John Demont: Ensuring the future of this magnificent heritage home in Halifax
It was 1980, around this time of year.
Waverly resident John Wesley Chisholm was 17, “but he looked like a 12-year-old, a double-jeaned dreamer standing on the brink of adulthood and the rusty box of a two-tone blue Ford F-100 pickup.”
He had earnings from odd jobs and deposits in bottles in his pocket. He told me this week that he still had his head “full of words of April wine, and the imagination of crossing the big bridge to Halifax,” a desire that at that point manifested itself in heading to the big city in the semis. – Tons of fun to enjoy the Christmas lights in the big city.
He now thinks they must have looked like an ordinary country yoke, crawling in a pickup truck through Halifax’s well-kept South End, gazing at the houses and decorations.
“But we all had ideas about beauty and quality and the good life,” Chisholm explained.
And when, from the open cargo bed, he set his eyes on 6484 Jubilee Road. – With its double gables, its Tudor-style plaster exterior, and its carriage house – the most beautiful house he had ever seen, all he could do was wonder, “Who lived in a place like this and what did they do?”
Chisholm lives there now, a successful television producer who played for a time in some popular bands in the Halifax area. He’s as crazy about the house today as he was when he first saw it 43 years ago.
That’s why he’ll appear before Halifax Regional Council on Nov. 14 to make an unusual request: to grant Jubilee House heritage property status.
“These are among the worst business deals you can imagine,” Chisholm said in an interview.
The restrictions imposed by historic designation on property reduce the purposes for which it can be used, limiting demand for it and thus lowering prices.
All of this means that by requiring a heritage builder’s plate, Chisholm will likely cost himself money if he decides to sell the house, which would fetch a low price of $2 million on today’s market.
Why would a person intentionally give themselves a hit in the pocket?
Because with Halifax’s severe housing crisis, barely a week goes by without a venerable old home being reduced to rubble. Because, as a neighbor recently pointed out to Chisholm, when it comes to homes, their owners are merely their hosts.
Beauty, quality and history
He is, then, determined to do his best to preserve what is special about the Jubilee Road house, regardless of who owns it.
“I’m not a proponent of historic preservation. What I love is beauty and quality. And this house has both. Why wouldn’t you do that?” he explained.
In fact, historic preservationists love the house too, as it was designed by noted architect Graham Creighton and built a century ago for Harry I. Mathers, then owner of the venerable Halifax Shipping Company.
Members of the Mathers clan lived there until the 1940s. Subsequently, the house changed hands, and landed in the hands of two sisters, who were nieces of the eighth Premier of Nova Scotia, George Murray.
Over time, he left the house to Kathleen “Buffy” Keith, a niece, and her husband, attorney Sheldon Chisholm, no relation to John Wesley, who died in 1982.
His widow lived there for another 25 years, according to the residence’s written history, “often opening its doors for community and church events, along with charitable fundraisers,” and taking in residents.
Talk about redevelopment
When she died in 2004, the property was divided into three parcels. The house was to be demolished and redeveloped, and that is when Chisholm reenters the story.
At that point, he was living in and renovating a house a little further out of Jubilee, and was lamenting to realtor Sandy Bryant about the neighborhood’s potential loss to a property whose appeal had never diminished.
“Just go talk to the guy,” she told Chisholm, who recently sold 48 percent of his film production company Arcadia Entertainment. So he did.
It helped that George Tsimiklis, the controversial developer, only wanted the land for the property and valued the house at $0.
In 2009, Chisholm paid $750,000 for two of the three lots on the property, including the residence.
At that point, the house had been vacant for three years, and the southwest corner of the building fell in and water pipes burst, damaging the veneer and woodwork.
Making a pitch
But Chisholm had a valuable ally, Hal Forbes, the man behind Forbes Restoration, who was responsible for the facelifts of several heritage homes in Halifax.
“He walked me around and said, ‘We can do this,'” the new owner recalls.
Six months and $300,000 later, the features that made it Chisholm’s dream home were back: the “intricate rounded woodwork” built by shipwrights who “brought a level of craftsmanship that was an art.” Human-sized rooms that, even in such a large house, “wrap their arms around you and make you never feel alone.”
He hopes it never changes. The heritage building requirement, which applies to approximately three per cent of Halifax homes, is not preventing a developer from trying to have its way with Jubilee House; It only slows down any plans for three years by giving “concerned persons a year to organize and act if a particular property becomes threatened,” according to a Change.org petition supporting the house’s historic designation, which as of Wednesday afternoon had 3,630 signatures .
Petitions do not usually affect the regional council. Chisholm intends to introduce it to them anyway.
Council staff have already recommended that the property be classified as a municipal heritage property, which in itself does not guarantee council members’ approval.
The owner himself will have five minutes to present his case. He told me he intended to make every second of it count. After all, Chisholm has a lot of ground to cover. For the host of the Jubilee House, and everyone who cares about this city’s built heritage, there is a lot at stake.