January 11, 2012

Restoration a Labour of Love

Designed by famed architect E.E. Green, the six-bedroom home was a B&B for more than 20 years


Santa could choose from four fireplaces when he made his grand entrance into this home in Saanich, and if he was feeling a little bagged, he could always leave through the “funeral door” in the den. Larry and Sandra Gray hung up more than stockings this holiday season. They also decided to call it a day after running a bed and breakfast in their baronial 6,400-square-foot home for more than two decades.

“We bought it as a B&B in 1990 and have enjoyed operating it ever since,” said Larry, 73. But they were both in car accidents a couple of years ago. “Then a year ago, I was hit again, at 8:50 a.m. by a drunk driver and needed a full shoulder replacement.”

From now on, they plan to host only family and friends in their 1912 home, and thanks to some help from their son this year, they decked out the house in all its holiday finery, just as it may have looked a century ago. “We first saw it at the end of a cul-de-sac on a private road, but it’s a big house, so Sandra and I have worked like sons of guns restoring the six bedrooms, three dressing rooms, four bathrooms, library/den, formal dining room, front parlour and large kitchen,” said Larry.

“We’ve worked up to 80 hours a week,” said Sandra, admitting she has tons of power tools, but loves her mitre saw for crosscuts, drills and sanders best. She is a renovation Renaissance woman who can paint, strip, plaster, drywall, lay flooring and tile, make stained glass — and she recently built a lamp using plans she found on the Internet. “When you go to bed at night and can’t sleep, what do you do? I design things.”

Restoring and working on the house has been a passion, said Larry, who retired with Sandra from the insurance claims business in Los Angeles to take on the challenge of running a B&B. Both are from Portage la Prairie, Man., and had always wanted to come back to Canada to retire, but decided to drop the insurance business early and switch careers. Their home sits on a high knoll with views of Portage Inlet, and was designed by famed architect E.E. Green of Seattle. It was built for a Capt. Walker, who lived for many years in Nagasaki, married a Japanese woman there and brought his five daughters here to live, while his four sons stayed in the Far East. Restoring their California-style, arts and crafts heritage mansion has been a labour of love, said Sandra, 63, who is a member of the Heritage Foundation board.

Their work has won awards from both local and provincial heritage societies. The Grays didn’t always hanker for heritage. While operating their business in L.A., they lived in a new Queen Anne-style home, but one summer they holidayed on the eastern U.S. seaboard and stayed at inns and B&Bs. That’s when the seed of an idea sprouted and eventually grew into this three-storey mansion.

In 1987, they started buying antiques and scoping vintage-look wallpaper. In 1912, the house had stood amid four hectares, but the property was later subdivided and the Grays bought it with a third of a hectare, including a huge overgrown garden. There was lots to do, even though it had been a B&B for 10 years. “The previous owners had taken money out, but not put much back,” recalled Sandra, who started by pulling up all the shag carpet and refinishing the floors. One of her first projects was to remove all the brass doorplates, which had been painted over, and lovingly strip and buff them back to their original gloss.

The home’s wood panelling had dried out and was “terribly neglected,” so they used buckets of an oil product to restore the wood. Then they took out an old, grungy pantry and gutted the kitchen. “In the old days, kitchens were not fancy like today, they were plain Jane. We also took out the old cook stove and mud room,” Sandra said. When they removed the wallpaper and floor lino, which went halfway up the walls, the plaster started falling off, so the kitchen is the only room with drywall. “We also insulated and rewired while we were at it.” They replumbed, too.

The Grays finished the kitchen with teal blue wainscotting and a new wood floor. “That was necessary because a previous owner had glued lino down and we couldn’t get it up,” Sandra said. Help along the way came from Vintage Woodwork and two invaluable experts. “We were so lucky to find Steve Moulton, a master carpenter and local boat builder, and Kevin Painting, an English carpenter who had worked on 600-year-old houses and can replicate anything.”

Square Deal Roofing took off three layers of old roof material — “imagine how much it weighed,” Sandra said. The house was re-roofed with cedar shingles, thanks to grants from Saanich. One of the owners’ favourite rooms is the panelled den with its cosy fireplace and funeral door. “In the olden days when people died, there was a viewing and it was bad luck to take a body out the front door, so this is what they used,” said Larry, of the door that has no landing or staircase outside.

They repainted, repaired and redecorated all the bathrooms, some with Venetian plaster finish below and wallpaper above, and turned huge walk-in closets into more sleeping space. “There are so many jobs to do in a place like this,” Larry said. “You have to be a carpenter, a caretaker, an electrician, a plumber a gardener.” What are they most proud of? “Sticking together for 34 years,” he said, adding it’s a second marriage for each of them, but he has known Sandra since was 13. “Luckily she likes old things — like me.”The Grays are also delighted with the huge master suite they built downstairs.

They turned an unused basement into an office, storage, wine cellar and stellar bedroom with emerald carpet, two giant walk-in closets and panelling that is a mirror image of that upstairs. There is a lot more to heritage rehabilitation than meets the eye, says Jennifer Barr, who was executive director of the Victoria Heritage Foundation for 22 years. Barr said Victoria is lucky to have Larry and Sandra Gray, “who have done a magnificent job. Their house is enormous and there is a huge amount of detailed rehabilitation work there.

“Everybody who does this is a bit crazy, unusual, frequently eccentric.” She said their house is a prime example of architecture by E. E. Green. The architect has long fascinated her husband, Colin Barr, who has identified 25 houses Green designed in this region, as well as 111 in the Seattle area. “You can recognize them by the details, the massing, the wide door and window frames, the pyramids on the door casings, the heavy knee brackets outside and wood detailing on the top of the gables. “I was so excited when I first walked into this house. I just said: ‘Oh my God, it’s another E.E. Green.’ ”

Victoria Times Colonist
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