Morris House has new life

In January, the Morris House was hauled by truck from downtown Halifax to the North End in a dramatic move.

By Erin Way

In January, the Morris House was hauled by truck from downtown Halifax to the North End.

The Morris House still sits on the wheels that brought it to it's new home. (Erin Way photo)

Now, with the house in it’s new home, it’s time for the overhaul to begin.

With the house in its new location, the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia and Ecology Action Centre is ready to step in and fulfill the original intent of the move: to preserve and transform the 264 year-old Morris House into a livable building.

Saving the house

The Morris House was set to be demolished in 2009 in order to make way for VIC suites on the corner of Hollis and Morris streets. Once the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia realized that the Morris House was the fourth oldest building in Halifax, it teamed up with Ecology Action Centre to save the building.

Linda Forbes, President of Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia explained that the three-year lease of the Nova Scotia Power parking lot not only bought them a place for the Morris House to stay, but also time to make a plan.

“The Trust agreed to buy the building for a dollar,” Forbes said.

She describes the Trust as “a province wide organization concerned with promoting the protection of heritage buildings, providing educational opportunities and working with the government and community groups to insure the integrity and future viability of heritage buildings.”

Future plans

Metro Non-Profit Housing has arranged to take over the Morris House after the Trust and Ecology Action Centre are done refurbishing it. The goal is to turn it into housing for homeless young adults.

Since the building isn’t yet registered as a historical building, there are no specific heritage conservation laws to follow in the overhaul of the Morris House. So, the Trust is using ‘The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada’ as a guiding principle for the project. The guide is content heavy, but Forbes says it’s one of the most applicable guidelines to their current project.

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Linda Forbes comments on the Morris House project.

“It’s basically just taking good care of, and recognizing the value of the building and being sensitive to what the building is and the work that it has done.”

“Don’t add pieces of a building that weren’t there originally, don’t make it what it wasn’t. Recognize that a building evolves. It’s not static,” said Forbes.

That mindset transfers over to how both the Trust and Ecology Action Centre tackle the Morris Project. For the Trust, preserving the individual architectural aspects of the building are crucial in maintaining the identity of the building.

“A heritage house isn’t necessarily more elaborate or more ornate than [any] other house, it can be very plain as well. And this one is simple and somewhat plain inside,” Forbes said.

Restoration

The Trust aims to refresh the house more than embellish it. Using a painting and general knowledge of the era, the Trust knows that the style of the house is meant to be simple and elegant rather than lavish and grand.

“The stair handrail for example, is very fine, it’s very small and very simple, not like the Victorian posts that are large and heavy, they are very elegant and simple,” Forbes said.

For the Ecology Action Centre, leaving Morris House fundamentally unmodified means extensive research into the methods that will be used to heat, wire, insulate and plumb the building.

“One of the aims of the project is to show that older houses like this can have a useful purpose and can be made reasonably energy efficient,” Forbes said, “The house has lasted as long as it has because it was built in a certain way and if you try to change it, try to treat it the same as a modern house, it may not perform the same way and you could damage it.”

For example, in buildings as old as the Morris House, the sheathing boards under the shingles in the roof have gaps in them to let out air and moisture. If those gaps are covered up with sheathing paper, as is standard now, the building will react differently than a modern house would because it was not built to accommodate a tightly sealed roof.

“If you change one thing you have to be sure that you look for anything else that has to be changed at the same time so that you can continue to perform and stay healthy, Forbes says.”

The story of an old house being saved last minute from demolition then toted across town with intentions of being converted into housing for homeless young adults has also received public support. The Center for Art Tapes has made an animated short about the house. There is a new insulated foundation built on the site paid by donations.

“We’ve had some really good response so we’re feeling quite positive about it,” Forbes said.

“It’s really engaged the community.”