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Leap before you look

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Denise and Goldie Cranston on their front verandah overlooking Lunenburg Harbour. The couple plans to add a front-entry staircase, an important architectural detail that was lost in renovations over the years. Photo: Steve Smith, Visionfire

A visit to Lunenburg led to a spontaneous house purchase and now the Cranstons are embracing the East Coast lifestyle

Goldie and Denise Cranston had no intention of buying an old home in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia when they visited the town for the first time a couple of years ago for a birthday weekend getaway. But 20 minutes after stepping into what the couple now calls “Tower House,” they were ready to make an offer. 

The two Ontarian real-estate veterans had to see it to believe it. 

Goldie’s identical twin brother Guy Cranston, a recent transplant to the town along with his wife Sharon Fox Cranston, already had been urging them to make the move, and had a realtor start sending them listings. 

With seven kids and eight grandkids in Ontario, Goldie and Denise didn’t feel ready to pack up. “I had to ask the real-estate agent to please stop sending us the cutsheets,” says Goldie. “It was way, way too premature.” 

One trip to Lunenburg changed that. Guy and Sharon convinced them to visit. The artists moved to the UNESCO-designated town in 2017 to expand their gallery, which features works by Goldie and Guy’s now late older brother, famed figure skater and painter Toller Cranston. 

“We had breakfast at the Savvy Sailor and we went for a walk around town,” says Goldie. “We saw a house for sale and my brother said, ‘Do you want to go see it?’” 

Minutes later, the real-estate agent appeared but the house was a fixer-upper disaster. “That took the steam out of everything,” says Goldie. “Then she said, ‘What about the house 100 metres down the street?’” 

She pointed to a late 1880s-era home built for a local sea captain with a panoramic view of Lunenburg Harbour from its two-tiered verandah and third floor tower. Goldie and Denise figured it would be at least twice the price of the home they’d just seen and beyond their budget. “Twenty minutes later we walked in and 20 minutes after we were ready to put an offer in,” says Goldie. “I was floored. It was an absolute homerun.” 

They know their way around a house. 

Denise, 65, sold homes for 20 years for a new homebuilder in Ottawa. Goldie, 67, worked as a licensed real-estate agent after a career in food services, including a stint in the 1980s in Halifax as general manager for since-closed downtown restaurant Mother Tucker’s and CP Hotels-owned Chateau Halifax. 

The Victorian ticked a lot of boxes. With three bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms, it boasts excellent resale potential. The couple declined to disclose what they paid, except to say the price was a bargain compared to Ontario. 

The couple in their newly renovated kitchen with a self-portrait by Goldie’s now late brother, famed figure skater Toller Cranston, adorning the wall behind the island. Photo: Steve Smith, Visionfire

Nova Scotia is the best kept secret, the couple says. “It’s like Muskoka, except everywhere you go here feels like cottage country,” says Denise. And with a lot fewer people, she adds. 

While the house was in move-in condition, Goldie and Denise weren’t exactly ready for that with their spontaneous purchase. “We thought, ‘What the heck are we going to do now,’” says Goldie. 

AirBnB was hot pre-COVID-19, so they opted to renovate the basement, which has large, above-ground, front-facing windows. Denise regrets having to cover up the original granite walls with insulation inside to try and save on heating bills. They planned to relocate downstairs during the “on season,” while renting out the three upper floors for $450 a night. 

To enhance its appeal, they renovated the en suite bathroom for the master bedroom on the second floor which also has a walk-in closet. Last summer, late August, September, and October were almost constantly booked. “It was very successful and we were very excited about our brilliant financial move,” says Goldie. “Then lo and behold, the pandemic showed up.” 

With short-term rentals no longer an option, they’ve rented out the basement to a longer-term tenant for some added income.

Denise and Goldie took advantage of a COVID-19 quarantine for a DIY project installing the 181-kg granite steps leading to the side walkway. Photo: Steve Smith, Visionfire

A couple of travel-related quarantines provided some DIY time. They put a fresh coat of paint on the dining room walls after stripping off layers of wallpaper and paint. Outside, they laid 181-kg granite stones for a walkway.

“Anything that needs a nail, I’m there,” says Goldie, a self-described tinkerer who’s also handy in the kitchen.

Future renos include a plan to add a staircase to the front entryway, a once prominent feature that was removed somewhere along the way. The couple also wants to remodel the backyard carriage house, which is said to predate the house itself. Its nine-foot ceilings on the second floor would make a great spot for the grandkids, or an escape from visitors if everyone lands at once. For now, it’s Goldie’s workshop.

While the pandemic changed up their plans, Goldie and Denise have no regrets. “We went through a whole winter last year and I started up the snowblower once,” says Goldie. “The previous winter when we were in Ottawa, I think we had 30 days below -20 degrees.” 

A dump of snow almost covered the for-sale sign on their 1960s-era bungalow in downtown Ottawa. 

Both love the East Coast lifestyle. A grocery store is just down the hill and a pool and gym right in town. They’ve started playing darts on Monday nights at the Legion. “Our kids are like, ‘What?’” says Denise.  

Their children (two from Goldie’s first marriage and five from Denise’s ranging in age from 33 to 41) were betting the couple would be tempted to move back after six months. “They have no idea,” says Denise. “It’s such a unique spot. We’ve gotten to know our neighbours. There are great restaurants and great amenities.” 

The couple says the whole scenario makes them not unlike a lot of newcomer homebuyers to Lunenburg. “We came, we saw, we moved,”
says Goldie. 

Home is where the art is

Goldie and Denise Cranston’s collection of Toller Cranston paintings arrived on a 16-metre trailer in the middle of a March snowstorm. The truck couldn’t get down the steep, slippery hill to their new home and the movers had to cart each one down individually. 

Goldie and Denise took over from there, unwrapping the brightly coloured, fanciful paintings from protective packing that added 50% to their already large size. 

The couple hadn’t considered where the art might go when they decided to purchase the 2,220-square-foot Victorian home with walls on the upper floors cut a bit short by the mansard roof. Denise was more concerned that the dining room could accommodate the 25 to 30 chairs needed for family dinners. 

“We figured it out when we moved in,” says Denise. “Everything seemed to fit.” 

Toller Cranston might be best-known as a flamboyant, ground-breaking figure skater, but Goldie says his brother was always passionate about painting. “He was as much an artist as he was a skater his entire life, but nobody knew it until, to a large extent, he finished his skating career,” says Goldie. “He painted 12 hours a day, seven days a week.” 

Goldie couldn’t guess the number of paintings by his now late brother, except to say he was prolific. “He painted on everything from frying pans to eight-by-eight canvases.” 

Nearly 400 of various shapes and sizes were in his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico when Toller died of an apparent heart attack at 65 in January 2015. 

Goldie says his brother was a consummate salesman. “He’d arrive with a painting and say, ‘This would look good in your front hall.’” 

Goldie purchased a number over the years and inherited quite a few. Around a dozen hang in his new home, while many, particularly larger pieces, are in storage in Mahone Bay. Some are with the couple’s seven kids and others for sale in galleries and in private collections. 

“They’re one of the obvious features when people come to the house,” he says. “They’re not expecting this at all. They’re all large format. They’re all very colourful, in-your-face kind of paintings.” 

Toller wasn’t concerned about building a legacy, says Goldie. “He said, ‘You can buy one of my paintings for $20,000 or buy a car. You choose what you want.’ It flies in the face of what people would think of an artist.”

East Coast Living