THE ROBIN IN OUR COAL CELLAR

"Who could resist 7 mahogany doors at a dollar each? Not us.”

July 28 1962
THE ROBIN IN OUR COAL CELLAR

"Who could resist 7 mahogany doors at a dollar each? Not us.”

July 28 1962

"Who could resist 7 mahogany doors at a dollar each? Not us.”

THE ROBIN IN OUR COAL CELLAR

continued from page 23

The foreman, who identified himself as Tony, detached himself from the warmth and asked us if we wanted to look around. “That fireplace,” I said. “How much is it?”

“Fifteen dollars. But she’s sold.”

A black moment. We asked to see the rest of the house anyway. In the front hall, an expanse large enough to swallow our entire house, stood an enormous, magnificent grand staircase, right out of the movie The Great Waltz. It was fifteen feet wide, with two huge newel posts topped with carved acorns, and from the landing (located roughly twelve feet from ground level) it swept in each direction for another ten feet. Plus two balconies.

On the landing were three stained glass windows. We found out later that the house had belonged to Joseph Cawthra, a descendant of the Cawthra who settled in York before the War of 1812. Since his initials were the same as both my husband’s and mine, we took this as a good omen.

We bought one window, with the initials JC prominently displayed, for fifteen dollars, and for twenty dollars we bought the centre window which bore the Cawthra family crest. The crest shows three yellow boars’ heads with two spears on the shield, the whole thing topped with a larger snarling boar’s head in blue. The motto is Maintain the Right. I think this is the same as the motto of the RCMP.

We mounted the grand staircase to the second floor and bought a bathroom sink big enough for canoeing ($15), a medicine chest with a locked compartment and brass knobs ($15) and a third stained glass window decorated with summer flowers and a butterfly in free flight ($18). Then we fled before the innumerable other frightful temptations spread in our path.

But we couldn't stay away. Part of our deal with Tony required that my father remove the stained glass windows, to ensure their safety.

When we took my father to the mansion we were trapped once more by the sight of bargains. Who could resist seven mahogany doors with fancy brass hinges, at a dollar apiece? It was also obvious that we could not pass up the massive light fixture from the front hall at twelve dollars. It was too heavy for one person to lift. As my husband said, “They don't make light fixtures like that any more.” We also took two sliding dining-room doors, fifteen feet high and twenty feet wide, for ten dollars, and an extra marble bedroom mantelpiece for ten dollars.

And we still couldn't forget the black fireplace that someone else had bought. It was the pièce de resistance of the house, it lured us back a third time. Tony greeted us happily, no doubt pegging us as the easiest marks in his entire career.

We stopped to admire the acorns on the newel posts, thinking they

would make nice decorative items. “Why don’t you buy the whole thing? Only twenty dollars,” Tony suggested. “You haul it away, of course.”

We laughed. Who would be foolish enough to buy a grand staircase larger than their whole house? Besides the two large posts and acorns, there were six smaller acorns and countless oak steps and miles of railing and bannister. We told Tony it was impractical. But wreckers are supremely optimistic at all times, probably as an antidote for the destructive nature of their occupation.

“You could work it in somehow,” said Tony, who had never seen our house. “Tell you what I'll do. You take the staircase off my hands and I’ll sell you that black fireplace. The guy didn’t come back yet. It’s only fifteen dollars.”

He knew we were hooked. We paid our money and I immediately felt as if I had been drinking champagne. It is exhilarating to buy a grand staircase. Tony was evidently pleased, too, because he threw in an extra set of floor tiles for nothing, and a piece of left-over wall paneling.

Our next step was to enlarge our house to accommodate our new possessions. We set out to find a contractor. He turned out to be young and tough, with tight blue jeans and a porkpie hat. I’ll call him Jake.

He strode in that first day, looked the place over, borrowed a package of cigarettes from my husband (although he said he didn’t like the brand much) and gave us an expert opinion.

