Home Lovely: Couple renovates Victoria heritage dwelling

“We’re old heritage house nuts so we’re like kids in a candy store in Victoria” — that’s how Mike Browne describes himself and his partner of 47 years, Jim Britten.

“We’re old heritage house nuts so we’re like kids in a candy store in Victoria” — that’s how Mike Browne describes himself and his partner of 47 years, Jim Britten.

The couple has renovated a dozen heritage homes over the years, including ‘O Canada House,’ where the lyrics for Canada’s national anthem were written in Vancouver. They won a City of Vancouver Heritage Award in 1997 for their restoration of the Victorian style home, which they saved from a wrecking ball and turned into a bed and breakfast, still operating today.

While living in Vancouver, the two loved heritage homes so much they would take all of their holidays in Victoria to admire the city’s many older houses.

“The Victoria architecture differs from the Vancouver homes. They are more ornate and grander here,” says Browne. Then one holiday, “just for fun,” the couple met with a realtor and visited one of their favorites — The Beasley House, by Canadian architect Samual Maclure, who worked in BC from 1890 to 1920.

“The granddaughter was in the living room and all dolled up. She looked a touch of Gloria Swanson,” says Browne, adding before they knew it they found themselves putting in a bid since they could see the “bones of the house were good. “

“We put in a low offer, not expecting anything but because she liked us it was accepted. That made it worth our while to move. We were driven by falling in love with that house to make the move and planned to run the B&B from here.”

But in the six months between purchase and occupancy someone offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse on their Vancouver home and business, allowing them to make a permanent move in 2000 to Victoria.

Once in the capital the couple’s love of renovating heritage houses continued to flourish. After three years in the now rejuvenated Beasley house they renovated three more older homes before deciding it was time to downsize since they were getting older. That was six years ago when they were in their sixties. They are now in their early 70s.

They were in the market for a modern condo and as Browne explains “were prepared to dive ourselves of our brown furniture and were looking at getting mid-century furniture.”

Then a 4,000-square-foot heritage house, in Fairfield neighborhood, came on the market and was cheaper than the modern James Bay condo, with a great harbor view, they had found. Despite their initial desire to downsize, their passion for heritage houses and renovating one last time proved too tempting to resist.

While many of their friends offered condolences instead of congratulations on their house purchase the couple was not deterred.

“One phrase we heard a thousand times is ‘The house sure needs a lot of work,’ ” says Browne.

“Another was ‘You should paint the woodwork white.’ “

But being true heritage buffs they refused to fall for today’s trend to lighten older homes by painting all of the interiors completely white, even though they were told it could increase the house’s real estate value by 40 per cent, says Browne.

They also refused to knock out walls to create an open concept interior, noting the room sizes were already generous. When they first bought the house it was being used as a rooming house and had to be converted back to a one family home, with a two bedroom mortgage helper in the basement.

“The main reason that drew us to this house is it had a warm feeling. The layout was four square and most of its original woodwork was still intact. Even though it had ugly wallpaper, fan lights and layers of curtains we could see behind it to the led glass windows and more character features,” says Browne.

Now retired, the couple took on a lot of the grunt work themselves, including restoring the original front porch. Somewhere in its history a previous owner closed in the porch, carving into the original wood columns that rested on stone bases and put in glazing on both sides of the 70s’ style front door.

Besides this front door there was a second door erected in front of the original front door, that thankfully was left untouched.

The front yard’s stone fencing was also hidden behind an unsightly chain link fence and its landscaping overgrown. The original gate had been removed but was found hidden behind a huge rhododendron.The stone pillars that marked the outside yard entrance had to be rebuilt for the gate to be returned to its proper place.

When they first viewed the house the couple needed a lot of vision to get past the unwelcoming entrance but upon entering the house they were greeted by an elegant front entry way. The entry still has its original full-height Douglas fir panelling, which gave a hint to the house’s old world charm….if one could see past the 1980s wallpapering which Browne and Britten could.

“The house was surprisingly in good condition,” says Britten.

“There’s very few houses where the woodwork hasn’t been painted out.”

Upstairs the wood was also left untouched throughout, but all four large bedrooms required cosmetic work such as removing wallpaper and heavy curtains to get back to the house’s basic beauty.

As we tour the third storey of the house, which includes yet another generously sized bedroom, adjacent to an outside rooftop deck Britten jokes “it’s a lot of house for two people. Sometimes we can’t find each other.”

Since they are heritage lovers it’s no surprise their home is thoughtfully curated with many of their collectibles and classic furniture from the early 19th century.

One of their favorite pieces is their 1904 dining room table, which they bought for their first home together and can seat 12 comfortably. The high back chairs are about 45 years old and still have their original mohair upholstery.

A striking hand-painted mirror in the dining room dates back to 1905 and is seen in a photograph from that period, which is also on display in their home. Around the corner in the living room is a family keepsake — Browne’s grandmother’s needlepoint chair that has matching needlepoint in the circular side table. Sitting on the table is a lovely Tiffany light and a striking bronze Art Nouveau asian, in the shape of a woman. Their artwork throughout the home includes many water colours, from the turn of the century, including one showing the Lions along the North Shore Mountains and another of Steveston.

While the home’s comfortable interior, which is ideal for entertaining, harkens back to a bygone era the house also has a new addition. It was done by a previous homeowner and provides space for a modern kitchen and light-filled second living room to watch TV, read and play cards.

But Browne says the front porch, that runs the length of the house, represents why the couple loves heritage homes so much. It exudes warmth and brings people together. “We’re on this porch all the time. If you are lucky enough to have a porch it helps you interact with your neighborhood,” he says.

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