A big lift in a small town saves historic home from uncertain future

On a December day in Wolfville, Roy Patterson watched as the historic house he and his wife bought for their retirement was raised into the air by crane.

It hovered above its crumbling century-and-a-half-old foundation just 12 metres from its new one. But during the lift, the steel beams supporting the weight started to bend.

“My main concern was, ‘Gosh, I hope we can move this thing now after all that, after building a brand new foundation for it,'” he told CBC News two weeks later.

Patterson had flown in from his Toronto home to capture the event with his family’s drone.

He said to better suit the strength of the beams, the crew removed eight tonnes — about 10 per cent of the overall weight — in plaster, plumbing, radiators, kitchen cabinets and a cast-iron tub from the historic home, known locally as Keirstead House.

It was decided the crew would try again the following day. By then, word had spread that Keirstead House was being saved from ruin. 

Storied ownership

The property the house sits on dates back to the 1700s when it was owned by the DeWolf family, the town’s founders.

But the structure’s origins are murky, according to local historian John Whidden. He explained a possible construction date of 1863 is only a suggestion and too early for the building’s style.

A 1986 document from the province suggests the house was built between 1870 and 1890. 

The home was later occupied by Robert Jones, a professor of classics at Acadia University. A judge and former law partner of Sir Robert Borden, Canada’s eighth prime minister, also lived there.

But it was ownership under the Keirstead family from 1925 to 1978 that led to the name, said Whidden. Capt. Ron Keirstead was a First World War flying ace, who flew a Sopwith Camel to 13 confirmed kills. 

The crane lift solved three problems, according to Patterson. It saved the house from its crumbling foundation, lessened street noise and created a bigger front yard. (Roy Patterson)

More recently, the home was involved in a Supreme Court of Nova Scotia case between mortgage lender CIBC and the previous owner. In 2015, Justice Patrick Duncan dismissed the owner’s defence, which led to foreclosure.

The historic structure sat empty.

Patterson said its condition was deteriorating by the day, worsened by dry rot. A chimney fire had scorched the rafters.

He and his wife, Lisa Wilkins, bought it in a power of sale.

“Somebody was going to preserve it, or somebody was going to come in and knock it down,” he said. 

The rear view of Keirstead House. The current plot of land is about a one-half hectare, a parcel that was once part of a 40-hectare farm in the 1700s. (Roy Patterson)

Moving day

On the morning of the second day, a small crowd gathered to watch the next lift. Moving a home this way isn’t rare, but it’s a dramatic sight, said project architect Vincent den Hartog.

He said he’d only been directly involved with a house lift one time before — his own home, just a few doors down.

Den Hartog said some locals are relieved Patterson and Wilkins chose to preserve instead of build something new. 

“Certainly, in Wolfville, there’s a fairly significant segment of the population that is very concerned about heritage preservation,” he said. 

Patterson, who’s originally from Dartmouth, said he and his wife plan to keep much of the old look and feel of the house, while bringing everything else up to building standards. For a house they almost walked away from, but ultimately fell in love with, he said the work is well worth the effort. 

“As they were moving it, I was out in the front at the street and I was introduced to one of the town councillors and definitely got the sense from her that she was very grateful that somebody was [saving it],” said Patterson. 

Kathy Routliffe, Ron Keirstead’s granddaugther, grew up in the house.

Now a retired Chicago Tribune reporter, she said she hangs on to fond memories. For that reason, she’s thrilled it’s not being torn down. 

“It was wonderful. I still dream about that house all these years later,” she said. 

Once restored, Patterson said it will remain a rental until they’re ready to retire. 

145 years to the month

The lift on the second day took about two hours. Even though it’s new few foundation was just a few metres away, the cranes had to lower the house and reposition mid-move so the job could be finished. 

The house is now a little further from the road, which cuts down on street noise and allows for a bigger front yard, den Hartog explained.

“The house is going to be restored and maintained and will be there for another hundred years.” 

The etching reads: “Built, D. 1872. Finished, S. 1875.” (Roy Patterson)

Left behind in the old foundation is an etching discovered some time in 2017 as crews prepared for the move. 

The etching reads: “Built, D. 1872. Finished, S. 1875.”

“The D., I assume is December,” said Patterson.

If those dates are true, the small town, big lift was completed 145 years to the month when original construction began.

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