Using treasured antiques and a fresh modern palette, decorator Victoria Boer restores her historic Fredericton home to its former grandeur.
Victoria Boer rests her arms on a huge century-old dining-room table, surveying the morning sunlight shining off the ancient Italian cherrywood display cabinets full of antique silver and china.
She talks of her newly renovated 162-year-old home in Fredericton’s downtown heritage district as if it were alive. “It speaks to me, and I listen,” she says. An interior decorator with her own business, she says she does her best design work when she feels a connection to a house, as if it’s a living thing.
The dining room’s high ceilings and grand proportions prompted Victoria to buy the house back in May 2010. Her actions defied all practicality at the time. She, her husband Scott (a helicopter instructor) and their three teenage daughters had been living in the West Hills area of the city. Their house had been on the market for two years with no movement.
When she got a call that a well-known historic house was for sale, she arranged to see it that very day. She assumed it would be like any other house showing. “But when I got to this room, I just stood here in the corner and I bawled, I was so overwhelmed by it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘this is my house’ and I immediately made a full-price offer.”
Much to her surprise, Victoria sold her house three days later and the family moved in at the end of May. Victoria and Scott each committed to taking three months off and began a punishing renovation schedule of 16-hour days. With the exception of a few specialized contractors for plumbing, electricity and raising the front of the attic roof, they did the work themselves.
The designated heritage house is situated on Church street, with the mighty St. John River visible from many windows. Watchmaker Benjamin Wolhaupterwas built the Georgian-style house in 1848–49. It is famous locally as the residence of the Rev. John Medley, the first Anglican archbishop of Fredericton who supervised the building of the Christ Church Cathedral. He lived in the house from 1866 until his death in 1892. According to local legend, his second wife, Mary, haunts the house.
A lot of old houses have very tiny rooms…but not this one. It had huge big spaces, all usable for our family.
Prior to the Boers, the only other renovation on the home had been in 1905, which added the veranda, dormers and a corner bay embellished with stained glass.
“When we bought the house, it had been 83 years in one family,” Victoria says. “Fran Miller arrived in the house when she was 18 months old and died in it at the age of 84…Nothing had really been done to it in all that time. The house was sold to us with everything in it.”
The Boers’ renovation plan started with upgrading the plumbing, heating and wiring. “There were only two lights that really worked in the whole house,” Victoria remembers. “When NB Power came to upgrade the lines, they couldn’t believe how old some parts of the system were.”
The next task was sorting through the stuff left in the 8,500-square-foot house. Victoria wanted its interior design to blend old with new, turning yesterday’s style into something cozy and comfortable for her family. “I liked that this house had really good bones,” she says. “A lot of old houses have very tiny rooms and are all cut up, but not this one. It had huge big spaces, all usable for our family, so I knew from the start I could work with it.”
The scale of the project didn’t intimidate Victoria. “I think [her] special talent is the speed with which she can make decisions about what to leave in and what to take out, and what to move where,” says Debbie Foley, Victoria’s friend and the realtor who sold her the house. “She saw the house as a raw canvas. That’s what makes her unique. She knew in three seconds what she had to do to bring this house to life again.”
Victoria finished the living room first. After consulting her daughters, she painted the walls a warm teal blue and the wainscotting a crisp white. In front of the windows, she placed a weathered table she found in the basement and piled it with treasures from the house, including vintage photos and magazines, old bottles and curious gadgets.
“The house had so much history, I wanted to be mindful of it, but we still needed to make it fit our needs and use all the space,” she says. “We had to have a room that was comfortable for all of us to curl up in and watch some TV at night.”
Mixing old with new, she matched an old burnished table with modern white furniture and placed an ancient piano in a corner near a wide-screen television. She removed a metal screen from the fireplace, showcasing an exquisite carving.
Her light-filled office occupies the original front parlour. Above the old fireplace, Victoria displays a wooden carving of her mantra: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” It’s a working room, with a large desk and laptop in the circular window and shelves artfully laden with samples, displays of furniture for sale and art for clients to enjoy.
In the dining room, Victoria’s favourite space in the house, she modernized the room with dramatic black-and-white flowered wallpaper above the cherrywood walls. She created a signature look with a unique black-and-white chandelier she bought for $300. Handmade cabinets stretch floor-to-ceiling across one wall, displaying silverware and dishes from the home’s previous owner. Showing her emotional attachment to the house, Victoria says she is loath to break up the collections, sensing “they were gathered with care.”
The level-headed-business-owner part of Victoria laughs whenever people ask if her home is haunted. But her creative imagination doesn’t mind having a little fun with it. She recently called in a friend and self-described “house intuitive” who suggested the house is haunted by both the bishop’s wife and his son, Charles, who had drowned after an unhappy life.
In the attic, the Boers found empty rum and whiskey bottles and what may be Charles’s old pipe. They have also searched for a legendary underground tunnel that allegedly links the house to Christ Church Cathedral, but to no avail.
Victoria enjoys connecting the home’s current décor with aspects of its unique history. Outside the bathroom on the main level, she has a collage of photos of previous owner Fran Miller, along with her baby spoon.
The new kitchen at the back of the house combines space from an old pantry and a maid’s kitchen. “We had to gut this room completely and start again,” says Victoria. With its warm yellow palette, the modern kitchen includes a built-in herb garden along a sunny back windowsill. The space spills into a fenced-in outdoor room with a fire pit and cozy furniture.
Victoria painted the landing and second floor hallway black. “People think black makes a room look smaller but it actually makes a room look bigger because everything pops out,” she says. She adorned the walls with plates by the late Italian sculptor Piero Fornasetti. Stark black-and-white faces with haunting eyes look out from the plates, which Victoria grouped together over three walls at the top of the staircase. Fornasetti created 500 variations in his plate series and Victoria treats herself to a new one each year.
Pieces of the original furniture from the home line the hallway, which opens up to one of the family’s favourite gathering spaces: the second floor sunroom. “We make fantastic use of this space—our girls love it,” Victoria says.
Further on is the master bedroom with its walk-in closet and ensuite. The Boers created the space by sealing up a hallway entrance and taking down the wall to an adjacent smaller bedroom. “Stripping off the old wallpaper in the master bedroom was one of our worst chores,” says Victoria. They built the king-size bed out of two old panel doors they salvaged from a junkyard for $10 apiece.
The second floor contains two other bedrooms, one used by their 16-year-old daughter Keanna and the other used by a student boarder. In the new bathroom, which has heated quartz floors and marble counters, Victoria kept the old claw-foot tub. “I love to sink into it and have a hot bath at the end of the day,” she says.
Before the renovation, the attic was a bat- infested mass of unused space. It became one of the Boer’s most creative renovation projects in the house and now holds two large bedrooms for daughters, Carissa, 18, and Micaella, 17, along with a shared walk-in closet, bathroom, laundry room and sunlit family room. The latter project meant lifting the roof to create a loft-like cozy gathering space for the teens. The Boers pulled up the old wood floors, added soundproofing, sanded, repaired and varnished the wood, and then put the boards back.
“All in all, this turned into really liveable space for our daughters,” Victoria says. “And again, we were thrilled with the structure of the house. There was no heater up there last winter and they were warm and cozy.”
Overall, Victoria is pleased with how everything came together. “We were really prepared to uncover nightmares but it never happened,” she says. Her dark eyes dance with amusement as she ponders why everything worked out so well.
“Sometimes I think it may have helped us that we were respectful of the house’s history. We wanted a cozy home for our family but we were okay from the start sharing it with the ghosts [laughs].”