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Returning to the Island

A P.E.I. architect transforms his childhood cottage into a permanent home

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Greg and his father flip through a book of memories documenting the family’s decades in the house. Photo: Steve Smith/VisionFire Studios

Greg Munn’s feet are planted in his fully-restored kitchen, but his mind is in the past. As a child, his family spent summers in this Murray River, P.E.I. house. “We had a pump right here and that was the only water,” says Munn while squaring his hands in the exact spot. In his mind’s eye, Munn fills a kettle from the hand pump, then turns toward the sleek black and stainless-steel range.

“There was a wood stove here,” he remembers, “that was the only heat.” Just to make coffee in the morning, they’d have to start the fire to heat the water.

Munn started restoring the home in 2010, on summer trips back to P.E.I. from his home in Nebraska. It didn’t have electricity or plumbing. An outhouse still stands crookedly in the yard. “It was only used in the summer, so it was like camping,” says Greg. “It was a lot of work, but it didn’t feel like it at the time,” says Walter Munn, Greg’s father.

Walter and Millie, Greg’s mom, moved into the home from Springhill, N.S. in 2011, just in time for the last of the drywalling. Together, Millie and Walter worked on the final details; a family photo shows her painting a window sash while Walter putties one of the original windows.

The earliest records of the building show it was a railroad kitchen house in 1903. In 1907, George Lowe, a local builder, bought the structure and moved it to its current spot. When Lowe died in 1947, he left the house to his housekeeper, Greg’s great grandmother. When she retired to Moncton years later, the house began its new life as a summer getaway.

Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire Studios

The Munn family spent weeks here every summer during Greg’s childhood. “Sometimes we’d have 40 people here,” says Greg. “There would be tents, sleeping bags across the kitchen, people from Ontario, British Columbia, my aunt from Scotland, cousin from England. It was, still is, a gathering place.”
Millie passed away in 2015. In October 2018, Greg moved to P.E.I. to accept a job with a Charlottetown architectural firm. He specializes in restoration and sustainable architecture. Today he and his father live in the house year-round.

Greg planned the restoration for decades. “It was going to be a modern, efficient-to-run home,” he says. “[I was] not too worried about re-creating exactly the way it was, but just carrying it forward.”

He says taking on such a personal architectural project was a lot of fun. “[The home] was original until 2010, then jumping into 21st-century technology was really exciting,” says Greg. “There’s wisdom in the way houses were built. [Builders] took into consideration things like cross-ventilation and orientation to capture the sun.”

In 2014, Greg was recognized for his restoration work with a PEI Museum Heritage Award. Greg has been a member of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation for over 35 years and is on the Charlottetown Heritage Board and the Design Review Board.

Modern day builders and architects often forget how to use nature to complement design, says Greg. “You super-insulate it, and the windows don’t matter where they go, in terms of wind and sun. That gets lost. I think as the architectural community and as a society, we need to get back to that. To trying to be greener, more sustainable. We have that innately in this house.”

To start the restoration in 2010, Greg hosted a party. He gathered about a dozen family members and rented a house up the road to demo the family home. “We took seven tonnes of plaster and lath out of the house. We stripped it down to the frame on the inside.

Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire Studios

Walter removed the built-in cabinets, doors, trim, wainscoting, and hardware to restore and use later. Once they cleared the house down to the studs, the contractor took over.

“It was as original as you could get,” said Mike McCarthy, owner of general contracting-firm East Coast Carpentry. “There was really no foundation under it.” The edges sat on Island stone, a traditional foundation material on P.E.I. Workers would quarry the stone near the project and carve it into blocks. In the basement, a forest of posts supported the floors.

A new foundation was essential. Greg remembers worrying about the strength of the floors during a large family gathering in 2006. “They lifted the house up and the floors stayed behind. I think if I had waited a couple more years, [the house] wouldn’t have been salvageable.”

McCarthy had doubts about the structure too. “It was kind of questionable when the house was four feet in the air and no floors in it,” he says, but Greg’s design plans were the saving grace. McCarthy recommends hiring an architect or home designer for a large restoration project. Greg went about it properly, he says, remodeling from the ground up.

During the restoration, Greg could see workers built the home with balloon framing (meaning the outer frame came before the floors). The technique dates back to before the early 1900s; Greg speculates the building stood elsewhere before the railway started using it.

Today the floor plans remain basically unchanged. The two upstairs bedrooms tuck beneath sloped ceilings and the floors are the original wood, painted with deep pigments.

Photo: Bruce Murray/VisionFire Studios

On the main floor, Greg removed a wall to open up the original living room floor plan. A mantle, restored by Walter, anchors the space between two doors to the dining room. The dining room floor is what remains of the original hardwood. They salvaged just enough from the main floor rooms.
Most of the furniture in the home has a story too, says Greg, but it’s not a museum. All the pieces are functional.

“I grew up with that,” says Walter pointing to the Munn tartan-covered fainting couch. It’s from the kitchen in his family home, just up the road in Hopefield, P.E.I. “I used to hide underneath the end of it when I was little.”
Two art-deco armchairs, with chrome legs and a carved-wood armrests, seem out of place with the rest of the turn-of-the-last century décor, but they are special to Greg. “My grandparents always sat in those chairs. They’re part of the house.”

Greg’s memories weave throughout the home, and a bright future looks in store. His partner of 18 years, David Keech, will visit from Nebraska this summer to see the most recent updates.

“The very first time Greg took me to that house was a very cold snowy March,” said Keech who’d only seen photos to that point. “When we got there, the thing I always recall is there was probably about a four- or five-foot snow drift in front of the door. We couldn’t even go in until he shovelled that away. No heat, no running water, no bathroom, and it was very cozy. It was actually very nice that way.”

Keech says Greg worked on plans for the house for decades before they started dating, but he feels close to the final designs.

“He would often bring his ideas to me,” says Keech. “I would tweak some of his ideas or throw an idea of my own in there.” Keech designed the property’s landscaping. Greg prizes his partner’s skills. The pair planted an orchard, and someday, Keech wants to keep bees.

“It’s amazing,” says Keech. “It essentially has the same feel, the same warm and homey feeling that it had when it was basically just a cabin, but now it has all the modern amenities of home.”

East Coast Living