Skip to main content
heritage architecture

If anyone can do it, Shannon Kyles can. No, not recite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow while standing practically waist-deep in demolition debris - although she's quite good at that - but, rather, carefully disassemble, label and store key pieces of an 1830s Regency cottage in suburban Ancaster and then put this architectural jigsaw puzzle back together somewhere else.

And when she finally does install a shiny new crane into one of the Rumford fireplaces made to match the originals, she'll either recite the rest of the poem or collapse from exhaustion.

Although she's one of the most energetic architecture professors you'll meet at Hamilton's Mohawk College, it'll probably be the latter. But hey, it's her first time: She restored an 1840s cottage in the 1980s, but she has never gone whole hog before.

She first saw this hog, er, house, last summer. Owner Helen Vanner, who purchased it in 1989 and had loved it every day since, asked for help in assessing its ailing condition. Ms. Kyles's contractors found dry rot, a leaky roof and an increasingly unstable floor, the result of constant flooding of the foundation (more on this later). Although worse than anticipated, Ms. Vanner intended to save the dignified one-storey home, so, by September, a gaggle of Ms. Kyles's students descended on the place to "measure, record and draw everything" to assist with that goal.

However, come the October chill and closed windows, Ms. Vanner found it difficult to breathe. Opening up walls behind closets revealed that studs, lath and plaster were all soaked through and covered in mould. So, in addition to a new roof and basement, the home needed new walls - in other words, total reconstruction.

After the tough decision to demolish was made in December, Ms. Vanner asked Ms. Kyles if she would prepare a cultural heritage report. Ms. Kyles agreed, thinking that this might help save some of the home's elements. Then, after the demolition paperwork was squared away in February of this year, Ms. Vanner asked Ms. Kyles one last question: "Do you want anything from the house?"

"Yes," she replied, "all of it."

A fair trade, thought Ms. Vanner, but the lot would have to be cleared by early this month (to make way for new construction). Good thing Ms. Kyles has a ready labour pool from which to draw: "My students were amazing, they were just running around the rafters, pulling them apart, none of us knew what we were doing," she says with a laugh.

Despite this, the deadline was met. And not a moment too soon, since most of the floor joists were rotten as a result of a peculiar situation: While the home had stood on a small rise in the land for most of its life, in recent decades it found itself in a slight depression because of the erection of many lot-maximizing homes across the street. Displaced earth from these new basements had been piled up at the front of these tight lots, which, in turn, had been causing rainwater to flow toward the cottage.

Of course when Nathaniel Pettit, a Loyalist, obtained a Crown grant for the land in 1801, there were no other homes around. His daughter and son-in-law built a small dwelling (with a fireplace crane) that was eventually sold to Alexander Roxborough in 1832; it is believed that Mr. Roxborough added the Regency cottage, which he christened "the Grove," since wrought nails were found throughout the structure during disassembly (the first cut nail factory opened in Ontario in 1832). In 1911, Colonel George Black added bedrooms and the exterior stucco finish. During the 1950s, the Grove finally got company when the lot was first subdivided; the final subdivision by the Vanners in the 1990s inadvertently created the flooding problem.

Today, various pieces of the Grove, such as the interior and exterior fanlights, the elegant 12-pane windows, lamb's tongue mouldings and gargantuan 45-foot-long beams (all held together by notches and dowels rather than by nails), are stored, variously, at Ms. Kyles's Greensville home and garage - "Underneath my snow blower," she says - and in a rented storage space.

Reconstruction will take place this summer after a suitable piece of land is found: "I'm looking at Thunder Beach, I'm looking at two or three properties between Owen Sound and Parry Sound [because]I want enough property to have it be able to breathe," she says, finally taking a breather herself.

It has been a crazy few months, but the many compliments from neighbours and drive-by strangers who "are interested in saving old houses as the supersized beige things take over" have made the effort worthwhile. But, since accolades don't pay the bills, Ms. Kyles will be exploring the idea of sponsorships: "To have such a magnificent house rebuilt using modern materials would look really good in advertising for insulated concrete forms, Varathane, paint, roofing materials…" she trails off, the wheels still turning underneath her shock of red hair.

If anyone can do it, Shannon Kyles can … and when the "New" Grove is indeed reborn, it will be featured in this space.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe