Fiona Richards and Doug Jones are no strangers to heritage restoration. They’ve brought a few houses in Nelson back to their original splendor and created the Dominion Cafe in one of the city’s oldest commercial buildings. But transforming 652 Baker Street into a Cartolina retail outlet was their biggest and most rewarding challenge yet.
The couple designs unique paper products that are sold all over the world, but after seven years the business had outgrown their North Shore home. Searching for more space, they thought the former King’s Restaurant might fit the bill. Once part of the Tremont Hotel, the 114-year-old building was one of the few on Baker that had never seen any interior restoration.
“It was a huge risk and scary,” Jones says. “What if we hit some catastrophic problem? But you’ve got to take some risks with this type of thing.”
Beginning in early May and continuing for ten weeks, they worked with Peter Gosney’s construction crew to unearth the building’s secrets. Discovering what lay beneath several generations’ worth of paneling, plywood, and linoleum constantly astonished and delighted them.
“Our motto was ‘No patina would be harmed during the making of this store,’” Richards says. “We kept to that. We said to the guys ‘Be really careful when you’re removing or sanding.’ And they did a great job.”
Early on, they got an inkling of what was to come when Jones discovered the original tin ceiling, hidden for decades. “The ceiling was the showstopper,” he says. “About a week before we started, someone told me there was tin up there. The first day, I moved the tile over and could see through. I moved more tile until you could see the whole thing. I couldn’t do anything else for an hour. I kept texting Fiona pictures.”
The dropped ceiling, presumably intended to lower heating costs, resulted in another original feature being covered up: transom windows at the front disappeared under plywood and an awning. The windows have now been restored to their former glory while the walls were taken back to exposed brick.
“We actually chipped the parged-on plaster off the walls,” Jones says. “That would have been the original finish coat, which is fine, but looked too plain for our tastes.”
The floor was another matter: it was several layers of of carpet, linoleum, and plywood which was stripped back to the original hardwood (although some vintage checkerboard lino was salvaged for the front window display).
The building was filled with all sorts of old furniture and artifacts, some of which has been repurposed for the store. A pair of heavy swinging doors, curved from many years of use, now separates the retail and wholesale areas. (The latter is where the restaurant’s kitchen used to be.)
The front counter came from an old store in Greenwood, where Richards had long admired it, and above it now hang two Chinese lanterns from King’s banquet room.
But the piece de resistance is a massive, 11-foot long table discovered in the basement that probably dates to the 1890s. It was impossible to bring up the stairs, which were long ago reconfigured with a sharp turn, so they cut a hole in the floor and hoisted it up. “It’s a beauty,” Richards says. “We’re fairly certain it’s as old as the building and was down there a very long time.”
Bits of history
The two-storey building was designed in 1899 by local architects Ewart and Carrie and built in pressed white brick. Hotel rooms were upstairs while the ground floor originally had a grocery store and later a haberdashery and children’s store before it became a Chinese restaurant about 1965.
It’s the only surviving portion of the Tremont Hotel, as the other two-thirds were demolished sometime before 1951 to make way for a new Greyhound depot and parking lot.
The building is connected on both floors to two others at the rear. They’re of a similar age but slightly narrower and hadn’t been used for anything more than storage in decades. One has a pointed roof and appears to have been a house or apartments, but could have had a commercial use as well. Richards and Jones guess it might have been home to the Hip Chong laundry, once listed in the same block as the Tremont. Next to these buildings is a lane with a wooden walkway that leads to the alley.
“It’s a huge place,” Richards says. “What you see in the store and back room is only one-quarter of the building. We’ve only restored those sections but we’re excited with the potential of the brick house at the back and hope we can find a great tenant for it.”
In addition to the larger finds, there were plenty of smaller discoveries along the way to keep things interesting. “Lots of days we’d find some little thing that would be a bit of history,” Jones says. “A pack rat’s nest that fell out of the ceiling was full of 20 or 30 beer bottle caps from the 1910s, from Fernie, Fort Steele, Nelson, and a couple from the States.
“There was a full page from an Italian newspaper from 1910. Parts of a doll. A 1906 dime. Menus from King’s. Stuff from the Bossy Place [one of the restaurant’s former names] and from the kids place that used to be here.
“In the dirt floor of the basement, I scraped away something and found a hole filled with junk. There was a great old black porcelain doorknob. And then a cookie cutter shaped like a gingerbread man. Then a 1950s comic book. It’s fun finding those little bits.”
He also came across more than a dozen cleavers scattered throughout the building from its many years as a restaurant. “I just kept putting them upstairs in a bucket. They’re all really worn and over-sharpened and have weird shapes. I’d like to make some sort of display of them.”
Jones says reclaiming these traces of the building’s heritage is more than just a treasure hunt.
“We wanted to present an historic layer and thought [customers] would respond enthusiastically to the space. I think they are. What’s funny is a lot of locals come in and get really confused. They say ‘So what used to be here?’”
The store opened in early July and “we’ve been run off our feet,” Richards says. “We had no idea we would be this busy.” She hopes their experience sets an example for others. “I hope we can inspire other people to do this kind of reno as opposed to taking an old building and making it look new inside. It’s more interesting and more authentic, which is bound to give you a better feel.”
The store itself is full of retro and vintage images and ephemera. Richards and Jones have also created a line of Nelson-related t-shirts and stock products by other designers whose work they respect.
Cartolina is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.