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home of the week

John Cullen

72 Duke St., Chester, N.S.

Asking Price: $5,850,000

Taxes: $14,670.41 (2020)

Lot Size: ½-1 acre

Agents: Piers Baker, Duckworth Real Estate

The backstory

The main floor has a large living room, sunroom and doors opening to a covered porch.John Cullen

In the seaside village of Chester, N.S., a landmark home known as White Cottage stands overlooking Front Harbour.

The house dates to 1795, when British Lieutenant Anthony Thickpenny was granted a swathe of land on Nova Scotia’s south shore and built a home for himself and his wife, Elizabeth.

For thousands of years before the British arrived, the Mi’kmaq people were living on the peninsula. The area is part of the unceded Mi’kmaq Traditional Lands known as Mi’kma’ki.

Today White Cottage belongs to Toronto-based interior designer Philip Mitchell and advertising maven Mark Narsansky.

The two have had ties to the province since they vacationed with friends and spotted a small Gothic revival house for sale.

“We came into Chester, had lunch, bought a house. True story,” Mr. Narsansky says.

After a few years, the two were contemplating moving up to a larger home when rumours circulated through the village that an investor was eyeing the grand old home at 72 Duke St., Mr. Narsansky says.

“We heard that somebody wanted to tear it down and we said, ‘that can’t happen.’”

The house today

The newly acquired property came with 462 feet of water frontage and a wharf.John Cullen

In 2011, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Narsansky purchased the house and moved around the corner from their Victorian cottage.

The newly acquired property came with 4,800 square feet of space in the main house, 462 feet of water frontage and a wharf. It also presented a challenge.

“It was a little bit down on its heels,” a diplomatic Mr. Narsansky says.

The two men soon discovered that the house they rescued needed a massive restoration.

During the renovation, close attention was paid to details that would create the impression of a home that had evolved over the years.John Cullen

Over the decades, some poorly built additions had been tacked on to the original 1795 dwelling. For a time, the house had served as an annex to a local hotel before it was converted to single-family again.

“It had been added on to but not been made into a cohesive house,” Mr. Narsansky says. “It was a rabbit warren of odd spaces.”

In some places they discovered that beams had been shaved down so they were no longer safe. The area around one of the porches had no proper flashing to keep the rain out.

“For 10 years water was just running down through the walls.”

Floors, stairs, railings and pickets from the original dwelling were able to be preserved.John Cullen

The couple moved into the coach house and workers began dismantling the old house, board by board. The pieces were numbered and packed into nine storage containers.

“We were really passionate about saving what could be saved,” Mr. Narsansky says. “We spent about six months taking it apart.”

The components they were able to preserve included floors, stairs, railings and pickets from the original dwelling.

The pieces that couldn’t be reused were milled down to be used in the trim, beadboard and other details.

“Some of it was carved into folk art,” Mr. Narsansky says. “Nothing was thrown away.”

The main foyer leads to the pine-panelled dining room.John Cullen

Today guests arrive to a welcoming foyer, which in turn leads to the pine-panelled dining room. The main floor also has the kitchen, large living room, sunroom and doors opening to a covered porch.

The arched walls that separate the spaces are not original to the house but they are reminiscent of Chester’s boat-building heritage, Mr. Narsansky explains.

“Arches are very nautical.”

During the renovation the men paid close attention to details that would create the impression of a home that had evolved over the years.

In the foyer, for example, they had mosaic tile laid by hand, then surrounded with a border, Mr. Narsansky says.

Upstairs, the primary suite has a large bedroom with a fireplace, two dressing rooms and two full bathrooms.John Cullen

“We wanted to have a feeling of history,” he says.

Beneath the patina, they added modern conveniences such as in-floor heating, luxury plumbing fixtures and built-in speakers.

Upstairs, the primary suite has a large bedroom with a fireplace, two dressing rooms and two full bathrooms.

The third-floor guest suite has two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms. Outside, the roof deck provides a good vantage point for watching the weekly sailing races.

Throughout the building, a hodgepodge of windows was replaced with new, reproduction wood windows appropriate to the era.

In that time, glass was difficult to make so panes were always small, Mr. Narsansky says.

Outside, the roof deck provides a good vantage point for watching the weekly sailing races.John Cullen

On the lower level, an ancient fireplace was still standing in the original kitchen. While work was underway, a tradesman discovered a crack in the chimney.

That meant the entire chimney had to come down, Mr. Narsansky says, because lighting a fire could have burned the house down.

The couple rebuilt the fireplace and chimney and turned the area into the family room. That level also has a mud room with a doggy spa and doors leading to a verandah with a wisteria-covered pergola and an entertainment pavilion with a fieldstone fireplace.

“Right through into the fall we always have a fire out there,” Mr. Narsansky says.

The home is surrounded by herb and perennial gardens and the coach house provides an additional guest suite above the two-car garage.

The house dates to 1795, when British Lieutenant Anthony Thickpenny was granted a swathe of land on Nova Scotia’s south shore.John Cullen

After many years of work by local artisans, the restoration won the Built Heritage Award from the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, and White Cottage was recently one of the stops on an “art house” fund-raising tour for the Chester Art Centre.

Today the historic village draws visitors to its galleries, restaurants and sailing on the waters of Mahone Bay.

Mr. Narsansky says the couple prefers the lively scene in town to a more rural setting. The oldest pub in the province, The Rope Loft, is just along the harbour.

When the COVID-19 health emergency shut down travel, Mr. Narsansky and Mr. Mitchell decided to ride out the pandemic in Chester.

“Why not?” Mr. Narsansky says. “You can be here in a little village on the ocean, walking dogs and living the life.”

The best feature

The kitchen has a La Cornue range, two farmhouse sinks and a dining alcove with a bay window.John Cullen

The kitchen was expanded from a small galley to a comfortable room for cooking and entertaining. The men, who both love to cook, were not aiming for a period kitchen but the impression of one, Mr. Narsansky explains.

There’s a La Cornue range, two farmhouse sinks and a dining alcove with a bay window.

The floors were sanded by hand and the refrigerator is disguised behind a wood panel.

“We wanted it to look like a big, old armoire so it doesn’t feel like a kitchen.”

The large island, hand-carved from hemlock, is topped by wood – also finished by hand.

The large island, hand-carved from hemlock, is topped by wood.John Cullen

“We wanted it to have a very tactile feel to it because that’s where everyone hangs around,” Mr. Narsansky says. “You can feel the nicks if you run your hand across it.”

He adds that gathering in the kitchen is a time-honoured East Coast tradition.

“It’s the heart of the whole home. No matter where you start or what you plan, you end up in the kitchen.”

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