House Beautiful: 1901 cottage gets new life on Shawnigan Lake

Good things come in small packages.

That’s certainly proved to be the case for realtor Chris Gillespie and his wife, home stylist Alison Graham, who live with their 11-year-old daughter, Kerrington, two dogs and a cat in a 780-square-foot home.

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Who can blame Prim, the stray cat that adopted them, for moving in with the family? They have created one of the best small spaces imaginable, making the most of every square foot and doing it with style. Despite the small space, their rescue dogs are not exactly chihuahua-size. Kiran is part German Shepherd, and puppy Ellie is a Great Dane and Labrador cross.

All are happily living on Shawnigan Lake’s east side, in a one-level cottage that would have been considered a teardown by most people when it went up for sale in 2016.

The 1901 cottage was so dilapidated, it lingered for more than a year on the market before the couple bought it on Canada Day in 2017.

“We really wanted to be on Shawnigan Lake and find something that would work for us in our budget — which was low. [The owner] had an open house and we stepped in and walked around and thought this was a bit too much,” Graham says.

“We came back a year later, when he was hosting another open house, and we knew then in order to get on the lake, this was the house. We looked at it with fresh eyes on how we can salvage this.”

They didn’t bother to get a home inspection because they knew the house had a long list of problems.

“My foot went through the front porch and the hand railing fell off the day I wrote the offer,” Graham recalls about the family’s less-than-stellar introduction to their purchase.

Gillespie, who got his real estate license shortly before buying the house, says they weren’t deterred.

They sold their 2,300-square-foot farmhouse in East Saanich, and after taking possession in late July 2017, they rolled up their sleeves to bring the Shawnigan home back to its full glory.

The couple did most of the work themselves, with help from family and friends. The cottage was so old, its nails were the square-top variety seen in museums.

That first summer, Graham’s brother, cousin and nephew flew in from Ontario to join their work crew.

“That was the best summer I’ve ever had,” says Graham. “This was a family affair. Everybody chipped in. We were all on air mattresses and in tents. We had so many people coming and helping us out. Everything needed to be done.”

Everything except one thing. Fortunately, the house’s electrical system had already been updated to a 200-amp service.

“Initially, we thought we’d go in and paint everything, but that didn’t prove to be so easy,” says Gillespie, who noted while power-washing the cottage that water was getting indoors and windows were broken.

In the end, all of the windows were replaced and new cedar shake siding installed. A new roof was added and the wrap-around deck was replaced.

Because the house wasn’t insulated, when the cold weather hit in September, the family packed up their tents and rented a home in Sidney. Graham’s brother, however, stayed at the cottage until December to help make it habitable.

“Our goal was to be up here [full time] when Kerrington was finished elementary school,” says Graham. In August 2019, they were finally able to move in.

The main reason they wanted to make the move to Shawnigan Lake was so their daughter would have the same happy memories they had from their childhoods.

Gillespie had been going to Shawnigan Lake every summer since 1986, after his parents bought a panabode cottage on the west side. Graham, who grew up in Ontario, spent summers at her grandparents’ cottage and at a friend’s family cottage there.

“I have tons of memories here,” says Gillespie, of Shawnigan Lake. “Fishing off the dock and going out in my old boat. The campfires, swimming, tubing on the lake. We wanted the same thing for Kerrington.”

In fact, his little fishing boat, which Gillespie has had since he was eight, is now being used as a veggie garden at the side of the house. The couple also turned an old canoe into an herb garden, laid down wood boards as a garden walkway, and completed the nautical look with a couple of old, but brightly coloured Adirondack chairs.

Those chairs were included in their written offer when they bought the cottage, along with about a dozen old paddles on the property, a few of which the couple artfully display in their home.

Gillespie did many other DIY projects, such as using old wooden fencing to frame some of their artwork, and created a peg board in the kitchen that uses metal anchors as hooks.

But when it came to building their new kitchen, they hired Raven Valley Kitchens in nearby Cobble Hill. The same company also made their space-saving armoire in the master bedroom, along with the bed and bathroom vanity, designed by the couple.

Kerrington’s bunk bed was designed by them but made by a local carpenter. It incorporates the same cross design used in their outdoor porch fencing, which was built by Gillespie.

One of the home’s big style gestures was using bright blue for the kitchen backsplash and on the fireplace surround. It was a bold colour choice that Gillespie made over the objections of many, but is now one of the first things people comment on when visiting their home.

“Everyone doubted the blue tile, but now everyone loves it,” she says.

Graham’s main design strategy for making their small quarters liveable was taking a streamlined approach to their possessions. Although it is pared-back, their cottage has everything they need, including other bold design statements, such as bright yellow chairs in the living room, and yellow polka dots on the bathroom walls.

The ceiling was vaulted in the open concept kitchen/living room, and wide-plank engineered flooring was used throughout for a consistent look, which helps make the small two-bedroom cottage seem larger. The beams in the ceiling also match the mantel and some open shelving in the kitchen.

“I tried to make it bright and fun, especially with the rain we have at times. The winters here can get gloomy, so I wanted bright blue and yellows so it would seem sunny into those dreary months,” she says.

Come summer, however, the living is mostly outside. The home has 150 feet of water frontage to enjoy on Strathcona Bay, which the family makes full use of by creating many outdoor spots to hang out and enjoy the lake views and lake itself.

There’s a dining area, featuring a harvest table Gillespie built, a lounge area beside it and still more Adirondack chairs lined up at the beach, with log ends with brightly painted tops as side tables.

They also did all of the landscaping themselves.

“We’re always puttering. I say we are always doing make-work projects,” says Graham.

One big change for the family was a decision that happened after the COVID pandemic forced everyone to spend more time indoors.

“In the summer, it’s fantastic. But when COVID hit, that’s when we realized this is too small for all of us, with Zoom classes all day and Kerrington needing more privacy,” she says.

To maximize space, the cottage has no hallways, so to get to the bathroom or the master bedroom, you have to walk through their daughter’s bedroom.

So, the family recently bought an 1,800-square-foot house in Cobble Hill, which Graham says is not that big by most people’s standards, but feels huge to them.

Although the move is happening soon, they have no plans to pack up and leave Shawnigan Lake permanently. They’re keeping their now beloved cottage as a vacation — and eventual retirement — home.

kpemberton@shaw.ca

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