howatt has many wonderful memories of visits with Ina and of family dinner parties at the house. “Ina was kind-hearted and admired by all. She was like a second grandmother to me; we were very close. She happily accepted the name I gave her as a young child: ‘Niney’.” Howatt also fondly recalls how she and her husband had their wedding rehearsal party in the home’s formal dining room 40 years ago.
More recently, with the support of her husband Eric and daughter Stephanie, Howatt oversaw a reconstruction and renovation project, which lasted over two years. As the house was in substantial need of repair, it was a major undertaking. Upgrades including major electrical and plumbing improvements were required to ensure the home could be functional. The challenge was to modernize the essentials in the home while preserving its character, charm and special features.
“We were excited to find the large wood paneling, which I knew nothing about and that had been hidden by wall paper and plaster. We also removed all the upper storey ceilings which exposed all the hand hewn beams. We re-purposed original wood found in the attic—some still with birch bark—into tables and counters.” Some of the old fireplaces still exist, as well as a bake oven.
“During these renovations, other treasures have come to light including a box containing a hand-made wedding dress made by Aunt Ella (Ina’s mother). She was a beautiful seamstress. We found a lot of her handiwork in the house and have made two displays which now hang in the upstairs hall.”
Pamela Baltzer, president of the Lunenburg Board of Trade, appreciates what Howatt and her family have done to preserve this landmark. “Undertaking the restoration of 80-82 Pelham Street is confirmation of the value and beauty of our heritage homes. It is the recognition of the historical and cultural significance of Lunenburg’s past and the vital role these buildings played in shaping the growth of Lunenburg over the centuries and into the future.”
Baltzer also believes that the restoration of the house is a testament to the people that built the town and those who continue to make Lunenburg thrive. “As well as preserving the beauty and architectural significance of the house, Paula and Eric provide employment for our skilled tradespeople and small businesses, directly strengthening their community,” she says.
Paula Howatt adds, “This property has always meant so much to my family. There are still things to do, but it was important to restore this property because of my family’s heritage in owning the home for five generations, and my personal memories and connections—especially to Ina, who was very special to me.”
And so it goes; a grand old dame is preserved—and still loved.
Header caption: Main dining room with living area.
Intro caption: Paula Howatt and her daughter Stephanie at the main entrance of 80-82 Pelham Street in Lunenburg; inset: Ina Romkey at the door of the room used for many years as the Customs office