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House Beautiful: Abandoned country mansion restored to former glory

Embarking upon the total renovation of an enormous, century-old mansion on a large estate is not for the faint-hearted or shallow-pocketed.

Embarking upon the total renovation of an enormous, century-old mansion on a large estate is not for the faint-hearted or shallow-pocketed.

It’s even more challenging and stressful when the home has been abandoned for years and allowed to seriously decline. Luckily, former Albertans Murray and Valerie Nunns had both the grit and the gusto to see the project through.

“We are serial restorers,” admitted Murray, who said they knew what they were doing because they had already completed two historical renos and one new build, in Calgary and Vancouver.

Their last residence was a 12,000-square-foot home in Shaughnessy, but their new home is a baronial mansion perched on a sharp hillside at the north end of Elk Lake — designed by legendary local architect Samuel Maclure.

It has a huge pond, stone bridge, brick driveway, seven garages, a charming children’s playhouse — an exact replica of the big house — and three hectares of gardens, which the owners are keen to restore.

Over the years, the mansion has had a string of owners. For several years, it was in and out of foreclosure.

“When we first saw it, the upper hall was littered with garbage and there were holes in the walls where rats had chewed,” said Murray. “It was infested with rats and various people had been camping inside. There were toiletries in the bathrooms, dishes in the sinks and it looked like we had walked into a scene 20 years after the last great party.”

The abandoned house appeared to be undergoing “demolition by neglect,” he said.

The Nunns liked the house immediately, but weren’t about to buy it unless they knew it was sound. “There comes a point of no return where you would be throwing money at it endlessly and never get there.”

The two “crawled all over the house” and used their 20 years of experience to assess it. “Considering the really rough time it had had in recent history, the house was largely undamaged, and most importantly, the roof was intact, which was critical to its survival,” Murray said.

Work started the day after they bought the house in December 2015 (through a court-ordered sale) and continued for 24 months.

Their immediate task was to clean it up. In the first week, they, and five others, loaded four giant dumpsters with the rubbish that had accumulated over many years.

“That was before we even got started doing any work,” said Murray, adding with a grimace that they also trapped rats for weeks.

No one had ever painted the home’s original and extensive woodwork, luckily, but about 95 per cent of it needed work. One labourer spent three solid months filling and sanding all the holes.

Then came all the behind-the-scenes work: upgrading the plumbing and wiring, adding gas heat and bringing the home up to modern building standards.

Having worked in heritage, the Nunns knew how they wanted to proceed. They asked Aryze Developments to assign its youngest, smartest site manager to the task so they could train him themselves.

“They gave us Jackson Leidenfrost, and he was brilliant. Every element in this house was a custom job and he nailed it.”

Murray, a semi-retired businessman involved in oil and gas, said the work was done while he and Valerie commuted between Vancouver and Calgary. “This great digital age allows you to be in two places at once, and because of our long experience in this kind of work, we were able to make calls on the fly.”

Since completing the restoration, the owners have been filling their home with period and unique antiques suited to the elegant building’s age and demeanour, ranging from Tiffany lamps and Victorian artworks to leather armchairs from the 1880s, Art Nouveau sculptures and handcrafted decorative treasures.

Their pride and joy is a sideboard in the front hall by Liberty & Co. of London, dated 1905.

“That company was at the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement,” said Murray, adding the late Victorian piece “looked like a stack of firewood” when the couple first saw it in an antique auction in upstate New York. “A Sooke wizard called Anthony Balzer restored it for us.”

The Arts and Crafts movement, which began in the mid-19th century in Britain, was influenced by nature and was a backlash against industrialization. It celebrated artisans and handmade works, ranging from furniture and wallpaper to decorative pottery, stained glass and jewelry.

Valerie Nunns says the house has a wonderful atmosphere. “I’ve never felt more at home anywhere and I’m getting the best sleeps of my life. It is the most relaxing place on the planet.”

Although the couple has owned Arts and Crafts homes before, this one “envelops you in warmth,” she said. The setting is special, too, she added: “the grounds, the trees, the animals, the pond….”

The 7,200-square-foot home has four large bedrooms and 7 1/2 bathrooms now, where before it had eight smaller bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms. The three-hectare estate includes an old grass tennis court, numerous garden terraces, stairs, stone paths and an abundance of “archeological” elements awaiting discovery — hidden today, they are visible in early photos.

A few months ago, the Nunns uncovered an old stone staircase, and they anticipate more discoveries in the years ahead. “Archeology is a good first cousin of oil and gas exploration,” Murray said with a chuckle.

Valerie loves exploring old buildings and heritage sites in France and Britain — “These places really speak to us; they’re like living museums” — and hopes to bring back more interesting antiques for their home and garden. The last container they shipped from the south of France weighed 30 tonnes.

The two believe the best way to preserve and maintain an historic home is to celebrate both old and new.

“There was no point trying to perfectly conserve the outmoded kitchen just as it was, but we never want to overdo things,” said Murray.

“Our aim has been to retain the timeless qualities we love, while creating a home that functions well and matches how we live today.”