Published in The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, January 8, 2000
Page G1 of the Homes section

Citizen archive link:

The doctor's house

Claude and George Dallaire have poured their energy and affection into restoring a historic stone home overlooking the Ottawa River. It's the perfect retirement project.

Katharine Fletcher
The Ottawa Citizen

The river systems were the original highways for our early settlers and today they are the playground for many area residents, including Claude and George Dallaire who have poured their energy and affection into renovating a heritage stone home overlooking the Ottawa River near Rockland.

It was the Ottawa which likely brought Dr. Dugald McCaul to a high point of land and a new life near the east-end community more than 100 years ago. There are many unanswered questions about Dr. McCaul, but he did leave a legacy -- a magnificent stone home. He was a captain and very likely a surgeon in a British Man o'War, says George Dallaire from the comfort of his cosy sunroom which was added to the original home about 15 years ago.

The Dallaires smile at each other as they try to figure out the exact date of the addition. As most couples who renovate their homes know, years tend to blend together through the many projects. For the past 15 years, the couple have poured their energy, enthusiasm and affection into the restoration of the stone home.

They purchased it in 1984 as a retirement project. Mr. Dallaire, a former welder, and his wife Claude, who worked for CIDA, were looking for a waterfront property because they love boating. A friend told them about the historic stone house on the edge of the Ottawa River.

They immediately realized the home, built between 1826 to 1832, was an unsung Ottawa-area treasure.

Convinced they could save it from further decay, the couple offered to buy the home, but the owner wasn't interested.

"We persisted," added Mrs. Dallaire quickly. "It was perfect for our boat. And, I love gardening and sewing. We finally made an offer in cash he couldn't refuse."

The couple smile happily, recollecting their early days and adding a garden and re-arranging the geography of their large waterfront lot.

Today, looking about the symmetrical, two-storey home, the transformation from neglected to cherished family home seems complete. "Well," corrects Mr. Dallaire, "houses are never finished." Fortunately, their three adult children all cherish the house and it's easy to see why.

Today, the back garden slopes gently down to the river where two deck chairs sit on a broad expanse of rock. A flagpole marks a sudden drop to the river and land reclaimed by an intensive dredging project.

"We love boating, and because pioneer Dr. McCaul would have first seen the home from the river, it seemed fitting that we should create a proper berth for our cruiser," says Mr. Dallaire.

In 1990, they obtained a permit from the Ministry of Natural Resources and hired a dredger. The fill was then used for spectacular landscaping. Naturally terraced rock formations, which lay just beneath the lawn's surface, now dramatically frame the Dallair e home which is all about understated elegance and fine lines.

On the second storey of the primary residence, three dormer windows project from the roof and the central dormer is symmetrically positioned over the front door.

To the east of the main house, the two-storey kitchen wing is visible. Today, it serves as Mrs. Dallaire's sewing room, where she creates traditional quilts. Very likely, the second floor of the wing originally served as the servant's quarters and was heated by a chimney and the kitchen fireplace that still boasts its original cast-iron door.

"There was an attached wing on the west side of the home: you can still see the old roofline in the stonework," says Mr. Dallaire. "When we redid the upstairs master bedroom, we discovered an old door which we converted to a window." The western wing was removed years ago because it didn't have a foundation.

We enter the main part of home through the riverfront door to new birch flooring in the main hall. "The original yellow pine just had to come out, it was irreparable," he says. And nobody really knows what happened to the original banister and balustrading.

"Nothing remained of it when we purchased the house. There were only rough boards nailed up."

There is honey-toned yellow pine flooring on the second level and a deep-set dormer overlooking the back garden, the exposed rock and Ottawa River. Off to the left is Mrs. Dallaire's potting shed. Its board-and-batten facade tricks the eye, for it looks old.

But it has its own river-based tale to tell. Mr. Dallaire is obviously proud of the discovery he made: a gift of the river. "Three years ago, a B.C. fir boom log floated downriver. We retrieved it, and I got the log sawn to use for the potting shed."

We turn from the outstanding river view and head to the south-facing dormer, located directly over the main door which faces Woods Street. An antique writing desk sits in the deep dormer window well, forming a picturesque nook all its own.

Then there is the unique master bedroom. "We've never figured it out," says Mrs. Dallaire. "This room was never divided. It was always long and thin. Do you know what it could have been?"

I'm thrilled because I think this used to be used as a ballroom. Back at home, I dig out my copy of The Ancestral Roof: Domestic Architecture of Upper Canada, by Marion MacRae and Anthony Adamson, (Clarke-Irwin). It confirms my guess: "Upstairs living rooms of this kind were not uncommon and were referred to as ballrooms. When not used for this purpose, they no doubt served as rooms for sleeping in, or for quilting-bees and on other community occasions. The large centre halls upstairs were used for spinning, sewing and the performance of other domestic chores not related to the kitchen."

The Dallaires have transformed the ballroom into their master bedroom in an intriguing way. They installed a toilet and a refurbished cast-iron bathtub separated from the master bedroom by screens. An antique washstand, lovingly restored by Mrs. Dallaire, assists in forming an effective transition between bedroom and bath.

This energetic couple has even handcrafted their bed. "My husband made the wrought-iron headboard."

The caring handyman also solved their closet problem with style.

A common failing of heritage houses is the lack of closet space and Dr. McCaul's stone house was no exception. Mr. Dallaire added storage and a feeling of extra width to the long, narrow room by installing a mirror-fronted closet. This modern approach works because the mirrored doors reflect the angles of the gables and windows.

As the tour continues, we all wonder aloud whether dances were ever held in the ballroom . And, who was this Dr. Dugald McCaul? Was he married? Why did he die so young? Did he like this home?

"We don't know much," says Mr. Dallaire. We peer into the two guest bedrooms before descending to the first floor. Both bedrooms feature quilts made by Mrs. Dallaire, and one room sports a blonde butternut bedroom suite owned by Mr. Dallaire's mother.

Still on the mysterious doctor, Mr. Dallaire adds, "You can visit McCaul's gravesite when you leave. It's on Edwards Street. I think he was only 39 when he died."

At the foot of the stairs, our attention is captured by the main bathroom and a sink retrofitted into a large antique chest of drawers by Mrs. Dallaire.

It's a well-executed piece of work, just like the rest of the house.

Two of the three original fireplaces are still in use, albeit altered. The couple's kitchen, completely redone by them, features a wood stove that is firmly planted on a brick base, surrounded by red brick walls and a collection of cast-iron pots and pans.

What could have been a heavy-looking brick facade is accented by cupboards and counters in nautical blue and white. Another deep window well frames a view of the Ottawa River.

Reluctantly, I take my leave, stopping my car near a rise of land and a cluster of headstones. At least Dr. McCaul's weathered marker is standing. Others have been vandalized, lying in disarray.

The headstone simply reads: "Dugald McCaul, died Feb 26, 1848, age 39 years & 5 mos."

There are so many questions about the good doctor, but at least the Dallaires have ensured his home, their home, is now in good hands.

Katharine Fletcher delights in telling the stories of heritage homes in the National Capital Region. Please contact Homes editor Sheila Brady at 596-3709 if you know of a pioneer home.