Our Renovation Story


The following article is by owner/mamager Elaine MacNeil.

ELAINE MACNEIL caught the renovating bug at age two, when her father bought an old hotel for a summer home, and the whole family worked on it. Now she and her husband, Terry, are turning it back into a hotel.

dining room scanThe Grand Narrows Hotel is a prominent feature on the eastern shore of the Barra Strait in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The hotel is part of the history of the area, and flourished during the era of travel by steamer and train. Its reputation for excellent service and quiet elegance drew people from all over the world to its doorstep.

When H. E McDougall, MP, and Edward A. MacNeil built their hotel in 1887, the railway that would bring them so many visitors was in the process of being built. It would open in 1891. Three routes had been proposed for the Intercolonial Railway extension into Cape Breton: one through Inverness and Victoria counties to North Sydney, another from St. Peter’s to Sydney and a central route through Grand Narrows. Local legend has it that Sir John A. Macdonald, the prime minister, was invited to the area for a visit, and was so impressed with the beauty of the scenery that he chose the central route. One has only to take in the view of the beautiful Bras d’Or Lake surrounded by mountains in every direction to understand the attraction of the area. The famous Gaelic bard, Hughie MacKenzie, who lived in Grand Narrows from the I 940s to his death in 1971, wrote of the beauty of Grand Narrows and lona in many of his songs.

H. F. McDougall and Edward A. MacNeil were both merchants. McDougall was for some time the local MLA, but in 1882, ran successfully for the Dominion Parliament. The co-owners had the hotel built by local carpenters, who were clearly very competent. The result was an elegant fifteen-bedroom, three-storey, wooden structure with a mansard roof and dormer windows forming the third floor. The building was topped with a hip roof. It was built on a two-foot thick stone foundation, with four 4-by-8 massive stone pillars lending support. The walls were covered with clapboard outside and with plaster inside. On the front of the hotel overlooking the waters of the Bras d’Or Lake were two full-length verandahs, one on the main floor and the other on the second. Guests would congregate here on still summer evenings to take in the last of the day’s light. They would watch the schooners sail past through the Barra Strait and wait with anticipation the glorious sunset over the hills of lona.

The 1888 brochure describing “This Magnificent Hotel” notes that it is “furnished to afford guests every possible convenience and comfort. The position is central, the arrangements complete. Parlours and bedrooms expensively furnished and is supplied with hot and cold water, and all modern improvements.” Indeed, the hotel was the first commercial building east of Halifax with central heating.

Guests entering the hotel would find themselves in a large hall with an exquisite winding oak staircase rising up to the second and third floors. On the west side of the hall was the front office with guest register (the originals have been preserved) and three large windows overlooking the lake. Next to the office was the bright and airy dining room with a large built-in china cabinet. The dining room seated twenty-four people, and, as the brochure noted, “A first class table is guaranteed.” On the opposite side of the hall a door opened to two gracious sitting rooms separated by large solid oak pocket doors.

Ascending the main staircase to the second floor the guests reach the first floor of bedrooms. In the front were two large suites of two rooms; in addition to such amenities as ample closet space, central heat and hot and cold running water, the windows offered them a breathtaking view of the beautiful Bras d’Or Lake. On the opposite side of the long hall was another guestroom, the main bathroom and the manager’s room. Here Josephine MacNeil, who managed the Grand Narrows hotel for many years and was the daughter of one of the co-owners, had large and comfortable quarters. There was an open pipe leading down to the kitchen so that she could speak to the staff. On the third floor, there were five rooms at the front overlooking the lake and four rooms on the back overlooking McDougalls Pond. Water was supplied for the heating system, as well as for sinks in some of the rooms, from the spring-fed reservoir on the hill above.

After 1891 the hotel served as an important stopover for the many people who traveled by the newest means of transportation, the “railcar.” The train brought a wide variety of people from all corners of the world to Grand Narrows. Two prime ministers, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper, were among the many famous and wealthy visitors. One frequent guest was Alexander Graham Bell, who had a summer home known as Beinn Breagh (“Beautiful Mountain”) in Baddeck. He would stay overnight at the hotel and complete his journey to Baddeck the following day on the steamboat The Blue Hill. Friends and associates often traveled with him: his secretary, A. W. McCurdy, and his son J. A. D. McCurdy, who, in February 1909 over Baddeck Bay at the controls of the Silver Dart, made the first powered flight in Canada; Helen Keller, whom Bell met during the course of his work for the deaf. (His invention of the telephone came as a result of his experiments with acoustical devices for helping the deaf.) Local people could recall seeing Miss Keller and her trusted companion, a golden Labrador, swimming the waters of the Barra Strait.

Grand Narrows, Cape Breton County, or “The Port of Grand Narrows” as it was known at the time, was a thriving community. It had two restaurants, a post office, customs office, three stores, two canneries, a blacksmith and boat-building shops. The addition of the hotel and the coming of the railroad meant more prosperity to an already bustling community.

However, when the ubiquitous automobile became popular and roads were improved, tourists gradually stopped using the trains and steamers, and fewer people stayed overnight at the Grand Narrows Hotel. As the number of guests dwindled, the regular staff were let go. By 1935, there were hardly any guests, and before the outbreak of the Second World Wai the hotel had closed.

InOctober 1956 my father, C. Hugh MacLennan, a barrister from Sydney Mines, was on a hunting trip to Orangedale or River Denys when he missed the ferry. Dropping in at the store owned by Eddy MacNeil in Grand Narrows, he inquired as to what would be done with the old hotel. Mr. MacNeil said it would probably be sold if a buyer could be found. On his way home that evening, my father made a down payment on the property and became the new owner of the Grand Narrows Hotel, which my family later called Barra Lodge. At home there were three adults, my father, my mother, Hazel, and my grandmother Ada Jane MacLennan. I was two at this time, and my four siblings ranged in age from eight to newborn. My youngest brother was born in 1959.{mospagebreak}

Over the next twenty years, with my brothers and sisters, I would wait in great anticipation for summer vacation, when we would load up the station wagon to such an extent that it often touched the ground. We made the long trip up along the lake over the dirt roads passing through Ironville and Boisdale then Beaver Cove and Shenacadie and finally Big Beach and Christmas Island to Grand Narrows. Here we would spend every summer, many weekends. We would spend hours swimming in the beautiful warm clean waters right outside our door. We enjoyed every minute we were here. There were many children to play with, not much trouble to get into and lots of wonderful pastimes. We even passed a winter here, and attended a one-room school up the road from the hotel.

gnh-hotel scanWith a building as large as the hotel there was always plenty of work to do. Each morning after breakfast my father produced his “DO” list. Needless to say we were not anxious to see it, but we also knew that if our assigned chores were completed by noon, we would have the rest of the day to enjoy ourselves. Therefore we went about our tasks with vigour. Much work would be accomplished. I remember being sent to one of the third floor rooms to strip wallpaper or wash muresco, a early type of whitewash. When it was moistened it would turn to a thick, paste-like consistency. I was very young when I first acquired personal experience in renovating, for my father believed that there was a task even the smallest child could perform.

One job I remember doing more often than any other was the task of whitewashing the foundation. My father would get a bucket of salt water from the lake and mix lime with it until it had a porridge-like consistency. Armed with a brush, I would tackle the large stone walls. This would take hours and when finished I would be white from head to toe. My reward was to be able to jump in the cooling water in front of the hotel and wash off the burning residue.

Later, when I was about fifteen or so, my job was to paint the third floor dormers. These dormers are about forty feet from the ground, so up the wooden ladder I would go. One day my older brother, who loved to pick on me, was walking by below carrying a crowbar. He decided to give the ladder a whack and sent the shock waves up the ladder to where I was perched on top. I reacted with ear-piercing screams as I held on, and Donnie was ordered to take over the job. That the hotel has survived fairly well the ravages of salt water, wind and rain is in large part due to the efforts of the entire clan.

In 1990, on the death of my parents, my eldest sister inherited Barra Lodge, and she lived there for a while. In October 1996 my husband, Terry, and I decided to buy the hotel. We planned to operate it year round and offer many of the services that were offered in its heyday. We could make use of the beautiful nature all around us and provide excellent service offering our guests a cultural and historical experience unlike any other.

After living in the hotel all those summers, I became very aware of the interest people have in the building and in its history. Over the years hundreds of people would stop their cars in front and ask if we were open. Often they were given a tour and perhaps a chance to view the old registers. When they found the names of many of her famous guests from John A. Macdonald, Alexander Graham Bell, J.A.D. McCurdy and, believe it or not, Sam Slick, they would be enthralled. Often too, they found names of relatives who had been guests at the hotel.

When we started renovating the hotel in 1998, we were no strangers to the massive amount of work such an undertaking entails. We had already completely rehabilitated a farmhouse in nearby Pipers Cove in 1978, and in 1987 we did extensive renovations on our house and business premises in Grand Narrows.

We took several months to make our preparations. We drew floor plans, listed renovations required, and obtained estimates from subcontractors. We decided that to save money, we would have to do most of the work ourselves. While we knew the challenges ahead of us, we were also aware of the potential rewards. On July the fourth we moved in and, with the help of friends, soon had the basic house cleaning completed.

Our first task was to tackle renovations to the building that houses the kitchen and maids’ quarters. The two-storey structure, with a steep-pitched roof with dormers, is joined at right angles to the back of the main building, the roof ridge reaching just below the eaveline of the mansard roof. With the help of two local carpenters my husband and I began the work on the kitchen in August 1998. We removed the two large dormer windows, which were rotted, stripped the old roof and replaced the rafters, sheathing and shingles. By modifying the steep pitch of the roof, which restricted the height of the walls inside, we were able to add four feet to the outside walls, Instead of replacing the dormers we installed three ready-made windows on one side and two on the other.

