House Beautiful: Modernized 1903 Esquimalt cottage retains historic charm

If architecture is a barometer of culture, how can homes that housed families more than 100 years ago be best adapted to suit modern families?

That was the challenge facing Johanne Hemond and her husband, Adrian Hill, who instantly fell in love with a small, 1903 cedar shingle cottage after moving to Esquimalt in 2002.

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The couple, whose two children were nine and six at the time, say the house reminded them of homes in their old neighbourhood in Montreal, with its 10-foot ceilings, crown mouldings, wood floors and natural light. They immediately bought it without ever viewing another house for sale.

The character-filled home, once called “Viewfield Cottage,” was used by workers from the old Viewfield Farm, the first farm established in the area in 1850. There are still axe marks in the original fir floors where the first inhabitants chopped wood for the fireplace.

A monkey tree planted during those early days still stands in the front yard and has a “heritage tree” designation, saving it from a possible untimely demise.

While the tree is safe, the house is not officially designated “heritage.” Nonetheless, Hemond and Hill have maintained much of its historic charm while modernizing its 1,250-square-foot interior to meet their family’s needs.

The main floor of the cottage originally had three bedrooms on one side, while on the other side, across a narrow hallway, were three small rooms: a kitchen, a living room with a fireplace, and an entryway, all closed off from one another.

But Hemond, an artist ( and Hill, who does woodwork and writes, both needed space to create. Their children also needed room to entertain friends, which meant the house’s interior configuration no longer worked.

“As the kids got older, it became more important to have flex space so they could have their privacy and friends over,” says Hill.

To solve that problem, one of the first projects they took on was creating a separate eight-by-10-foot studio in the backyard. They did it together, as a family. Over the years, everyone has made use of the space one way or another.

For the kids, it served as a hangout with friends — at one time, it even had a television. The studio has also been a place of meditation and a quiet spot for reading. Now, it serves as Hemond’s art studio, with her easel and paints set up and ready for when inspiration hits.

A sign outside the studio, which has large windows and a sliding glass door leading to a large deck, simply reads “solace,” which is appropriate, given that it has been every family member’s place of refuge — a home away from home.

Creativity is a common theme in this house, where an author is rumoured to have once worked on one of his best-known stories. “Our neighbour told us one of her relatives owned the house and was good friends with W.P. Kinsella. Legend has it he started working on Shoeless Joe in this house,” says Hemond.

Whether or not the story is true, art continues to take centre stage in the house, from Hemond’s paintings to Hill’s woodwork, including an entry-hall wall cabinet, an outdoor bench and a wind chime.

The main work to modernize the house happened in 2008.

Before they undertook the project, the couple considered all options, from expanding up to expanding down.

The previous owner was an architect who passed along his plans to create another floor above the main floor, Hemond said. The couple also consulted a builder about lifting the house off its foundation to create more living space downstairs — while there is some room downstairs, it’s on bedrock, so it’s not full height and is mainly used for storage.

But the builder advised against lifting the house and the architect’s plans were too costly, so the couple found their own solution: tearing down the wall separating the kitchen and living room and a half wall that closed off the front entryway. The fireplace and narrow hallway were removed, creating one large open-concept living space, with the kitchen taking centre stage.

They have chosen simple furnishings, such as streamlined mid-century couches — one of which pulls out as a sofa bed — and a teak coffee table. “We like simple and keeping life simple,” says Hemond.

Although more than a decade has passed since they undertook the renovation, it has stood the test of time.

The kitchen cabinets, from Douglas Grant Cabinetmakers, are still stylish today, with the main cabinets appearing almost furniture-like with legs, giving the kitchen a spacious, airy feel. Their use of open shelving instead of full upper cabinetry is also a popular design choice in homes being built today.

Over the kitchen island are three simple, square, hanging light fixtures that are as on-trend today as when they were installed.

A modern freestanding fireplace was added in the living room. Giving off enough heat to warm the open-concept main floor, the fireplace has become a favourite feature for the couple.

The bedrooms remained untouched and still have their original brass door handles. But since both of their children, now ages 28 and 24, have moved out, the couple has claimed one of the children’s bedrooms as their own and turned the master bedroom into a second living space, with an office area in the corner for Hemond.

Hill made the bookshelves that line one wall, while Hemond uses a vintage secretary desk as her office.

That first renovation was followed by a smaller renovation in 2011, when the home’s one bathroom was updated. The family kept the original clawfoot tub, but the flooring needed updating, so new bamboo flooring replaced the old linoleum.

The deck was also rebuilt and provides another place to retreat to outdoors.

“We’ve looked at other properties since buying this home, but we always come back to [this one] because of the home improvements we’ve done that work for us,” says Hemond. “It’s validating and a nice reminder of what we have achieved.”

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