National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST HOMES - Martha Uni­acke Breen

Back in the mid- aughts, ru­mours of the im­pend­ing sale of this charm­ing for­mer one- room school­house, con­verted into a home in the coun­try­side near Strat­ford, Ont., turned out to be some­what ex­ag­ger­ated, at least ini­tially. But that didn’t stop Cather­ine Cassidy and Rory McDon­nell from be­com­ing, as she ad­mits with a laugh, “house stalk­ers.”

As co- own­ers of a her­itage­fo­cused de­sign- build com­pany called Build, de­signer Cassidy and con­trac­tor- builder McDon­nell had been search­ing for years for a unique prop­erty to turn into a home for them­selves. When they spot­ted this gem in the town­ship of East Nis­souri, they re­al­ized it was the perfect can­di­date. Only trou­ble was, while the ex­ist­ing own­ers had ex­pressed in­ter­est in sell­ing and mov­ing on, they weren’t in any par­tic­u­lar hurry. But a year later, in 2007, they at last sold it. Thus be­gan an on­go­ing labour of love that still con­tin­ues.

A stone plaque on the out­side of the school­house iden­ti­fies it as “Union­dale School No. 4 East Nis­souri, Erected 1941.” The build­ing wasn’t per­haps as old as some of the cen­tury build­ings in the area, but it cer­tainly had a rich his­tory in the com­mu­nity; Cassidy re­lates that some of their older neigh­bours still re­mem­ber at­tend­ing school here.

When it was de­com­mis­sioned in 1975, the orig­i­nal own­ers fo­cused on con­vert­ing it into a res­i­dence; re­tain­ing the school­house fea­tures hadn’t been a pri­or­ity. The bell tower was re­moved, and the base­ment fin­ished to ex­pand the liv­ing space. At the front, twin gabled en­try por­ti­cos (form­ing en­trances for girls and boys), were en­closed within a broad screened porch, and a mod­ern picture win­dow cut out on one side, fram­ing a view of fields and woods.

The al­ter­ations had been quite ser­vice­able for a fam­ily home, and lit­tle of the orig­i­nal struc­ture had been ir­repara­bly dam­aged. But even while up­dat­ing it, Cassidy and McDon­nell’s aim was to res­ur­rect, at least in spirit, the school­house’s glory days.

Early on, the cou­ple con­tacted the East Nis­souri His­tor- ical So­ci­ety for clues to how it had once looked. The his­to­ri­ans there in­tro­duced them to one of the school’s teach­ers, now in his eight­ies. Over the course of a nos­tal­gic af­ter­noon visit, he shared the kinds of in­sights that old- house buffs love — how stu­dents had brought wa­ter in­side in buck­ets from a well on the prop­erty; where the chalk­board and bell rope had been; and that in win­ter­time, the base­ment was used for roller skat­ing. He also gave them a sheaf of old pho­tos that helped guide the restora­tion, es­pe­cially of the ex­te­rior.

Off came the screened porch (which was some­what the worse for wear any­way, Cassidy says), and the en­try por­ti­cos were recre­ated ex­actly as they had once been, right down to the half-tim­bers in the ped­i­ments. A new bell tower was made to repli­cate the orig­i­nal in the teacher’s old pictures.

And — in one of those amaz­ing co­in­ci­dences that hap­pen from time to time — it turned out a friend of the cou­ple just hap­pened to have an old school bell of the right vin­tage stored in her barn loft, and it was pressed into ac­tion. ( The bell is fully op­er­a­tional, if a bit loud, Cassidy ad­mits.)

Each of the en­tries opens to sep­a­rate sets of stairs, lead­ing down to lower- level be­d­rooms and ser­vice ar­eas, or up to a short hall­way, flanked by what might have once been cloak­rooms. The one on the girls’ side now forms a small, tidy home of­fice for McDon­nell, with a strik­ing red-and-cream-checked linoleum floor; the cor­re­spond­ing room on the other side be­came a pow­der room, with vin­tage- style fix­tures, white sub­way tiles, and cran­berry-red half-walls.

The two hall­ways open onto the main open space, flooded with sun­light from three big four- over- four win­dows along the side wall. While these win­dows, along with the 12- foot ceil­ings, maple- strip floors and cast- iron floor grates, are orig­i­nal, other el­e­ments are more fan­ci­ful — de­signed for co­zi­ness and pe­riod charm rather than strict au­then­tic­ity. For ex­am­ple, white bead­board wain­scot­ting and crown- and picture- rail mould­ings give it a rus­tic el­e­gance. A pot-bel­lied wood stove — a mag­net for the cou­ple’s three cats —warms the space.

Tucked be­tween the en­try foy­ers is a small, par­tially en­closed room set a cou­ple of steps above the main floor that Cassidy calls the “stage.” It may in­deed have orig­i­nally been used for assem­blies and drama pre­sen­ta­tions, or pos­si­bly as an of­fice. Now it’s a cozy TV and sit­ting room, clois­tered from the main ac­tion.

Cassidy had the free­dom to let her imag­i­na­tion dic­tate the de­sign of the kitchen, since of course there wouldn’t have been one in the orig­i­nal. She opted for an un­fit­ted style whose de­tails just seem right. “You mainly just want every­thing to feel au­then­tic,” she says. “We’re not stick­lers for ac­cu­racy, but we wanted it all to fit into an over­all esthetic.”

The most in­ter­est­ing el­e­ment is the re­claimed- fir is­land that faces the main space. Its fram­ing and heft sug­gest a big wooden desk, be­hind which a teacher might sit and watch over rows of pupils at their desks. On its in­ner side is a re­fin­ished 1940sv­in­tage cast- iron sink, set in a mar­ble counter.

At one side of the kitchen is a white Shaker- style hutch, with open shelves above en­closed stor­age; on the other is a tall rift- cut oak ar­moire en­clos­ing the pantry and fridge. Though both are built in, they re­sem­ble stand­alone fur­ni­ture, with open feet. “I have to dust un­der them, just like reg­u­lar fur­ni­ture,” Cassidy says with a laugh.

The back of the kitchen is lined with al­ter­nat­ing square and rec­tan­gu­lar ceramic tiles in a tra­di­tional pat­tern called a Flem­ish bond. The pat­tern forms a back­drop for sym­met­ri­cal butcher block coun­ters, flank­ing a re­fur­bished Aga stove made around the time the school­house was built. Pop­u­lar in Europe but vir­tu­ally un­known here, it has a tem­per­a­ture gauge, but no con­trols. “It’s quite a dif­fer­ent way of cook­ing than with a reg­u­lar stove — it takes a lit­tle get­ting used to,” Cassidy ad­mits. On ei­ther side of the stove, deep draw­ers are fit­ted with cast-iron li­brary pulls, from a Que­bec firm that spe­cial­izes in vin­tage hard­ware.

“We love the idea that a com­mu­nity once shared this space,” says Cassidy. “Many of our neigh­bours have told us how happy they are that we re­stored the school­house back to what it had been. It has a timeless feel­ing — but it’s also just a re­ally com­fort­able home.”


The one-room school­house has been trans­formed into a large main liv­ing area con­tain­ing the kitchen, din­ing and liv­ing spa­ces, that en­joy plenty of nat­u­ral light.


The kitchen is un­ob­tru­sive in the large room, but spa­cious and func­tional. The home of­fice was once a cloak­room on the girls’ side of the en­try.

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