Set in the cobblestones outside the front steps of this Saint John, N.B. brownstone is a brick carved with “M & M, 12-15.”
The monograms stand for Marilyn McPhee and Matt Reid, owners of the uptown property on Germain Street, and the numbers the date on which they rekindled a romance that started over 30 years ago at a nightclub a few blocks away.
To the left of the front door is a brass plaque: “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.” This bit of humour, installed by a previous owner, retained by the current ones, sends a signal: the people who live here don’t take themselves too seriously.
A sense of playful grandeur imbues the house, thanks to designer Kim Jakobsen, of the eponymous Saint John firm, who helped the couple realize their vision for a home inspired by Parisian apartments and Arabian nights.
“It’s the perfect little love nest,” says Jakobsen.
Through the small front entryway and into the hallway, a lush, floor-to-ceiling wallpaper mural of branches and birds draws the eye. Its pattern repeats on the seatback of the oversized sofa in the living room, drawing the spaces together.
“I fell in love with it,” Jakobsen says of the piece. “I loved the antiquated look, the pattern. I loved that it referred to the Old World, but wasn’t stuffy.”
McPhee purchased the sofa from Anthropologie, where she also ordered Kilim-covered cushions and brocaded chairs that complement her collection of objects from overseas.
“I get a lot of things just because I love the bohemian look,” she says. “But it’s still chic.”
The couple first met in the 1980s, outside a Saint John nightclub. He walked her home, they fell for each other, and got engaged. But he worked too much, so she broke it off. She spent most of the next 30 years working overseas as a nurse while he ran shipbuilding projects in Canada and beyond.
They stayed in touch. Two years ago, he drove five hours from his home in Maine to meet her for coffee in Saint John, where she was visiting her mother.
“I thought, somehow, I’m going to get her,” says Reid, his native Glasgow evident in his Scottish burr.
For her part, McPhee says his steady presence and kindness, won her over all over again.
“Sometimes, timing is everything,” McPhee says. But it was the house that helped bring the couple back together.
Several years ago, a friend showed McPhee the real-estate listing. She lived in Saudi Arabia at the time, but couldn’t stop thinking about the house. She wasn’t sure she’d return to Saint John, “but if I did, it was always going to be to this street,” she says of the leafy stretch of Victorian-era residences.
Reid, who was just a friend at the time, offered to check it out. McPhee asked him to bring her best friend and mother to lend a women’s perspective, and McPhee joined the tour via FaceTime. She loved it, even from a distance.
“It’s where I want to be,” she told them.
Not long after deciding to buy, she and Reid recommitted. Now they had a house that they needed to transform into a home.
“I had an idea of the feel I wanted,” McPhee says. “I wanted it to be cozy.”
She called on Jakobsen, who played up McPhee’s love of light and sparkle, colour and texture.
“That’s Maria Theresa,” Jakobsen says, pointing up at the tiered crystal chandelier in the living room, its sparkle multiplied in mirrored panels on the wall, bordered by trim that picks up the original gridded ceiling moulding.
“The mirrored wall is just awesome,” Reid says.
As is common with a heritage home, it featured sloping floors and awkward angles. It was no small feat for woodworker Roy Kippers to square everything, or at least make it look that way. He says improvisation and crafty solutions are all in a day’s work for him.
Kippers worked in the house before, hand-carving the double mahogany front doors with inside panels that look like rippling linen sheets.
“Roy is one of the best tradesmen I’ve ever had the honour of meeting,” says Reid, a shipbuilder who knows craftsmanship when he sees it.
The narrow Germain Street house isn’t the first the couple owned together. When the couple was engaged the first time, they bought an old shipbuilder’s mansion on the city’s west side. Reid calls it “the best house on the worst street.”
McPhee says she would wander its rooms, calling his name through its echoing expanse. “I remember thinking I will never get a big house again,” she says.
Spread over three floors of living space, their current house is just right.
Jacobsen transformed the unfinished basement into an Arabian oasis by drawing in warm oranges and reds, rugs, and tapestries.
The sparkle of brass and glass is reflected in mirrors everywhere. Beyond is a cozy Arabian den dominated by what McPhee calls the “hubbly bubbly,” the hookah, a tall water pipe common in the Middle East. Low leather poufs and seats, and objects d’art, including a framed scimitar (a crescent shaped blade) surround it.
The basement bathroom continues the theme; its floor laid with painted tiles reminiscent of Marrakesh.
“Every room has its own little story,” Jakobsen says. “I felt like I was on a new job in each one.”
Upstairs, the master bedroom is a soft study of whites and greys. On the wall above the bed is a print of Trilogy by Saint John-artist Elma Johnson-McKay.
“Ah, this is it,” McPhee says. “It’s home. It feels like home.”