Original Home Tour: Judith and Robert, Saint John, NB

Posted by Elana Safronsky Tuesday, August 03, 2010 10:00 PM

Entrance, looking into front sitting room.  Photography by Jennifer MacLean of Hemmings House Pictures.Who:

Judith Mackin, Principle of PUNCH Productions marketing agency, journalist — talked about our visit in her column! — freelance documentary producer and Robert Moore, poet, playwright and professor of English at UNBSJ.What: Huge — approx 3,000 sq ft — detached heritage home from the ‘pre-fire’ era, meaning before the great Saint John Fire of 1877.  The home was built by the grandfather of the man from whom Judith and Robert bought the house (they are the first non-family owners).  The house was originally built as a two-family unit: one large upstairs flat, and one on the ground floor.  

Where: Gracious old neighbourhood in the North End, on Mount Pleasant Avenue.

Why: Judith is a design hound.  She is a beacon of style in a city where a voracious appetite for the latest in decor is often left to go hungry…  How does she do it?  Original art and online shopping!  (Also, local paper Telegraph-Journal thought our featuring Judith’s home was news worthy!)

Front sitting room with faintly visible “Plastidermy” acrylic deer head above the fireplace, by Science and Sons.

HGTV: How did you come to buy this house?
Judith: Just over a year ago, we mentioned to our friend and real estate agent, Bob McVicar, that we were casually looking for a ‘fixer-upper’ as a possible rental property. Several days later he called us with a house that had been on the market for over a year, and to bring our ‘vision’. We saw the house 10 minutes after the call and made an offer two hours later.

Library and lounge

HGTV: What were your initial intentions toward the house?
Judith: Robert and I had originally planned to do a modest reno and then use the house as an income rental property.  The house is close to both the university and the main hospital, and it is located on one of the nicest streets in the city.

Library and lounge

HGTV: How did those change?
Judith: A few days after purchasing the house, we were sitting on the veranda.  After perhaps one too many glasses of wine, I casually turned to Robert and said, ‘ You know, if we wanted to, we could gut this house and turn it into a spectacular one family dwelling’. The next day we started what would become an 8-month, top to bottom renovation.  We sold our other house and moved into our current home in October of 2009.

HGTV: What about the original state of the house didn’t work for you?
Judith: Although we loved the basic structure – the bones – of the house, it had several small, dark and tired rooms.  The wallpaper throughout – and there was a lot of wallpaper – hadn’t been changed since 1933 (it was signed and dated in pencil on the wall underneath).  The house was built for a family living in the 1900’s.  We, being a very social couple who love to entertain, wanted something much more open and spacious.

HGTV: What did you do?
Judith: Wow.  Where to begin? Every single inch of wall and ceiling was stripped of old wallpaper.  We kept all the original plaster walls, which were crack-filled and, with the exception of two accent walls painted black and new wallpaper in the downstairs hall and in the kitchen, painted the walls gallery white.  The hardwood floors were all completely re-sanded and varnished.  We installed 20 or so pot lights in the ceilings on the main floor.


Judith: Robert turned one bedroom into a three-walled, floor-to-ceiling library.

Great room

Judith: One major undertaking was the removal of two walls in one end of the house to create a large ‘great room’ area; the dining room, great room and kitchen are now one large gathering area.

Kitchen with pantry in background and skull wallpaper called “Worth” by Anita Modha of Rollout.

HGTV: What’s with the double kitchen? Is it a luxury or an oddity?
Judith: It’s definitely the latter.  Mind you, it’s not exactly a double kitchen, although I can see what you mean. It’s actually a pantry off the main kitchen; it’s where the cupboards and the bulk of thestorage for the kitchen is located.  We removed a built-in hutch from one room and rebuilt it in the pantry.  We also added a dishwasher and a modern sink to the pantry, but kept all the original, primitive cupboards. We did upgraded the counter with stainless steel countertops and changed all the hardware to stainless as well.

Patio outfitted with Kartell Bubble Club sofa and chair by Philippe Starck, made entirely of plastic.

