National Post (Latest Edition)
School for design HISTORY SERVES AS GUIDE FOR A UNIQUE MAKEOVER
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.”