“Frankly kids, I wouldn’t pour good money into this old ruin.” His baleful eye passed over the walls and the outof-plumb doors. Words failed him. Anyway it was lunch time. He refreshed himself with a turkey sandwich and a bottle of beer. “I d hate to think what might happen if we dig down to the foundations of this shanty. She might shift, she might sink. You can’t tell with these old wrecks.”

We were disarmed by his frankness. Here, we told ourselves, was the man for the job. We assured him we intended to go ahead with our plans whether he took the job or not.

“Think it over, kids,” Jake said. “Man, it’s throwing good money down the drain. What you really want to do is tear down this heap and build yourself a nice bungalow.”

We told him what we thought of bungalows and he told us again what he thought of ancient crumbling

houses. The more we argued with him the more certain we were that he was the right man for the job.

“Give us an estimate,” my husband said, pressing another bottle of beer on him.

“1 hate to do it,” he said. “The trouble we’ve had trying to prop up these old shells . . .” He gave the wall a kick. Reluctantly he took out his stub of pencil and a scrap of paper, and sat down to figure. Once he gazed around and said, “Crazy, man.”

There is no way of knowing how builders arrive at an estimate, but compared to two others we had, Jake's was reasonable. Jake assured us he did not want to take our money, and the contract was duly signed. We immediately showed him our barn beams.

I suppose 1 should explain how we came to have a backyard full of old barn beams. Driving along a sideroad near Thornhill one day we saw' a sign which said. Barn For Sale—$30. We could see the barn from the road, and it looked old. So we stopped. We drove into a littered farmyard where children, dogs, cats, chickens and one goat greeted us with cries of alarm. A man strolled up to the car.

“Yeah?” he said hospitably.

“We read your sign. We'd like to see the barn.”

“Oh, that. Side's a little gone. She's about seventy-five years old. But good beams in her. Some pine. Some cedar. All first growth. When they come that big, they’re first growth. For thirty dollars you can haul her away. Cash.”

With a penknife my husband dug at the gray weathered wood to reveal the color beneath. Indeed, some of the beams were pinkish, indicating cedar, and some were yellowish, indicating pine. Also, they were hand-hewn, you could tell by the marks.

We began to haggle.

“Thirty seems too high, if w'e have to pay to have it taken dowm and hauled to Toronto.”

The owner said, “Tell you what. I’ll take ’cr down, too.”

The beams were delivered to us a week later. They were a source of great pride, and we intended to incorporate them into our house.

Now we explained to Jake that we wanted three beams in the basement recreation room and two in the kitchen. I thought Jake would die laughing. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he pointed out that the kitchen ceiling was very low. “By the time you get those beams hanging down, you’ll have to crawl on your hands and knees,” he said.

“The ceiling is false,” I told him. “It's coming out.”

What really bothered Jake was the weathered, gray, secondhand look of the beams. “Oh, well,” he said finally, “1 guess you could always cover them with plywood.”

There was a delay of three weeks to demonstrate Jake's reluctance to take on the job, and then he arrived wdth two workmen. They shadowed him constantly, laughing at his jokes. This, presumably, was what he paid them for, because Jake repeatedly announced that neither of them knew what to do with a hammer.

Only a few moments after they arrived the fat helper looked at the beams and suggested we paint them black. When the time came to install the beams in the basement, the helpers

launched a volley of arguments. Nobody could lift them beams, they said; no walls would support them beams; such old beams would be crammed to the knotholes with termites. AH wood over the age of six weeks was crawling with termites, they said. Toronto was in the middle of a termite plague. Termites would spread from the beams throughout the house. Jake himself gave me a moving lecture on the life cycle of the termite. The beams are now in place.

1 well remember the day Jake discovered there were no footings under the old kitchen walls. My father-in-law had poured some everlasting concrete, but it was sitting in sand. Jake shouted, “(let the women and children out first! If she goes, 1 don't know if she'll sink, or if the back will wrench away from the front!”

