by Stephen Robbins, MA
Stephen Robbins holds a MA in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia. He is a heritage home owner and has worked as a professional researcher-writer for many years. Stephen lives in Peterborough, Ontario with his partner Sara, and dog Glenn.
Approximately five years ago, Gail and Bill Ellison set off on a journey. This would bring them to inhabit an old historic, circa 1850, dwelling located in a small “go to” Ontario village. The motivation behind buying this property, and moving across Ontario, would not be financial gain. But rather, that of exploration, and ultimately, an active interaction with history. Such a venture could go many ways, but for the Ellisons, they stumbled upon something very special.
The Stephen Merrick House, located in the small, quaint, village of Merrickville, Ontario (about an hour southwest of Ottawa on the Rideau River), is everything one would expect from Greek Revival architecture. One may want to say that the most striking aspect is the stonework. Most notably, the front facing ashlar stone blocks’ sheer scale provide an overwhelming sense of permanence. Or perhaps, the ancient Greek inspired portico, that features Doric columns similar to those found on the Parthenon. If one were to look closer, they would notice the line of dentils. These are a set a decorative tooth-like blocks that provide additional character and beauty to the portico. However, you could argue that the most striking aspect is the unspoken balance, symmetry, and elegance that these elements work together to create. The portico, grey stone, windows, chimneys, and cedar roof exist in perfect harmony; true to classic Greek design.
Other aspects of Greek design can be found on the interior of the home as well. Notice the Greek tradition “keyhole” trim around the doorways. They are wider at the bottom, then narrow at the top, and this is striking, especially from a distance. Not to mention the marble heated floors that will immediately grab your attention when first stepping into the home.
Today, the original one-and-a-half story home has been meticulously restored, and features many complementary improvements. Just to name a few, these include a modern addition providing an impressive main floor bedroom and five-piece ensuite bathroom. Also, a beautifully redesigned courtyard, and a separate studio building with its own modern amenities has recently been added to the property.
Before arriving at the Stephen Merrick House, the Ellisons were already equipped with a background in building and restoration, art and antiques. What they would immediately discover was a house, and area, with a rich history. The home was built around 1850 by a stone mason named Samuel Langford. Gail explained that Langford had “been working in both York and Bytown before that…then brought his stone mason skills to this community”. The house was built for Stephen Merrick, the son of Merrickville founder William Merrick. Stephen lived in the home only for a short while before his death. Gail also discovered that Stephen’s widow, Margaret, was allowed to live in the house for another twelve years after his death, despite the home being purchased by James Atchinson, a wheelwright. Gail revealed that the home was sold to Atchinson “under a condition that his [Stephen’s] widow could live as long as she wanted in the house, because way back then women could not own houses”.
Another remarkable discovery made by Gail and Bill, is that the home was once lived in by Charlotte Merrick, the daughter of Stephen Merrick. Charlotte would later become a physician in Utica, New York. Given the rarity of female Doctors at that time, who would have faced intense discrimination and societal pressures, that accomplishment is nothing short of exceptional. A connection to this history is contained within this heritage space.
The Rewarding Path of History
For the Ellisons, the history behind the Stephen Merrick home continued to unfold in an unexpected, yet rewarding way. Despite being one-hundred and seventy years old, they encountered a home that was largely original. For instance, a stroll into the home’s dining and living rooms features Langford’s original millwork, preserved in the shutters and other panels throughout the house. “That’s the beauty that the house had never been redone inside, so all of this still remains”, remarked Gail. The Ellisons attribute this to the fact that James Atchinson was more of a tradesperson, and likely did not have “deep pockets”. In opposition to some of the other homes built by Langford, that “came into the hands of a wealthy male owner, and they completely refaced it, put a second storey on it, things like that”. Therefore, if money was available to back multiple renovations over the years, many of these original features could arguably have been lost.
Similar to the history of the home, the story behind the Village of Merrickville, likely played a key preservation role. Gail and Bill note that the town, originally settled by loyalists, was a hub of commerce when the canal was put in on the Rideau River. It featured several mills and “a huge department store” (at one time the biggest between Toronto and Montreal), which is something you would not expect visiting Merrickville today which is largely made up of speciality shops. However, when the first railway was put in around 1870, the town was bypassed in favour of nearby Smiths Falls. When that happened, Gail and Bill remarked that a lot in the town “dried up”. This would include the cotton mill, foundries, and tourism. “There was not much happening”, they said. Merrickville would not begin to grow again until the 1960s. But much like the Stephen Merrick House, this static period helped preserve the town’s heritage. What remains is a “unique character”, with many heritage properties and a notable lack of strip malls or brand-name stores. As Gail tells it, the many unique houses are all still here and each “have their stories”.
Time and Place
A well-preserved home of this vintage inherently contains elements that speak to time and place. “It is quite rare to have a house preserved this much”, remarked Gail. “When they [original settlers] came there were high pine trees, so the floors are pine…they used essentially what was here”. Along with the home’s original trim and elaborate ceiling medallions, the home features sand cast iron fencing that lines the sides of the property and part of the garden. The home was once occupied by the owners of the nearby alloy foundry, “who married after the war, and lived here until they died in 2009”. Therefore, the home naturally features some of the work from that foundry. Similarly, the house came with an impressive iron fountain along with other decorative metal work. The Ellisons discovered that the fountain was made in 1872 by the Copps Iron Works foundry in Hamilton, Ontario (the Copp family having a rich history of their own in Ontario).
