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Waves of nostalgia

How a new cottage reconnects the Sobey family legacy at Nova Scotia’s Chance Harbour Beach

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Photos: Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios


When Monique and Rob Sobey decided to completely rebuild the 1930s era cottage Rob’s grandparents owned they had two objectives. They wanted to stay faithful to the original design and they were determined to curtail the disruption to their beach lane neighbours.

The two-storey cottage with a walk-out basement rests on the crest of a gentle slope that banks on the Chance Harbour Beach near the end of Lewis Road in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, on the shores of the Northumberland Strait. It’s been a tight knit summer community for over 80 years. Properties rarely sell; most often families pass them on to the next generation. Several of the surrounding properties have become permanent homes but the majority are still summer only dwellings.

Rob’s grandparents, Frank and Irene Sobey bought the cottage in 1943 and the cottage stayed in the family until roughly 1978, says Monique. It passed through the hands a couple of other owners. A few years ago, Rob had a growing interest to reconnect with this piece of the family history. He wanted to bring the storied cottage back to its former back to its former self.

By the time the cottage sold out of the family, Rob’s own parents had built a summer home in a neighbouring beach community. He and his siblings spent their summers roaming the beaches of Black Point and Sinclairs Island. “When Rob approached the family who owned the cottage and asked if they would be interested in selling, they were not quite ready at the time,” Monique recalls. “So Rob asked them to let him know when they were. A few years passed and in the spring of 2016, we had a deal.”

The couple rented out the cottage for the first two summers, giving them time to evaluate the project. The initial plan was a complete restoration but the vintage structure was revealing signs that time and weather had taken a toll. Ancient wiring was another issue. After a little soul searching, they decided that rebuilding was the best strategy.

“We still wanted to build something that would minimize the break with the past,” says Monique. “We kept the same foundation and basic style of the home. Our neighbours really appreciated this and during the build and since many have stopped by with comments about how happy they were that we respected the original design that still fits in with the neighbourhood.”

Also being respectful that most of their neighbours were seasonal, Monique and Rob decided to wait until after Labour Day to start construction. On Sept. 17, 2017 the contracting company led by Tim Goswell began the tear down as the family bid farewell to the original Sobey summer haven.

It had been out of family for several decades so there was no memorabilia to collect but contractor Tim Goswell made a unique discovery. He was locating wiring and tearing away Gyprock when he found the location of the old telephone and party line. Etched in pencil on the raw wood panels were the phone numbers of family and neighbours and notes about the weather on various days and summer celebrations.

“Tim cut out the pieces, we had them framed and we gave them to Rob’s Mum and Dad for Christmas a few years ago,” Monique says. “We wanted Rob’s dad to have a piece of the original cottage from when he was a child.”

Tim Goswell has become a trusted professional working on several projects with the couple. “He can anticipate our probable design element,” Monique explains. “We trust his commonsense approach and candor and coming up with ideas.”

Tim believes that working with clients like Monique and Rob who have a clear vision of what they are looking for makes his job so much easier. “You have a direction on what you are trying to achieve and can spend your time planning on how to make it happen, rather than second-guessing what the client is expecting,” says Tim.

While the footprint of the 2,500-square-foot cottage didn’t change the couple did decide on Tim’s recommendation to raise the foundation several inches to accommodate rising sea levels. “As our climate changes our weather seems to be getting more severe,” says Tim. “We seem to be getting higher tides and more erosion every year. You must try everything possible to protect your house and property from the changing climate.”

Some municipalities have restrictions on building close to the ocean and he expects local regulations to get tighter. “The Nova Scotia government has introduced a new bill dealing with the construction around our coastlines,” Tim says. Government hasn’t released details yet but he thinks it will be similar to Halifax’s requirement of a minimum vertical setback of 3.8 metres above sea level.

Nova Scotian decorator Deb Nelson also worked very closely with the Sobeys from their initial days of the build. Over the years, Deb had also become one of Monique’s go to resources for décor and style ideas. Beside the collection of finishes for the Sobey home Stellarton and the new cottage, Deb and Monique have curated a special friendship.

“Monique… knows exactly what she wants,” Deb says. “She is so easy to work with. That makes my job so simple.”

While Deb’s job as a decorator is to work with clients and accommodate all styles, Monique believes that they work so well together because they have similar tastes. “We both like very relaxed and traditional but with a bit of a modern spin,” she says.

“When we thought about the interior of the new cottage a modern farmhouse theme would be the easiest way to describe it.”

