Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
The enduring charm of Bent Cottage reveals the wonder of the season
In 1770, John Bent, a Loyalist, built a small cottage in the middle of 500 acres in what is now the east end of Amherst, Nova Scotia.
It survived the rush of money into the town in the late 19th century that saw most of the small homes torn down and massive Victorian and Edwardian homes built in their place. Those houses still dominate Victoria Street, but 250 years later, Bent Cottage endures, sitting pretty in the middle of its double lot.
Back in 2004, however, it was eye-catching for another reason.
“It was the worst house on the best street,” says Don Miller, the youth pastor with First Baptist Church downtown. “It was in bad shape.”
Yet Bent Cottage was a dream house for Don and painter Dan Walker. “It was exactly the kind of house we’d always wanted to have,” Dan says. “We never dreamed this one would actually come up for sale.”
Dan had just sold the house he used as a painting studio when Bent Cottage came on the market. When he bought it, Bent Cottage was divided into two apartments, and Dan thought he’d rent the back apartment and use the front as a studio. He realized how much work needed to be done – and could be done – when a simple spike shoved through the back wall of an upstairs closet didn’t hit anything on the other side; that’s when Dan realized it wasn’t two apartments – it was once one whole house.
Bent Cottage wasn’t the only Cape-style home built along Victoria Street, but it was the only that survived because it remained in the Bent family until 1903. There were only three other owners until Don and Dan came along, and one of those previous owners had a son named Alex Colville. Talk about destiny: Painter Dan Walker now lives in the house renowned Canadian artist Alex Colville grew up in.
Sometimes the right house finds you at the right time.
“There was a sense we were sort of saving history,” Don says of the decision to restore and live in Bent Cottage. “You have to be practical, but we love it.”
“I love wrecking stuff and the whole house was a bunch of tiny little rooms so I started ripping walls apart,” says Dan, who retired from Canada Post in 2011. “I filled thirteen of those huge dumpsters; it took me two months. The more we did, the more exciting it became because we were opening up walls. The living room was two rooms so we made it one. The back room was once used to park a car.”
In fact, the back room – which is now the kitchen and sitting room – started as a blacksmith’s shop that was added to the cottage.
Dan shakes his head as he remembers. “Someone had even cut off all the eaves with a chain saw so there wasn’t a lick of trim on the house and the whole house was covered in vinyl.”
Dan hired a contractor and they gutted the house from the outside in, and then from the inside out. They rebuilt the eaves and trim and put cedar shakes on the outside. Inside, they had to remove both fireplaces, including a massive one that sat in the middle of the back room, because they were caving in. Those stones were repurposed in the garden.
Before they could do any more work inside, however, the house needed a new foundation.
“I say we are the oldest house in Amherst, but in some ways, we’re one of the newest,” Don says. “Everything had to be redone. We went right down to the walls. There are no ghosts in this house – we would have met them!”
In many ways, Bent Cottage is all-new, but in many ways, it’s not.
Take the red boards on the walls of the backroom, for instance. Dan bought those ten years before he purchased Bent Cottage. “They came out of a 200-year-old house someone tore down. I stored them in a friend’s garage and they were perfect for here. That’s the colour they were.”
The island in the kitchen came from the train station in Summerside, PEI, while the beams came out of a 150-year-old parish hall in downtown Amherst.
“We tried to keep things but it was hard,” Don says. “Do you rip out 100-year-old stuff to get to the 200-year-old stuff? Or do you leave it alone?
So when we walk through this house, we’re walking on floors that were put in 100 years ago but there are also 200-year-old floors that you’re walking on – the originals. It’s a mix.”
And Bent Cottage is bigger than it looks. It feels cozy like a cottage but also roomy like a (small) mansion. There’s a living room, den and dining room, a kitchen with a harvest table and sitting area on the main floor, plus four bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs.
Of the personal touches in the house, Dan’s paintings of ships are the most meaningful because his father and grandfather were in the navy. When he was a child, he would draw Pegasus (the winged horse) and the ship on his father’s Old Spice bottle. Ships were the first images he began painting and selling.
“This painting behind me,” Dan says, pointing to the wall above his chaise in the backroom. “If the house catches on fire, this is the one thing I will save. It’s the most simple, primitive thing, but it’s from Rockport, New Brunswick, and it was painted around 1790 on muslin.”
The back room, which has several very comfortable chairs in front of windows overlooking the garden, is the main gathering space in the house. But not just for Don’s youth group and other parishioners; living in Bent Cottage meant Don no longer had to rush to the family home in Bedford after the Christmas Eve service but instead now he can relax while hosting his family of six in his own home.
Don laughs. “After we restored the house, Dad said, ‘It wasn’t a bad house until you put all your old crap in it’.”
All that ‘old crap’ Don and Dan had collected over the years had been put into storage during the renovation, and Dan says when they finally moved into Bent Cottage, “It was like Christmas, opening all the boxes!”
It’s those unique items and special touches that make Christmas at Bent Cottage so special. When Don decorates, he uses the age and style of the house as his inspiration so the tree in the living room has beeswax tapers hanging on it, mantels are sprigged with pine bows, and fruit and berries are the predominant accents. There is a delightful nod to snowmen on the mantel in the den, and white lights to represent candle flames.
“I love the character of this house,” Don admits. “I love the presence it has on Victoria Street.”
At 250 years of age, Bent Cottage has witnessed a lot of history, watched Victoria Street change again and again, and heard a lot of stories in its rooms.
“I wouldn’t mind having its original 500 acres back, to be honest,” Don quips.