New Brunswick

'Preserving a memory': What happens to great old houses when they become too big?

One of New Brunswick's finest features are the old, elegant houses at the centre of many towns and cities. But what happens when those charming houses become too difficult to maintain or too expensive to keep up?

People across New Brunswick are repurposing old homes into apartments, businesses and office space

The photo at left of the old Edgecombe House at 736 King St. in Fredericton was taken in the early 1890s. Fred Edgecombe added towers, bays, cupolas and decorative siding to the home around 1896. Today the house is the Office of the Integrity Commissioner. (Provincial Archives/P5-287)

One of New Brunswick's finest features are the old, elegant houses at the centre of many towns and cities.

But what happens when those charming houses become too difficult to maintain or too expensive to keep up? 

For Sara Sparks, selling has become the only viable option, and it wasn't an easy decision.

"Once it's gone, it's gone," she said.

Sparks is a descendent of Arthur Hill Gillmor, a politician who served as an MP and senator. In 1846, he built a 17-room house for his wife in St. George, about 75 kilometres southwest of Saint John.

In March, Sparks will put the house on the market because it's too difficult to care for, with most of her great-great grandfather's descendents living in Western Canada.

Sara Sparks is a descendent of Arthur Hill Gillmor, a businessman, MP and senator, who built a 17-bedroom mansion in St. George. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"To maintain a house of this size from the other side of the country is too much," she said.

The owners haven't settled on an asking price, but Sparks said it would probably be around $300,000. 

She's hoping the house will go to someone with imagination.

The Gillmor estate will go on the market this March. (Submitted by Sara Sparks)

She would like to see it turned into a restaurant or coffee shop, or have its bedrooms used for craft craft stores.

The ambience of the home would also make for a great mini-mall, which would also boost local economy, she said.

This is what the Gillmor house looked like in 1920. Sparks thinks the house has potential has a restaurant, a place for craftspeople to sell their work, or even as a mini-mall. (Submitted by Sara Sparks)

 "These are one of a kind," she said of New Brunswick's old houses. "They're not making any more of them."

Old homes in Fredericton 

Karen Syroid, a real estate representative at Gardiner Realty Royal LePage, says old houses don't come on the market often. But when they do, they're often transformed into businesses, apartments or bed and breakfasts.

About once a year, Karen Syroid of Gardiner Realty Royal LePage sees an historic home go on the market in Fredericton.   

They can be hard to sell because of cost, upkeep and today's smaller families. 

While some buyers might live in the old homes, others turn them into apartments, bed and breakfasts, or office buildings.

This photo of what is now the Office of the Integrity Commissioner in Fredericton was taken in the 1890s. It was once the home of lawyer Charles Putnam and was at that time called Willow Grove. In the mid-1860s, it became the home of Sir John Campbell Allen, mayor of Fredericton and chief justice of New Brunswick, and later was owned by Fred Edgecombe. (Provincial Archives/P5-287)

"It's kind of a marriage of wanting to operate a business in the downtown core, while preserving the congruent look and feel of the historic downtown," she said.

These big, old houses are one of New Brunswick's finest features, but what happens when they become too difficult and expensive to maintain? 2:13

Last year, Syroid was able to tour the home of her grandmother Barbara Likely at 736 King St., also known as Edgecombe house.

This is Fredericton's Government House in 1858. It was the lieutenant-governor's residence, then a First World War military hospital, an RCMP headquarters and then the lieutenant-governor's residence again. (Provincial Archives/P2-186w )

The house has been repurposed and is now the Office of the Integrity Commissioner.

"I could picture what a life was like for my grandmother growing up," she said.

This house on Church Street in Fredericton was once occupied by John Dickenson Palmer, vice-president of the Hartt Boot and Shoe Company and a member of its original board of directors. This photo was taken in the 1890s. The property now belongs to the Anglican Diocesan Synod of Fredericton. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick/P5-519)

Syroid said this type of repurposing makes sense in a city like Fredericton because it's "preserving a memory."

