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Barbara Budd, at home. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Barbara Budd, at home. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Living Spaces

Barbara Budd: A broadcaster re-tuned Add to ...

When Barbara Budd decided to buy a house in Stratford, she prayed she'd find something fabulous - and she did. She just never expected it would be a former church.

The actor, broadcaster and consummate storyteller, who co-hosted CBC Radio's As it Happens for 17 years, bought the oldest brick building in the city, a former Presbyterian church built in 1851. (It was divided into two residential units in 1886 when the church moved elsewhere.)

"When I walked into the entrance hall something waved over me. I felt at peace. I instantly knew this was the house for me," says Ms. Budd, who moved from Toronto to Stratford in November, along with her 17-year-old son Thomas. She's since met someone whose ancestor was baptized in the house and someone else whose great-grandparents were married there.

Ms. Budd had actually bought the house five years earlier, foreseeing a time when she'd want to retreat from daily life in the big city and return to the place - and the people - that captured her heart almost 40 years ago. "I felt I had this tremendous connection here," says Ms. Budd, who was an actor with the Stratford Festival from 1975 to 1980. "I missed the small town camaraderie, but also the people who I had shared so much with as actors and participants at the Festival, many of whom still live and work here. Moving to Stratford felt like moving back home."

The house was rented out to Festival actors until Ms. Budd decided she was ready to make the leap. The other half is currently owned by her friend, actor Lally Cadeau.

The two-storey, three-bedroom house, located in one of Stratford's premiere heritage districts, is quadruple red brick, covered in parging, a type of mortar. It has two enormous bathrooms (one of which is large enough to store a small car), a huge open kitchen with a dining area that makes it ideal for entertaining, plus a generous living room with 12½-foot ceilings. The windows are large and plentiful so the house is awash in light even on grey winter days, which helps to showcase her eclectic collection of Canadian art. The house sits on a corner lot and has a screened-in porch on the front and a private, latticed patio at the side that is surrounded by lush perennial gardens that bloom from spring through to the fall. They were planted by local real estate agent Susan Fox, who was not only Ms. Budd's agent but also the former owner of the house.

Two of the first things Ms. Budd bought when she moved to Stratford, which is in a snow belt, were four snow tires and a sump pump. Then she got busy on more creative and restorative projects. She completely rebuilt an aging and temperamental gas fireplace in the corner of the living room, had the bulging wainscoting that runs up the stairs repaired, and most of the main floor repainted - all of which reminded her of a few other things she loves about Stratford.

"When you're living in a small town, there's such a visibility of your work, whether you're an actor on the stage, a painter in the park, the man who installs your sump pump or works on your wainscoting. There's not only visibility, but a regard for individual reputation and a regard for the client. When you live in a bigger city, there's an invisibility. In Stratford you learn very quickly if someone can be relied upon or is not to be trusted."

She's also been delighted with the level of craftsmanship that's available locally. Vyvyan Green, the man hired to repair her wainscoting, for example, was a master carpenter and foreman in England who worked on 500-year-old buildings before moving to Stratford 20 years ago. All the jobs she's commissioned since November have come in under budget, as well as on time. She hired Dave Ellis Painting and Renovations to repaint the hallway, front door, living room, staircase and all the ceilings and he and his assistant did the work in less than three days and for the low estimate. "And when they say they'll be here, they're here. It's fabulous."

Ms. Budd prefers not to say what she paid for the house but she will say it was a fraction of what a similar house in Toronto would cost, "if you could even find a 160-year-old house in Toronto." The day of The Globe and Mail interview, a big bouquet of fresh-cut flowers was delivered, sent by her real estate agent in Toronto, congratulating her on selling her Chaplin Crescent house after just 2½ days on the market and at seven per cent above the asking price.

Life is good for Ms. Budd these days - and in more ways than one.

Poised to turn 60 later this year, the outspoken and gregarious maverick is far from retired; in fact she's busier than ever. She commutes back and forth roughly four days a week to work on Toronto projects - "fortunately, I love driving" - and the day after the interview, she was flying to Calgary to moderate a panel on pop culture and biotechnology at the Glenbow Museum. In addition to her work as host, moderator and guest speaker, she's also in the midst of writing a book. And as word spreads she's now a resident of Stratford, local commitments continue to grow. Invited to participate in this year's Stratford Summer Music, the city's award-winning music festival, Ms. Budd will be "exploring how music has influenced the lives of three extraordinary performers." She's also been asked by a local high school to interview, in front of the students, their upcoming guest, broadcaster and environmentalist David Suzuki.

Busy with work and still buried in boxes, Ms. Budd happily acknowledges it was heart that brought her back to Stratford, but she's convinced it was fate that delivered the house. At one point, she'd actually put in an offer and a deposit on another place, but at the last minute, the couple backed out, saying they decided not to move. Heartbroken, she stopped looking at houses altogether for about a year. Then, her real estate agent called about the church house.

"I was sitting on the front porch about a month ago thinking about that whole scenario," Ms. Budd recalls, "and then it hit me. 'Ooh, that's why that house fell through. I was supposed to live here - because in the long run, this is much more my house than the other one.'"

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