A short feature article and picture of Beechmount can be found on my Houses page but the house and its owner richly deserve a more thorough report. A few years ago I visited Beechmount and was given an enchanting tour by its owner, Christine Common.
“Someone told me before you do anything radical to a house, live in it for the four seasons of a full year,” says Christine Common, proud owner and restorer of Beechmount at 134 West Gate in Winnipeg. “Do little things the first year,” but get a personal feel for your old house before you begin the major work.
She took that advice over 30 years ago. Today, Christine Common and her partner Giovanni Geremia share the wholly restored house with hundreds of people from around the world. Twenty-room Beechmount is now a four and a half star bed and breakfast. Though its adaptive reuse is modern, the house’s history connects inextricably with Winnipeg’s history.
Beechmount stands on a bend in the Assiniboine River, set back from the river and street. Lendrum McMeans, a barrister and politician, built the house in 1895. He sold it to bank manager John Benning Monk who named it Beechmount after his home back in Ontario. Later in the 20th century, it became known as the J. B. Monk House.
Few architectural styles are as picturesque as Queen Anne Revival, popular about 1890 to 1910 during Winnipeg’s building boom time. Broadway, its cross streets and new residential areas like Armstrong’s Point, teemed with Queen Annes sporting jaunty roofs, effusive decoration, elaborate verandahs and often, turrets or towers.
Beechmount, the second house built on West Gate, is an extraordinary example of the style, rendered with class, sincerity and just a touch of whimsy. Call it genteel. Eastlake decoration, characteristic of Queen Anne style, adorns the verandah with turned spindles, finials and posts. In 1980, the house looked nothing like this.
“When this house came up for sale, I saw the huge amount of work it needed. This beautiful Queen Anne had been messed up big time.” Common winces when she thinks of her initial contact with the house. “The house was in good condition but it had undergone very insensitive renovation. Its original integrity and Queen Anne beauty had been badly damaged.”
Despite the ghastly décor and unsympathetic renovation, something appealed to Common. “Even in its ugly altered state, this place had a spirituality about it that spoke to me. There was something irresistible about its spaces, something here I wanted to undertake.” The job turned out to be much bigger and longer than she imagined.
“I had a monumental task in front of me so I took it on a little bit at a time. Sometimes I was discouraged, others I was elated. There were times when I almost gave up but I’d think, I’ve come this far, why quit now?”
Her first project was the newel post and banister you see when you enter the house. Under layers of paint, she discovered the intricate carving on the newel post and the luster of the oak handrails. It took over a year to finish that job. Thereafter it was one room at a time, starting with the dining room.
“The Historic Buildings By-Law came into being about the time I started my restoration so there wasn’t much in the way of government resources available,” says Common. She consulted with U of M Faculty of Architecture, attending restoration workshops by Professor Bill Thompson.
Today there are vast amounts of information, reference material and advice about heritage restoration and maintenance on the internet. The Historic Places Initiative has developed a set of Standards and Guidelines for Canadian heritage restorations along with resources for identifying, repairing and maintaining historic sites. The Historic Resources Branch, part of Manitoba’s Culture, Heritage, Tourism and Sport ministry, provides advice, specific assistance and general information on conservation and maintenance to owners of heritage sites.
Over the next fifteen years, besides restoring Beechmount, Common raised a family, divorced a husband and dealt with life as it arose. By 1995, enough of the history of the house had been unearthed and enough restoration done that the Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee toured and decided to designate the house.
Common took advantage of the new funding benefits that arise when you own a designated property and started on the “serious external stuff” such as the verandah. The original verandah was torn off in 1958 to make way for concrete steps. Enough documentation existed to create replication drawings.
Architect Giovanni Geremia had renovated the kitchen in the house so Common contacted him. He was thrilled to be able to draw up the verandah plans for her. Promising her “a more authentic result,” Geremia even offered to do it himself, if she wasn’t in a rush to get it done. The verandah took three years to complete but the result is spectacular.
The replication is uncanny. Utterly appropriate in colour, dimensions, detailing and quality of craftsmanship, the wraparound verandah enhances the comfort and warmth of the welcoming buff brick home. It appears to have always been there. The large brackets at the gable corners of the verandah were constructed by Geremia to match the originals at the roof corners. Each contains 20 separate pieces of wood. Another exterior job restored the still-assessable widow’s walk on the roof.
A long-time environmental activist and conservationist, Common sees Beechmount from that perspective. “This house is a giant recycling project. We think of recycling little things like cans and bottles but restoring rather than demolishing buildings is also recycling. Personally and policy-wise, we need to think in those terms.”
“Now it’s the upkeep,” says Common. Upkeep maintains both the heritage and real estate value of a property by helping ensure its distinctive character-defining elements are protected. Appropriate maintenance demonstrates pride in the accomplishments of forbearers and the personal satisfaction of fulfilling your time of stewardship. Often mentioned by site owners is the enrichment of the community and respect that maintenance creates.
“My maintenance plan? I just watch. The house speaks to you. It’s never leaked. It’s structurally sound. There is a bit of painting needs to be done.” Asked about a maintenance schedule, Common says, “We do interior work during the winter and the exterior in summer.”
The rewards of the restoration are many and varied for Common. In 2006, Heritage Winnipeg awarded her the Best Residential Conservation Award, citing “the sympathetic and successful rehabilitation – a quarter century labour of love.”
“I thought it was nice recognition of work done over such a long time. As a bed and breakfast, the award adds exciting flavour to our advertisements and gets people interested in Manitoba history, bringing out the questions. Why is it designated? Who lived here? I enjoy sharing what I know about the era, style, architect, people who lived here. This house is exciting from all those perspectives.”
The heritage factor attracts lodgers. “Often people stay here because they have a connection to Armstrong’s Point or West Gate or they just like staying in old homes.” The house is included on the Canadian Register of Historic Places.
“She married one of the Monk boys and had often visited this house during their courtship. When she walked onto the verandah and in the front door, she said ‘Oh my Christine, this is just the way I remember it seventy years ago.’ To me that was such a positive affirmation! That one comment will always encourage me to never give up.”
Of her love for Beechmount, Common says, “If you find a suitable old building, as English critic and author John Ruskin said, ‘You’ll find walls that are washed by the passing waves of humanity.’ You won’t find that in a new building.
“It’s exciting connecting the building to its historical origins. It’s a little bit of archeology. I love to research and discover. You can’t do that in a new house because there is nothing to discover. I find the work and the research enormously interesting and rewarding. It’s a springboard for doing more.”
That is often how heritage is preserved. Satisfying feelings of accomplishment, pride and connection, a result of doing the work, inspire and expand the owner’s willingness to continue with the restoration or maintenance. The next project has the same effect, which spurs you on to the next and so on.
The responsibility Christine Common feels for Beechmount stretches in both directions from the present. It respects the origins and architecture of the building, its history and all the lives lived within it. It honours the present site with loving restoration and maintenance ensuring a significant piece of local history is preserved for future generations.