The story of this house remains steeped in mystery.
We know it was commissioned in 1929 by the then Vice-Chairman of ALCOA, one Edwin Stanton Fickes, who was based in Pittsburgh and sensed that storm clouds were once again brewing in Germany. We also know that it was finally completed 6 years later as those clouds developed momentum. But we can only suspect that, as a corporate globe-trotter, he was more than casually aware that industrial Pittsburgh would be high on the German hit-list for long-distance bombing. The fact that he had ridden rough-shod over his Canadian architect, insisting on building in stone rather than traditional clapboard, despite Nova Scotia’s notorious humidity – and, equally, that 3 tons of solid copper be slapped on the roof – tends to confirm an overweening anxiety to secure an impregnable refuge as far away, but yet accessible, from Pittsburgh as possible.
One can only surmise why he selected microscopic Annapolis Royal (pop. 380) for such a gargantuan indulgence; but amongst a profusion of anecdotes surrounding this difficult man, several stand out. During one conversation with his long-suffering architect, Mr. Fickes was informed that, to build the house out of a particular pink-grained granite to complement the grey, he would need to buy a quarry. “So, buy it!” Equally, when informed that there was no fire department for miles, he instructed the unfortunate man to “Go build one!” (This still stands, as living testament to his paranoia for protection: he even imported his own firetrucks from Pittsburgh and underwrote the entire operation.) In the meantime, the baffled architect was to build him a subterranean labyrinth in solid concrete under his own front lawn, ostensibly to store water, but perhaps in lieu of a bunker. This still stretches a full hundred yards from the house and includes a 50,000-gallon cistern, with a 35,000-gallon back-up, and interlocking passages to septic tanks vast enough to service the house for decades.
The construction of the house is extraordinary by any standards, let alone local, but there is also the matter of the poltergeist. We speculate that Mr. Fickes’ son, perhaps through draft dodging or family banishment, felt mysteriously obliged to move to Canada (he lived in the house for a very short time, whence he promptly fled), but there seems a lady also involved, who makes herself harmlessly, if naughtily known even now at the most inconvenient moments, usually in vivid dreams, experienced simultaneously – and significantly – from separate bedrooms. Our cats are the first to notice, sitting bolt upright on our beds in the middle of the night, following her every (invisible) move; but the snapping on and off of lights, oscillating beams of blue, nocturnal movings of furniture, and the fascinating casting of shadows, coupled with a distinctly female aura, convinces us that we have company.
Who she? Every house deserves a benevolent ghost, but we know sadly little of the family, their descendants, or even the house itself (the locals clam up whenever we broach the topic) and there are no municipal records to consult that date back far enough. An exploratory visit to Pittsburgh looms!
The house itself, which is built on massive steel girders, also from Pittsburgh, had only two owners before us and lay fallow for 20 years. Built of stone, brick and concrete almost 2 feet thick, it has been, predictably, a nightmare to modernise, and remains totally unforgiving: hostile to change, improvement or adaptation. Tales of its restoration are legion: almost 4 kms. of cable to rewire the house from scratch; 6 rooftop receivers for WiFi (no 21st Century communication through the unholy combination of copper, stone, brick and cement); dead mice in junction boxes; and water leaking out of sockets. Leaky chimneys, sodden basements, and French drains (which had to be installed 14 ft. deep after 2 abortive tries at shallower depth), conspired with colossal humidity, to the detriment of our irreplaceable collections (marble floors sweat to the puddling point here, taking books with them). It took 18 drill-bits to broach one particular wall, and we have one of the last steam-heating systems still functional in the Province. As to the “help”, Mr. Fickes required, inscrutably, that they don boots in wintertime to get from the mysteriously separated servants’ quarters to the main house (a glaring vacuum that we have since, laboriously, filled).
Restoration has consumed, non-stop, a full four years since our retirement, and we still have 5 rooms to go. But, thanks largely to our indefatigable project manager, Gerald Wheatley (q.v. “Acknowledgments”), the butterfly is steadily emerging from her cocoon, as our videos will surely attest. In the meantime, we rarely enjoy a workday without workmen present, and our wonderful painters – now well into their third year – have become a ubiquitous part of the family.
The property comprises 350 acres, of which some 60 are arable. With our lawns currently in ruins, however, we have wisely withheld landscaping the garden until all trucks, tractors and delivery vans have finally left the premises. This has not prevented us, however, from designing it (your correspondent studied horticulture in both England and Holland before coming to Canada), any less than we have in drafting our new kitchen (next up). Nova Scotia is famous for its rich soil, and is (at last) recognised for its wines; so with a southerly aspect, sloping land, masses of water and good drainage (we adjoin a golf course), the gardening world is our oyster. We can hardly wait to get at it.
It is still hard to tell, 4 years later, where this massive project is headed. We do know that a library, a conservatory and an animal or two are in the works; but our first priority is to finish what we’ve started. The house takes precedence, with all its many rooms, and having come to terms with Nova Scotia’s leisurely pace – and recognised its limitations – we remain committed to making this remote spot unique.
The library, however, is another story. With some 18,000 books in hand, many of them first editions, we are actively engaged in housing them. Before retiring, our Montreal manager, the estimable David McDerby, now also retired, had designed with us over the years, sans architect, a full 5 houses and half-a-dozen stores in 3 cities (q.v. “Our Stores: R.I.P.”), whose collective legacy now forms the backbone of our future library’s design. Its building we hope to record in video form as the project evolves, but it remains very much a work-in-progress, given everything else that is going on at the Hoare house.
Needless to say, we look to the future with considerable interest, and hope that you, and our esteemed friends at PBS, will join us for the ride.
Nicholas Hoare and Margot Stevenson
Annapolis Royal, October 2017