Close your eyes for just a minute and think back to your childhood home. Picture your room, the street you grew up on, your favourite haunts. As the memories flood back, the lucky among us will revel in our connections to those people and places that played important roles in our early years. That sense of place grounds us and gives us confidence as we move through life. But in our transitory times, such attachments can be fleeting as we switch up homes, schools, and friends with increasing frequency. And then there’s Michael Jamieson, the fifth generation of Jamiesons to call Almonte home. His sense of place goes back more than a century, with connections that pull him in on so many levels — geographical, historical, and emotional.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Young Michael Jamieson grew up on Union Street, in the house his great-grandfather had built. It was the same street his father had grown up on and his grandfather before that and so on. It’s a street with large lots, classic red-brick or stone homes set way back from the road, and views that take in the farmland beside the Mississippi River. His wife, Jennifer, also grew up on this idyllic street, and the two became high school sweethearts, relocating to Ottawa for university and to begin their professional lives. For 15 years, they lived in the capital, the last seven of those in a 1920s house in Old Ottawa South. They loved their place but increasingly found themselves drawn back to Almonte.
“It’s funny, because growing up, we couldn’t wait to escape our hometown where everybody knew you and your family and your business,” says Jennifer.
“Part of what we loved in the city at first was the anonymity of it.” But as city life became routine, their perspective began to change. They spent many weekends in Almonte, enjoying the outdoors and being with their families. They began planning a family of their own (James Grey was born in 2013) and were drawn to the idea of raising their child in a small town. Slowly a plan began to take shape. Michael’s dad, who still lived on Union Street, owned an empty lot a few houses away. Perhaps it was time to build their own house and set down roots? In 2012, the Jamiesons began sketching plans, spending the next 18 months visualizing their perfect home. “We weren’t interested in compromise or having someone make decisions for us. We wanted to be perfectly clear on what we wanted,” says Jennifer.
The Jamiesons’ starting point was the setting. Theirs is an established street with beautiful old houses. That provided the template for what was to come next. They knew they wanted their new home to fit in seamlessly. And yet the Jamiesons faced a huge dilemma. While they loved the charm and character of the Victorian houses, they were also drawn to the idea of dwelling in a modern “treehouse” with giant windows. “We took a risk,” says Michael. “We said, ‘If we can’t decide, let’s do both.’ ”
They began designing a house with two complementary halves, one side of which would look as if it had always been there, the other a modern “extension” with soaring views.
The couple credit Gordon Weima of Gordon Weima Design Builder for having the confidence to take their unorthodox vision and run with it. “He didn’t try to change our minds. He understood that we were building a home for us, and he stuck with us,” explains Jennifer. “He took our vision and made it better.” For Weima, the project was a chance to have some fun, going the extra mile to design and build a unique house. “I’ll never build another exactly like this one,” he says with a smile. [His design won an award at this year’s GOHBA].
The experienced builder suggested some of the key elements that took their design to the next level — the two-storey strip of smoky glass that connects the “old” section to the “new,” the decision to bring the modern box to the forefront to take advantage of the best views, and the idea to wrap the brick around the side of the house into the interior, emphasizing the illusion that this is an old house with a modern extension attached.
Eighteen months after moving in, Jennifer, Michael, and James Grey feel as if this has always been home. “This house is us,” says Jennifer. “It fits us completely — it feels like it works itself around our lifestyle.” They are at peace here, surrounded by the people and the community that provide them with that all-important sense of place.
Reflecting on returning to Almonte and building his forever home on the street where so many of his ancestors have lived, Michael points to the narrow windows on either side of the fireplace. Through them is a view of the red-brick house next door — his late grand-father’s. “Everywhere I look, there are connections. It makes me happy.”