Goswell’s team worked throughout the quiet season at the shore. By spring, construction neared completion. “Building with such a tight timeline was tough but very important for everyone,” says Tim. “Our summers are very short as everyone knows and people want to enjoy their cottages without having construction around them all summer. Rob and Monique didn’t wanted to disrupt the neighbourhood during the summer season.”

They missed their initial target of a Victoria Day Weekend finish but by July 1, 2018, the reimagined summer home was complete and ready for the next chapter with Rob, Monique and their growing family adding to the story.

Before and after photos reveal how closely it mirrors the previous dwelling. True to their vision, they maintained the exact footprint and square footage. The exterior was modernized with a soft grey shingle with black trim that softens into the landscape. Like its predecessor there is an expanse of windows and doors on all three levels facing the water, but they installed a floating glass railing to give a new modern edge with an almost unobstructed vista.

While keeping in step with original architecture, Monique and Rob played with the interior layout and opened up the floor plan on each level. Looking though the backdoor window you can even get view of the seascape on the other side. Fun and function were important considerations.

“Frank and Irene did a lot of entertaining. We wanted a space where we honoured that tradition with family and friends,” says Monique.

The main floor is an open invitation from the first steps under the pergola leading down from the parking area to the threshold of a small entry in the simple country kitchen. A generous island grounds that space with a few stools (that tuck in neatly when not in use) where folks can gather over morning coffee or a glass of wine before dinner. The kitchen finishes are unfussy—much like Monique’s own style: fresh but refined. A small print of a lobster (“Anatatomie Du Homard Acadien,” a gift from one of her friends), hangs above a shelf of small antique knick-knacks. It’s a nod to Monique’s Acadian heritage.

In another corner a print of the “Birds of Bermuda,” referencing the family’s connection to the island where Rob’s great great-grandfather served as an English soldier before moving his family to Canada over a century ago.

A small guest bedroom and bathroom swings off the kitchen, the only partitioned walls on the main floor. In the centre of the living space, an elongated sofa and dining table stretch the space towards to the front of the room where another sitting area offers a front-row seat to everything happening on the water.

“I tried to repurpose a few items that we had in my home in Stellarton,” Monique says. “The coffee table that Deb had procured from an architect in Chester left my living room at home and is now in the cottage. I love my long narrow dining room table. I purchased it from Angela’s Home Décor in New Glasgow. I think it was actually made by her brother.”

Natural light bathes the cottage. The inclusion of white shiplap on the interior walls dramatically enhances the reflection of the sun and keeps the atmosphere bright and cheerful on gray days. “In the wintertime it is almost blinding in the daylight with all of the interior white, the white of the snow on the ground, and the ice in the Strait,” says Monique.

Deb says that the shiplap was one of the first things that Monique knew she wanted. As soon as the floor plan was ready Deb went to work on the wish list.

“She knew she wanted teak accents and we brought that into the kitchen and the fireplace. She also wanted white oak floors to create comfy cottage vibe. Rob and Monique are not uptight fancy people. There is nothing in the space that is really high-end or formal. It’s meant to be a cottage: a space everyone can enjoy.

They have a collection of Canadian contemporary art. While they tried to select pieces that dovetail with the nautical theme, Monique says they also picked pieces that just looked so great against the bright white shiplap.

Mixed with a few works from local artists like Pictou County native Luke Naylor, they selected pieces from several artists who have been nominated for or won a Sobey Art Award. A framed remnant of a nautical flag by artist Jason de Hann is at the top of the stairs, a testament to the past and leads down to the lower level where a large format drawing titled “Wormhole” from Nova Scotian artist Eleanor King tunnels to the future. The two pieces illustrate the ongoing theme of blending past and present.

Character and charm can sometimes be hard to achieve in a new build. They are elements that are earned over time, but Rob and Monique have proven that even when you dismantle the bricks and mortar of the past you can still preserve a sense of place and connection to what was there before…and not upset the neighbours.

Hidden Treasures

Because the cottage had been out of family for several decades there was no memorabilia to collect however a welcomed discovery was made prior to the demolition. When contractor Tim Goswell was locating wiring and tearing away Gyprock he found the location of the old telephone and party line that ran into the cottage. Etched in pencil on the raw wood panels were the phone numbers of family and neighbours and notes about the weather on various days and summer celebrations.

Contractor Tim Goswell cut out the pieces and Rob and Monique we had them framed and gave them to Rob’s parents for Christmas a few years ago. “We wanted Rob’s dad to have a piece of the original cottage from when he was a child,” says Monique.

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