After completing the roof, which took considerably more time than we had expected, we were ready to tackle the interior walls. For many weeks the air was filled with plaster dust, sawdust and plain old dust. The interior walls above the kitchen were in bad shape, so we tore them out. We built new walls and made three rooms, and installed new wiring. The floor above the kitchen was also in bad shape, so we installed a tongue-and-groove hemlock floor, which we later stained and varnished. Because the main bathroom was connected to the area above the kitchen, we had to renovate it also at this time. We replaced the old plaster with gyproc, put in new fixtures, and redid the wiring. All of these renovations were being done while trying to live in and use the kitchen. It took about three months to complete.

We could now concentrate on the main building. Besides general renovations, this required upgrading of the electric wiring. Originally we had hoped to open in 1998 but with all the work to be done this turned out to be impossible.

By the time October rolled around it was too cold to sit in the other rooms in the main building, and we were basically living in the kitchen. By the second week of November we had the maids’ quarters above the kitchen ready for our two children to move into. Now only Terry and I were living in the kitchen. Our carpenter and his wife were occupying one of the unheated guestrooms, and as soon as they woke in the morning, they dashed to the heated kitchen. Clearly something had to be done, and we made the decision to install the first central heating system in the hotel in over sixty years.

The original system had consisted of large cast-iron pipes leading to cast iron radiators in the rooms. Coal and wood were used to heat water to produce steam which heated the pipes. We have a new hot water oil-fired system. It was quite miraculous to sit in the front parlours that day in December, relishing the heat pouring out of the new radiators, chasing out the cold of years. We left the original radiators in place and hope that some day, we may be able to have them functioning.

One particular day we decided to tackle the pantry area. When we removed the top boards on the walls we discovered that the boards beneath were completely rotten. This did not bode well for the floor is this area. Sure enough, when we lifted the plywood in one corner we could see into the basement. A job we thought would rake only one or two days to finish ended up raking two weeks. Fortunately, the floors in all other areas were in excellent shape. The bedroom floors only require paint. One day, it would be nice to refinish the oak floor in the dining room and the maple floor in the main hall.

When we purchased the building in July, we let the family know that we wanted to have Christmas at the hotel. We found that having a goal helped to keep us going forward. My family was worried we were trying to do too much, but we were determined to carry it through. It did not help when we had a flood. During work on the plumbing, the drain became clogged. When we tried to clear it, the system backed up and water came down through the dining room ceiling, ruining the ceiling as well as our computer. It was about three weeks later that my brother arrived one day with a tree and decorations, and the next day the tree was up and decorated. That was when I knew that we were going to have Christmas here. But first, there was the task of cleaning the first and second floors from top to bottom before putting up the decorations. With the help of some good friends, we had most of the work done in one day; so, for the first time in sixty years, there were Christmas lights in the windows and heat in the rooms of the building. We spent our first Christmas in the “Hotel” with family all around. It was a very special time for all of us.

The first order of business for 1999 was to ready the four bedrooms on the second floor for the coming season. For three weeks we scraped and scrubbed, swept, crack-filled, and painted. Some of the designs from the old paper were still imprinted, almost fossil like, on the plaster walls.

On the main floor, the office, dining room and the main hall needed to be stripped of old paper, cracks filled and painted. I am filled with nostalgia when I strip the walls and recognize some of the old paper underneath from forty years ago. As we clean these same rooms today I’m grateful for the unwitting help I received back twenty years ago from my parents and siblings.

Our children, sixteen-year-old Ian Hugh and thirteen-year-old Christina, have been very patient through all of the disruption. They are interested in the history of the building, and although they did not at first relish the idea of moving, especially given the amount of repairs needed, they are now very eager to be involved. They are doing the same tasks which I had done years before, and I hope they will be still enjoying the hotel when they are my age.

With the rate at which we are progressing I have no doubt that we will be finished in time to enable us to take a well-deserved rest before the summer season begins. Our plans now are to open initially as a four-room bed-and-breakfast. Next season we plan to have the entire building open for guests. Before that can happen, however, we must finish renovating the nine rooms on the third floor to bring them up to Tourism Nova Scotia standards. We plan to remove walls between some of the rooms. While we shall have fewer rooms, those remaining will be larger and will enable us to install en suite bathrooms. We will also have to install a fire alarm system and fire escapes from the second and third floors. Most of the dormer windows will have to be rebuilt. The mansard roof will return to its original type of covering when we strip off the vinyl siding installed twenty years ago and replace it with wooden shingles. We shall also have to put in new wiring and plumbing. The rest of the building will be unaffected by these extensive renovations because a wall has been erected at the top of the stairs on the third floor.

The major problems we face by transforming our bed-and-breakfast back to a hotel involve the fire marshal’s regulations. Because original bedroom doors are wooden and do not have a twenty-minute fire separation we may have to replace them, which would certainly affect the appearance of the hotel’s interior. Also, because of using three floors, we may be requited to install fire doors, blocking off the stairway on each floor, a change that would destroy much of the architectural integrity of the interior.

Operating as a hotel will enable us to offer additional services such as dining and banquet facilities, gift shop and evening entertainment. The central theme will be the history of the building and the area, as well as the rich Gaelic culture of the surrounding communities.

Most of my work experience has been connected to the tourism industry. To have the opportunity of opening the doors of this historic building again to the public, and to have a partner willing to help bring this to reality has been for me a dream come true.