Peggy Stewart met Jack Kivlichan who would become her husband in 2001, on the day he closed on his house. She called it a “vinylized home” in the suburbs of St. John’s, N.L. “He tried to take me into that place,” she says. “But there was no southern exposure. No soul.” But you could, Kivlichan points out “see the airplanes taking off and landing. ”
Stewart purchased her own home in 1999. By contrast to Kivlichan’s, the 19th-century vernacular 2.5-storey home was overflowing with soul. Its Georgestown neighbourhood was one of the first settled during St. John’s founding.
“I would move,” she told him, to a new place that would be theirs together, but it needed to be “in town and with character and affordable.”
“He realized this house was good.” Stewart says. And, though she knew Kivlichan was a capable carpenter, she was initially prepared to hire people to do all the work. But Kivlichan started working on the shed (put down the floor, the door). “One thing leads to another,” he recalls. “In the kitchen, I just wanted to change the baseboard heaters.” But then he had to re-wire for them, then he had to fix the wall, the windows, “before you know it, it’s the whole room.”
“He became quite gung-ho in his very quiet, understated way.” Stewart explains.
Kivlichan says simply, “I’m just glad when I get a project finished.” Though, in a house built circa 1860, there are always more projects.
Renovations weren’t a new event in this space. The Newfoundland Historic Trust recognized the previous owners with a Southcott Award. The Trust bestows only a few of these plaques each year to commend “excellence in the preservation of the architectural heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
When Stewart first moved in, she started with some modest updates to the bathroom (such as replacing the carpet with a light Newfoundland spruce). She soon called back the local builder who worked on the bathroom, Ken Spurrell of Victorian Finish, to take a look at some persistent leaks. He uncovered an exterior wall rotten all the way up through the roof. They redid everything along the front wall, bones to freckles.
Stewart took advantage of the renovation and redesigned the third floor guest room/office with an en suite. Spurrell opened it up into a modest cathedral ceiling, took out a skylight and added a larger window to make up for the lost light. Then he discovered there was no proper support for the ceiling at all. “The more we discovered how it was built the more frightening it was,” Stewart says. “These houses were meant to be burned down, put up haphazardly.” The builders’ goal was economy, not longevity.
Stewart and Kivlichan took their time and fixed those bones. And, always with an eye on future work or change, they made sure to leave the organs accessible. The hot-water heater, under the eaves, had been behind a solid wall. They extended the flooring under it and replaced the wall with sliding cupboard doors. Similarly, in the kitchen, they added a hidden hinged panel in the island at the back of the dishwasher. Throughout the house, the couple leverage every bit of space to add storage, convenience, and comfort.
The dead space on the walls along a dormer window became recessed book shelves; loft storage in the guest room is now accessible by a cut down and repurposed apple picking ladder. Kivlichan installed half-width doors to the linen cupboards along the stairwell so they can open them in the narrow space.
Renovating old homes requires patience, creativity, and humour.
The closer you look at the details of Stewart and Kivlichan’s house, the more you see evidence of these qualities. The mouldings Spurrell built around the original handcut and non-uniform ceiling beams are “Alice-in- Wonderland-quirky,” according to Stewart, who spent most of her life as a librarian in the United States.
Same again on the first floor where Jerome Canning, a boat builder, worked on the kitchen. The lines are all “higgledy piggledy. It took an artistic [mind]. It’s illusory,” Stewart explains, referring to the Escher-like sense of perspective given by each board waxing or waning to reflect the subtle angles of the house.
And Stewart has contemplated every angle in the home. Each change, large or subtle is just right. “I’m vision; [Jack] is execution,” she says.
Stewart’s vision flows from her connection with the building, which she calls fated. “When my husband died in Maine, I bought things that didn‘t go with my life before. I got an electric baby grand piano and a leather couch, and they got together and talked and they really hated that cheap patio set I ate off of. When I got here, they heaved a sigh of relief.”
She chose a palate of a few colours throughout the house so she can mix and match items from different rooms. “Everything migrates around the house: chairs, lamps, vases. I like variety. I like change, but the house has its own sense of character and I’ve been responding to it.”
The very Newfoundland colours of green, red, and yellow aren‘t Stewart’s usual picks but she knew she wanted to include them somehow.
“This house just wants to be red! I’ve never been a red person.” All the paint colours echo one another. The trim in the bedroom is the wall in the bathroom, etc. She keeps the paint in large glass jars with masking tape labels so she can find the right colour easily for touch-ups.
The home’s decor is an ongoing work of art.
And the house is dedicated to art and craft, grown over with it. Many pieces serve practical functions (a knit “Punch doll” holds rubber bands). Some practical items have been elevated to fine art status, on shelves merely for their beauty (a hooked pin cushion filled with silver acupuncture needles). She points out how a red cup hung along a beam with other mugs and pots draws your eye across to the red in a garden gnome’s hat on the next shelf.
Her more practical vision appears in the addition of the mudroom off of the kitchen. So much snow fell during her first winter she had to shovel up out of the back door to get to the garden, and she had to tie her dogs in the backyard because they could walk right over the fence on the drifts. The addition allowed much needed pantry storage and a civilized elbow room for navigating the wet and muddy ins and outs of a Newfoundland winter.
Digging its foundation left a huge pile of dirt, which necessitated doing the garden next. Stewart designed a series of serpentine rock walls and Carew Services, who specialize in Newfoundland stone, built them. Though the only plant that remains from before her re-vamp is a large pink peony, the profusion of blooms and cobblestone paths feel like they have always been there. And Stewart hopes they always will.
“What I did in the backyard is my legacy, because these rock walls will last,” she says. “People will change the colours, the bathroom, but the bones are good. For the next people it is a jewel. You can say, ‘lovingly taken care of by a little old couple.’”