Helen Boden remembers the first time she and her husband Alan walked into their condo. The soaring ceilings and abundant light captured her attention. When she saw the historical etched-glass windows leading into the kitchen she knew. “Yes,” she said. “This is the spot.”
At the time, the couple lived in a two-bedroom home in
St. Margaret’s Bay, Nova Scotia. When they bought the property in 1996, it felt like country living, says Helen. But years of development increased traffic on the road and extended their commute into the city for work.
The condo came with a tenant, which was perfect for the couple who weren’t ready to move. “We always knew maybe five or 10 years down the road we’d move here. It turned out to be six, so we were right on time,” says Helen.
The Second Empire-style building of brick and stone was built for the Sisters of Charity by renowned architects Ross and MacDonald in 1920. It replaced the first St. Joseph’s Convent destroyed in the Halifax Explosion in 1917.
It later became a nursing home, and in 2007 a condominium named The Seton, for the convent’s founding sister. Despite the years and changing hands, the building maintains its original character and is a Halifax Regional Municipality Heritage Property.
Helen is the kind of person who corresponds with her school pen pal for nearly 40 years, albeit now by email. She’s also the type to takes a job at Tim Hortons at a military base in Kandahar to “support the troops and do my bit.”
Helen’s flight to Afghanistan included a nine-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany, so the pen pals planned their first meeting.
“The funny thing is I was on the plane, and I was more worried about meeting my pen pal in Germany for the first time than I was about the fact that I was going to Kandahar,” she says.
She met her match in husband Alan. A career navy man, the couple wrote weekly letters during his long deployments at sea. She numbered the envelopes. “By the time they actually got to the ship sometimes they would accumulate, and Alan could end up receiving three, four, or five at the same time.”
Alan revels in The Seton’s history and spent time at the Nova Scotia Archives to learn about its origins. Personal history is also key to the couple, who feature a gallery wall of historic family photos in their living room.
One is a black and white shot of a beautiful woman feeding a piglet from a baby bottle on the table at a British pub. Alan’s father snapped a picture of the woman laughing while her date looked on. Alan doesn’t know the man’s name, because the woman started dating the handsome photographer soon after and would go on to become his mother.
Other photos in the collection feature Helen as a girl in Cyprus, and a toddler-size Alan jumping for joy. “They’re in chronological order,” says Alan, gesturing at the wall. “That’s just us. Isn’t it?” replies Helen.
History weaves throughout the Bodens’ home and the building.
Entering through the front door, visitors have no doubt they’re in a former convent when walking down a hallway wide enough for a car.
Through the condo’s original, heavy wood door, the soaring ceilings make the two-bedroom space seem much larger than its 1400 square feet. The main living area is open concept, with a raised kitchen and dining areas at the back of the room, and a step down into the living room.
Formerly the convent’s chapel, the 17-cm step down marks the line between the former sacristy and the chapel. Etched and hand-painted glass windows fill the space with colourful afternoon light, as Joseph, Mary Magdalen, and Jesus peer across the room.
The couple gutted and refinished the condo before moving in. Alan did most of the work over a four-month period. “We contacted Habitat for Humanity to take away a lot of the electrical stuff, lighting, fans, kitchen cupboards, bathroom vanity, anything that was useable,” says Alan. “The appliances were old, but still good. We didn’t want it to just end up in the landfill.”
He saved most of the original trim around the windows and doors, staining it to let the history of the wood shine through. “I love some of the old characters in the wood trim,” says Helen. “You can see where there’s been old shutters and bumps against the wood. We had to keep in mind that there was always going to be this brown hue and the other colours in the room were chosen to match with that too.”
The renovation wasn’t without its delays. Helen laughs when she tells the story about misunderstanding what the flooring store meant by Italian tile. Rather than a style, it was the tile’s origin, and its six-week boat journey set the kitchen renovations on hold. Alan loves having a project on the go, so he took his skills to the basement.
Alan joined the condo board when the couple purchased the unit. Before taking up residence at The Seton, he tended the potted plants and shrubs surrounding it. During the refinishing delay, he suggested building a gym in the basement, which he’d stock with equipment the couple had in their home gym in St. Margaret’s Bay.
“They thought, ‘This guy’s off his rocker,’” says Alan, about the condo board. “‘He’s going to stand on the floor by hand and he’s going to make a gym?’” He did and now most owners and tenants use it regularly.
During other renovation delays, he outfitted and refinished several storage rooms, a conference room, a bicycle area, and the main passageway. Alan supplies the labour and the condo board pays for supplies. “You’ve got a job for life in the basement, love,” Helen is fond of saying.
Helen chalks up Alan’s earning the trust of his fellow tenants as something that made the renovations much easier. When he needed to access the ensuite bathroom from another tenant’s storage space, he traded his own storage space and some hand-built shelves to for her trouble.
Another aspect that made the job smoother was working with trusted tradespeople like Bremner’s Plumbing & Heating and Benoit Electric, both based in Halifax. Alan says he would have hired a general contractor to manage the project, but no one wanted the job.
“There seems to be a gap between owners and contractors that you need someone who is handy to do these little jobs,” says Helen. “There’s no latitude in a condo,” adds Alan. “They can’t come in at 6 a.m. and bash things out.”
It’s almost two years since they moved in, and Alan’s nearly finished the job. A storage closet with a stacking washer-dryer and the bathroom off the living room are next on his list. That is once he finishes the communal yoga room he’s building in the basement.
Step into history
Quebec-based architecture firm Ross and Macdonald is well known across Canada. In addition to designing St. Joseph’s Convent, which would later become The Seton, it designed the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and the Montreal Star Building.
A year after the 1917 Halifax Explosion, co-founder George Allen Ross designed the Hydrostone Market and several homes in what would become the Hydrostone District in Halifax’s north end. The area was named for the concrete blocks incorporated into the homes.
Affordable, fire-retardant, and simple to build with, hydrostones were key to post-Halifax Explosion rebuilding.
The convent building also features hydrostones. Built in 1920, it replaced the original convent which was partially destroyed by the Explosion, and completely destroyed the next day by a blizzard. The Sisters of Charity played an important role in revitalizing the area after the Explosion.
The Seton’s central tower was once home to the “Ave Maria Bell,” designed by the renowned Meneely Bell Foundry in New York state. The bronze bell weighs about 230 kg and carries the names of 32 St. Joseph’s parishioners killed in the Explosion.
Learn more about The Seton on historicplaces.ca.