Both prospects were alarming. I hauled the children to the farthest corner of the lot, and we waited breathlessly. She didn’t quiver.

Jake seemed disappointed when there was no cave-in, but he refused to let it dampen his spirits. He produced a series of crises concerning an old gas-line to the street, a hidden spring, and the fact that the concrete was hard all right but it wasn’t viable.

We hired a different carpenter to put the beams in the kitchen, recognizing that Jake was not going to put his heart into the task. When he saw the beams in place, our notions continued to confound him. He dwelt constantly on possible resale value.

“Who'd ever want those mouldy old beams?”

“Us.”

Jake’s interpretation of our slightest wish was that we were deliberately trying to unhinge him with new' oddities. Our announcement that we intended to use as much as possible of the grand staircase to replace the existing one he met with disbelief. We turned this job over to my father, a workman of the old school, and in the end we managed to use one large newel-post-w'ith-acorn, two bottom stairs, thirty feet of railing and bannister and two small acorns. We are

planning to give the rest away as Christmas gifts.

The next amazement we presented to Jake was the dollar doors with the brass hinges. Jake reeled.

"Baby! (he often addressed me as Baby) You don't want those rotten old doors! How about some new plywood numbers? Take my advice, Baby.”

"We bought those doors especially for the brass hinges and the grained wood,” I said.

But Jake clung to the idea that we had been robbed by the wreckers, and that it was his duty to help us get rid of the doors. He looked at me with genuine pity.

“The things you run into in the contracting business! As soon as I'm finished here I'm going into oil.”

Under protest, Jake hung the doors. We allowed him to hang one plywood door on the downstairs washroom. He understood that door.

"Now, admit it. Baby. Ain't that door a honey?”

Jake fought against the big w'hite sink, too. He brought catalogues to show us the newest models in compact washroom sinks. He suggested that the old sink might crack. My husband won each round.

The last round came when we showed Jake our stained glass w indow with the initials JC on it. Jake had apparently thought that the heights of incredibility had long since been scaled. When he found his voice after his first look at the monogrammed window he said, "Nobody puts a stained glass window in the john.”

"We do,” I said.

Jake whistled.

“You don’t get out much, Baby,” he said. “You kids’ll never sell this whitened sepulchre.”

He gave us a list of reasons why the window' could not be put in, including the rather touching one that the men might break it. We insisted. The window had to be specially framed and we took care of that ourselves. Jake gave in, at last, and there was our window, shining and old. We bade Jake, good-bye. “Man." he said in parting.

The kitchen we made out of old barn beams

We had meanwhile been shopping with the wreckers whenever w'e saw an interesting house being demolished, and were gaining experience in distinguishing between a bargain and a nonbargain. We resisted the impulse to ask the price of a huge electric organ from Prince Arthur House on St. George Streot. “After all,” my husband said when I fingered the pipes, “we don't want people to think we’re eccentric."

When Sir William Mulock's house on Jarvis Street came down, we bought the top half of a fireplace from one of the drawing rooms for fifteen dollars. This baroque item, made of cherrywood, is six feet high. It has five mirrors, two small cupboards suitable for storing snuff boxes, four small balconies, one long balcony, and a sufficiency of gingerbread, w'horls and knobs. A bargain.

There was only one place in our entire house where it might fit, and that was on top of the radiator in the front haül, but on the way home we had doubts. What if the piece happened to be a couple of inches too high? It was much too awkward to get down the basement stairs. Would we have to punch a hole in the ceiling and have the top sticking through our bedroom floor? With the help of two neighbors we hoisted the piece to the top of the radiator. There was an inch to spare under the ceiling.

“You know,” my husband said, standing well back, “it looks like hell.” And it does.

It did not help to remember that we had argued with the foreman about the price of a ten-dollar bookcase. We needed that bookcase, so my husband hurried back. The foreman had burned the bookcase for firewood.

