The Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotary Club Holiday House Tour is approaching, tickets are selling quickly and the club is promising the 21st annual event will be bigger and better than ever.
Viewing hours have been extended, the 225th anniversary of St. Andrew’s Church is being celebrated as part of the tour, and six elegant, distinctive homes will be decorated to the hilt and ready for visitors — five in the Old Town, and one not-to-be-missed on McNab Road.
The rural property on the corner of McNab and Church Roads was once a simple pioneer stone house, sitting atop a hill with a valley and creek behind it. The original section, built in 1855, is now a small living room, with 18-inch stone walls intact and part of the decor, along with its original wood floor. It has become part of Nepanthe, a quiet, warm and welcoming estate thus named by current owners Elizabeth Gilbert and Alan Rosselet. They purchased the property after falling in love with it three and a half years ago, from the previous owner who had built the addition about a decade ago.
The name Nepanthe, when explained by Gilbert, perfectly represents their home and all it means to them.
There is a word, “nepenthe,” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and mythology, which means a “drug of forgetfulness,” and is also known as a place to go where sorrows are forgotten, Gilbert explains. And there is “a wonderful, magical place with gardens on the coast of California called Nepenthe,” she says.
There is also a comic opera by Gilbert (not related, she says,) and Sullivan, called Iolanthe, where a fairy marries a mortal, she explains. “My great-grandmother, Anna Caroline Lash, starred in Iolanthe at Massey Hall in Toronto, about 1886. With the $100 she earned as an 18-year-old, she bought almost 10 acres of land in Muskoka, and called it Iolanthe. The family cottage stayed in the family for six generations, and almost 100 years. The property in Muskoka is still called Iolanthe. Many of us were truly heartbroken when it was sold,” says Gilbert.
“When we bought this NOTL property, we saw some of the natural beauty and historical feel that our Iolanthe had.”
They combined the names Nepenthe and Iolanthe, and although there is no sign up yet, “the name has certainly settled in to stay for awhile,” she says.
As have Gilbert and Rosselet. Their home has somewhat of an eclectic feel — Gilbert jokes about a relative who calls it ‘eccentric’ — filled with furnishings that have meaning to the two of them, that connect to their families. The rooms combine family antiques, modern comfortable seating, and artisan, hand-crafted furniture, all perfectly suited to a home with a mostly traditional feel to it, and a few interesting surprises.
One such surprise is revealed during a tour of the kitchen. Look up, and you will see a truly breathtaking mural on the ceiling, painted by local artist Paul Gosen. It beautifully blends subjects representing important artists throughout history, such as van Gogh’s Starry Night and Salvador Dali’s piano keys, with typical Niagara scenes, such as vineyards and Niagara Falls, in a tribute to the natural charm of the surrounding area.
Each room is a delight, and will be even more so when decorators from Regal Florist and Garden Centre are finished their work. Most of the home, including bedrooms, is on the main floor, allowing visitors a glimpse of most of the rooms, often off-limits on the tour, connected by a long, narrow hallway.
Tour guests may also feel a little as if they are touring an art gallery, which in fact they are — Gilbert, a retired science teacher, is also an artist who has spent her years since retirement building a body of art, much of which is displayed in her home.
Her background, she says, is in medical and scientific illustration.
The best way to describe her painting style, she says, “is that I paint to celebrate the natural world. Primarily watercolours, also oils, closeups of nature, wilderness places, and water are my subjects. My inspirations as an artist are many: the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and a great many recent and contemporary artists that I’m friends with.”
Her great-grandmother, the actress, was also a watercolour artist, she adds.
While the view of the front of the house is looking up from McNab Road, the house backs down again on a gentle slope to the creek, and a wooded area, with hundreds of trees of about 30 different varieties planted by the couple over the last decade that attract all manner of wildlife, says Gilbert. Skunks, raccoons, fox, muskrats and coyotes can often be seen from the Muskoka chairs outside the glass doors, a great horned owl swoops by occasionally, along with at least five different kinds of woodpeckers, and “all the songbirds you can name.”
The couple has also tried to eradicate invasive species along the creek, “but that would be a lifetime of work, I think.”
Regal owner Darrell Boer will decorate the outdoor property, says designer Lindsey Ireland. Regal has participated in the tour from the beginning, and this will be her 14th year decorating for the holiday tour.
It’s a labour of love, given the beautiful homes she has decorated over the years, but it’s also a challenge. It’s important to reflect the owners’ tastes, she says, and she is always conscious of not wanting to disappoint them. “Fortunately, everyone has always been very happy with what we do.”
Part of that is the time spent discussing plans with the owners, to see what they would like. “I enjoy decorating traditional homes, and all have been traditional,” Ireland says. On her second visit to the home last week, she discussed where Christmas trees would normally be put, and will try to do the same. When Gilbert showed her a collection of antique dolls, Ireland was delighted to be able to incorporate them into the Christmas decor.
She has also taken lots of photographs and measurements of rooms, to ensure the decorations she brings will work, and she has already started a collection of items she’s found at the garden centre, which will be supplemented by other pieces especially ordered for the event.
While Ireland will start her work on the Tuesday morning before the holiday tour, she will be putting finishing touches on it right up until Friday, with fresh arrangements for the weekend.
As a bonus, Juliet Dunn and Peter O’Shea will be entertaining tour guests for a couple of hours Friday and Saturday afternoon at the McNab Road home, with the Ukesters playing Saturday, from 10 to 11 a.m.
Included in this year’s tour is St. Andrew’s Church manse. The church is celebrating its 225th anniversary, and the manse will be decorated with the minister’s own Christmas decorations.
A specially priced lunch will be served in the Church Hall from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Also offering lunch are Peller Estates and Trius Wineries, with a special menu available from 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club restaurant, headquarters for the tour, is featuring a buffet lunch.
The Niagara Historical Society & Museum, the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, McFarland House, and RiverBrink Art Museum are also included in the tour.
A VIP tour that includes the McArther Estate on John Street, the former Romance Estate, is sold out, but there were still about 500 tickets left for the two-day event, Friday and Saturday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets are only available online. Visit niagaraonthelakerotary.ca/page/holiday-house-tour for more information.
The Rotary house tour helps support local and international causes.