Design & DIY

This couple brought the soul of a Roots-inspired log cabin to their East Coast cottage

“When we bought the place, there was more than a foot of water in the basement. The property had just been neglected,” Pauline Landriault tells me, of how she and her husband, Robbie Cohen, turned an unlivable cottage in southwestern Nova Scotia into their beloved summer home.

Now the place is anything but. It blends modern and traditional design for an effect that feels relaxed and stylish—a bit like you’ve walked into a Roots catalogue. And since Pauline has been working with Roots Canada for 30 years, now as the senior director of store design and development—and she is one of the company’s trailblazers—that should come as no surprise.

The couple’s love of the East Coast hasn’t been a lifelong affliction. Robbie had never even been to Nova Scotia until he and Pauline were invited to Sandy Cove, N.S., in 2010 to stay with writer friends from back home in Ontario. They instantly fell in love with the village and its community. They decided to find their own cottage so they could spend summers with those same friends who had already settled there.

The cottage that became their labour of love was first built in 1952, and is now known as “Treetops.” It sits on three acres on St. Mary’s Bay, a branch of the Bay of Fundy. “We originally wanted to buy land and build a place, but when the real estate agent showed us this on a whim, we could not get over the view and setting,” says Pauline. Now, celebrating the property’s heritage has become the very ethos of Pauline and Robbie’s haven. “My job at Roots is to create environments in our stores that showcase our product and make our customers feel welcome, warm, and comfortable,” she says. “That’s what we were trying to do here too.” 

Indeed, as you enter the cottage, there’s a plaque with a quote from James C. Floyd, a former aircraft designer, that sums up their dedication to the project: “If it’s worthwhile but obviously impossible, do it anyway.”

The historical village of Sandy Cove is full of cottages and fishers’ homes, a library, a schoolhouse, and little else to attract tourists. After a two-hour flight from Toronto—where Pauline and Robbie live—to Halifax, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the cottage on a route that takes in the magnitude of this salty, rugged landscape full of forests and circled by coastline with sandy beaches, snug harbours, clinking boats, and relaxed, friendly people. 

Pauline found the cottage’s history as appealing as the near 360-degree view overlooking the bay. (“We can see everything, no one can see us,” she explains.) Since the cottage was erected, three of its four owners have been involved in Canadian retail firms. According to Pauline, the cottage’s original owners ran a department store in Halifax that sold high-end goods. “The wife’s name was Winifred, and their last name was Woodward, so they called the cottage ‘Wynwood,’  ” she says. (The original sign is displayed in what the couple call the Canada Room.) The husband passed away a year after they built the place, so Winifred sold it to the Ogilvys, another family with a Scottish background and a long-standing department store in Montreal. Margaret Ogilvy, the new owner, planted the sprawling gardens that still remain on the property. She sold it in 1985 to the owners that Pauline and Robbie purchased the cottage from in January 2013, a family from New Hampshire who ran a tree farm and who had owned the property for 20 years. “It was apparent to me from how previous owners had allocated each space for a distinct furniture layout that they were in the retail business,” says Pauline. “I felt a real sense of connection right away.”

But there were problems with the property that they had to solve (the aforementioned water in the basement, for one), plus some dodgy electrical. Luckily, Pauline started her career as an architect, a field that she worked in for about five years prior to joining Roots. It was clear to her what needed to be done: they had to take the place down to the studs, replace all of the plumbing and electrical, and fix the drainage around the property by building a French drain and adding a sump pump and weeping tile to divert the water. “Now our basement is completely dry,” she says with a laugh. 

Despite the underlying challenges, “the structure was intact, and, remarkably, everything was completely plum and level,” says Pauline. “I think East Coast carpenters are some of the best in Canada.” For that reason, it was important to Pauline and Robbie that they maintain the history of the building—they didn’t want to go for the big kitchen island and the open concept layout. “I kept the original plan, it’s very British,” says Pauline. The existing layout was purposeful: the windows are located to suit the sun for the different times of the day. “I’m constantly playing musical chairs with the blinds.” And Pauline and Robbie’s bedroom has a large east-facing window so that the sunrise is the only alarm clock needed. “There is no better way to wake up,” Pauline says with a grin.

Margaret Ogilvy built a few additions, including a reading room off the kitchen, the Canada Room, where every seat, table, and trinket were all proudly made in Canada. The couple use it for their 5 o’clock cocktail with locals or guests from Toronto, in the morning for coffee, or at night when they cuddle in front of the Stûv woodstove. “We can see the lobster fishing vessels come and go from the window in the evening during the scallop and lobster season,” Pauline says.

They kept the original exterior clapboard siding and all of the hardware inside and out, but a lot of the interior had chipped paint and water damage—it needed a refresh. For this, Pauline looked for inspiration locally. “I studied a lot of the houses in the village,” she says. “Some of them were built by sea captains. But a lot of them were fishermen’s homes, and the little kitchens were done with Douglas fir plywood, so I built a plywood kitchen too.”

Even the doors are original to the house, repainted lovingly by Robbie using the colours of the region—reminiscent of Maud Lewis’s bright, childlike creations. “She often used leftover marine paint,” says Pauline, “So we chose a marine-grade paint used on many fishing boats in the area for our turquoise doors.”

