Dear Friends: My dream is to renovate an old house, but that passion is sadly not shared by my husband! So when we built our new house in 2002, we incorporated some features to make it look like our “historic” home had been standing on this spot since 1924.
My Dream Home
When I envision my dream home, it is always one built in 1924. That was the golden age of house construction in Western Canada, when times were good and people had money, and skilled craftsmen were available. That’s why I created the fictional farmhouse called Wildwood in my novel, so I could live out my fantasy on the printed page.
In the real world, we built our lakeview home on a wooded acreage here in Invermere, B.C. in 2002. We chose a classic design (the garage is detached), and trimmed the foundation with fieldstone from the excavated basement. Inside, we incorporated a few features that harken back to an earlier time.
Here are ten ways I made my new house look old:
1. Arched Doorway
Creating the arched opening from the main entrance into the living area was challenging, but fortunately we had a crafty old carpenter named Henry who knew how to do it. I think it looks more glamorous than the typical rectangular opening. This works best if you have high ceilings, and we used nine-foot ceilings throughout the main floor. They give the house a spacious aura that was common in the old days.
2. Wood-Burning Fireplace
I have mixed feelings about this one, because there are days when I long to flip a switch and have the instant gratification of blazing gas flames! However, natural gas isn’t available in our area. We also live on four forested acres and have wood to burn, so to speak. To reduce the mess, we built a double-sided woodbox beside the fireplace, behind one of the lower cabinets, so the firewood can be loaded straight from the outside without people traipsing through the house.
3. Wide Staircase
When designing the house, I imagined myself sweeping down the staircase like Scarlett O’Hara, and while it isn’t quite as dramatic as the one at Tara, I love this four-foot staircase. It has another personal touch — when we had to cut down an old tree on our property, we took it to a small local sawmill and had it milled. That single tree provided all the stair treads, and all the wooden window trim in the house. Also, a wide staircase makes it easier to move furniture up and down the stairs. (For some reason, we seem to move furniture around quite often!)
4. Vintage Light Fixtures
When I was a child I admired this light fixture that hung in the entrance of my grandfather’s house in Battleford, Saskatchewan. The old house has long since passed out of the family. However, my mother inherited the light fixture and used it in her own entrance for many years. After she died in 2017, I brought it home and hung it in my own entrance. For some reason, every time I look at it I remember my grandfather’s black Labrador named Dinah, who always ran to greet us when the front door opened and this light went on!
5. Vintage Doors
Years ago, my parents went to an auction sale at the provincial mental health hospital in North Battleford, Saskatchewan and purchased 30 oversized doors, dating back to when the hospital was built in 1911. I have no idea what they paid for them, but knowing my parents, probably just a few dollars each.
For years, the doors sat in a granary on our family farm. When we built our house, we stripped the peeling cream-coloured paint and refinished three of them. These 15-pane oak doors are 44 inches wide and so heavy that we had to use barn door hangers to support them. But they are gorgeous, and I have been told they are worth several thousand dollars each! (If anyone wants to buy one of the remaining doors, drop me an email).
My husband has two of them leading into his home office.
And the third one leads into my home office.
6. Old Enamel Sink
I found this sink in a junk pile belonging to a Saskatchewan farmer, and incorporated it into my laundry room. The enamel is a bit stained, but that adds character. My husband found a new tap assembly at Home Hardware. I sewed the little curtain and attached it to the wooden frame with double-sided Velcro, which created a great storage area underneath.
7. Vintage Heating Registers
We pulled several of these old registers from an abandoned farmhouse. They were filthy and rusty, but we didn’t do anything except wash them and spray them with black paint. The paint covered the rust, and they function perfectly.
8. Vintage Stained Glass
This is cheating, because the window itself is not made from stained glass. I found this piece of leaded glass at a garage sale for $20 and my husband hung it over the window at the top of the staircase. It catches the light beautifully and I always look up at it when I’m climbing the stairs.
9. Vintage Hardware
My mother, bless her heart, had an old coffee can filled with vintage crystal knobs that she found at a garage sale. They fit perfectly and I like the sparkle they add to the built-in cabinets in my family room.
