Following is the story of the Grange, recounted by RAJ Phillips, who rescued the pioneer log barn from certain destruction and moved it to the family property on the banks of the Gatineau River. Bob Phillips (1922-2003) was a writer, historian, and, like his wife Mary Anne (1923-1990) infused the Grange with love of culture, Canadiana, and the spirit of the many friends and visitors who populated their eclectic world.
There are many statistics about the Grange which impress us: most notably that it was probably the largest log building reconstruction ever attempted in Canada. Those intimately concerned with the project know why. The future Grange had already received its death sentence from an insurance company, because it stood too close to a Butler building which housed Tamarack Acres Antiques. On July 1 1974, with a high school student and a deep breath, we started. First was the job of shoveling tons of petrified hay lofts whose floors were largely formed of unnailed and slippable slabs. (“Bob, where are you?”) It took days more just to disconnect the wiring and the fixtures, to take down all the stalls, shelves, cupboards and other accumulations of a century and a half. Then the roof – aluminum plates which sailed through the air and sometimes boomeranged back in deadly flight, millions of cedar shingles, tar paper on cedar shingles. Each roof and gable board had to be pried up, doors and windows removed. Finally every bit of the interior had to be cleaned out. The piles of hay, lumber and junk climbed to obscure the sky, but all had to be kept far enough a way to allow the trucks, and all had to be rough-sorted into savable and discards. From the former there were a million rusted nails to be removed.
Contracting for the motley assembly of trucks was one of the biggest challenges. Our local network produced one invaluable vehicle which on legitimate weekday business hoisted its loads of concrete blocks to construction sites. We fitted the hoist with antique ice tongs which lifted every log away from its roof or wall onto a truck: on the final one it died of metal fatigue. It was a marvellous crew of truck drivers, burly men fascinated by the crazy project and willing to do anything to make it happen. Well, almost anything. Our worst crisis was when an innocent preadolescent garter snaked looked sleepily out of a log about to be lifted. All those brave men fled in terror to their trucks, rolled up the windows, locked the doors and declared the job would stop until the site was serpent free.
The Original Grange
The longest flat-bed truck in Christendom carried the main load, but it stopped agonizingly short of its objective on the edge of our property. Perhaps the truck really could not navigate our road, or perhaps it was late Saturday afternoon, and all the boys had long since gathered at the local watering hole, the Manoir, for their gallons of beer. Whatever it was, the driver dumped all those logs on the main road just beside the future pond. We waited for the weekend following the first storm of December when there would be enough snow to lubricate the logs on the roads, but not so much that they would be all buried. We were reasonably lucky, but it was a grim two days digging in the new snow to carry each log to a small bulldozer, then drag them half a dozen at a time down the long lane to the river, and up to the site. (The direct route from the car park to the Grange was then all dense bush and rock.) When the last log was dropped in the early dark of Sunday evening, the snow began in earnest and the precious pile was left to the elements for l8 months.
The next season was slow and frustrating. To prepare the site we imported a variety of equipment of increasing ferocity, ending with a ram jet which made dubious impressions on the rock, but sure moved the neighbours. The decision to stop was made less on goals having been achieved than on mounting protests across the back 40. Then we waited weeks for the bureaucratic process, for it turned out that the building permit required a subdivision of land which had to be approved by every authority short of the United Nations. We built the piggery sauna while waiting, and managed the foundations only in a race with frost. Following advice, which seemed as dubious then as now, I collected station-wagon loads of leaves from Ottawa to place around the concrete wall snaking up and down the valley. That was to keep it warm, they said. It kept me warm that autumn – and next spring when they all had to be removed. The third season started early with the conventional construction needed to finish the basement structure and place all the floors on the main level.
We were following the architectural plans prepared by Napier Simpson of Toronto, probably Canada’s most gifted and experienced architect in wood restoration. He laid out the rooms and specified the windows as well as lumber dimensions. Only once did he visit the site in mid-construction; on its completion he was due to return and rejoice. A few weeks before, he was killed in a Newfoundland air disaster, which wiped out half the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board.
For three weekends in June we had our barn raising. The previous summer we had put a small modicum of order in the pile of some 700 marked pieces, and so we now could find log A-1. Even so, progress was slow as dozens of well-meaning and kind friends and neighbours spread over the hillside in search of productive labour. When it was over, when the last vat of beans was consumed when the last case of beer was drunk, we had walls partly up on the main level (bedroom to kitchen). To raise the 40 foot oak beams to the top of the Great Hall, we had dwindled to our crew of five. Home-made scaffolds, ladders, even ropes and pulleys from trees all played some part, but it was really faith that got those logs in place. By September, when again we closed down for the year, the whole place was weather tight and the furnace was installed. Of course we did not discover that it did not work until midwinter when no one could get in to repair it, and so its value was dubious.
