Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
We can’t save the world, but we can save one house.”
That’s the rationale behind Rob Christie and his wife Irene Szabla’s ambitious plans for the old foundry in Pictou. Since moving to Nova Scotia from Whitehorse in 2011, they’ve seen one beautiful old building after another succumb to neglect and disrepair—walls literally crumbling to dust, and rats and raccoons taking the place of the families who once inhabited these historic old homes. They’re determined not to let it happen to this one.
The foundry dates back to 1855 and was built by William Henry Davies, an English ironmonger living in Stellarton. Three separate brick buildings were constructed to house a cupola furnace (used for melting iron), office space, and a machine shop, conveniently located to provide access to both the harbour and the railway. The building in the middle, the foundry, has gone through many incarnations over the years. At one point it contained machine, boiler, moulding, pattern, blacksmith, and carpenter shops. During and after the Second World War, it was used for shipbuilding. In recent years, it has housed everything from a microbrewery and tasting room to a women’s clothing shop, an art gallery, an auction house, and a Saturday market.
It was a commercial space when Christie and Szabla first bought the property. They were living on the upper two storeys of an old stone building they owned on Pictou’s main street. The stone house needed extensive renovations and they planned to use the foundry to generate rental income to help with expenses. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out. Tenants moved in and then moved out again (one stiffing them for a $5,000 electrical bill). Tired of carrying a mortgage on a property they weren’t getting enough income on to make worthwhile, they attempted to sell the building last year but received no offers, even in Nova Scotia’s hot market. They figure the problem lay in its designation as a commercial property—a commercial property that was just a bit too far off Main Street to attract casual shoppers wandering through the town. On top of that, because of the commercial designation, taxes were extremely high, and service low. They didn’t even get garbage collection. Deciding they had to get rid of one of their properties, they put the stone house up for sale. It sold in 36 hours.
“A year ago, we never thought we’d sell the stone house for the price we did,” says Szabla. With the money it generated, they moved ahead to convert the foundry into a residence. It was the sensible thing to do since they had so much difficulty renting the space out for commercial activity (added to the fact that they would be homeless in a month when the sale of the stone house concluded).
After suffering through previous renovations, Szabla had one stipulation about their new digs. She didn’t want a constant stream of “every imaginable tradesperson,” as she describes it, traipsing through her living space. So they got the rear part of the building habitable in order to live there while the work was going on in the front. The high brick walls and aged beams—both of which Christie stripped and refinished—make the space very livable while they wait for the work to continue in the front of the building.
The plan for the new residence is to create a large living space in the front and convert the small backspace into either an apartment or some kind of holiday rental. Beyond that, they had no real plans. That’s what made hiring an architect to guide them through the conversion seem like the right move.
That architect was Vincent van den Brink of Break House in Halifax. His company focuses on commercial properties but they usually have at least one private residence on the go.
“They can be really fun to do,” explains van den Brink. “They [Christie and Szabla] seemed like nice people—they are nice people—and the building had enough interest to keep us involved.”
One of those interesting features is the fact that the building itself is old but Christie and Szabla wanted a modern space created. Though it sounds like something that might be hard to coordinate, van den Brink says the key is to find out what attracts a person to a particular style.
“If someone says they like art deco, you don’t just do the colours,” he says, explaining that factors such as the shapes of the rooms and the kind of light a space has all contribute to how someone feels about a particular style. But there’s also a more subtle, specific element. “There’s always a spirit to a building or house and you start with that.”
The modern style leans towards an open living, dining and kitchen area, and the foundry, with its concrete floor, tall windows, and high timber structure, lends itself easily to that aesthetic. Therefore, what seems at first like a clash
between two different styles, can be merged into a cohesive whole.
Certainly, Christie’s voice is filled with enthusiasm as he walks through the space that is slowly being transformed and points out some of the features. Just like their desire for a modern space in an antique building, they also have the seemingly contradictory wish for a home that is big enough to entertain a crowd and small enough to be comfortable for two. The dining table will seat 12, yet a small corner of the large space will be intimate enough for a cosy chat. Their bedroom will be the only private space on the ground floor, specifically positioned there to keep the home completely accessible as they grow older. Two bedrooms upstairs will serve as separate guest quarters, again providing both privacy and plenty of space for visitors.
Christie and Szabla are well on their way to making the foundry their forever home, and saving the world one house at a time.