10. Antique Hardwood Flooring
These floors are my pride and joy, partly for aesthetic and partly for sentimental reasons. My grandfather’s farmhouse in Richard, Saskatchewan, was built in 1913 and demolished in 1997. Before it disappeared, my husband and I drove to Saskatchewan with our kids in the middle of winter, battled our way across a snowy field since the gravel road was impassable, and spent a whole day tearing up all the floors and baseboards in the old house. We could barely SEE the floor, covered as it was with dirt and excrement from birds and rodents.
After storing the flooring in my brother’s shed for some years, we hauled it here to Invermere when building our new house. We set the boards up on sawhorses in the driveway, and washed each one with soapy water. Happily, they came out just like this! They have not been refinished and never will be.
The wood is hard as rock, almost petrified. The boards had to be glued down because the nails could not penetrate the surface, even with an electric nail gun.
On the back side of one board, which unfortunately was nailed down before I took a photograph, was a stamp from the Burrard Lumber Company, proof positive that these are first-growth Douglas Fir that made their way from the West Coast to Saskatchewan, and then back to British Columbia again.
My own father crawled around on this flooring when he was a baby, and there are still scorch marks in some of the boards from sparks flying out of the wood stove in the old farmhouse!
Bonus Tip: Laundry Chute
This isn’t particularly old-fashioned but boy, is it handy. The opening was framed inside my upstairs bathroom cabinet, so all I have to do is open the cabinet door and throw my dirty clothes and bedding down the hole into my laundry basket. (I do find some odd things in the basket, such as Little Ponies and bath soaps, since my grandchildren also get a kick out of throwing things down the hole.)
Together with some antique furnishings and old paintings, we have created a house that gives me all the old world feels. In fact, a few visitors have asked me what year the house was built, since it definitely has the ambience of an earlier age.
The Last Word: I allowed my husband to read this before it was posted, and he said darkly: “You make it sound so easy! All that stuff was bloody hard work!” So be forewarned.
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WARTIME WEDNESDAYS FLASHBACK
One of the most poignant stories I wrote on my Wartime Wednesdays blog was this one, about an attack on Canadian civilians in the Second World War. Mercifully our country is protected from our enemies by oceans on three sides, but in this isolated incident, hundreds of innocent people died a horrible death. Read the story here of how a Newfoundland ferry was sunk by a German submarine in 1942: Ship Named After Heroic Canadian Nurse.
This photo shows two of the lucky ones: Ralph Rogers snatched baby Leonard Shiers from the icy waters and swam with him to safety.
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HONOUR OUR VETERANS BANNERS
My town of Invermere, British Columbia was one of the first to adopt this marvellous program, which is now spreading across Western Canada. It makes me sad and happy at the same time when I go downtown and see my Dad’s handsome young face. We are up to 98 banners this year, and the program will expand again next year. Once again, if you want to bring this program to your own community I have written a how-to guide here and I’m available to answer questions: Bring the Banners to Your Community.
Here’s a shot of our main street, with Dad’s banner flying high above the cenotaph on the corner.
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CHILDREN ON THE HOME FRONT
Just before Remembrance Day, I had the pleasure of visiting Windermere Elementary School, where my daughter teaches Grade One and my little granddaughter Nora is in her class. I spoke to the entire student body from Grades One to Seven about how children helped to contribute to the war effort in the Second World War. I told them about rationing, knitting, recycling, writing letters, and living without their fathers for many long years. They were a very attentive audience! You may read more about the subject here: Children on the Home Front.
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This month it is only fitting that I should recommend a novel by my favourite wartime author, Nevil Shute. He wrote so many great books — including Pied Piper, and A Town Like Alice — but this one titled Pastoral is both terribly thrilling and romantic. For a complete list of my faves, click here: Best Wartime Fiction.
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Friends, it is now time to get into the Christmas spirit with decorating the house and tree, writing cards and letters, attending parties, baking, and shopping for the perfect gifts.
(Note: Speaking of gifts, to order any of my three books, here’s how to get in touch: Contact Elinor. Information about the three books is available at the bottom of this page.)
I know you’ll be busy in December, but I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the coming Christmas issue of Letters From Windermere.