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The kitchen of the general store turned vacation retreat shows the 'tension' that resulted from the restoration and renovation of the space, where old elements contrasted with new ones throughout the space.
The kitchen of the general store turned vacation retreat shows the 'tension' that resulted from the restoration and renovation of the space, where old elements contrasted with new ones throughout the space.

The Architourist

Muskoka: Hold the glitz Add to ...

When is a cottage not a cottage?

When it's too far to caress the water's edge? When it flaunts an unconventional shape? What if it has a large garden? If the interior is more a place where old city furniture is put out to pasture, does that disqualify it?

The Muskoka retreat owned by heritage architect Catherine Nasmith and her triple-threat husband, Robert Allsopp, an architect, landscape architect and urban planner with du Toit Allsopp Hillier, asks those questions and challenges conventional thinking at every turn.

After navigating the twisty lake roads around Port Carling, I pulled up to the hilltop building to find Mr. Allsopp plucking salad for that evening's dinner, Ms. Nasmith enjoying the breezy lake views from the front porch and a few guests engaged in friendly debate. All cottage-type activities, yet this is a building passersby might mistake for a place of business.

"We have no idea what to call it, never have," Ms. Nasmith says with a chuckle. "We call it 'the Store,' we call it 'Windermere.'" Call it what you will, this charming building directly across from the legendary Windermere House resort on Lake Rosseau did start life as a one-storey general store in the 1880s and was expanded over the years to include a post office.

Although Ms. Nasmith first spotted the structure two decades ago and then again when dating Mr. Allsopp, the thought of buying it never crossed her mind. Even when the couple did a watercolour painting of the place, it was more for fun than fantasy. It was only when planning their 1994 wedding at Windermere United Church a stone's throw away that "the penny dropped" and they began to wonder who owned it … and whether they might one day.

It turned out Windermere House was the owner, and the resort agreed to lease the sizable property - which included a few outbuildings in addition to the old general store - to the couple in 1994. A gruelling renovation of the building began in earnest, as did the problems: In addition to being abandoned (except for nesting birds) since the mid-1980s when it had been a private residence, there were holes in the stone foundation, and the frame was "rotten three feet up the wall" from water seepage. "It wasn't built it to last a hundred years," Ms. Nasmith says.

After spending $100,000 on the restoration, Mr. Allsopp and Ms. Nasmith negotiated to purchase the property for $50,000 in 1997 (a year after Windermere House itself was rebuilt after burning to the ground during filming of the Hollywood action-thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight ).

A walk through the front door today reveals an open-plan, multipurpose room that's "much like the rec room in most peoples houses" as it serves as a family gathering space, Ms. Nasmith's country office, and even a movie theatre on guest-heavy weekends. Over the general store's original long counter is the framed watercolour of the building. Weathered wood wall cladding contrasts with others that are smooth drywall and with the creamy white ceilings punctuated by Swedish ball fixtures.

In the main living-sleeping-dining area on the second floor, more contrast: Walls clad in rough, silvery wood - framing found underneath all the finishes when the building was gutted -agree with the sapling handrails in the stairway and the exposed rough beam ceiling over the living area, yet diametrically opposed are the clean, white-painted cove siding on walls in other areas (meant to be used as exterior cladding but not up to the task so it was repurposed inside), the sleek modern furniture and white-painted tongue-and-groove pine ceilings with modern pot lights.

This design tension poses the question: Is this a cottage or isn't it? The view out the triple, Windermere Road-facing windows (which replaced the "suburban windows" to bring the building back to its original look) clearly show the building is very much rooted in town - "Our friends who have places on the lake call us 'the Townies,'" Ms. Nasmith laughs - yet the enormous window added to the side of the building drinks in a gorgeous lake view and achieves the serenity of a cottage. "Bob always imagined a weekend property as a little house in a village and I was looking for a place on a lake," Ms. Nasmith says.

Order here, disorder there; into the chaotic and intricate beamed ceiling (exposed after the old drop ceiling was removed), an orderly clerestory was added for light and ventilation. Wobbly original wood floor bumps up against crisp new boards. Clues to the building's heritage are everywhere - a nod to Ms. Nasmith's passion and profession - yet the deft hand of a planner reveals itself also, suggesting Mr. Allsopp's influence. "A lot of what you see here are happy accidents and capitalizing on things that happened, then making decisions," says Ms. Nasmith, a past-president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

So what is a cottage? If it's a place that promotes easy meditation, where the 100-mile diet is within reach and where friends allow political debates to break out over the Parcheesi board, then Windermere certainly provides the answer.

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