Frogmore Place at Dundonald Street and Colter Court in Fredericton was named by A.F. Randolph, who owned the property from 1865 to 1896. His son lived there until 1922, when Ashley Colter bought the house. The property was originally part of the George Sproule estate and was owned by James Holbrook and James Carter before Randolph. It is now McMillan Dentistry at 35 Colter Ct. (Provincial Archives/P5-496)

"If the alternative is that that's torn down and an apartment building is put up, as someone whose family has lived here for generations, that would be hard to let go of that piece of history."

Old home 'a jewel' 

Gallery 78, also known as the Crocket house, in Fredericton isn't your typical art gallery.

A house was built on the Queen Street property in 1898 and changed hands over the years.     

This is an image from 1969 of the old house that became Gallery 78. (Provincial Archives/P626-16 )

Dr. Ashburnham Pierce Crocket bought the property in 1921 and lived there with his wife Alma Mary (Gibson) Crocket for 40 years. She was the granddaughter of Alexander Gibson, who was also the founder of Marysville.

Between 1962 and 1964, the building was bought by the province and turned into offices for the New Brunswick Travel Bureau.

The building housing Gallery 78 has evolved from an old house, to an office building to an art gallery in downtown Fredericton. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"People will come in and visit and say, 'Oh, I had an office on the third floor,'" said Germaine Pataki-Thériault, managing director of Gallery 78.

"We also have people come in and say they knew the house when the Cockets lived here."

Inside the old home on Queen Street, pieces of art are on display for the public. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

In 1989, the building was renovated and became the new home of Gallery 78. 

The Jonathan Odell house sits at Brunswick and Church streets in Fredericton. Odell built the house after immigrating to New Brunswick as a Loyalist in 1784. ​​​​​ (Provincial Archives/P5-288)

"You can imagine what a piece of art would look like in your home based on what it looks like here," Pataki-Thériault said.

Many people who walk into the heritage building marvel that it's not a commercial gallery with white walls and more of an "industrial setting." She describes the house as an inviting space, particularly with the old wooden staircase in the entryway.

"It is a jewel outside and it is a jewel inside," she said.

A mark of history 

This photo of the Odell house was taken in 1890s. The right side of the house was used to house Odell's slaves. (Provincial Archives/P5-272)

Fredericton isn't the only area with a passion for old houses.

In the summer of 2017, Brittney Toner decided to buy a historic home in Woodstock to build her event-planning business, Panoramic Events Inc.

The old Bennett house in Woodstock is a two-storey classic revival home at corner of Main and Cross streets. (Brittney Toner)

She eventually settled on the old Bennett house, formerly known as the Bennett House Bed & Breakfast. It's a two-storey classic revival home that sits on the corner of Main and Cross streets downtown.

The house, also designated as a local historic place, was built in 1878 as an Anglican rectory. It was rebuilt in 1882 after a fire that destroyed downtown Woodstock in 1881.

Woodstock  is New Brunswick's first town and we pride ourselves in the history and the heritage.-  Brittney  Toner, business owner

"It's a historic mark in our community and it's been kept up," Toner said.

While there are many old homes in the New Brunswick town, this one caught her eye.

"When I first walked into the building I felt like I got a hug," she said.

Toner's favourite part is the entryway, with an original tin ceiling, and the mahogany china cabinet that sits down the hall.

She uses part of the home as storage and inventory for weddings and the other half to host events birthdays, bridal showers and other events. The house is also used as her own private office space.

She's also updated the old house by winterizing the windows and she replaced the boiler in January.

The china cabinet is one of owner Brittney Toner's favourite parts of the Main Street house. (Brittney Toner/Submitted)

Toner hopes to turn the space into a bed and breakfast eventually or into a clothing boutique.

"Woodstock is New Brunswick's first town and we pride ourselves in the history and the heritage," she said.

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