The Safe House

It will soon be three years since we moved into Tett House.

The first two were fraught with stress and unexpected challenges. Not only were we adjusting to a new home, new jobs, and new people in a new place, but things kept going wrong and the repairs were adding up. We were constantly on edge, waiting for the next unwelcome surprise. Early on, I realized that I had become afraid of the house I’d initially fallen in love with, and it took us a long time to feel safe and comfortable in our new lives.

But even the toughest times slowly make their way into the past. One by one, we tackled projects, and they were no longer major, urgent repairs, but little upgrades we wanted to do.

Last summer, with delight, I fitted out the screened in porch as a bright, fresh gathering space with rocking chairs, an alfresco dining table, and a vintage daybed, which I talked about in my last post.

I also picked a couple of new nightstands and bedside lamps. Little pieces, big impact!

We finally got around to cleaning out and painting the room we had earmarked for Trevor’s office.


During.

Colour: Beau Green by Benjamin Moore. I love the depth and contrast with the cinnamon-toned wood. The office isn’t quite finished yet, but at least it’s functional!

We wallpapered a feature wall in the Front Hall and loved it.

I even started painting the old grates, but this is still an ongoing project. The paint is fairly noxious and I can only do one or two at a time. What a difference, though!

My favourite thing this winter has been our brand new wood stove! Our propane furnace – which is also new – heats really well, but we wanted to cut down on fuel costs. Thanks to the removal of several large, dead trees on the property, we had a carriage house full of wood to burn, so there truly is no great loss without some small gain. Jim from Rideau Valley Hearth & Home installed a brand new Jøtul F500 for us and it’s a beauty.

I love that it looks as if it has been there, always. When you’re working with an old house, it’s so important to honour and not compromise the historical character. We try to find a balance between new and old.

We had to completely reconfigure our living room to accommodate the wood stove, but it was worth it! We’ve enjoyed many cozy nights around the fire this past winter.

We hosted a reunion of first cousins in September and a big family Thanksgiving dinner in October. Together with our improvement projects, these served to re-establish my original connection with the house, which has been growing stronger ever since. One day, I woke up realizing that Tett House had finally become my home and I didn’t need to be afraid of it anymore. I could embrace it, with open arms. I gave myself over to that feeling, and frankly, it’s the only place I ever really want to be now.

And it’s a good thing, too. Who could have foretold that the Spring of 2020 would bring with it a pandemic that meant we couldn’t leave our house even if we wanted to?

With the advent of the Coronavirus, the house I’d gotten used to fearing, suddenly became our safe place. Its aloofness and remote location made self-isolation easy, and we feel quite independent. We can go outside and wander our six acres of trees with no chance of encountering others or compromising anyone’s health, including our own.

Our family was at low-risk for COVID-19, but we sequestered ourselves in mid-March, willingly and gratefully. Since then, we’ve found solace and boundless inspiration in the beautiful natural landscape that surrounds us.


We miss our friends and family, but the deer enjoy the view, too, and have been keeping us company… while respecting social distancing recommendations, of course!

Life may have suddenly slowed down, and the Great Pause of the world is upon us, but every day at Tett House still brings something new: budding trees, flowers poking up out of the ground, and even snow! Trevor captured this bit of mid-April magic and made a short video out of it, just because he’s awesome that way.

I feel as if Tett House is rewarding us now, for all the blood, sweat, and tears we put into the property early on. This stately Victorian lady is taking us under her wing and offering shelter, a safe haven. Even when the news is scary and things are uncertain, we feel protected and comforted.

When we first moved in, I joked to Trevor about wanting the house to be a place where we could “survive a Zombie Apocalypse.”

Please don’t let there be any zombies!

To read the story of our move to Tett House from the beginning click here.



Tett House – Post-Chaos Clean-Up

As much as we wanted to move in after most of the big repairs had been completed, our new life at Tett House could only begin after a massive clean up had taken place. For the better part of two months, we bounced around between a truly awful AirBnB rental, and both our parents’ homes. We tried to stay upbeat.

Several years of vacancy and neglect are not kind to a home that is 130+ years old, and the necessary but invasive upgrades had left Tett House in pretty rough shape.

The vandalized well problem had pushed our renovation timeline back by nearly eight weeks. We had to move out of our old place long before everything was completed, which meant all of our stuff was in the house while the messiest work was being conducted. Not only was every surface coated in drywall dust, and splatters of insulation and patching compound, but so was every bin, every box, every piece of exposed furniture.

For example… this is what the front hall looked like when we bought the house: a little worn, a little dusty, but what old house can’t use a little polishing?

This is what the front hall looked like after plumbing and electrical upgrades, insulating, drywalling, painting, and about a dozen tradespeople working in and out of the house at any given time… plus random storage of our belongings, because we couldn’t move in on time.

It was a daunting task, but so much of our journey up to this point had been daunting that all we could do was roll up our sleeves and get at it. This was us on Day 1.

