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WENDY ELLIOTT: Heritage building in Avonport ought to be preserved

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network

Laura Marson Johnston lives in Sackville, but she has Valley roots. As her family was from Wallbrook Mountain, she remembers visiting from the city as a child and taking the highway exit at Avonport.

The Reid/Magee house was the first house she’d spot, knowing it was close to her grandparents’ house. Johnston says she always admired the old white house near the mouth of the Gaspereau River and would stare at it in passing.

Just lately, Johnston was alarmed by the state of the classic Planter home. It is clearly empty and decrepit. Earlier this month she decided to start a Facebook page looking to save the house from demolition.

Johnston contacted the developer who owns the property and he allowed her in to do some documentation with photographs. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one saddened to see them.

I remember what it looked like when Mrs. Magee lived there. Margaret Reid Magee had lived in the rambling house through two marriages and over 70 years when I met her. The house was 200 years old and most of its original furnishings were still there in the mid-1980s.

Mrs. Magee could paint a deft portrait of the past when the house was an inn and stagecoach stop. One day a traveler, who couldn’t afford a bed, painted a wall mural to pay for his board.

“It was a regular scene out of Charles Dickens here. They had a roaring fire in the living room and the men sat around talking and smoking long-stemmed clay pipes.”

Mrs. Magee described the boarded up early cooking fireplace with cranes, tongs and a frying pan that had a five-foot long handle. The house was a 17th century jewel and it has had a national heritage designation since 2007.

The two-and-a-half storey wooden house, with its two wooden outbuildings, was built during the 1760s and lived in by four generations of the Reid family. It is currently owned by Nanco Developments of Halifax.

The house has heritage value due to its use as a tavern, stagecoach stop, courtroom, post office and election polling station while continuing to be a well-known farm, according to later occupant Janice Hattie’s history.

At one time, the farm spanned more than 200 acres but eventually the highway came along. To build the 101 interchange at Avonport, 10 families and one business had to move. While Mrs. Magee fought to protect her home, the Reid farm ended up cut in half.

After she died at 101, two families occupied the house and cared for it. After being purchased by developers, it has become extremely weathered. The interior has been gutted and occupied by squatters and wild animals. As Johnston says, the result is heartbreaking.

The developer has told her that if anyone wants to move the house, they can have it for free. But it’s a big home – 16 rooms Mrs. Magee told me. Acadia University made the same offer for the 160-year-old Christie duplex on its campus. But it was demolished.

We know today that the most sustainable thing we can do is preserve old buildings and adapt them for reuse. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, rehabilitating historic properties promotes energy efficiency by preserving the energy already represented by existing buildings (known as ‘embodied energy’), rather than expending additional energy for new construction.

Fixing up old homes is greener than building new ones. The Vancouver Heritage Foundation has stated that demolishing a 2,500 sq ft house sends 60 tons of debris to the landfill, whereas retrofits can often significantly improve energy efficiency.

There are more than 50 designated heritage properties in Kings County, about half in Wolfville, and we want to see them survive, especially those deemed to have national significance.

The county has lost many a heritage gem. I feel sad still about the loss of the Pudsey family homestead in Greenwich and the old Kentville Railway Station in 1990. That is why I applaud Johnston for taking up a cause Mrs. Magee believed in so strongly.

As Joan Baez once said: action is the antidote to despair. Using social media to rally people behind heritage preservation is activism. I hope it helps.

Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.

SEE RELATED: Woman with Kings County ties sets sights on saving Avonport’s historic Reid House

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