One woman turns a historic building into her ultimate dream home.
Annie Leroux is a firm believer in love at first sight. So when she first set eyes on a cozy two-storey Victorian-style house in the small rural community of New London on P.E.I.’s North Shore, just across the street from the birthplace of Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, she was immediately smitten and sure that it would be her forever home.
“When I saw it, I didn’t even have to go in,” says Leroux. “I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ I fell in love with the little house on the outside. It was so charming. Just the whole area really spoke to me.” She would soon discover there was more history to her little house than first meets the eye.
Situated halfway between Kensington and Cavendish, New London was formerly known as Clifton, and prior to that it was called Graham’s Corner. Leroux’s house was the second structure built on the property, which was once home to the family after which the area was named.
“From what I understand, this house was built in 1868,” she says. “It’s not the original house that was on the property. There was one house before and I have a sketch of that. It was the house that the Grahams lived in, so the original family that Graham’s Road was named after. Their descendants still live here, in fact, just two doors down. So that’s really, really neat…they gave me copies of the sketches of the original house that stood here in the early 1850s and copies of diaries. And I have been informed by three different people who lived in the area that the midwife who delivered Lucy Maud lived in this house,” she says.
When Leroux bought the house in 2011, it had been vacant for more than three years. Prior to that, it had been operated for about a quarter century as a summer gift shop. “When I bought it, it didn’t have a kitchen,” she says. “It wasn’t insulated. It wasn’t livable as a house. There was no heating system. The electrical had to all be redone.” Leroux interviewed three different local contractors and was quickly sold on Shane Andrew, owner of Andrew Building Company in Kensington.
The list of wants and needs was extensive, starting from stripping everything down to the studs, while saving the original moldings and floors, addressing some structural work in the basement, adding a heating system, wiring and energy-efficient insulation and windows, and then rebuilding the interior from scratch, including the kitchen and two bathrooms. “Redoing a house like this is huge,” says Leroux. “It’s even more work than building a house.”
“It took them a couple of months just to take all the plaster down and to get the electricians and the plumbers in,” she says. “I wanted a bathroom downstairs. I needed a kitchen. It was a massive, massive project. They were here every day at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. every morning and I was here with them. I stripped the banister myself. I did some painting. I loved every part of it.”
It was just the beginning of Leroux’s introduction to her new community, and it turned out there was still room in her heart for more structural love when she learned the local United Church nearby was also for sale. “I just couldn’t not buy the church; it’s like it fell in my lap,” she says. “It was like it was meant to be for whatever reason.”
“I went to the church decommissioning services and they asked me to speak to the congregation, and they wanted to know what I was going to do with it…I didn’t know…but it would be something special because I’ve always loved churches,” says Leroux. That something became Annie’s Table Culinary Studio, which tapped into her love of experiential cooking classes (which she had done previously as an add-on to her antiques business in P.E.I.).
Construction on the house began in September 2011. The exterior, including the cheery yellow paint, remained pretty much the same, with the exception of the addition of an upper deck off the upstairs landing so Leroux could enjoy the expansive view of the New London harbour. A second dormer was added to match the existing one on the opposite side of the house.
Structural elements, such as new custom sills and window inserts, were added, but Leroux kept the original architectural integrity of the house intact. Inside is where the real changes took place. All of the original baseboards and door and window casings were carefully removed and reinstalled later. “A lot of the challenges in dealing with any old home is just basically the old structure—the old lumber not being all the same size,” says Andrew. “The walls [are] often in and out [of line]; the floors are often not level. There’s usually a variety. Nothing is usually too square or level in those old houses.”
The downstairs bathroom, which is off the sunroom in the back of the house, is an entirely new feature, with a twist of the old tossed in for memorable measure.
The old exterior wooden back door of the house was salvaged and is now a fun and funky entry point to the bathroom, which also doubles as the laundry room. “I love anything old, so I told them, ‘Save the door!’” Leroux says. In fact, the bathroom cabinet is an antique washstand that was adapted to house a modern vessel sink.
“And that’s what was so wonderful about working with a young crew like that,” Leroux adds. “Anything that I wanted they would make it for me. They really went out of their way to do what I wanted and they gave such beautiful results as well.”
Another unique adaptation resulted in the creation of an actual secret door—an ingenious spring-loaded panel to the basement that blends seamlessly into its under-the-stairwell surroundings. “Originally, in the plan that Annie had, the door to the basement was coming from the kitchen where the refrigerator is now,” says Andrew. “But because of the kitchen being the size that it was, we needed that space. So I didn’t really want to add a conventional door stuck in the hallway because it would take a little bit away from the staircase, so we tried to camouflage it as best we could. A door is a door, it just gets you from Point A to Point B…it’s not that much more work to make it look like part of the wall.”
Ingenuity abounds in the kitchen, which was built from the original spruce floors up.
