Cottage Keeper

This 1930s cottage required heavy hauling and heritage help

Written by: Don Procter
Photos by: Gord Miller

When 20-something Ryan Catena bought a wee derelict 1930s Craftsman cottage in the older established residential neighbourhood of Newton in northeast Edmonton, he had big plans: Restore the exterior, renovate the interior, add about 1,300 square feet and get the house designated as a heritage residence by the city of Edmonton.

“I can’t begin to tell you how many of my friends, family, neighbours and walker-bys thought my wife Chelsey and I were completely nuts,” says Ryan, a firefighter who had little experience in the oft-nightmare world of home renovation.

Fast forward a few years and the couple and their one-year-old child Viviana are settled nicely into their transformed home. After meeting all of their restoration objectives, they proved all their critics wrong. And the Catenas didn’t take any shortcuts along the way.

Called the Otto Reiher Cottage after its first owner, the home was originally a coal-heated dwelling with an outhouse. It is the first residence of its type in Edmonton – a modest worker’s cottage – to receive historic designation by the city. “Most of the homes the city designates are very large and opulent, often mansions that had noted people living in them,” explains Ryan.

While Ryan wanted the designation from the outset, he knew that it meant restrictions on what the couple could do to the house – and the couple they had a lot in mind to do. The city’s heritage rules required additional space to be hidden from street view – not an easy task when you propose to add adding 1,376 square feet to a house that had barely 700 square feet to start with.

The Catenas got the nod first from heritage staff for a 400-square-foot rear addition, as long as it was inset by a foot from the original foundations. The remaining 976 square feet was to be in the basement – not so easy to do considering the existing dirt dugout space was cramped and had low ceilings.

Left with no option, the couple chose to lift the house off its crumbling foundation, roll it into the back yard onto supports and excavate the old basement to allow for eight-foot ceilings, deep window wells and a new foundation. “Now when people come up to the house for the first time, they say how charming and cute it is but when they go into the (976 square foot) full-height basement with bright windows they say how ‘ginormous’ it is.”

There were plenty of other hurdles along the way to completing the house. The sagging roof and undersized rafters, for one, needed lots of work. Ryan turned to his father, Don, a firefighter as well with experience as a house framer, for help. The pair straightened the undersized 2×4 rafters with wall jacks and then reinforced them by sistering in 2×6 rafters. A collar tie – like a mini-truss – was bolted in place for additional strength.

While Ryan was involved in doing much of the interior renovations himself, he was required by Edmonton’s historical department to hire qualified contractors to restore the exterior, which included wood siding and shingles, windows restoration/replication, painting in original colours and the new foundation. Beyond repair, the wood storm windows were scrapped, and replaced with reproductions installed over the restored three-over-one sash wood windows. The new copper weatherstripping will eliminate drafts for many years.

During the process of gutting the interior, Ryan carefully removed old newspapers rolled up in the walls for insulation, ironed them and laminated the best ones on plaques to display in a hallway. One display ad lists tailored suits for $25 while another shows The Blob starring Steve McQueen as the main attraction at the Strand, a Famous Players Theatre. “They really give you a slice of life from the past.”

Between the city and the provincial governments, the Catenas received a total of $50,000 assistance for restoring the exterior to its original 1930s appearance. They also got a $4,000 provincial government energy grant towards a high efficiency furnace, hot water tank, energy efficient windows and insulation retrofit.

Ryan says the time frame to complete the home’s renos and restoration took just 12 months. “People are astounded when I tell them it only took a year.”

The secret to their success? Uber-organizational skills – the kind you’d expect from a major construction management company building a mammoth office building, not from a pair of 20-somethings doing their first major house project.

The couple met the exceptional timeline by developing a 10-stage construction process – from the foundation on up to the roof – with target completion dates set for each stage. Contractors, city permit officials and the heritage department were all apprised of the timeline well in advance to ensure all involved could meet the goals.

Both Ryan and Chelsey made sacrifices to ensure goals were met. Ryan banked shifts and took holidays from his firefighting job to put in 12 to 14 hour days for the first three or so months of the project while Chelsey, a landscape designer, took a second job as a food server in a restaurant to help fund the project.

The couple didn’t stop at rebuilding the home. They also erected an oversized double garage with a 624-square-foot loft – designed in keeping the same Craftsman architecture as the original home. They also landscaped the 61-by-X123-foot lot – a design by Chelsey.

Ryan, who has always been drawn to history, restored his first car, a ’78 Chevy Nova when he was 14. “I had long dreamed of owning a heritage or character home but unfortunately the prices of these homes were out of reach for us when we started looking to buy. When I saw this house, I thought of the possibilities and decided it was what I wanted.”

Purchased at an attractive price the acquisition proved a smart deal. While it cost $250,000 to completely restore and renovate the house and property, the couple got their dream home at a price they could afford.