In praise of concrete details
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It’s not a phrase you’d ever expect to hear, but it’s true: He had a passion for concrete.
Charles Macdonald believed concrete was not only safe, strong and more durable than stone, but also that it could be a thing of beauty.
And his creations – a handful of concrete cottages at Huntington Point, among other things – are undoubtedly beautiful.
For some, these whimsical dwellings conjure up thoughts of elves, fairies or Smurfs. Others say the cottages remind them of Hansel and Gretel or, somewhat inexplicably, mushrooms. I imagine they are what Maud Lewis might have created if she had a bit more space and a penchant for concrete.
Macdonald, a native of nearby Centreville, built the five cottages in the 1930s. He and his wife Mabel used to go camping in the area and it eventually dawned on Macdonald that this was “a spot where one could live quietly, yet not be evading useful employment” (Macdonald had acquired socialist tendencies during his years exploring the world as a ship’s carpenter, a fact still evident in the reading materials lining the shelves inside the Red Cottage).
Macdonald and the men who worked at his nearby brick factory, Kentville Concrete Products, built the homes using stones from a nearby beach. Everything else from the floor to the roof is concrete, including some of the inside features, such as the fireplace, mantel and kitchen table. Outside the Red Cottage is a concrete picket fence, deer sculpture and oven. Macdonald’s detailed concrete sculptures grace the inside, and the chimneys are topped with sculptures of boats and birds.
A visitor from the Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1941 that the cottages’ architecture “might have seemed a troubled dream, or even a nightmare, to an aspiring member of the Royal College of Architects, ” and that “anyone engaged in town planning would have been horrified.” But the same visitor also noted that “there was, one felt, an instinctive peace in this man’s heart.”
The surroundings are certainly peaceful, with a rocky beach just steps away and the quiet broken only by the hum of bumblebees exploring the apple blossoms.
The Macdonalds used the cottages as a hostel for guests from as far away as New York, England and Ireland, although most who signed the visitors log over the decades were from Nova Scotia. Prices have increased since the standard fee in the early 1940s – 25 to 75 cents – but visitors can still stay in the Blue Cottage in exchange for a donation to the Charles Macdonald House of Centreville Society.
Macdonald eventually sold most of the cottages. The Round Cottage, also affectionately known as the Teapot Cottage, was bulldozed by its owners in the 1980s, but the other four remain. Two are privately owned, while the Blue Cottage is maintained by the society and the Red Cottage is owned by the Macdonald family.
It’s a constant struggle to keep the buildings in good shape, as Fred Macdonald, Charles’s great-nephew, can attest. In addition to the lawn and garden work and occasional concrete patching job, there’s always a lick of paint at the ready to keep the cottages looking cheerful. Fred, his family and society members keep Macdonald’s legacy thriving through the cottages as well as the Charles Macdonald Concrete House Museum in Centreville.
The museum was originally the site of Macdonald’s brick factory and was later converted to a home for Macdonald and Mabel (after their wedding in Kentville during a January snowstorm, the couple walked home, where Charles presented Mabel with her wedding gift: a rolling pin). At the museum, which is open seasonally, visitors can take a look at some of Macdonald’s paintings as well as his outdoor sculptures, including a Bengal tiger, a nude lady (“a bit of a controversy in her time, ” says Fred), some toadstools and a doghouse – all, of course, made of concrete.
“Charlie was an individual, ” Fred says of his great-uncle, in whom he didn’t take a great interest when he was younger. “I was probably 16 years old and I was into sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But a couple years later, Jesus, I wish I had sat down and talked with him. He would have some stories.”
If you go:
-The Blue Cottage is located at 1172 Huntington Point Rd., and the other cottages are on the same road. From the main road leading west from Halls Harbour, turn where a sign points you toward Simpson Road.
-The Blue Cottage is available to visitors from July to September for a donation of $400 for a one-week stay, plus a $10 membership to the Charles Macdonald House of Centreville Society. To make arrangements, email email@example.com
-The cottage has an outdoor shower with hot water.
-The Charles Macdonald Museum is in Centreville at 19 Saxon St. at the corner of Highway
This article originally appeared in The Chronicle Herald on June 21, 2014.