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Prince Edward County home of Shannon Kyles. Front exterior. (Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail/Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)
Prince Edward County home of Shannon Kyles. Front exterior. (Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail/Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)

An Ontario farmhouse reno: Folly or Fabulous? Add to ...

It has been a difficult rebirth.

In fact, Shannon Kyles almost christened her relocation and rebuild of an 1830s Regency cottage “Shannon’s Folly.” But, on the second last evening of 2011, as I watched ice pellets hit 180-year-old 4’ x 8’ sash windows in the grand, high-ceilinged living room heated by a roaring Rumford fireplace and a forced-air geothermal system, “folly” was not a word that came to mind.

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“Shannon’s Paradise,” perhaps, or “Shannon’s Stubbornness.”

As I wrote in April 2010, the home was known as “The Grove” when it sat in Ancaster, Ontario. While it had been well-loved by its then-owner, Helen Vanner, it was ready to crumble when Ms. Kyles, an architecture professor at Hamilton’s Mohawk College, was called in to assess its health. Despite walls that were soaked through and flaking floor joists, Ms. Kyles ended up striking a deal with Ms. Vanner to take away everything else—including 45-foot long beams, original floorboards and those gorgeous windows—if she could do it within a few weeks.

Little did she know that would be the easy part of her journey.

As we sat sipping spicy red wine, she told me about the rest of it. After looking for property in Niagara wine country and Georgian Bay (where she found herself “crying because of what they’ve done to that shore” with monster homes sporting three-car garages) and finding them too expensive, she turned to Prince Edward County.

“The Regency style demands a picturesque environment…you need to have croquet,” she explains with a chuckle. “I had to get at least two acres.” After viewing 40 properties, she found a 15-acre lot that included 11 acres of conservation land/turtle sanctuary and a long piece of Consecon lakefront.

With architectural drawings in hand (Ms. Kyles teaches AutoCAD), excavation started in August 2010. “It was pretty exciting at first, and then things started to go wrong and I started getting upset,” she deadpans.

Leaving a site supervisor in charge while she went back to teach, her first indication that things weren’t going well was when she returned to find footings for the four Rumford fireplaces completely miscalculated. Next time, it was the new monitor roof (the old cottage didn’t have a monitor roof, but they are common to the era) that had been built by carpentry students: it had six bays rather than five “and nobody noticed!”

By December, while tending to her ailing father, award-winning architect Lloyd Kyles, she faced another roofing crisis. Although she had hired a “grown-up” to re-build the roof, she got more child’s play instead: “He just totally ignored the drawings and totally ignored me; and the site manager, I don’t know what he was doing.” Structurally unsafe and visually out of proportion, Ms. Kyles brought in a “new pile of guys” to finish the roof. None of their work passed inspection. “It’s astonishing what goes on if you’re not here and watching them,” she says with a sigh. “How many people do I have to fire?”

After discovering the restored lamb’s tongue brackets on her coffered soffits spaced “higgledy-piggledy” and too low (meaning she’d have to carve a chunk out of the elliptical fanlight over the front door), she shut the project down in January 2011 to reassess.

Although the correct roof was finally on by March, there were issues with a shoplifting plumber and the guy hired to install the salvaged wide-plank floor: he forgot to use shims (resulting in a “bouncy” floor) and “there were way too many cuts by the doors.

“In Regency and Georgian you would never have cuts by the doors, they were really meticulous craftsmen,” she explains. Not only that, there was a border around the hearth—something never done in that era—and the different coloured fir and pine planks had been mixed together.

The next flooring contractor, who billed his company as a heritage restoration firm, managed to make things worse. Not only did he fail to correct those problems, the 16-foot long, 10-inch wide planks had been milled down by three to five inches and shortened considerably. “I cried for three days,” she remembers. “It’s like taking an antique desk in to have it refinished and having them chop it all up and make it into an Ikea computer station.”

Despite the lawsuits that inevitably followed, there were bright spots. The staff and students at Mohawk were “just amazing” with advice and the construction of additional coffered soffits, lamb’s tongue brackets and the main staircase, she says. Drew Skuce of Paradigm Shift Custom Renovation based in Paris, Ontario, expertly handled window restoration, and Bree Blaker of Carrying Place, Ontario, did the top-notch masonry, including the spot-on double Georgian chimneys. Late-comer to the project, “Wayne the Wonderful” Robertson, also of Carrying Place, did too many tasks to list.

“It’s all cosmetic at this point,” says Ms. Kyles of the five-bedroom, six-bath cottage, which she no longer refers to as The Grove. And while it might seem appropriate to christen it “The Phoenix,” Ms. Kyles has decided upon the mythical creature that protects precious objects instead: “The Gryphon.”

Not so mythical, I’d say.

***

The Gryphon will be available for one-week rentals beginning in June 2012; for more information on the project, see www.ontarioarchitecture.com/regencyrebuild.htm

 

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