Leroux wanted an old-style kitchen. After checking out the manufactured cabinetry route, she came across P.E.I. folk artist Kerras Jeffery, whose creativity ran wild. He built the cupboards with new pinewood, but gave them a finish to make them appear as if they’d witnessed multiple generations of meal-makings. However, the true character of the cabinets comes from the salvaged items that Jeffery finds clever uses for, such as an old piece of machinery that becomes an under-the-sink grate, and actual twist closures for cabinetry hardware. “And this is an old cash drawer (from a retail store) and these are sewing machine drawers,” Leroux says of Jeffery’s clever concept for cutlery and knickknack storage.
Leroux wanted an island in her revamped home, so the P.E.I. artist added some true character by insetting an old butcher block into it. For a little bit of funky fun, he also inserted a metal stove lid and lifter from an old-fashioned wood stove next to the butcher block. This acts as a clever cover for the hidden compost bin that is directly underneath. “So when I’m chopping away, I just lift this cover and slide my compost right in,” Leroux adds.
Mostly known for his amazing and quirky folk art, this is the third full kitchen for Jeffery. “I do incorporate old stuff into both,” he says. “It’s very rarely that I leave with the truck that I don’t come home with something,” he says of his sizeable collection of antiques both large and small, including furniture, tools, household appliances, farm equipment and more that he stores at his Back Roads Folk Art Workshop in Lauretta, P.E.I.
And he only needs to climb the stairs to his shop’s attic to find inspiration. “Everybody thinks it’s hard to do this kind of stuff but you just keep an open mind and scan everything and you’ll find something that will work,” says Jeffery, who also built a matching china cabinet and kitchen hutch, the latter of which is an open-faced storage area where Leroux has artfully arranged her spices and other dry ingredients, as well as a handy library of cookbooks. “I love open kitchens,” she says. “I’m not the type of person who likes a formal dining area. I never have. I’m a real kitchen person, so having a nice eating area within the kitchen where you can cook in front of people and interact with them.”
An original Moffat stove that Leroux bought at an auction years ago rounds out the historical feel of the kitchen. “Moffat is a company from Ontario that made stoves,” she says. “And this is an original electric stove that works from the 1920s.”
“I had them build the kitchen cupboards and everything so this would fit,” she adds.
Sometimes, the perfect fit for a home design comes in the middle of the renovation process.
“There were three bedrooms upstairs and a very tiny little bathroom and they said, ‘Let’s take all the walls down and then you can decide what it is that you want. You can put the bathroom wherever you want,’” says Leroux. “So I decided I wanted two bedrooms and one bathroom.”
Then there’s the crowning glory of the house, the impressive vaulted bedroom ceilings. “Upstairs there was an attic and someone said to me at one point, ‘Have you ever thought about taking the attic down and making cathedral ceilings?’” says Leroux. “And the more I thought of it, the more appealing it became.” Andrew was onboard with the idea immediately.
The interior ceilings were gutted and refinished, and structural support beams were also installed, boxed in and finished to match the floors. “I love the height, and it’s the last thing you expect to see in a little house like this,” says Leroux. “When you have the height it makes it seem almost grand. It just opens it right up and makes it seem a lot larger than it is.”
Because there was already a new standalone shower downstairs, Leroux went with an old antique clawfoot tub that she had redone in her second-floor bath. “This is the bathroom I can really relax in and have a bath,” she says. “It’s very calming.”
One common theme throughout this floor, in particular, is the lighting, as there are quite a few chandeliers. “I do love chandeliers and my daughter said to me, ‘Mom, this is a really girly-girl house!’ and I thought here I am, I’m alone so why not design a house just for me and that I will be very comfortable in,” says Leroux. “And I am very comfortable here. It is very cozy and yes it does have some bling. I love the wow factor. In any project that I’ve undertaken I’ve always believed that you’ve got to have that…splash of ‘Wow!’ I think we’ve succeeded with this house.”
The house was completed in January 2012 and work began the next month on the decommissioned church that she had purchased. Annie’s Table Culinary Studio opened that June, and since then it’s garnered attention from local and national media.
Another unexpected find in the walls of the little yellow house also elicited loads of media interest; it was the discovery of a human bone in the wall upstairs. After some sleuthing by the local RCMP and some forensic testing, it was determined there was no foul play involved. “They were able to determine it was [from] a male in his 30s and the bone was well over 100 years old,” says Leroux. “The tiny pinpoint holes in it led the experts to believe it was from an educational skeleton typical of one found in a medical school or old time doctor’s office. But what was it doing upstairs in the wall, who knows?” The bone and its documentation are now in a shadow box in the living room of her fully renovated historic home, which so far has been toured twice for local fundraisers.
“I kept the wonderful shell that it is and I just built from that,” says Leroux of her home. “It had really good bones to work with,” she adds with a smile.