In Chester, N.S., it’s known as the White Cottage and has been called that since the British Lieutenant Anthony Thickpenny received a land grant to build a home for him and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1795.
Over the ensuing 200-plus years, it has changed hands several times, but in 2010, news spread through the picturesque seaside village that a developer was planning to tear it down and turn it into four lots. Locals were outraged. Toronto interior designer Philip Mitchell and husband, Mark Narsansky, seasoned hands at restoration projects, knew they had to act.
“We already had a wonderful little Gothic Victorian cottage here in Chester, built in 1860, that we had restored,” says Mitchell, who fell in love with the home that sits on the sea. “We sold that property and bought this big old house that needed to be rescued.”
On the surface, the house looked to be in good shape. Unfortunately, one of its previous owners had added a porch without the proper flashing and unbeknownst to an untrained eye, water had been seeping in for years. “Our contractor told us three of four walls were rotted,” says Mitchell, who, with Narsansky, bought the property in 2011. “We couldn’t tear it down.”
Instead, they spent the next 2½ years taking it apart, piece by salvageable piece, and putting it back together again. Everything that could be saved was catalogued and numbered and put into nine storage facilities the couple rented.
“This area, with its rich history in shipbuilding, is full of masterful wood craftsmen who can replicate anything.” Hardwood floors were removed and carefully reassembled, staircases, with original newel posts, were rebuilt. “It was a huge job,” Mitchell says. “But now it’s a brand new old house.”
The living room is where they live. On one end is a large wood-burning fireplace; in the other, French doors lead onto the terrace that overlooks Front Harbour. In between are treasures that the couple, both avid collectors, have picked up over the years.
“Our decorating credo is simple: It’s all about spending quality time in a space, rather than just looking at it,” Mitchell says. “Mark and I are big believers in surrounding yourself with things you love so it’s a multitude of antiques, art and artifacts from all over the place – inherited, collected, purchased or designed for here.”
Since about the time of Thickpenny, Chester has been a favourite vacation spot for wealthy Americans, many of whom own cottages here. Narsansky and Mitchell, who both love to entertain, have a busy social calendar and revel in filling White Cottage with music, friends and laughter. But once fall arrives and temperatures dip, they also look forward to their adopted community settling back into the rhythm of a sleepy seaside town (Chester has a population of roughly 1,500).
“Chester is very special and we’ve been lucky to make so many new friends here,” says Mitchell, who eventually plans to spend six months of the year here.
“While we love the summer, we equally like it once the weather cools, the harbour freezes, and we can spend hours playing backgammon and Scrabble. There is something about being on the ocean, regardless of the time of year. For us, it brings a sense of well-being and peace.”