Architect Brian MacKay-Lyons is late for our interview. Living on the remote oceanfront property and farm he shares with his wife Marilyn, their two Leonberger dogs, two horses and a flock of 50 sheep means he never knows what might need his attention.
This morning, he was helping his daughter, Alison, build a riding ring for her horses. She lives in the old 1750s farmhouse on the family compound. “Day-to-day, I never know what I will be doing—I could be shovelling sheep shit one minute and designing a modern fish shed on the point another,” MacKay-Lyons chuckles.
The architect with MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in Halifax has won over 100 architecture honours, including the 2014 Architectural Firm Award from the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada. His well known contemporary homes take cues from local architectural styles. “I get most of my inspiration from older buildings,” he says. “The landscape, the way settlements were built—you learn from your elders.”Less well known is his passion for rescuing and restoring existing historic buildings. His wife Marilyn takes his hobby in stride. “When I married Brian, my mother told me the arts are the highest calling, so whatever you do, don’t impede his creativity,” she says.
A trip last summer to Yarmouth County in southwestern Nova Scotia with Alison netted Brian his latest restoration project: a tattered 1830s schoolhouse in Chebogue. “Our daughter said, ‘Dad and I bought a school house in Yarmouth that was an inspiration to him when he was a boy,’” Marilyn recalls. “It had six inches of porcupine poop in it and was in a state of total disrepair. I was seeing dollar signs because all of it costs so much money. But he and Ali were both beaming. Brian said, ‘You can’t let a building like that go down. It’s an elder, you have to respect it.’”
Set amid the steep hills and pastureland overlooking the LaHave Estuary near Upper Kingsburg on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, the sprawling MacKay-Lyons property is a collection of reclaimed historic buildings, Brian’s modern homes, and intriguing “ghost” structures designed and built with students. “This property became an architecture school in 1994 called Ghost,” Brian says. “We had students and teachers here from around the world participating in the design of ghost structures.” He named the property “Shobac” after Christian Shoubach, the original land grantee of the adjacent seaside cliffs.
Born and raised in Arcadia, Yarmouth County, Brian picked the remote setting for his family home and began clearing the land 25 years ago. “I had this idea I wanted to be a farmer,” he says. “I always wanted to have sheep because my grandparents had them in West Pubnico.” The land spoke to him on an elemental level, resonating with his Mi’kmaq and Acadian ancestry. “The Mi’kmaq used the site as a summer camp for harvesting shellfish,” he adds.
Near the water’s edge beside Brian’s studio are the ruins of what may be a pre-Acadian home. “When Champlain sailed up the LaHave River in 1604, he drew a house there on his first map of the New World,” Brian says. “They were French fisherman, Basque fisherman, perhaps. European archeologists say parts of the foundation may date to the 1500s.”
The latest historic building to join the mix, the Chebogue schoolhouse nestles in near the Troop Barn, an octagonal barn Brian salvaged in Granville Centre and rebuilt on the property in 2009. “It was a ghost project reconstructing the barn in a week; pre-fab is a very old idea,” he says with a laugh.
Like the barn, the schoolhouse was facing demolition when Brian and his contractor Philip Creaser took a closer look. “It was in pretty bad shape,” Creaser says. “I knew it would be a good project to restore because it was still straight. These schools were well kept when they were in service because their communities were proud of them. What saved this building was that a previous owner had put a steel roof on it. We just had to replace one of the big sills and the eastern wall.”
Relying on local tradespeople, Brian used local materials and traditional techniques to bring the schoolhouse up to modern standards. “I have only ever learned about technology from tradespeople, not in architecture school,” he says. “An architect is a generalist, someone who harnesses other people’s energy. If you pretend you know everything, you won’t get the best out of people.”
Too big to move intact to Upper Kingsburg, the schoolhouse arrived in pieces on the back of a flatbed truck. “It was like a pile of sticks,” Brian says. Creaser and his team re-erected the structure piece by piece, replacing rotting wood as needed, and keeping the original hand-hewn beams, frames, windows and wainscoting.
The main floor is an open-concept living, kitchen and dining area. The kitchen is part of a dramatic central “service core” of black-stained poplar that’s the modern centrepiece of the space. The core stretches up to the second level where it provides storage for the two bedrooms, holds the laundry area and bathroom, and makes a chic backdrop in the master bedroom overlooking the water.
Charles Lantz, a cabinetmaker in Lunenburg, made the cabinetry, the dining room table, coffee table, and the plinths upstairs. Creaser installed shiplap poplar boards (similar in look to tongue and groove panelling) over the core and the kitchen cabinetry. “It looks like the kitchen fades into the wall,” Lantz says. “The end effect is quite spectacular.”
Viewing interior design as an extension of the architecture, Brian took a minimalist approach to the décor. The original wainscoting and the wide floorboards are a deep mustard hue, “the old dory colour,” notes Brian. Keeping them the same tone gives the feeling of being in a boat and respects the original schoolhouse interior. He stained the tabletops red and chose the leather chairs and sofa from Project 9 in Halifax with a similar tone, matching the leather chaise lounge in the master bedroom upstairs. “Whenever a surface lifts up in this interior, it becomes red-stained wood—not the dory colour,” explains Brian.
He paid close attention to the alignment of the surfaces. The coffee table, dining table and steel staircase all line up with the windows to showcase the ocean (and the animals grazing nearby). “It was carefully thought through so you can enjoy the scenery,” Brian laughs. “It’s like the people are in the pen and the animals get to roam free.”
Lantz built the expansive dining table. Mirroring the width of the pine floorboards, it stretches three metres, has four drawers along each side, and seats 30.
Brian describes the restoration as a “discreet modern intervention. The materials are the same—that’s the link between the old and new.” The building retains elements of its schoolhouse past, including its open-concept design, the potbelly stove in the living room and the slate blackboard at the entryway. “We wanted people to come in and have it say ‘schoolhouse,’” says Brian.
Chisel Works in Lunenburg refurbished the original long wooden benches in the entryway and at the dining table, which date from when the building was used as a community hall. “They were all handmade and have hand-scooped seats,” says Don Green, a furniture restorer at Chisel Works. “They’re gorgeous.”
The company also restored the building’s original nine-over-six windows. “For their age, they were in awfully good shape,” Green says, noting that they preserved most of the 200-year-old white-pine sills. “It was a pretty big job but nothing was so rotten that it couldn’t be fixed.”
Brian enlisted Jeff Langille of Langille’s Carpenter Shop in Barss Corner to build sidelights for the front door. “With sidelights, you have privacy but you can see who is coming up the driveway,” says Brian. “It’s an old concept proven by hundreds of years of use.”
Langille also built the dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors at the back of the house—84 panes stretch across 3.6 metres to provide those stunning ocean and pasture sightlines. He builds his windows from scratch, sourcing the frames from his own woodlot in nearby Stanburn.
Langille’s 86-year-old mother helped glaze the frames. “She’s in a nursing home now,” he says. “This was the last job she worked on for me. She had a hand in a lot of the work we did in the schoolhouse. She could still keep the putty knife solid. I find you get a smooth, nicer job with a putty knife.”
Creaser enjoyed bringing the building back to its former prominence. “Everybody worked together to make it what it is,” he says. “We were all thinking of the people who made those hand-hewn beams and the work that took. That’s why it’s so nice to save a building like this.”
For Brian, the schoolhouse is the culmination of the role he thinks architecture—and history—should play in communities. “Architecture is like a helmet you wear to make the landscape more evident, to explain the landscape to people,” he says. “I have a deep appreciation for the history of this place and a lot of respect for the tradespeople who built it. It all comes from tradition.”