348 Main St, Picton, Ont.
Asking Price: $1.695-million
Taxes: $3,578 (2020)
Lot Size: 66 feet by 138 feet
Listing Agent: Theresa Mitchell, Re/Max Finest Realty Inc., Brokerage
What appears to be an old raw-hide whip – the tip split into two lashes like the forked tongue of a serpent – lays coiled in a shadow-box frame next to small, round silver tin. “We can discuss this afternoon when you call,” the message from the homeowner reads.
It’s not the most typical invitation from an owner of a stately red-brick Victorian home in Prince Edward County, but every house has its story and so does Dennis Darnley who’s owned the Benjamin Gillespie House since 2001, and run it as a bed and breakfast lodging since he retired in 2017. The whip display has pride of place in an upstairs hallway and it’s part of the story of a home that’s only had a few owners since the 1860s.
“I was familiar with this home; my friends lived right next door,” said Mr. Darnley, who bought a nearby stately home in the mid-90s and ran it as a B&B with his mother. “I said, boy if that house ever goes on the market I’d like to buy that.” As luck would have it, as he was preparing to sell his first county home, it came on the market.
Mr. Darnley took on a number of projects in the house over the years, including some of the basics such as replacing knob and tube wiring and galvanized steel plumbing. He also replaced wallpaper that was found throughout the house, which required a lot of replastering of walls and repainting too. Original floors and brick exterior walls exposed. The 1970s-era kitchen is gone and repairs have been made to the front porches. The storm windows have been kept to preserve the look of the house, but their original thin glass panes have been replaced with new laminated glass for better sound and heat insulation.
“Where I can, I like to restore as well as renovate,” Mr. Darnley said.
The House Today
The six-bedroom house sits on a corner lot and is built on a traditional central-hall plan with three bathrooms. It’s about a five minute walk from Picton’s charming downtown retail strip and about 20 minutes from the 401 highway, so it could serve equally well to continue as a B&B (Mr. Darnley has bookings until September) or be converted into a family home, according to listing agent Theresa Mitchell.
The front porch has two sides, with separate sitting areas: an open patio to the right of the front door and a screened-in porch to the left. There’s a third porch on the side entrance next to the garage. On the opposite side of the house is a patio with barbecue and an area for outdoor dining.
Among the prized features Mr. Darnley has restored are the exquisite tin ceilings. There are six different patterns found spread across the house, the first of which you see in the central hall as you enter through the red-painted double door. Several of the ceilings incorporate crown moulding into the designs and they are very rare: this kind of tin-fabrication is now the preserve of a dwindling number of master craftspeople.
To the left of the entrance is a formal living room with the original marble fireplace (now outfitted with a gas insert behind that Victorian grate). To the right is a formal sitting room, connected to the dining room by a grand archway. This is where B&B guests can expect to be served their morning meal, including Mr. Darnley’s homemade cranberry-lemon scones. There’s also a generous bay window framed by another archway in the sitting room.
From the centre hall there is a connecting room behind the main staircase which connects the original 1860s structure to a newer wing added later. This space something of a traffic interchange and contains a “servants” staircase that goes upstairs, a door to the basement, a door to the side patio and a door to an updated three-piece bathroom.
The kitchen ceiling is a little lower than the 11-foot tall principle rooms and its tin ceiling is a somewhat more utilitarian diamond pattern. There is all-white, shaker-style cabinetry, and it is outfitted with all the modern appliances. This is definitely a working kitchen, but the feel is not overly industrial.
Upstairs are the guest suites, as well as the owner suites. The configuration could change, as there are two options for the primary bedroom: At the back above the kitchen is a suite built into the dormers of the old house with its own bathroom, next to that is a smaller room currently used as the B&B office (with another tin ceiling).
In the main house the ceilings are 12-feet high and there are four bedrooms. One wallpapered room has its own unique tin ceiling; a dark green painted room has tinwork as well and there’s a dark brown room with four-poster bed but, alas, no tin. Serving the guests is a large shared bathroom that was converted from the former sunroom to be a marble and tile showpiece with walk-in shower and a converted antique vanity.
The last and largest room was the primary suite. It faces Main Street and has the most detailed tin ceiling, with whirling circles and square patterns, scalloped edges and the faces of jesters and other rogues patterned into the moulding. Set against the red walls, this is a decadent space.
There are other features, such as the huge coach-house storage area that’s two stories with the garage at the ground level, but whether you want it for yourself or for guests to appreciate, it adds up to a flexible space loaded with beautiful period materials.
One of the restorations Mr. Darnley undertook was to remove sheets of linoleum on the second floor to expose the original long-leaf heart-pine planks. That’s what led to discovery of the whip hidden in a panel used to access electrical wiring. The whip was odd, but so was the tin: it was a condom container, “Perfect silks, 3 for $1.00 … Guaranteed.” Dates on the newspapers laid under the linoleum suggested the last time anyone had access to the whip would have been 1933, and according to Mr. Darnley property records say an Ontario judge’s family owned the home from 1880 to 1948. “What on heaven’s earth is this doing in the floor?” he wondered.
According to Mr. Darnley some months later an answer of sorts arrived in a big white Lincoln while he was working in the front garden. “A lady with a Southern accent gets out, she said she had the son of the judge in the car.” As one does, Mr. Darnley showed him the whip hoping for an explanation. “I haven’t seen that for a long time,” the son is reported to have said with a smile. “That belonged to my brother. He had his girlfriend in the back barn … tied up, and was using the whip.” The judge burst in and ended the session prematurely. Oddly enough, these events unfolded in the 1920s, some years before the whip was sealed away for almost a century.
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