Judith: Robert built a brand new deck with pergola off the great room which, for the purposes of access, required the removal of a large window which was replaced with a set of 8-foot Marvin sliding doors.

Dining room

Staircase to 2nd floor with sculpture; writing nook in front sitting room.

Judith: You can see from the pictures (above left) that we actually kept the original wood on the stairs exposed to ‘celebrate’ the history of the house.

2nd Floor hallway and gallery wall

HGTV:  How is art a part of your daily life and vice versa?
Judith: Robert and I collect art.  We covered two extraneous doorways on the main floor to make more room for art. Most of our art is from New Brunswick artists:  Suzanne Hill, Gordon Jennings, Chris Lloyd, Rick Burns, Fred Ross, Raymond Martin, Jack Bishop, and we also have a lot of paintings and sculpture by Robert’s late brother, Doug Moore (Hamilton).  Robert also sculpts and we have four or five of his pieces in the house.  Robert, who’s a poet who started out in the theatre, and I – with my background in artist-run galleries – have always been involved in the arts.  We can’t imagine living in a home not surrounded by original art.

Master Bedroom

HGTV: Where do you get your design sense?
Judith: That question is always very difficult to answer.  I spend a ridiculous amount of time (time I don’t really have) reading design books, magazines and blogs.  I am especially drawn to Scandinavian style interiors and minimalist white and black settings.  Luckily, Robert and I share essentially the same taste and interest in art, architecture and design so restoring and decorating this home has been a joy.

Hallway detail; vintage cabinet in library

HGTV: What look were you were going for?
Judith: I think we knew that in the end we wanted an airy, yet warm home.  Because we are big art collectors, it was always important to go with the gallery white walls while still preserving – to whatever degree possible – the unique features of a heritage home.  I suppose what we wanted was a kind of hyper-urban meets heritage feel.

HGTV: Where and how do you find your stuff?
Judith: Living in New Brunswick makes access to product something of a challenge; unlike Torontonians or the good citizens of Montreal or Vancouver, we can’t just hop in the Honda and run over to a Quasi Modo (Toronto) and pick up a Starck chair.  Although our province is rich in potters, painters, sculptors, etc, we don’t have the same access to furniture and design stores like the big cities.  We are getting better, slowly, but I’ve turned to online. We’ve ordered from Modern Karibou,Gus*Modern (Toronto), Rollout Custom Wallpaper (Vancouver), and when we travel I like to visit stores like Ministry of the Interior (Toronto) and buy whatever might fit into a suitcase.  Our mantra when it comes to furnishing is as follows: always purchase reputable art locally, and, whenever possible, go with Canadian design.  That said, I’ve been guilty of lugging things home from Droog (Amsterdam)!

The great room

HGTV: What’s your favourite room in the house?
Judith: Robert and I spend most of our time in the great room.  It’s a very relaxed and social space situated at the home’s heart.  We installed a modern electric fireplace in that room and the deck access is right there, so it works well in both the summer and winter.

1st Floor guest bedroom; 1st floor bathroom with photographs of artist Damien Hirst’s famous 2007 sculpture, “For the Love of God”, consisting of a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. 

HGTV: What’s with all the skulls?
Judith: I know, I know.  I can’t really account for it.  I suppose I like skulls as design because they represent how fleeting all of this is: properly done, they make a statement about beauty’s inevitable connection to and with death. Anita Modha of Rollout designed our kitchen wallpaper — called “Worth”. She says the paper “reflects the impending decay that will one day wither our beauty and strip away our youth once and for all. Its ominous call challenges us to live, work and party hard.”  I like that.  Not everyone appreciates the skulls, which suits us, as it were, down to the ground.

 Any further design plans?
Judith: Well, we’re currently in the early planning stages of building a new home on a wonderful piece of property we discovered in the city earlier this year.  We’re working with two fabulous young architects, Monica Adair and Stephen Kopp of ‘acre,’ an architectural collective.  It’s difficult at this point to be too specific, but, needless to say, what we hope emerges from the creative conversation we’re having with Monica and Stephen will be the last home we live in…if that doesn’t sound too morbid.




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