Every available space was piled high with boxes and furniture. All had initially been organized neatly according to room, but necessity required our contractors to push them out of the way or relocate them based on wherever they were working at the time.

Living Room:

Dining Room:

Upstairs Hall and Landing:

I think it’s safe to say we were exhausted before we even began. The warm and stately house we’d fallen in love with was unrecognizable in all the chaos.

We worked room by room, reorganizing our belongings and then cleaning the floors, the baseboards, the walls, the fixtures. Anyone who’s done any renovation work knows that drywall dust (the worst!) gets into EVERY nook and cranny… and old houses have A LOT of nooks and crannies. Just when you think you’ve gotten it all, it continues to fall gently but imperceptibly like invisible snow for weeks afterwards, settling back onto your furniture, and leaving behind a fine white powder that turns frustratingly to paste when met with a too-damp cloth.

Every box, had to be wiped down and vacuumed before opening. I wore holes in my cleaning rags, earned bruises and backaches. While some rooms needed to be cleaned, others had to be prepped for paint and primer and THEN cleaned. I scrubbed the floorboards on my hands and knees.

As clean-up gained momentum, so did we.

One of my favourite little projects was the restoration of a chandelier that came with the house. Clearly not an antique, the fixture was loaded with dust and appeared too dirty to have much value. I couldn’t even tell what finish it was. At the time, cleaning it almost seemed more trouble than it was worth.

My mother didn’t agree; she insisted we bring the chandelier to her house, where she helped me rescue and repurpose what ended up being a nice little showpiece.

After removing all the dangles, I was able to clean the candelabra frame and brackets. My mom painstakingly washed each chandel-earring in hot soapy water, followed by a vinegar and water bath, carefully labelling their location and laying them out to dry on tea towels.

I’m so glad she talked me into keeping that chandelier, and putting in the extra elbow grease. It ultimately became one of those special little before-and-after moments that gave us inspiration to keep working toward our vision. And in the beginning, those moments were few and far between.

Another project was sealing and painting the interior of all the beautiful original wood cabinetry in the house. On the outside, the handmade cupboards were warm and lovely, but on the inside were stains and cracks and in some cases, a graveyard for dead bugs. They smelled musty. We wanted the cabinetry to be functional as well as decorative, and Brodie Burt of CL Paintworks did an amazing job for us.

Brodie also weatherproofed our picket fence, which was decent but sort of nondescript before he stained it a crisp country white.

One by one, our contractors packed up their tools and materials, shook our hands, and said good-bye. The biggest and most immediate projects had been addressed and we finally had our white picket fence. Things were beginning to fall into place and we were on the cusp of coming home to Tett House.

(To start our blog at the beginning, go to Part 1.)

Finding Tett House – Part 1

It was the mill that first caught our eye. Well… Trevor’s eye.

It was August of 2015. I was sleeping in the car when we first drove by the mill on our way down to Kingston, because sleeping in the car is what I do. But Trevor, who is super thoughtful in this way, made a note to remember it as a place worth exploring in the future, and maybe taking a few good photographs.

We had been visiting friends and really enjoyed Kingston and its surrounding villages. Even though we had no plans to move at that time, I started randomly looking at houses in the area, purely out of curiosity. In September, I sent Trevor a link to the listing of a home I thought was incredible. This was the listing photo.

He replied that it was “very cute.” I thought it was one of the most gorgeous homes I’d ever seen in my life. Unfinished, yes. But gorgeous. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

You can still view the video tour here.

About 10 days later, I emailed him the link again, just because I get obsessed that way.

A couple of months later, we were in the area once more and Trevor said, “I want to show you something.” He drove us out to see the old mill he had first noticed back in August. It was in a little pocket of South Frontenac called “Bedford Mills,” with a few cabins, a quaint church, and not much else that we could see. At the foot of a tumbling waterfall, this steadfast, stone mill stood guard over a quiet pond, like something out of a gothic novel. Even in the stark greyness of a November afternoon, it was beautiful.

As the road cuts right through the property, we did not immediately realize the mill was a private residence (whoops.) We rambled and exclaimed and took pictures until our son Oliver sighed with ennui. Finally, we noticed a “Private Sale” sign that indicated the property was on the market, and I jotted down the email address.

Then we looked up.

High on the hill, across the water, was an old yellow house with a big old verandah, peering down between windswept pines. It was the kind of house I’ve wanted to live in all my life. I’m pretty sure it winked at me.

“Look at that house,” I said, pointing. “Imagine living there.” And in a heartbeat, I did imagine it. I considered what it would be like to look out the windows through those trees at the mill, and to hear the rush of that waterfall every single day. It was an intoxicating idea.

On a whim, we drove up the steep driveway to the house, which actually sits atop a craggy limestone cliff of Canadian Shield. It was vacant and even more charming up close. It also had an old carriage house and a bell on the property that rang with a satisfyingly loud gong.

A bell!  I was smitten.

We took some more photos, then went back to the car, and drove onward.

I had no idea this was the same house to which I had sent Trevor the link just eight weeks before.

(Read Part 2)