Traditional Muskoka

Originally built in 1912, this cottage has been updated and expanded with stunning results.

By Susan Doran

Having just moved to Montreal from Toronto, the time it takes Donna and John Taylor to drive to their cottage just tripled.
They don’t care.

“It’s much more of a commute now – six hours instead of two. But it’s still worth it,” says Donna Taylor. “It’s a well-used cottage. We spend a lot of time there, and so do our four (grown) kids.”

They all especially like the sense of “community” on the lake, she adds.
“There are progressive dinners in July and August,” she says. Cottagers on the lake go from dock to dock, the first “for appetizers, then to the next for soup and salad, another for the main course, and yet another for dessert.”

Built in 1912 of timber construction, the Taylor’s cottage – which they call Deer Haven – is on Peninsula Lake, near Huntsville, in Muskoka, Ontario’s premier region for recreational properties.

Like other cottages in the area, this one was originally built for summer use only. But over the years as various owners have come and gone, it has become increasingly winterized.

When the Taylors came along they also winterized, and made a lot of other improvements as well, including shifting one lakeside porch to increase living space; replacing most of the windows; repairing the foundation; landscaping extensively; and having a new, pitched and staggered roof with dormers installed to boost space on the second storey.

Inside, they reclaimed tongue-and-groove fir and pine panels, birch and oak flooring, trim, and other original materials diligently, custom milling where this was not possible.

On the main floor, they tried not to alter the original floor plan too drastically.

“If you were building new, you would not have (several) bedrooms and a bathroom opening off to the living room as we do, but it adds to the charm, we think,” Taylor says.

Despite the fact that the couple both has ties to the design industry – she has her own interior design firm and his work is related to information technology for design-business showrooms – renovating this cottage had its challenges for them.

The job turned out to be too big for the original local contractor they’d hired (a situation cottagers should watch out for, especially now that recreational properties are increasingly being built like year-round homes, Taylor cautions).

They had to switch contractors halfway through the job, which slowed things down considerably.

“It’s time-consuming having to stay on site with new contractors,” Taylor says.

She was grateful that she knew their carpenter personally so that he could work in the house even when she and her family were back in the city.

The effort put into the cottage was well worth it, however. With its screened-in porch, its two-storey stone fireplace, and its open upstairs hallway looking down on the living room, the atmosphere is warm – vaguely reminiscent of a lodge – and “very old-Muskoka,” says Taylor.

“We’re the fourth family to own the cottage in 95 years,” she says. “It was built when all supplies had to come in by steamship.”

She says that when things were being torn out while renovating, she and her husband were surprised to find that on a number of old items, including some doors, the name of the original owner – Dr. Bauer – had been written in pencil for delivery purposes a lifetime ago.

The Taylors were also delighted to find an old photograph of Dr. Bauer himself – resplendent in the type of formal starched shirt typical of the day – and his family posed on the cottage’s summer porch.

At eight acres, the property is now smaller than it once was; parts of it having been parceled off. But the remaining property still boasts an assortment of outbuildings, including a bunkhouse, an ice hut, and a couple of boathouses.

With two storeys and a basement walkout, the cottage itself is large – Taylor estimates it’s now around 4,500 square feet. There are seven bedrooms (the Taylors have installed balconies off two of them to take advantage of the stunning view) and three bathrooms, including the master ensuite.

The cottage once had a formal dining room, but now the dining and kitchen areas have been combined into one big room with a lake view.

“When I designed the kitchen,” says Taylor, “I made it so that a couple of people could be working in there at the same time.”

It includes tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings, birch flooring, a backsplash of custom tiles featuring deer faces, maple cabinets painted white, stainless-steel appliances, a black granite countertop, a central island topped by reclaimed boards, a 12-foot harvest table, and new pot lights. The kitchen/dining area combines old and new in a practical and appropriate way.

“I love old. My husband loves new,” says Taylor. “So this satisfies both of us.”