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A very vintage Christmas

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It was love at first sight for Karen Lee the first time she laid eyes on the vintage Lady Scotia stove. Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire Studios

It was love at first sight for Karen Lee the first time she laid eyes on the vintage Lady Scotia stove. Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire Studios

A former antique dealer puts a festive spin on her restored farmhouse in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley

When Karen Lee started collecting holiday ornaments to deck out her little farmhouse in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, she didn’t walk the aisles of big box stores or order from the online giants. She put on her hat as a connoisseur of vintage and salvaged items and curated a mix of antique and repurposed décor that brings a whole lot of merry to her old-fashioned East Coast Christmas. 

“Vintage just sort of finds me,” says Lee as she unwinds the tale of how an antique dealer from Collingwood, Ont. ends up in Tupperville, N.S.

Like a lot of people who find themselves meandering down the rural roads of the East Coast, exploring the little nooks and crannies of the communities that make this place unique, Lee couldn’t quite shake the allure of the region once she’d been here.

For many years, the seasoned antique dealer would jump in her car for an annual adventure.

“It was my drive vacation,” she says. “I became addicted to Nova Scotia. There wasn’t any one thing, but I just felt the need to be here. I couldn’t stay away.”

I had my opportunity to do what I wanted to do. To be as outrageous as I wanted to be

For eight years, Lee made the trip back and forth from Ontario. She wasn’t in the position to move to Nova Scotia on her first whim. Her antique and small salvage antiques business had a solid following, HGTV designer Sarah Richardson often used her as a source. Her partner John Kostick had a thriving business in demolition and larger-scale salvage, an operation he now manages remotely since the couple made the move to Nova Scotia. 

But as Lee started to reach an age where retirement seemed more attractive every day, she wanted to make her dream of owning a little piece of Nova Scotia a reality.

“I would come here and scout out fun and funky properties,” Lee recalls. “It was the Annapolis Valley that really got me. I took a serious look at four properties but when I walked into the little farmhouse in Tupperville with the dormer bump out that is part of the local vernacular of old architecture here in this part of the province and saw the vintage Lady Scotia stove in the kitchen, I fell in love.”

Beauty was in the eye of the beholder when it came to Lee’s little dream farmhouse. The house was in rough shape. 

“The house had been empty for seven or eight years before I bought it. I don’t think anyone wanted to tackle it,” she laughs.

But John fell in love with the house just as fast.

“I was out West when Karen found the house,” he says. “I think she was a little worried, but I loved it when I saw it. It had good bones. The nice thing about this house is that it hadn’t been mucked with. It was still pretty much in its original state.”

Although she says the project wasn’t for the faint of heart, she had a vision for the circa 1860s home that once shared its property with a mink farm and orchard.

 There were a few structural issues that needed to be addressed immediately.

“It needed a new roof right off the bat,” recalls Kostick. “We had a local contractor handle that. Then it was the other usual stuff of insulating all of the outside walls, everything except the front because it was south facing, and then we skimmed all the walls and put a second bathroom upstairs.”

Inside, it was a blank slate. 

“A designer with a good eye could see the potential in the little house,” Lee says. “I had my opportunity to do what I wanted to do. To be as outrageous as I wanted to be.” She points to the old maps she used to wallpaper one of the walls in the living room.

Lee recalls the fun she had with the design process, but says if it weren’t for John, and on one occasion calling in his crew from Ontario to do some of the heavy lifting and keep some of the costs down, her little dream retreat would not have come together.

Because the couple had a home in Ontario and Kostick was still running his business, there were many trips back and forth to Tupperville to work on the project. When they started to spend more time in Nova Scotia, they realized that Lee’s farmhouse was going to become more of a retreat for her than their permanent home. The couple purchased another property a little further up the road that required a lot less work, while they picked away at what they now call Lee’s cottage.

While the cottage was mostly Lee’s passion project, the couple has each made careers based on preserving and honouring the past. Lee says it makes her heart ache to see heritage homes torn down without even an attempt to salvage beautiful historical elements.

“Sometimes I will go for a drive and see an empty old house and the next time you drive by it’s been bulldozed over. You just have to hope that someone removed the important stuff,” she says.

When the couple started to pull together the more decorative vintage elements of the cottage, they used salvaged materials they had collected in Ontario and had them shipped.

The tin panelling in the kitchen came from a building in Collingwood that was a drugstore over
a century ago. Kostick discovered the sheets of tin in the basement.

“When they were building that drugstore over a hundred years ago, they must have over ordered the paneling and it just sat there for over a hundred years,” he says.

The flooring in the kitchen came from an old church that was being torn down. The light fixtures with opaque white shades came from an old community hall. On other trips East, they lugged a clawfoot tub and even a kitchen sink.

But when it came to decking the cottage out for the holidays, Lee’s vintage yuletide cheer was almost exclusively sourced in Nova Scotia. 

 “It has taken the better part of a year to find all of the holiday style décor that is here now,” she says.

Her finds all come from yard sales, flea markets and house lots that are being sold, and on occasion from homes facing demolition. 

“Sometimes you have to be as bold as brass if you see an older abandoned home that is going for sale or maybe even slated to be torn down and you want in to look if there is anything really special that might just end up in the landfill. But you must follow the rules, be respectful and always, always have permission,” she says.

Her holiday collection is inspired by vintage maritime traditions. Blow moulds that were once very popular are now sought after by collectors. The window candelabras were also common on the East Coast but would be rare finds in Ontario.

One of her best Christmas finds was a tinsel tree she purchased at a garage sale in Bridgetown, N.S. The trees were all the rage in the 1950s and were mass produced at the time because they gave a modern atomic, space-age feel. Lee’s tree is tucked in the corner of her dining room surrounded by everything but those mid-century modern elements. 

She’s never found the holy grail of vintage on her picking adventures. But that’s not what it’s all about. 

“I am sure that I had something valuable in my hands at one time or other and just didn’t know it.” she laughs.

As for the Lady Scotia stove, that stole her heart at first sight, she used it every day. “It’s part of my childhood dream. I think I was meant to live in a different time. That’s why I am so drawn to things from other eras. My old stove represents that dream, that fantasy.”

With the holiday season upon us, Lee will keep her eye out for anything special that she thinks she needs to add to her collection, bringing her own personal touch to the displays that embody the simple joys of Christmas from days gone by — fitting for a house on a rural road in Nova Scotia that she lovingly rescued.

East Coast Living