If walls could talk on this classic house they might actually sing. Long ago it was home to Cy Warman, an Illinois railway man turned journalist, once known as "the Poet of the Rockies," who followed a 19-year-old Kansas girl almost 20 years his junior to London, Ont., while she studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
Legend has it that he composed Sweet Marie one night in London's Victoria Park, then used it for his marriage proposal in 1893. This poem was set to music by Raymond Moore and became a smash hit in the 1890s. The song became a much-parodied Appalachian folk tune and was used in a 1947 Irene Dunne movie. It also inspired the name for the Sweet Marie candy bar, still popular today.
The Warmans decided to put down roots in London, and their home, at 100 Cheapside, was designed in 1899 by Moore and Henry, one of London's leading architectural firms. They raised four children there, but sadly, Warman died after a brief illness in 1914. When his "Sweet Marie" died in 1945, the house was sold to the Gamma Epsilon sorority of Kappa Alpha Theta, founded at the University of Western Ontario in 1937. The sorority sisters moved in and renovated the house in the 1960s, adding a second floor that had been planned, but never built.
After a gruesome Phi Gamma Delta fraternity fire in 1996 killed five students on graduation day at the University of North Carolina, the international chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta took the lead to mandate sprinkler systems in all its facilities, whether they housed one woman or 100. When members of the Gamma Epsilon chapter could not raise funds for sprinklers and other repairs, they were forced to close their home.
Enter Mike and Bonnie Pierotti. Bonnie, an interior decorator, could see great style hidden beneath the turquoise-painted Theta house that commands a prominent corner of London's Old North neighbourhood, just south of campus.
"I loved the house and drove by it all the time," Ms. Pierotti says. "But because it was a sorority I was told it would never go on the market."
That changed when she spotted a realtor's sign on the lawn. "I went in and took photos," Ms. Pierotti says. But when she told her husband, who is president of the full-service contracting firm Michael Pierotti Design/Build, Inc., that the house was finally available, he showed no interest. "We were in the middle of renovating our own kitchen," explains Ms. Pierotti, whose century home is nearby.
So she left her laptop running where it would be visible, with the photos on slideshow. Ms. Pierotti cannot push her husband, a rock-solid offensive linesman with the Forest City Thunderbirds Football Club. But the soft sell of the photos finally scored.
"Mike went for a tour and then we crunched some numbers," she says. They started work the minute they took possession on Nov. 19, 2009.
The house was built in the American Shingle style. The Pierottis had admired similar homes on their honeymoon while motoring down the New England coast.
"Friends laugh at our honeymoon photos because they are all of buildings," Ms. Pierotti says with a smile. "Sometimes they were close-ups of architectural details, but we were hardly in any of them."
The American Shingle style, as defined by Vincent Scully, the Yale architectural historian, was popularized by prominent architects including Henry Hobson Richardson and McKim, Mead and White, who designed shingle houses for the elite of the Eastern Seaboard.
Nancy Tausky, an author and heritage consultant in London, appreciates some of the rare architectural features.
"The house is tremendously attractive because of the way it blends the Shingle style with the picturesque features of the Queen Anne style," says Ms. Tausky. who adds: "The shingles extend down the unusual roof line into a double cornice. The gables sit symmetrically at the centre of the front and side of the home and have the same slope. This gives the house a unified feeling."
The Pierottis took inspiration from the Maine summer home of U.S. presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, a massive "cottage" in the American Shingle style. "We drove past the George Bush compound Ms. Pierotti says. "So we opened up a staircase from Moore and Henry's design."
Period character is being built up with 11-inch crown mouldings and box-beamed ceilings. "It is hard to say what some of the original trim would have been like," Ms. Pierotti says. "Our vision is that as you walk through the home you would think the trim and ceiling details could have been done in 1899. But behind the walls are totally 21st century."
Windows with architectural merit have been revitalized, including a sunburst oval and matching transom in the foyer. "We are restoring the original windows with the pulleys within jambs," Ms. Pierotti says. "They are true divided lights and have charm."
The former study - where Theta sisters once hit the books - will be a gathering place for the Pierottis' teenagers, Connor and Juliana. "We are getting a billiards table and there will be lots of games."
Cy Warman lives on, not just in his poems and books. Saskatchewan, where he wrote the history of the Canadian Northern Railway's main line, named two towns in his honour - Warman and Vonda, for his daughter.
Gamma Epsilon sisters can soon see their beloved sorority house transformed. The Pierottis hope to finish renovations by Halloween and open a new chapter of their own design.
Special to The Globe and Mail