June 26, 2012

Artistic flair transforms Shawnigan Lake ‘hillbilly house’

Creative Shawnigan Lake estate owners make bold statement with their art choices, design

BY GRANIA LITWIN

With Elizabethan period furniture, sculpted African heads, paintings from Spain, standing stones from Sooke and even the mask of a mysterious green man from England, Catherine and Duncan Regehr have made a bold artistic statement with their Shawnigan Lake estate. Since buying the Vancouver Island home more than a decade ago — when Catherine dubbed it the “hillbilly house” — the two have altered it beyond recognition, and the property too.

The hallway to the new entrance.

Now called The Willows, after a giant tree where the drive flows into the five-acre site, the property includes an expanded 4,000-square-foot house, koi-stocked pond, enormous vegetable garden, two-storey studio and extensive landscaping. “When we first saw the property, there was junk all over the place and where the pond is, there was a swamp with alder trees,” said Duncan, who spent days digging up mattresses, cribs, children’s bicycles and more from the bog.

“All kinds of mystery items had been thrown in,” he said with a chuckle. “We had an excavator dig the pond and with the material he removed, we created mounds to help landscape the property.” Clearing the site was a massive undertaking. “There was so much foliage, you couldn’t see much. An old railroad used to come right through the property, and there was an old, falling apart cabin filled with horrors, that had to come down.”

Good thing transformation is Duncan’s specialty. It also happens to be the title of his art exhibition on view at Victoria’s the Legacy Art Gallery. Catherine was equally smitten by their new home, and ready to take on the challenge. “It was about half the size originally, and we had to make everything a little bit larger — it needed a lot of TLC …” she recalled.

A stairwell was moved from the centre of the room to open up the area.

“But I liked the feeling the moment I walked inside. Some houses, no matter how beautiful, have something about them you don’t like. This house just embraced and welcomed us … it has a soul, an energy.” They immediately started knocking out walls, building a new garage and trying to figure out how to expand the space. “We had been looking and looking at different ideas,” said Duncan. “I was interested in presentation and balance, but nothing seemed to work. Then Catherine landed on the idea of two additions and two gables.”

They moved the front door to the side as part of a new foyer, and added a sunroom with french doors on the other end. That was so Duncan could walk straight out to his studio and go to work, as is his habit most mornings before dawn. An old barn, “a shell of a building with a dirt floor,” soon morphed into his studio. They poured concrete with in-floor heating and laid wooden floors on top. “We also insulated it and added beautiful new windows, a second-floor office, skylights and a bathroom.” The exterior remained the same because they liked the look.

In the main house, they removed walls between four small bedrooms upstairs and created a spacious library and master suite with the help of local builder Tim McCooey. “A great thing about a timber-frame house is, you can put up or take down walls very simply,” Catherine said. “It’s like houses in Britain that are built like sectioned boxes.” The staircase originally went up the centre, with closets underneath, but they moved it to the side to open up the great room.

The living room is bathed in light that enters from the walls of windows.

They also created a den with hidden storage along one wall, and made a very large bathroom on the main floor into a small bedroom. A utility room became the downstairs bathroom, and a laundry was added, along with the garage. Decorating the interior presented no challenge for these creative characters. “We both fancy dark furniture, Elizabethan and earlier pieces, and lean toward something with beams and wonderful wood because we love old English homes,” said Duncan, an artist, actor and writer.

He has worked all over the world, shooting the Zorro series in Spain for almost four years, and movies in Africa, London, South America and more. The two met in Toronto when he was working there three decades ago, and moved to Hollywood, where they were based from 1980 until about five years ago. It’s no surprise the house brims with artwork and furniture they have collected over the years, from places ranging from Africa and China to the Far and Middle East, the Philippines and Europe.

“I’m interested in history and anthropology — that’s what fascinates me,” said Duncan. It’s a very comfortable and inviting house, filled with things they love, said Catherine, who added it’s ideal for entertaining, with its large open plan and park-like garden where friends wander. “I don’t buy something because it is trendy — I believe everything you bring into your home has to be something you really like, like a friend,” said Catherine. She had always liked the look of willow fences in Britain and drew up some ideas for the vegetable garden. Their first concern was building something that would be deer proof, “but I didn’t want it to look like Stalag 19.” So she designed a rustic double fence, similar to the willow ones they’d seen in England.

Duncan translated the plans into reality after gathering hundreds of alder saplings from all over the property. Watching him wheelbarrow them around was like a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel, she joked, and the result is an enclosure with an eight-foot fence on the inside and a four-foot high one outside. The parallel fences are spaced just far enough apart for a large wheelbarrow to trundle between. Wrought-iron arches, covered with clematis, mark the corners and the interior fence is strewn with masses of roses, sweet peas, espaliered apple, pear, cherry and plum trees.

The owners grow flowers, fruits, herbs and vegetables in their organic garden — everything from fennel, dill, cilantro and oregano to collard greens, garlic, leek, rhubarb and green beans. And this year, they have a bumper crop of blueberries. As part of the new landscape concept, Duncan also moved the driveway, which used to come into the property past the studio. “I changed it to sweep around the pond,” he said. He then placed large standing stones artistically around the pond and estate.

He even created a mini Stonehenge in the back garden, with stones he decorated with carvings of the runic alphabet and other inscriptions. “We brought them with us from our previous home in Sooke, in a huge dump truck.” Luckily, his father had taught him the power of fulcrums, levers and balance.

Victoria Times Colonist

Duncan Regehr’s art is created in his in-home studio. Regehr is also a writer and actor.

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