Restoring and Preserving
Part of the journey when taking on a historic home, is the process of restoration. As “you have to make these houses so they’re not a constant maintenance…so it has longevity”, said Gail. While acknowledging that compromises always have to be made, the Ellisons have worked to preserve the home’s original character. Bill acknowledged that a “big problem in this area is wood, over the years it’s always rotting”. To address this, Bill replaced several original features, such as the home’s fascia and soffits, with PVC board that does not rot or deteriorate. They have been “reproduced as the original, but using contemporary materials”. To example further, Bill discovered that the original columns actually rested on the stone and absorbed unwanted moisture. This was also something that needed to be overcome, with the blending of the original structure with new building materials. Without doubt, such endeavours take time and a commitment. However, Gail and Bill knew that “there will be surprises, but some are nice and some are not…you have to set some realistic goals”.
One such surprise the Ellisons encountered was that an original hearth was moved at one point. It would have been originally in the sitting room, but the fireplace in that room was completely bricked in when they arrived. This was done despite the fact that the original mantle remained. Many hours were needed to restore that space and install a reproduction fireplace and hearth. However, judging from the rather tranquil space that the fireplace compliments, Gail and Bill likely believe it was worth the effort.
The Ellisons explained that the home likely had a “summer kitchen” that was built sometime after the main building. It was evident that it was old as “they were still cooking in a fireplace”, Gail remarked. Today, the original summer kitchen has been modernized. However, it still speaks to the original character of the home, featuring trim reproduced by Bill. It also features the original fireplace that has been further updated to balance the home’s character. This was an example where some of the poor renovation choices over the years needed to be addressed. All part of the experience of working on an older home.
If not already apparent, the Ellisons were dedicated to complement and enhance the details of the original home. This can be further seen in their decision to replace the contemporary eavestrough that was on the home when they moved in. “We wanted to reproduce it in something that was more vintage-like”. Therefore, they sourced and used premium copper eavestrough. It is a small but noteworthy detail that speaks to the care put into the home, and the quality of the restoration decisions made.
The Ellisons’ move into the Stephen Merrick House was indeed “a big commitment”. But rather than simply buying and working to restore a home, they have essentially interacted with time and space. This is a process of discovery that provided them both challenges and rewards, such as the unearthing of original trim buried by time, or locating decorative stone littered around the property. It also included uncovering the connections between the home, those inhabitants that came before them, and local history. Whether consciously or not, Gail and Bill have inserted themselves into that history. From their considerable efforts to restore the home for future generations, and to uncover the fascinating stories contained within (which has been recorded and will be provided to the next owners). This approach may be best revealed by a simple quote from the Ellisons: “We feel that we are caretakers more than owners”. The Ellisons are going to be passing the torch to new caretakers, once this remarkable 1850’s home is sold.
 While the front is ashlar blocks detailed in the style of Greek Revival, the sides and original foundation feature rubble stone. Gail believes that the practice was common, as it is now. Today “when you think about our houses at least in Ontario, we make the front look nice and put vinyl on the sides. The tradition started a long time ago”.
 In regards to the rear chimney, Bill notes that “it’s very unusual to come up narrow and then widen at the top”. This led Bill to ponder if at one point an owner was intending to raise the roof, then decided to abandon the idea after raising the chimney. Part of the fun that owners of historic homes often get to partake in!
 What might not have been! Bill Ellison commented that the house has experienced considerable movement over the years that made some restoration work a challenge. He mentioned that the home was built on a crawlspace, which was typical at the time. “They didn’t worry about supporting the walls structurally, properly…the home did a lot of moving”. Bill further indicated that in the 1970s, the home owners undertook a huge project, where the basement was dug out by hand and concrete was introduced all the way around to give proper support. “They had to do what they did in the 70’s, or this place would not be here”.
 Langford also built a house for Aaron Merrick, William’s older son. The two-story house similarly features ashlar stone and Greek Revival design. For more information see: https://www.historicplaces.ca/fr/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=17601
 See https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Ardell-3. Also see 1851 Ontario Census, Grenville District, Sub-District Wolford; Stephen H Mirick and Margaret Mirick, lines 17 and 18. Available online at Library and Archives Canada.
 1851 Ontario Census, Grenville District, Sub-District Wolford; Charlotte Mirick, line 23. Available online at Library and Archives Canada.
 Gail went on to tell a story about the very old fencing pattern. It was said that the foundry owners obtained some of the old materials that were from the displaced villages and graveyards of the Upper Canada Village which was created around 1950. The displacement was the result of the flooding of the Saint Lawrence River to create the St. Lawrence Seaway.
 Gail and Bill acknowledge that you have to still make a home that is “livable”. From energy efficient windows to other compromises that you have to have along the way. “If there are things that you can preserve, that will be worth it”.
 Gail explained that summer kitchens tended to be almost like sheds. As an interesting note, summer kitchens were historically used to keep the main house cool during the summer months. These would buffer warm kitchen activities away from the main building and even serve to protect it from fires.
 As mentioned by the Ellisons, the home would not originally have had an eavestrough system.