At this time the gem of our collection, the fifteen-dollar black mantelpiece, was not installed. There was no fireplace in our living room, to begin with, and the mantel sat against the wall for two years filled with books while the children asked, “Why can't we have a fire in the fireplace like other people? How can we roast marshmallows in a bookcase?”

The time came when we were ready and financially able to face another contractor. This time we looked for a man who could accept our house.

We found him — a rather melancholy man named Doug, who looked on the house and the job as all in a day’s work. Tapping the living-room wall, he said, gently, “Beaverboard.”

“Right.”

“1 thought all the beaverboard had disappeared,” he said, with an air of quiet grief.

Ours, we assured him. was probably the only genuine example of beaverboard south of James Bay. We also explained that we wanted a real fireplace, and that we wanted him to install our fifteen-dollar black mantel. With chimney, he said, the fireplace would cost fifteen hundred dollars.

Some time after we recovered from this announcement, we agreed to let Doug proceed with the project. But we never talk about the price. Instead, we try to get our money’s worth by leaning on our Victorian mantelpiece in cold weather and tossing off a cup of mulled wine. And the children occasionally toast marshmallows—at a cost of several dollars per marshmallow.

If Doug gave us no trouble, his br.cklayer, Vittorio, did. Our ideas about fireplaces seemed to bring out a feeling of rebellion against society in Vittorio.

In the first place, he didn't like the black mantelpiece. It depressed him. As for the imported English tiles, stamped Stoke-on-Trent, he did not dig them either.

He had built thousands of chimneys (he looked about twenty-four so this figure can’t have been precise) with single flues. They worked perfectly. Therefore, he did not approve of our plan for a double-sized flue.

My husband was adamant. This information about the size of the flue was the only advice we had ever had from an architect, and we intended to use it. It has always been a policy with us never to bring architects out to the house because we feel it isn't fair to them. We once had a well-known Canadian architect as a New Year’s Eve guest and he had to be taken home early. He has never been back.

While the brickwork rose slowly, we had a running battle with Vittorio about allowing the mortar between the bricks to remain rough and uneven. He had apprenticed seven years to learn how to smooth the mortar between bricks and he was not going to ditch all that training for us. The result is that the brick looks like wallpaper. We have to tell people that it is real brick.

While looking for shutters for the outside of the house we stumbled on one of our finest bargains. From a gray, brick Jarvis Street house, not far from the CBC building^ we bought three pairs of shutters at $1.50 each. They happened to be indoor shutters so I threw out the drapes and had the contractor put up the shutters in their place. He pointed out that our windows were the wrong kind for shut-

ters. The shutters are there, and they work perfectly.

Not everything in our house was bought from a wrecker. The three large light fixtures in the kitchen came from a dilapidated electric shop at the back of a house in Parkdale. It had been in business at least sixty years and was finally closing, so there were many ancient fixtures at low prices. Our globes cost only three dollars each and came with heavy brass chains. We put three in the kitchen, and they complement the beams.

We determined to have at least one small memento of Chorley Park, once the official residence of Ontario’s lieutenant-governors, when it was demolished. Prices were high. They wanted $10 for the same type of door we had bought earlier for a dollar. We settled for a brass light fixture from the third, floor with the gas jets still on it ($5), two glass towel rails and two round sponge-holders at a dollar each.

Our last project was to refinish the basement playroom with the weathered boards and battens from a driving shed. We got the shed for the price of taking it down and hauling it away. At the same time we hung half of the front door from the Cawthra house. It is an impressive door, if you like old doors.

We have only begun work on the place, of course. On the drawing board at this moment is a plan for a jutting side wing, a third floor and a widow’s walk. My husband tried to get the namestone from Castle Frank, one of Toronto’s oldest mansions, because his father’s name was Frank, but it had already been appropriated by Toronto’s Board of Educaton.

He is out now, looking for a good gargoyle that will come down without breaking. We need it for the front of the house. ★