Still working with students and other young people who tended to come and go over the years and even over the week (the average number on duty was about four), we spent the last season making the place habitable in the real sense of the term. We employed dry wall installers, plumbers and electricians, but all the other work, including carpentry, was our own. Our target date for occupancy – Labour Day, 1977 – was met, though to say that much remained to do was an understatement. We manufactured all our own interior pine doors, not one of which had been made for the interior. The first, we decided, was for the guest washroom. The rest came in time. We got around to baseboards in 1983, and to trim on the Great Hall paneling a year after that. Porches had been constructed in 1978,and the sun room in 1987. Such delays were not even disappointing.
We have never been able to suppress naive surprise that the whole ridiculous project worked magnificently.
Early Sunday morning, April 26, 1992, I emerged from a shower to find the Great Hall filled with dense smoke. Within l0 minutes the Cantley fire department was on the scene. It burned for 36 hours. It started below the present north door of the Great Hall, from squirrels chewing through insulation on electric wiring, and for an hour or two the rest of the building had only minor smoke or none at all. The ultimate tragedy was that the firefighting crew expected to contain and extinguish the fire quickly before spreading, and meanwhile did not allow access to the interior to rescue irreplaceable collections. That might have been the case if the firefighters had heeded the advice of a neighbour who implored them to shut the valve to the 1,000 gallon tank of fuel oil. In the event, the thousands of litres of oil spread across the basement to ignite a mighty fire which consumed most of the building.
Two-thirds of the Great Hall was spared, though the whole interior and roof were replaced. When the balcony crashed through to the flaming basement, virtually all the heirloom silver and china were destroyed. The contents of the farther guest room (#9) and the sunroom were restorable. Much equipment in the atelier was saved, then stolen from the ruins. Elsewhere, almost everything was lost. About a third of the library, though bindings were scorched to anonymity, was still readable—though not most of the collections from the nineteenth century and earlier.
Nevertheless, the concrete foundations and the log walls survived with only superficial damage, illustrating that log construction is about the safest defence against the ravages of fire. Thus the building could be restored without significant change in appearance. For a price . . .
Beyond The Fire
The price was high, financially and emotionally.
While the contents still blazed, Margaret prepared the basement of Buck House as my temporary home and office. The day of the fire, the roads were crowded with friends, many in tears, as the word of the disaster spread fast. As I was persuaded to walk away up the hill, the smouldering flames at my back, Scott Stevenson (my partner in the newspapers) remarked that I would write the best column of my life. I doubted it.
I had to return often to the ruin for administrative reasons, and I hated every minute and every footstep. Dan the dog, who normally accompanied me everywhere, would not venture beyond the Grange garage for months. The first days and weeks were the worst. Work crews undertook the clean-up of horrible charred remains of structure and contents coated with the oily mess from the storage tank whose valve was never closed. Friends generously volunteered their time in the search for precious scraps the workmen might miss. With heavy timbers were mixed a goo with broken shards of irreplaceable china; pieces of furniture that might conceivably be repaired; half-melted heirloom silver; thousands of books, two thirds damaged by fire or water beyond redemption and most of the rest with bindings too charred to identify; archival documents either in charred boxes or widely scattered; precious maps centuries old, with nothing remaining but shards of glass or scraps of frame; traces of collections of a lifetime occasionally mixed with a miraculously preserved object.
All the first two nights John Tremeer senior sat in his car by the Grange garage to guard against the entry of human vultures. We were deeply grateful, but doubted its necessity. We were wrong.
Thieves at some stage entered the basement atelier, and bore off all the power tools they could extract from the ruins of upper floors resting on them. Exploitation of tragedy was not confined to thieves. The insurance company immediately employed, at considerable expense, Lebrun Building Services Limited of Breezehill Street, Ottawa to remove salvageable furniture and other objects for safekeeping in their warehouse. There was no care, and little evident knowledge of the character and value of antiques. Objects soaked by fire hoses, which should have been quickly dried, were piled on a concrete floor where they suffered far more damage from fungus growth than in the fire itself. The most shocking example was the family Bible, in which the births of the Phillips family were recorded in handwriting since 1800. It was heroically rescued from the basement by a Cantley firefighter at the height of the blaze before it was significantly damaged. In the care of Lebrun, it was almost destroyed. When placed in the hands of Herbert Leus, Canada’s preeminent document restorer (recently retired from National Archives), it took two years, incomparable skill, and thousands of dollars (the gift of Brigid and Rod Janssen) to salvage the single volume. Hundreds of books, of equal intrinsic value but less emotional attachment, had to be written off as landfill.
We extracted the remains from Lebrun after it had presented its bill for safekeeping and an estimate for furniture restoration which was roughly three times as high as from the real expert whom we later employed.
The disappointments led one on another in those horrible days. I had taken the precaution of making two copies of a detailed video inventory of The Grange. Of course the copy in The Grange was destroyed, but the second copy was in safekeeping in Ottawa. Alas, when we viewed it, it was totally erased by a sitcom that had been accidentally recorded over it.
