Photos by Bruce Murray, VisionFire Studios
Readers first met Frances and Bruce Purdy when we featured their cozy cottage on Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Strait in 2008. You can read the story here.
“I was a cover girl at 60 years old,” Frances jokes. “I remember the photographer that day asked if we could encourage some seagulls to fly by. We did, and they came. After he took the shot and looked at it, he said, ‘This will make the cover of the magazine.’ He was right.”
The 266-square-foot cottage and surrounding half-hectare lot overlooking the Northumberland Strait, remains a welcome respite in the lives of the couple who grew up and met in Amherst, N.S. and now call Oakville, Ont. home in cooler months.
Before his retirement, Bruce’s job took the family from one Canadian coast to the other, and points in-between, including Montreal, Que., Kingston, Ont., Smith’s Falls, Ont. and William’s Lake, B.C. They ultimately settled in Oakville in 1986.
As the oldest of eight children, Frances, once a teacher at Amherst Regional High School, was the first to leave her family’s East Coast nest. She and Bruce always returned for annual visits. To ease overcrowding at her parents’ home, the couple rented and later purchased The Yellow Cottage, just a short stroll from their current location.
“When we bought the land in 1996, it was a swamp,” Frances laughs. “The owner had plans to move to the United States and retire. Knowing my family’s history with the area, they gave us the first option to buy the land.”
It took nine years and upwards of two metres of fill before the land was ready to build on. With the paint barely dry on the tiny cottage, the couple’s thoughts soon turned to what else they could do with the large swath of shoreline property still available to them.
Years earlier, before construction started on their tiny cottage, a visit from one of Frances’ school friends, Bryan Partridge, set in motion a plan years in the making.
Inspired by his visit to the waterside property, Partridge returned weeks later with a page from a magazine featuring a photo of a cottage on Fire Island, New York. Frances says building a full-size cottage wasn’t on her radar at the time, but she tucked the page away for safe keeping.
In 2007, she met Leo Van Eyk, a well-known Ontario builder. He recently purchased a property down the road from the Purdy’s cottage. On a whim, Frances showed him the picture.
“I told him how this was the kind of home we hoped to have on the property one day. Leo offered to construct the main frame of the home for us.”
Frances spent about three months in late 2007 finessing the design to be more practical for her family. She used some elements of the Fire Island home’s three bedroom, three bath layout, with tweaks.
“When we originally built the small cottage, we specifically chose to place it on a piece of the property where it wouldn’t impede the view of other potential buildings,” Frances says. “There were certain aspects of the Fire Island home we retained for the main cottage, such as the master bedroom stretching across the front of the second floor, but otherwise, we needed a home that was going to be practical and work for us. We needed the windows that people would see from the outside to also be at the right place on the inside of the house.”
Partridge, one of his Ontario business partners, and Bruce raised the home over the course of 17 days in early 2008.
Some of the most poignant facets of the homes on the Purdy’s property are the contributions made by Frances’ late father, Harold Furlong. He played an instrumental part in devising the layout of the small cottage just six months after Frances’ mother died, and was happy to tend to the construction of the large cottage.
“He was 88 years old at the time and just loved picking up whatever odd jobs he could to help us reach the finish line,” says Frances. “Whether that meant putting insulation in the walls and ceiling, painting the trim, putting light fixtures together, or even cleaning grout off the floor.”
She remembers back at The Yellow Cottage, the pair tried to figure out how to get a shower enclosure through the door. While Frances and Bruce hashed it out, Furlong removed the front window to slide the shower through. “There was no problem he couldn’t solve,” Frances says.
The importance of family is a common and vital thread that runs through the Purdy’s property. Frances says she and Bruce debated selling their Oakville home to become full-time Nova Scotia residents again, but family pulls them west too.
“In Oakville, our daughters and three grandchildren all live within a quick five-minute drive,” she says. “The distance would be too much.”
Having spent at least a portion of each summer at Amherst Shore from the time she was born, Frances’ daughter, Lynn Salisbury, says the annual journey back to the family’s property is a tradition she will continue.
Salisbury and her 13-year-old daughter have returned every summer since her daughter was six weeks old. When it comes time to return to Ontario each year, her daughter cries at the thought of leaving.
“It has become the essential unplugging for our family each year a chance for all of us to recharge,” Salisbury says. “While the ocean can be therapeutic in its own right, I believe it’s my parents’ touches, both inside and outside, that make that property what it is. It’s impossible to not feel surrounded by love and beauty while you’re here.”
Here are the Purdys’ tips for a less stressful cottage reno.
BUDGET Ensure your renovation plans accurately reflect the cost of labour and materials. If you plan to do the work yourself, hire an experienced contractor to review your budget and plans to be certain you’re on the right track.
SCOPE OF WORK The wallet doesn’t always support what the heart wants. Instead of racking up debt, decide what needs doing, rather than what you want done. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Be patient and break down large projects into more manageable ones. The Purdy’s property took 23 years to come to fruition.
VISION Any renovation projects comes with last minute decisions, but plan as much as you can before starting to help make those ad hoc decisions easier. Choose colours, siding, and finishes early to help with the budget process.
HIRING LABOUR It’s critical that you can trust the people you work with. While word-of-mouth recommendations carry clout, don’t let personal relationships cloud the decision-making process of who gets the job. Interviewing contractors for any job, even a cottage renovation, will save you time and pocketbook heartache down the road.