If These Walls Could Talk...
Life strews happy accidents along every path, but some people really know how to work them.
An 18th-century harbor cottage on the coast of Nova Scotia is rescued and reborn.
...they’d speak of their modest 18th-century beginnings and their dreamy village on the quiet Canadian coast, even of falling into disrepair in the face of eager developers. And they’d tell you how one day, two summer visitors came along and saved them, board by beautiful board.
Canadian-born interior designer Philip Mitchell and his husband, Mark Narsansky, an advertising executive, have that wondrous blend of timing and talent. The two met almost 20 years ago through mutual clients and since then have shared a modern apartment in Toronto, a six-bedroom weekend cottage an hour’s drive away on Lake Erie, and an office and apartment in Manhattan.
So when a troubled 18th-century cottage on the coast of Nova Scotia came on their radar, they weren’t exactly looking to add to their real estate roster. What would prompt the two to scoop it up and embark on a to-the-studs renovation?
The answer comes down to being the right people in the right place (not to mention a healthy obsession with the past). The pair had been vacationing in Chester, Nova Scotia, an idyllic seaside village of roughly 1,500 yearround residents on the east coast of Canada, for a few summers when they heard about the house. Known for its centuries-old architecture, wooden boat sailing, and sparkling summer weather, Chester has been a part-time haven for affluent Americans and Europeans since the late 1700s. It’s also quiet and quaint—decidedly under the radar.
“This is embarrassing to say, but even though I’m from Canada, I’d never been east of Montreal,” Mitchell says. “I’d never been to any of the Maritime provinces. But we totally fell in love. Chester has historic integrity and unbelievably friendly people. It’s a little slice of heaven.”
At first, Mitchell, 44, thought he and Narsansky might retire there later. Located about a two-hour flight from Toronto, the town isn’t exactly convenient to his current Torontocentered work life. But then they fell for one of Chester’s white elephants: an imposing 1795 “Colonial mish-mash” of a house, as Mitchell calls it. Situated on a prime seaside lot, it had been modified and added onto by many owners. Mitchell and Narsansky heard developers were looking to tear it down and subdivide the property, fighting words as far as they’re concerned.
“We work to save the history and charm of our village,” Mitchell says. “That’s our passion.”
So they bought (or more accurately, rescued) the house known as White Cottage and soon discovered just how deep the rot went. “Somebody had attached a porch without flashing,” Mitchell says. “Water had been pouring through it for 20 years. It was deep in the walls and you couldn’t see it.” They made the decision to disassemble the entire structure piece by piece and reuse everything they could. Each part was numbered, cataloged, and put in storage. Then they rebuilt according to the house’s original footprint and style, reprising a few architectural features that had been removed decades ago.
All the hardwood floors were taken out piece by piece. “There were four species of wood in the house, of varying plank lengths, varying widths, varying ages,” Mitchell said. “We decided, with our artisan hardwood installer,
“We work to save the history and charm of our village. That’s our passion.”
Mitchell filled the house with a luxurious seafaring style laced with all manner of storied collections and rich antiques.
to mix them all together, and that’s why the floors have this beautiful character.”
Because of the area’s history of shipbuilding and wooden boat building, local craftsmen can do virtually anything and do it splendidly, says Mitchell, who marvels at three hand-carved newel posts an artisan woodworker created to copy the house’s lone original one.
The restoration took about two and a half years. Then came the decorating. As if he were a marvelously sophisticated ship’s captain, Mitchell filled the house with a luxurious seafaring style laced with all manner of storied collections and rich antiques.
“We have English furniture, French furniture, Swedish furniture. Things we inherited got mixed with new antiques we found in Europe,” says Mitchell. “And we love contemporary art. It has a way of loosening things up.”
In the kitchen—with its La Cornue range, butcher block island, marine ceiling lights, and white cabinetry secured with heavy brass boat latches—he’s displayed a green majolica collection started by his grandmother, continued by his mother, and added onto by himself and Narsansky. “We use all of it regularly. Those tureens and pitchers are frequent serving pieces,” says Mitchell.
Owners Philip Mitchell and Mark Narsansky inscribed the year the cottage was built (1795) in the marble entryway tile. OPPOSITE: Heirloom Limoges fish sets hang on painted paneled walls in the cottage’s servery. Wall color, Gray by Benjamin Moore.
White satin-finish paint accentuates charming tongueand-groove paneling, exposed beams, and cased archways in the living room (here and above). Drapery fabric, Kravet. Armchair fabric, Lee Jofa.
A braided indoor/ outdoor rug (Dash & Albert) in the mudroom offers a soft landing for the couple’s Ganaraskans, Wylo (left) and Jacob. Overhead, Mitchell papered the ceiling in an updated paisley pattern (Thibaut). Wall color, Hancock Gray by Benjamin Moore.
ABOVE: The kitchen is a study in characterbuilding contrasts: A rustic hemlock island is paired with lively lilac counter stools; banquette seating is crafted of tufted leather and resilient acrylic fabric (both by Ralph Lauren); an ikat pendant shade (custom, The Urban Electric Co.) is a brilliant foil for the overhead lighting (bulkhead cage lights, Cape Cod Lanterns).
TOP: The patio fireplace surround is Beach Stone by Shaw Brick; the flooring is slate.
Mitchell and Narsansky returned character to the dining room by replacing wainscot and trim details that had been stripped away in a previous renovation. Pedestal dining table, HH Ruseau. Chair upholstery fabric, Brunschwig & Fils.
A charming sleeping alcove is tucked into Narsansky’s dressing room, creating extra space for overnight guests. Beadboard wall color, Philipsburg Blue; trim, Newburg Green, both by Benjamin Moore.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The stair rail and balusters are yellow cedar. The water side of the 5,000-squarefoot home faces Chester’s Front Harbour. A mix of Swedish, French, and English antiques furnishes the thirdfloor guest bedroom. A Waterworks claw-foot tub occupies an arched nook in an airy guest bath.