Renovating a Century-Old Home in Québec
Against a tide of cookie-cutter neighbourhoods and instant polyurethane dwellings, the Rhéaume Gonzalez family immersed themselves in the joys and challenges of restoring a heritage home.
I drive through a festival of orange traffic cones on the Pierre-Laporte Bridge on my way to meet the Rhéaume Gonzalez family in Vieux-Cap-Rouge, Québec. Beautiful houses with wood siding and cedar shingles, coloured or greyed with age, stand side by side in this historic neighbourhood of Québec City.
At a street corner, Dominique Rhéaume, Marina Gonzalez, their daughter Maïté, and Maïté’s son, Thomas, join me as I step out of the car to admire the impressive scaffolding that surrounds their house. They tell me that four-year-old Thomas has a hard time resisting the urge to climb the structure.
We take a tour of the worksite in a cheerful jumble and end up out back, around an old floor hatch laid out on beams. Here, in this space, all the materials have lived full lives. Each plank of wood is seen and considered, turned this way and that, and placed where it might begin a new life, in a home attentive to its patina.
Seated on logs or stones, we get straight to the topic of their home restoration project and its origins.
In her search for a place for her and her son to live, Maïté Rhéaume Gonzalez considered all options, including an apartment or a mobile home.
“My definition of a house is, above all, a home, a place of life rather than the beams and walls that form it,” she says.
Her father shared this view, and the idea of buying and renovating a heritage building began to take shape. There was a familiarity to it. Maïté herself grew up in an old house, renovated patiently and meticulously by her parents.
The house was purchased, and Maïté enthusiastically accepted her parents’ help for the renovations. Grant applications, architectural plans, and restoration conversations began among the Rhéaume Gonzalez family.
The whole house is shifted back about three metres by a team of professionals, and the obsolete stone foundation is dismantled. From then on, the clan continues to gather to restore this home for Maïté and her son.
Honour time’s passing
En restaurant une telle propriété, on tombe bien évidemment sur de minuscules aperçus de son passé: Marina raconte qu’elle a gratté jusqu’à quatre couches de papier peint sur certaines planches, une pelure à la fois, une époque à la fois, une famille à la fois, pour reprendre à zéro et leur offrir la chance de s’imprégner à nouveau d’un cocon familial.
“It’s something to value, I feel: objects and materials that have lived,” she says.
Maïté and her father draw my attention to the windowpanes. Some have had to be replaced. “Look at the difference—the older ones have texture in the glass, which would likely have been blown at the time. It gives almost a frosted effect,” Dominique says. I admire the subtlety of these details, and I imagine Thomas growing up knowing each small crevice on the panes by heart.
This article first appeared in Issue 13 of BESIDE, our Home edition.Subscribe
As I talk with the Rhéaume Gonzalez family, I’m aware that the desire for authenticity guides them and also prompts reflection. For the family, returning to the exact original state of a house is an interesting ideal, but the use of the space remains the main goal.
“Everyone always says it was better before,” says Dominique, “that the only perfect version of a house is the first one. But we’re building a space for life, not a museum.”
They are renovating the house in a spirit of authentic restoration, but no one’s afraid of living there or scratching the floorboards.
A preservation network
For the Rhéaume Gonzalez family, dialogue and a spirit of group deliberation form the guiding principles of this colossal project. Thanks to the shared responsibilities, ideas, and hard work of the people who surround Maïté, the house is taking shape.
The family sometimes contacts demolition contractors for old houses, in order to reclaim sustainable materials. Dominique and Marina regularly bring out their fine-tooth comb and scour ads for materials for sale or to give away, which often leads to beautiful encounters. This is how they found their staircase in Saint-Jean-Chrysostome, and their windows just outside Montréal. In the end, Maïté and Thomas’ house will be made up of little pieces from all across Québec.
In a world where drywall, plastic, and IKEA are so prevalent—and often the most realistic option for our wallets—the success of restoration projects depends on the will of new owners to make things themselves.
Last winter, working on the chimney kept the whole family busy. The house has no electric heat, and fireplaces are its main source of warmth.
The family saved the original foundation stone to create the base of a massive fireplace in the basement. A fireplace on the main floor was built by a mason who, in turn, called on his own teacher. This mentor came from another part of Québec to prepare and apply an old-fashioned mortar that contains no cement and requires an experienced hand.
Online communities are also a great help. “Networks take shape with people who are passionate about this and who share techniques and information. It’s great to see other people interested in keeping ancient techniques alive,” says Marina. When I mention my own obsession with old-school renovations, we laugh at how easy it is to get lost in a rabbit hole of YouTube videos, learning the exact balance of sand to add to the lime in mortar.
During my visit to Cap-Rouge, a friend of Maïté’s named Simon joins us. When he first heard about the project, he offered to lend a hand. His training in urban planning and architecture has taught him to prioritize hard work and mastering skills to pass down to future generations.
“Ours is a generation that has lost the ability to do things ourselves. A project like this allows us to touch—to really touch—our built environments,” says Simon.
Dominique often repeats that the greatest success—the cornerstone—of this project is the relationships that have been created in the process. He gestures to Simon, whose opinion has become indispensable at every stage along the way. They have managed to create lasting connections in the midst of adversity and the many challenges that come with a project like this.
He tells me about their neighbour, who for nearly 20 years was just an acquaintance. After an exchange of services—to borrow a trailer and then renovate it in exchange for the loan—he has become a real friend. Now it’s not unusual for them to drink a Scotch together in the evening. Or Donald, a friend of a friend who came to lend a hand to cut the foundation beams. The stories go on…
Hearing them talk about the optimal use of planks or the best way to redo the skylights, I realize that what I’m listening to is not just the story of a renovation; it’s a striking example of how community can be built.
The Rhéaume Gonzalez family knows how to cultivate the imperfections of an old house, respecting its history and soaking it up while adding new layers. Between Maïté’s childhood memories in her parents’ house and the memories Thomas will create in Cap-Rouge, a strong thread stretches unbroken between generations.
Juliette Leblanc left Montréal to move to the country, where she spends most of her time conversing with her dog, her chickens, and her plants. In addition to her writing and research work, she is an early childhood educator, where she learns daily to cultivate her capacity for wonder. She is passionate about human stories.
After an eclectic beginning to her career, Alma Kismic has lived off her passion, photography, for the past five years. Each of her portraits demonstrates nuance, authenticity, and warmth. She also has a great love of nature, textures, and human beings—all of which are sources of inspiration in her minimalist works.