"Reflecting back on all the hard work we put in, (it) was well worth it," say Michel and Lauraine, who cherish their home more than ever now.
Michel and Lauraine DeSeve have always had a liking for antique objects and furniture, including old houses and automobiles. In 1974, while living in an apartment in Côte-des-Neiges with their two young children, the couple jumped at the chance to buy a small chalet (7.92 m x 7.92 or 26 feet by 26 feet) in Laval’s north end.
Built in 1927, the single-floor structure was in poor condition and lacked a proper foundation, standing on four wooden posts barely two feet off the ground. But that didn’t stop the couple, because they saw the potential it offered to become their new family home. And besides, the location couldn’t be more spectacular, becaue just across the road was the Mille-Îles River.
“We felt like we were in the countryside,” Lauraine says.
For the first two years, the DeSeve family went to the chalet, mostly on weekends, for rest and recreation and to fix a few things here and there. In 1976, after much planning, the couple decided to move in full-time with their kids and start converting the chalet into a house suitable for a family of four to comfortably live in.
The couple were Inspired by the old-home photos and building plans in the book La Maison Traditionnelle du Québec by Michel Lessard and Gilles Vilandré. They selected a house style they liked and set about transforming their chalet into a new old home by themselves with the help of Michel’s brother, who like them, was more than just your average handyman.
In order to add an upstairs floor for bedrooms for the kids, a master bedroom and an ensuite, as shown in the floor plans from the book, the existing structure first needed to be solidified. A sturdier foundation was required to improve on the four posts. The best economic option was to use cinder blocks to create a 1.22-metre-high (4-foot) crawl space, providing adequate space for the hired professionals to install new plumbing and wiring.
“We raised the house with jack posts just high enough to stand under to dig, and carried out 548 wheelbarrows of earth,” says Lauraine, who kept count.
But before they could begin the construction of the upstairs floor, a plan for a building permit had to be submitted to the city for approval. When Lauraine’s original plan was refused for insufficient details by the clerk in charge at city hall, she went to a bookstore the next day and bought a book on how to properly draw detailed floor plans for do-it-yourselfers.
Several weeks later, her new plan of the upstairs floor addition was approved, showing the framework, wall divisions and the structural supports around the windows etc., all in compliance with the building code.
Since the house was small, the living and working space needed to be rearranged in a way so the work could be done on the ground floor and the upstairs floor without too much disruption to their daily needs — a place to wash up, prepare food and sleep. While their two young children had a makeshift bedroom in a corner of the living room, the couple slept on a mattress in the laundry room with the front end of the appliances as a headboard, Lauraine recalls with a laugh.
A sheet of plywood supported by sawhorses served as a countertop and dining table for quite some time. Working on one section of the home at a time, and adapting to new living and working spaces as the work progressed, most of the work was carried out on weekends and during their annual vacation time. But 35 years would pass, from 1976 to 2011, before the finishing touches to the house were finally completed. Over that time, the chalet was almost completely gutted and the original wood frame structure of the ground floor was kept.
The first couple of years, as their budget permitted it, were devoted to tearing down walls, and redoing the divisions, installing new flooring and windows, painting, staining, etc. Since the house was originally built as a three-season chalet with minimum cladding, insulation in the exterior walls was almost non-existent, making it difficult to properly heat the house in cold weather. The couple decided to install the highest R-value rated insulation to keep warm.
The floor plan called for new wall divisions using plasterboard panels, while some walls were finished with wood-plank paneling. In later years, the original wood flooring on the ground floor was replaced with laminate flooring that mimics the look of real wood. Cedar wood was selected for the baseboards, interior window frames and doors. When work commenced on the upstairs floor, the same materials were used. Since there was no staircase in the original chalet, one had to be built from scratch and pine wood was chosen for the job. Space for storage underneath the staircase was also integrated into the design.
The door in the corner of the living room is the only non-structural part of the original chalet that was recovered. It’s been cleverly repurposed to hide the electrical panel for the house’s wiring. The Franklin-style fireplace manufactured by the Daveluyville Antique Foundry was purchased in 1976 for only a couple hundred dollars. A sales promotion by the dealer offered scratch-and-win discount cards and Lauraine won 80 per cent off the sticker price. “I just couldn’t believe my luck,” she says.
Painted white and measuring 1.22-metre (4-foot), the L-shaped wood-plank half-wall separates the kitchen/dining room from the entryway and living room without blocking view or light. Plants and a framed stained-glass window by artist Pierre Farley hang overtop to complete the cozy barrier.
“With a river running in front of your house, you don’t want any unnecessary walls blocking a beautiful scenic view,” Lauraine says.
The big armoire from the year 1900 is made of cedar, which makes it a rare piece, even more so for featuring a bottom drawer. The round cherry wood dining table sits on a large and heavy turned wooden base with extended legs.
A good part of the upstairs floor is occupied by the master bedroom, with its ensuite, and two guest bedrooms, formerly the kids’ rooms. Although both of their children have long left the family nest, the plush toys and butterflies were kept in one room for when their autistic daughter visits. One of the beds dates back to 1825, says Lauraine, who had it authenticated by an expert.
In the master bedroom, the double bed sits on a metal frame and was found at the Lachute flea market. The black wrought iron headboard and footboard are of a particular and elegant design with brass ball finials on top of the bedposts. The antique wooden nightstand comes from the Hôtel-Dieu chapel and has leg braces in the form of a crucifix. Two steps down from the master bedroom is the ensuite, which has a ceramic floor and a freestanding soaking bathtub with a raised back.
The DeSeves are passionate about old things and often visit flea markets in the hope of finding interesting items to collect or decorate their home with. Some of the objects they’ve managed to get their hands on are just incredible — like the bewildering looking, circa-1910, wall-mounted wooden-box telephone with brass bells. Michel likes to drive his old classic cars (a 1929 Ford Model A and a 1950 Ford Custom Deluxe) and collect automotive-themed objects, such as vintage Quebec licence plates. “I have more than enough of them to cover an entire wall with,” Michel says proudly.
It took lots of courage, determination and passion during the 35 years the couple spent transforming a crooked old chalet into a little gem of a house.
“Reflecting back on all the hard work we put in, (it) was well worth it,” say Michel and Lauraine, who cherish their home now more than ever.
The cladding materials, white stucco for the exterior walls, white painted wooden posts on the green veranda were carefully chosen to invoke the era in which it was built. The couple would have liked to slap on a metal roof for more authenticity, but the cost was and still is prohibitive. Nonetheless, the nuanced green asphalt-shingle roof blends in quite well with the overall design of the house.
And to Michel’s and Lauraine’s amusement, their house doesn’t go unnoticed by those driving or cycling past .People often stop to snap a quick photo, especially when one of the couple’s classic cars is parked next to the house. The scene makes for a real throwback to the olden days.
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