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A tiny piece of paradise

Building this delightful summer cottage on Nova Scotia’s Amherst Shore was a family affair

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Photos by James Ingram, Jive Photographic


Originally published Summer 2008

Dozen’s of summer cottages dot the grassy lanes leading down to Nova Scotia’s Amherst Shore but none are as tiny and intriguing as the one affectionately named Purdy’s Paradise by the Sea. Positioned on a hill well back from the bank and adorned with a profusion of flowers in window boxes and baskets on the deck, the 266-square-foot cottage is most noticeable for its size and its coveted location on a half-hectare lot overlooking the warm waters of the Northumberland Strait.

Frances and Bruce Purdy of Oakville, Ontario, have been coming here every summer for nearly 40 years. It began after they married and moved from Amherst to Montreal. “I’m the oldest of eight,” Frances says, “and when Bruce and I returned home for a visit, we found there was no room in my parents’ house with all the little brothers and sisters I left behind. We started renting a cottage here at Amherst Shore that my mother found for us.”

The Purdys bought that cottage in 1975 and it quickly became a place everyone in their immediate and extended families loved.

“This place is so natural and beautiful and there’s no one here,” says Frances. “It’s like having your own private beach most of the time … We love the tides and the miles of sand flats to walk on. Every day is different. Although you may not have fancy places to go for dinner and dancing, we just feel this beats it all. We don’t even watch TV and rarely have the radio on while we’re here.”

That’s why when an opportunity arose 10 years ago to buy more property on the nearby waterfront, they took it. The timing was perfect since their two grown daughters, Lisa Hassall and Lynn Salisbury, were creating their own families and had started bringing their spouses and children along to enjoy the beach every summer as well.

As they cleared the new lot, they began wishing they had a little place of their own right there on the bank. “We knew if we had our own little place then the girls could have the big cottage and more privacy,” Frances says. “Even though we live in great harmony here, they have kids and they need space. They can feed them when they want to feed them, put them to bed when they need to and we’re not in the way.”

The Purdys intended to build a simple one bedroom cottage with a shower bathroom and just enough counter space for making tea and coffee. They thought that after building it, they would work on a bigger cottage behind it for the whole family to enjoy.

In 2005, they built the exterior with help from family and friends, including Frances’s 84-year old father, Harold Furlong, an experienced carpenter. Bruce found a photo of a cottage he liked on the Internet but there was no actual plan.

“Everyone who helped just came when they had an opportunity and they just said, ‘I’ll do this’ or ‘Let me help with that,’” Frances recalls. “My brother, John, for example, came on a three week holiday and stayed in a rented cottage close to us and every morning at eight o’clock when he could have been golfing, he walked down and just worked away as if it were his own. That was the amazing thing—it was like a whole family affair.”

There were snags along the way. “In the building permit, they tell you what kind of foundation you need, even for the smallest buildings, and ours is basically 12 by 20 feet,” says Bruce. “They said we needed Sonotubes [concrete forms that provide structural support] but the people we hired to put them in did them so crooked and off-kilter, we had to insist that they come back and do it again.”

Since the cottage was so small, the Purdys planned on having two doors, one on each side, that would swing out in order to save space inside. However, the doors delivered to them did just the opposite and replacing them slowed down the work.

“We had problems getting the materials here too,” Bruce adds. “We were doing the floor and the paid help was here to make sure everything was square.The lumber was supposed to be here and it wasn’t because it got delivered to the wrong cottage.” Thankfully those early setbacks are now safely in the past. “All those things don’t seem important now that we’re here and the cottage is finished,” says Frances.

Completing the exterior work took all of the first summer and when the couple left for Ontario, the wall was up for the electrical panel, the shower was fastened down but not plumbed in and Frances’s father, Harold, had built them a window seat. When the Purdys returned in March, Harold asked them point blank why they were putting their bed in the middle of that beautiful space.

“He was the one who thought we should do more with it,” says Frances. “He took two long lounge chairs and said, ‘Look, you could have a bed over here in this bump out. Why wouldn’t you put it in here?’ He wasn’t calling that space a bedroom nook and we thought it was a bit crazy, but we knew he had something there.”

Frances and Bruce began scratching out floor plans, trying desperately to figure out how to build a bathroom and kitchen area into the cottage without infringing on the romantic room they were starting to envision. At that point, Frances called her sister-in-law, Kay Furlong, an interior decorator in Charlottetown, for help.

“Within a week she had shown me how we could put up this false wall that would give us two doorways, one leading into the kitchen and one into the bathroom,” Frances says. “And that was it. We were on our way to creating a totally functional cottage with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, sitting area and dining area in this small, small space that would be very romantic and beautiful.”

After looking through various decorating magazines, the Purdys decided on the look they wanted for their cottage’s décor—a traditional style with a romantic touch. “We wanted something nautical but something really different too,” Frances says. “We were thinking of blue and white with a bit of yellow but I couldn’t find the fabric—Kay found it.We seemed to be on the same wavelength so I said, ‘Buy it, I’ll wire you the money.’”

Adding to the Purdy’s delight, Kay went on to do most of the shopping for the cottage as well as sewing curtains and bedcovers. “There wasn’t a budget for this cottage because it was an evolution,” says Frances. “Kay was telling me what she was going to spend and we were going with the flow. We would sooner save the money in the winter, instead of going south, to spend on this place—that’s how much it means to us. Everything in here is what we wanted—we weren’t being silly.”

With their ideas for the cottage changing dramatically, they had to rip out the window seat and decide how to furnish the room. “Kay said we needed four wicker armchairs,” Frances recalls. “I said, ‘That’s crazy. How would you get so many in that space?’ But they are so versatile. When it’s the two of us, we have them in front of our electric fireplace and the other two are in front of the main window. When guests pop in, you can just move them around. If we had bought a sofa, it would not have been as versatile.”

Not everything happened so seamlessly, though. When the work was nearing completion, the double-insulated ceiling became an issue. “I couldn’t get the peaked ceiling that I wanted and I was disappointed,” says Frances. “But when my son-in-law Scott arrived, he had a vision for it so that it would look high.”

Scott used sheets of bead board to give the ceiling a rounded effect that looks like the bottom of a boat. Frances says it’s one aspect of the cottage that gets the most comments from visitors. “Of course, because it has that rounded effect we had to go looking for mouldings and tried all kinds of different things,” she adds. “Kay suggested rope and we bought metres of rope and painted it. It looks amazing.”

Finding room for storage in such a small space was also a challenge. “You don’t realize how much plywood and bead board take up of your room’s space,” Frances says. “We just got the bed squeezed in but it works. We have a custom-built bed frame for our double bed.” That same careful use of space also applies in the cottage’s 2.5-by-1.5-metre kitchen, which is equipped with a 60-centimetre stove and a 1.5-metre high fridge with a small microwave oven on top.

Ultimately, the cottage proves that creating an inspired, functional space doesn’t have to require a lot of room or extravagance. Its simple design emphasizes its best features while also fulfilling the Purdy’s basic desire of creating a special seaside escape. “I think we’ve done a good job of organizing the space with everything we need,” says Frances. “There isn’t anything that we don’t like about the place. It all works so well.”

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