In addition to honouring the cottage’s history, Pauline has put her own touch on the space. In fact, she conceptualized much of the furniture herself: “I design and curate all of the furniture and fixtures in our Roots stores.” She and Robbie brought some of her favourite pieces to Treetops, such as the first-edition Roots club chairs made in Canada in the ’90s, the harp dining chairs, and the live-edge dining table. “I designed that table specifically for the cottage, but it’s similar to one that we have in our stores,” she says. These beautiful Roots originals are Pauline’s legacy, and she is proud of them. “The leather is all Roots throughout the cottage, there’s a Roots Home sofa bed in the Canada Room that I designed in the 1980s, a Roots Home ottoman…” In a way, Treetops is a curated exhibition of her life’s work.

Pauline oversaw all the work on the cottage from Toronto, but she worked closely over video calls (pre-COVID, even) on the interiors with local Sandy Cove carpenters that she had befriended at town hall lobster boils and fire station fundraisers. Their work is evident all over the cottage: the shelves are made from Nova Scotia materials, the floors were refinished by an 80-year-old man from nearby Lawrencetown, and the cabinets were all custom-made. “The original aesthetic of the home is the same,” says Pauline, pointing to the beams made of local hemlock. Even the mugs Pauline and Robbie drink from were made by local artists. 

Pauline and Robbie’s desire to connect with the community is apparent beyond the vintage maps of Sandy Cove that adorn the walls. They’re regulars at community initiatives and garden parties. Right from the start, they would invite locals for cocktail hour, which helped them feel like part of the fabric of the village. They’ve learned that Sandy Cove is an intimate, year-round community, and it is imperative for newcomers like them to respect that. “We can’t just show up like Upper Canadians saying we are going to make all these changes,” Pauline says. “We live within the community, we respect the environment, and we respect everyone who lives here.” And they feel like the community has embraced them as well. “When we arrived from Ontario last summer and we were in isolation, every day someone would turn up with fresh fish or produce or wine.”

As I sit on the porch watching lobster fishers haul their nets, hearing only the crickets and the poetic sway of the leaves in the trees, I understand why Pauline, Robbie, and their tight-knit group of Ontarians have fallen in love with this place. They live in harmony with the hardworking fishing community and the many artists who use it as a launchpad for their creative ventures. “It’s such a beautiful place to get inspired,” says Pauline. “The landscapes, the weather, the tides, there’s environmental movement everywhere.”

Eight years after her first viewing, there is no sign that Pauline’s enthusiasm for the place is abating. Her excitement for this summer cottage project that’s become a potential retirement spot is palpable—in fact, it’s infectious. “We are so happy here, and we have big plans for what’s next. We want to build a sauna and some guest cabins on the property to share what we have with other like-minded people who are looking for a better quality of life,” she says. “This area is endlessly magical.” And therein lies the key to the locals’ love for her. She loves her Sandy Cove cottage not only for what she plans to do with it, but for what it has always been.

James Mullinger is an award-winning journalist and stand-up comedian who left London, England, in 2014 and moved to a small town in New Brunswick for a better quality of life.

A little Maud, a little log
It takes a pro to make this unique design mashup work. Here’s how Pauline did it:

How did you approach the interior design of the cottage?

PL: I designed the rooms like they were departments in a department store; each room has its own theme. The Canada Room is one example: it’s red, it has Buffalo plaid, and it has the Roots Home club chairs. One of the bedrooms is themed around Robbie’s childhood. When his mom sold the house he grew up in, we brought the whole furniture set here and replicated the look of his old bedroom. One is all navy and white, that classic nautical look. Our bedroom has Douglas fir cabinets and beautiful cream colours. The light from the two big windows was my inspiration, so I kept it very simple. Benjamin Moore OC-65 is the white I use all the time in our stores and at home—it’s not too cold.

I didn’t want to have an open concept design because, to me, it’s much better to have separate spaces when you have guests—no one can see how messy your kitchen is when they’re in a different room—and the cottage still has a good flow.

The cottage was in bad shape when you bought it, but you were able to save a lot of the original elements. How did you revive it?

PL: The original ash and maple flooring was stained a dark chocolate colour, and it was full of scratches, so we sanded it down and added a Bona finish. It’s a clear coat that makes the wood look like it has no finish. We do that at Roots too. We don’t generally stain or colour wood as we want it to be natural. The same goes for any natural element, really. I painted the floor in the Canada Room white—I liked the idea of having a white ceiling and a white floor because I kept the walls natural. In general, I like a white background to help all the elements in a space standout. It also helps open the space, which I like to do as much as possible.

Where did you source the pieces that you used?

PL: I brought a lot of the furniture with me. I designed the couch and the cushions in the Canada Room specifically for the cottage because I had a colour theme in mind.

I designed a lot of the rooms around the original pieces that came with the cottage. In the main living room, the orange came from the couch that was here when we arrived, though inspiration for the brighter colours came primarily from Maud Lewis’s paintings. When we went to re-cover the cushions for the couch, I found this orange print that I really loved, and I had a braided carpet that was a similar colour. From there, it developed into the Pendleton-fabric ottoman and then to the Pendleton-fabric chairs. That print also had green in the fabric, so I pulled that shade out for the cabinet on the back wall.

If you have one piece that you really love, start with that and build your design out from there.

In hindsight, is there anything you would change?

PL: I’m attached to this place, but if I had a chance to do it again, I would change it completely! I move the furniture around monthly, it’s in a different configuration now than it was when these photos were taken. I love change, it’s part of my upbringing at Roots—you have to adapt. I’m always ready for another project. If I had the money, I would buy a ton of houses and fix them up.

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