Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
How Monique and Rob Sobey honoured their family’s love for summer at the beach
In 1943 Frank Sobey was a hard-working businessperson with six grocery stores bearing the family name, a theatre owner and mayor of the town of Stellarton. Life with his wife Irene and three boys was comfortable. The concept of cottaging was fairly new. A second home was once only a privilege of the upper class but during and after World War II as a more stable middle class emerged, Pictou County families like the Sobeys were drawn the idea of an idyllic little escape by the ocean. The couple purchased a cottage from George Flemming, a good friend who would continue to be their neighbour in the growing Chance Harbour summer community.
It was the beginning of a nostalgia-laced legacy that has connected future generations of the Sobey family to the beaches of the Northumberland Strait.
“The original cottage was built in 1930 by Alan Thompson, was sold to George Flemming and then to Frank and Irene in 1943. It passed into the hands of sons Dave and Bill and was eventually sold out of the family in 1978,” says Monique Sobey who did a little digging into the pedigree of the historic summer roost when she and her husband Rob, grandson of Frank and Irene, became interested in purchasing the cottage with the idea of bringing it back to its former self.
“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, 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,” adds Monique with a smile.
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. It’s been a tight-knit summer community for over 80 years where properties rarely go for sale and are most often passed along to the next generation. Several of the surrounding properties have transitioned to permanent homes but the majority are still summer-only dwellings.
The cottage was nearing 90 years when purchased by Rob and Monique who live in the town of Stellarton where they have raised two children now in university. By the
time the cottage was passed along to Rob’s uncles, his own parents owned a property in nearby Black Point and, as Monique says, where her husband started his own “beach career.” Rob did not spend time at the Lewis Road cottage but the connection to his father’s youth and his grandparent’s cottage were strong and so was the idea of reconnecting to that part of his family’s history.
“Because it was his grandfather’s and his father would have spent so much time there, there was a sense of place that permeated the cottage for Rob,” says Monique.
The couple rented the cottage for the first two summers after their purchase giving them time to evaluate the project. The initial plan for Lewis Road was a complete restoration but the vintage structure was revealing signs that time and weather had taken its toll. Ancient wiring was another issue and, after a little soul searching, it was decided that a rebuild was the logical approach. There were two very important factors to this decision. First, they wanted to stay true to the original design and, second, they were determined to curtail the disruption to their beach-lane neighbours.
“We really wanted to 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 before starting any construction.
On September 17, 2017 the contracting company, led by Tim Goswell, initiated the tear-down and the family bid farewell to the original Sobey summer haven. Because the cottage had been out of the 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.
“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. We wanted Rob’s dad to have a piece of the original cottage from when he was a child, ” says Monique.
Tim Goswell has become a trusted professional working on several projects with the couple. “He can anticipate our probable design element. We trust his common-sense approach, candor and, coming up with ideas,” says Monique. While we didn’t change the footprint of the foundation – it was Tim’s suggestion to raise it up several inches to take into consideration rising sea levels.”
Nova Scotia decorator Deb Nelson also worked very closely with the Sobeys from their initial days of the build. Like Tim, Deb had also become one of Monique’s go-to resources for décor and style ideas. Besides the collection of finishes for the Sobey home Stellarton and the new cottage, Deb and Monique have curated a special friendship.
“Monique has incredible taste and knows exactly what she wants. She is so easy to work with. That makes my job so simple,” says Deb.
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 very similar tastes.
“We both like very relaxed and traditional styles but with a bit of a modern spin. When we thought about the interior of the new cottage a modern farmhouse theme would be the easiest way to describe it,” she adds.
Goswell’s team worked efficiently throughout the quiet season at the shore. By the spring construction neared completion. They missed their initial target of a May long weekend finish but by July 1st 2018, the re-imagined 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 the new build mirrors the previous dwelling. True to their vision of the cottage 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 creating an almost unobstructed vista.
While keeping in step with the 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 a view of the seascape on the other side. Fun and function were important considerations in the layout.
“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 and where folks can gather over morning coffee or a glass of wine during dinner prep. The kitchen finishes are not fussy much like Monique’s own personal style that is fresh but refined. A small print of a lobster Anatatomie du Homard Acadien, a gift from one of her girlfriends, hangs on a wall above a shelf of small antique knick-knacks and pays homage to Monique’s Acadian heritage. In another corner a print of the Birds of Bermuda that references the family’s connection to the island where Rob’s great-great-grandfather spent time 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 was incorporated that creates a front row seat to everything happening on the water.
“I tried to re-purpose a few items that we had in my home in Stellarton. 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,” says Monique as she describes a few the pieces that she and Deb collected up prior to the new build.
Light became one of the most important design elements. The cottage is drenched in natural light. The inclusion of white ship lap on the interior walls dramatically enhances the reflection of the sun and keeps the atmosphere bright and cheerful on rainy dark days. “In the wintertime, it is almost blinding in the day light with all of the interior white, the white of the snow on the ground and the ice in the strait,” says Monique.
Deb, who was brought in at the very beginning of the project 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 based on Monique’s 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 a 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 is meant to be a cottage, a space that everyone can enjoy.”
One aspect of the cottage that most would consider high-end is the couple’s collection of Canadian contemporary art. While they tried to select pieces that gave a little nod to a nautical theme Monique says they were also motivated by pieces that just looked so great against the bright white shiplap. Mixed with a few pieces from local artists like Luke Naylor, a Pictou County native, they made selections from several artists who have been nominated or won a Sobey Art Award. A framed remnant of a nautical flag by artist Jason De Hann is positioned at the top of the stairs, a testament to the past and leads down to the lower level where a large format drawing entitled Wormhole from Nova Scotia artist Eleanor King tunnels to the future. The two art pieces easily 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.