History Lessons

The old farmhouse belonging to a family friend had always captured the imagination of Gillian Santangeli.

It was during her wedding shower in the home that she first found herself secretly wishing that it was her own, daydreaming about the restoration work she and her future husband, Dave, would complete.

Santangeli had spent a great deal of time in the house on many special occasions with the owners, the Scott family, and even lived there for six months.

“We spent holidays with the Scott’s and Dave and I played tennis on their backyard court before we were married,” Santangeli recalls.

“My dad helped (a previous owner) turn the kitchen pantry into a bathroom and he also gave them strawberry plants that are still growing.”

Built in 1910, the 3,500 square-foot historic gem once commanded 20 hectares of farmland and now sits on a pretty half hectare in the old village of Oakville .

After their wedding, Gillian and Dave relocated to Toronto, had two sons, and never thought about moving to Oakville. Until Gillian’s mother called to tell her the house was for sale.

“The Scott’s had the house on the market for a while with no bites,” Gillian says. “So Dave and I came out one weekend to stay in it, to test drive it. When Dave said he was ok with the commute we decided to buy the house.”

That was in 1998 and Gillian finally found herself in a position to turn her dreams into reality.

Determined to make this a home and not a museum, Dave and Gillian have worked carefully to restore the house back to its vintage style, without sacrificing practicality and modern conveniences. It hasn’t been easy, or cheap, and they soon discovered that before decorating, some structural renovations were required.

In the end, they love their three-storey home that fuses original birch floors with skylights in the kitchen, original beamed ceilings with new William Morris-inspired carpet and an original claw-foot tub with a vanity made from wood found in the garage.

When they bought the house, the Santangelis knew the roof needed to be replaced immediately.

“We interviewed three contractors and asked about an ice and water shield because the house is old, not insulated well, and has a crazy roof line,” Gillian says. “Two roofers said we didn’t need a shield but the third, who has an old house himself, said that’s exactly what he would do. It only cost about $1,000 more to get the ice and water shield and now we know water can’t get into the house.”

After the roof was finished, the couple looked forward to another more noticeable improvement—a new garage. The existing one had a dirt floor and leaned noticeably to one side.

A concrete slab had to be installed first and then the contractor, Mr. Renovator, worked with the Santangelis on matching the exterior to the existing home.

“We ended up using vinyl siding because we could get it in narrow strips which matched the house. The entire garage cost $40,000.”

The biggest expense were the custom wood carriage doors, made by Architectural Windows in Brampton from a sketch the Santangelis drew. They look like old-fashioned doors that open in the middle but are actually ultra-modern and roll up and down with just the push of a button.

“You should spend money on structural things like windows and the roof and wait until you can afford to upgrade things like trim and floors,” Gillian says.

“One way we were able to save was to let people know what we were doing. After the mason fixed the chimney for us, he dropped off two doors from his house that he didn’t want. They matched our doors and we were able to use one right away.”

One of her best “finds” was a light fixture for the bathroom.

“Our electrician knew I liked old fixtures and one day he showed up with an old porcelain fixture. He just game it to me because it had been taken out of a house he was working on and the owners didn’t want it.”

A desire to get rid of some overgrown shrubs on the side yard led to an expensive landscaping project in 2000.

“The side yard was dense, unusable and open to the road,” Gillian says. “We also wanted to redirect people to the front door, and  restore the back yard to native shrubs and trees.”

Intriguing Landscapes was hired and they installed a wooden fence to make the side yard safer and more private. A stone wall between the house and the garage helped direct people away from the mudroom door on the side of the house to the front door.

Now the home stood proud on the street, looking better than it had looked in years.

In 2001, the Santangelis decided to spruce up their basement with some new flooring. However, when they pulled up the plywood floor the concrete floor was cracked and rodents had taken up residence.

The Santangelis decided to put a drain in the floor, which meant getting rid of the old concrete. But with the new stone wall and wooden fence on either side of the house, there was no room for heavy equipment to help haul the debris.

The concrete floor was hammered into bits, which were then carried out in bucketfuls by workers from Good Impressions, the contractor hired to refinish the basement. This extra labour added up and the Santangelis regretted dealing with the landscaping before the basement.

This was not the end of their underground problems. Below the concrete they found clay pipes wrapped tightly with tree roots. And at every joint there were four inches of roots inside.

“There was only one inch inside the pipe for water to go through and all the water from the house ran through these pipes,” Gillian says. “Why it hadn’t backed up was amazing.”

The clay piping was replaced with UBS pipes.The concrete for the new floor also had to be brought in by bucket, creating so much extra labour the renovation cost $10,000.

The next major task was to restore their children’s bathroom, renovate the master bedroom and bathroom, as well as replace the old knob and tube wiring, which is a fire hazard.

Gillian chose subway tiles for the boys’ second-floor bathroom. When they removed the cabinets, they discovered the original wall plaster had been scored to look like subway tiles.

“Obviously the original owners wanted subway tiles but perhaps couldn’t afford it and this was their cost-saving solution,” Gillian says. “When we opened up the floor and walls in the bathroom, we found that we were restoring the layout to almost exactly what it had been originally. It was very satisfying to have physical evidence that we were doing what was right for the house.

“We also installed a mosaic tile floor that reflects the period of the home and refurbished the old claw foot bathtub we found in the third floor bathroom. And we didn’t replace the nickel-coated door knob in the boys’ bathroom—I like the fact that so many hands over the years have worn the nickel off in one spot.”

One of Gillian’s favourite rooms is the master bedroom “which feels like a tree house because of the sloped ceiling and large trees outside the windows.”

It was an addition made in 1970 but the Santangelis wanted to rearrange the space. They also wanted to use rounded corners on the walls to match them to the original walls.

Gillian was pleased to find  pre-made round corners were available—a much cheaper alternative to plastering. The bedroom has a large balcony overlooking the yard. A tiny bathroom was made 18 inches bigger by removing a wall.

“We learned that every setback has some benefit,” Gillian says. “When the contractor working in the master bedroom slipped off his ladder and put his foot through the kitchen ceiling, the hole gave us access to the dining room wiring so we were able to rewire the light, changing it from knob and tube.”

Seven weeks were needed to renovate the two bathrooms and rewire the home, which cost $25,000.

“The most expensive item was the wood vanity in the boys’ bathroom which cost $1,200 in labour,” Gillian says. “We supplied the wood which was in the old garage but it had to be planed and the carpenter went through two blades while making it.”

It’s now been a year since any major work has been done and the Santangelis are enjoying their century home along with their third son who is now three. But Gillian still struggles with practicality over authenticity.

“I have trouble with the windows at the back of the house,” Gillian says, as she sips a cup of coffee and watches Will play with his toys. “They were part of a family room addition the Scott’s did but the windows aren’t in keeping with the character of the house. I would have done smaller windows like the ones at the front but these fill the walls, going right to the floor. I do love the light and the connection to the back yard but it’s difficult for furniture placement.

“My philosophical stance, I guess, is to restore the original part of the house and renovate newer areas like the addition.

“With the way Oakville is going now, as old homes get torn down and replaced with new monster homes, we have to restore this house and its history to ensure it stays standing and is appreciated.”

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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