Apart from the employment of Lebrun, we had praise for Chubb Insurance which acted promptly and fairly. Because of the size of the policy, a team of Chubb officials visited the Grange a few months before to ensure that it was adequately covered at replacement value in accordance with the company’s sound and conservative policy. Unfortunately, they had underestimated the cost of replacing both the structure and the contents. On the other hand, despite my insistence that there were some salvageable remains, they insisted on promptly paying as if it were a total loss. In the event, because the most valuable contents were irreplaceable, we used the insurance money compensating both for building and contents to restore just the building – and it covered a high percentage of that cost. But that was far in the future. Immediately, there was serious doubt that we would restore The Grange. Nevertheless I quickly commissioned Barry Padolsky, friend and universally respected restoration architect, to prepare plans for tender so that we could assess the financial situation.
Most of the original plans from the late Napier Simpson of Thornhill were still available, but staff had to start almost from scratch, proposing many internal improvements.
Meanwhile heart-wrenching expressions of condolence poured in – from newspapers to quiet personal notes that recorded the meaning of Grange visits to their writers. Overtly or implied, all urged its rebuilding. The family was extraordinary. Sensing the terrible burden of recreating years of work, none ever urged me to undertake it, but it was obvious where their hopes lay. And, living alone with most of our accumulated possessions destroyed, there was no rationale for living in such a huge place. If the decision was not to rebuild, I had firmly decided to move from Cantley, for the ghosts of the lost past were more than I wanted to bear.
July 1 had always been a big day at The Grange, when we joyously celebrated Dominion Day with more than hundred friends. No invitations this year. But something even more memorable and seminal happened.
During the morning, Scott and I were working hard on newspaper accounts in my Buck House office. He urged a break to go for a walk. Very reluctantly I eventually agreed; and even more reluctantly wandered down to the ruined Grange where heavy equipment operators broke the deadly silence. As we turned off the road, I saw the path and lawn lined with dozens of little Canadian flags, as on happier occasions. There was a crowd of about 40 friends, standing amidst shattered timbers, with blackened skeleton behind. Brian Rolfes, then resident in Gatehouse, conducted a ceremony. After negotiations with Government House and generous contributions of friends, they bestowed on me a new Order of Canada medal to replace the original destroyed in the fire. We drank a toast in champagne, and almost poisoned ourselves with a fire-ravaged beer. Mine were not the only misty eyes.
The blackest day was July 31 when the tenders were opened. The local contractor who had undertaken the site clean-up declined even to bid on such a huge project (though it was originally constructed by a bunch of unskilled students and me!). The bids, of course, did not include land, septic installations, foundations, basement floors or any new walls. The lowest was about $ 575,000, and the highest about $ 750,000: all far, far in excess of the total insurance compensation.
Then a strange thing happened. A few weeks before, Scott had asked me at the last minute to substitute for him at the annual Aylmer Civitan dinner so that he could go to his Eastern Townships home to deal with a problem. My dinner guest, Carol Anne Gingras, and I were not seated together, and her immediate companion chanced to be Murray Milne. For some odd reason their talk turned to log buildings, and Murray mentioned a highly skilled company in the business of their construction and restoration. Carol happened to repeat the conversation to me later, and though I thought I knew most local people with log house interests, I had never heard of this crew– one of whose partners lived in Cantley! With reconstruction almost ruled out by the response to tenders, I was desperate to follow any other lead, and tracked down the partners. Of course they knew about The Grange, and one of them had visited it long before. That highly unlikely thread of coincidence thickened to a chain which was to save The Grange.
The partners were John Jefferson of Cantley and Brad Dagg of the Poltimore area. When their partnership dissolved that autumn, Brad Dagg and his crew did most of the restoration. They were not only highly skilled, knowledgeable, hard working and conscientious, but imaginative. And flexible. They had wonderful sources of old materials, not only more authentic but cheaper than within the reach of any ordinary contractor. The contract was divided into several parts. They were commissioned immediately to close in the whole building; to restore the ground floor, and to frame in the upper floor. I would complete the upper floor, do the entire basement, and the considerable relandscaping that was necessary. We left the Great Hall for decision when we could assess progress. When the time came, they took on its interior restoration. At the time of my impatience, work seemed to take ages to start (the first hammer blows sounded in late August) and then to drag on agonizingly. At one stage, when I was trying to work in my Buck House office, I would run out every half hour to view the thickening November snowflakes and count the rafters yet to be placed on the Great hall roof. All was closed in and capable of being heated by early December – quite a feat!
Dan and I moved back the week before Christmas, but it remained a loud and lively construction site for the whole winter. Administration and deadlines were not at the top of Brad’s many talents, and the list of small deficiencies dwindled only slowly through the summer and autumn. But on July 1 we celebrated the resurrection of The Grange to universal applause.
The new Grange incorporated many improvements I disagreed with some of the overkill on which the consulting mechanical engineer insisted, but you cannot win them all. One big improvement was the creation of far more usable basement space through the blasting of 50 cubic metres of granite, on which I stood my ground despite almost universal opposition. The new Grange is the even more magnificent construction today, thanks to Barry Padolsky and his site architect Ricardo Hendi.
Note: Barry Padolsky remains a great friend of the Grange, and served as an early member of the board of La Grange de la Gatineau, a not-for-profit organization established in 2004 to carry on the spirit of heritage, culture, debate and discussion in the community that Bob and Mary Anne Phillips fostered when the Grange was their home