Meet Albert Crowder—the cottage-building magician whose unique touch can be seen all over St. Joseph Island

Albert Crowder sitting in the rafters of his cottage Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth/Cottage Life

Don’t call him a contractor. Albert Crowder is a cottage-building magician who doesn’t mind revealing his secrets

The setting: St. Joseph Island, Ont., near Sault Ste. Marie on Lake Huron’s North Channel; year-round population: maybe 1,200—but hundreds more in summer. The protagonist: builder Albert Crowder, 64, the fourth generation of Crowders on the island. Lean, slow-spoken, opinionated. Drives an aging pickup and lives on half an acre in a princess-pink house built by his great-grandfather. Also tends to 200 acres of sugar bush and makes a few hundred litres of maple syrup (in a good year), the old-fashioned way. Hates fads, scorns “plastic camps,” and can’t bear old buildings falling into ruin.

The plot: He’s never advertised. Doesn’t have a website. Has no interest in cutting corners. In fact, unbidden, he gives his projects added touches that cost him. He doesn’t do the making-money thing very well. His admission. “I can’t help myself. I’m just out to build nice cottages.” Ones that fit seamlessly with their much-older neighbours. Modest, not monster. Additions that are “foolers” (they don’t look added on). His clients—each one sent to him by someone else he worked for—varyingly call him a genius, an artist, a perfectionist. One said she wanted to adopt him.

Love in the time of cottages. A story in four chapters, told from the ground up.

Chapter 1 / Brooke Hallowell / The modest cottage built to blend into its history-steeped surroundings

Welcome to Albert’s world, wherein building materials don’t all come from the building-supply store.

The late ’90s. Jane Lou Smith had been summering on St. Joseph’s Llewellyn Beach since childhood. But nearby cottagers (including her long-time friends) weren’t impressed when they heard that their neighbour, by then in her early 70s, was going to build a cottage on a narrow, previously empty slice of waterfront next to the family place. They would have been even less pleased if they’d seen the magazine clipping she showed Albert. “Mahogany with white trim,” he recalls. “Dead ugly.” No way could Albert do ugly—it’s just not in his DNA—especially for someone he’d known since he was a kid.

And thus began a collaboration between builder and client. “The cottage is much more beautiful than if either had come up with the plans alone,” says Jane Lou’s daughter Brooke Hallowell, who inherited the property after her mother died in 2007. “There was a very special connection between them.” Even after the plans were set, she says, Jane Lou and Albert kept coming up with new ideas. “They were always scheming.”

For the cottage rafters, Albert headed into the bush and cut red-pine poles. Then he built a skid to transport them, and a “sliding car” so he could roll them as—and this is classic Albert—he shaped each one himself, by hand, with a drawknife. (The final smoothing was done with a power planer.) Finished with two coats of water-based urethane, the exposed rafters inside the cottage glow with golden light; outside, under the gracefully sloping roof on the broad porch, Jane Lou wanted them left unfinished, to age naturally. The rest of the exterior is painted dark brown, the roof a deep forest green, and the whole structure disappears into the foliage. You’d never guess it hadn’t always been there.

Using leftover black-cherry flooring he’d bought years earlier from a mill in the Soo, Albert custom-built cabinets for Jane Lou’s kitchen. He even made her a double bed with peeled pine logs.

“When she saw the finished cottage, she couldn’t put her feelings into words,” Albert recalls. “But it was clear that I had made her very, very happy. She stayed as late as she could that year—and every summer for the rest of her life.”

Albert managed to work in a stone fireplace to please Jane Lou, who was a hobby mineralogist. “She helped decide their placement,” Brooke says. Albert also gave Jane Lou’s cottage a stone-lined shower. “Part of the magic of his work is how he listens. He listened to my mother’s dream and incorporated it.”

The tricks up Albert’s sleeve

  • Build in easy access to pumps, plumbing, and other essentials. Boards in the back of Crowder closets pop out to reveal the pipes in adjacent bathrooms. Decks have trap doors so that pumps can be serviced. At Marty and John Ray’s cottage, a lift-out section on the side deck near the door allows quick access to the firewood underneath.

  • Include narrow windows on side walls to visually extend the picture windows on the front of the cottage. “They double the view, and make the camp seem bigger than it is,” explains Albert.

  • Offset screws in deck boards. “They’re less noticeable if they’re not all lined up.”

  • Stray from the standard. Without being asked, he’s lowered kitchen countertops for a petite owner, made outdoor steps shallower for an aging one, and installed an above-standard-height toilet for an arthritis sufferer.

  • Go odd instead of even. A chef will tell you that an odd number of elements on a plate is more enticing than an even number; Albert says the same goes for windows. “An even number of windows in a wall isn’t as aesthetically pleasing.”

Chapter 2 / The Creedens / The bunkie that smells like red cedar and douglas fir, years later

Wherein Albert is left with a thumbnail sketch and a handshake agreement on the price.

Debbie and Bill Creeden had been among the apprehensive when they heard about Jane Lou’s plan to build. (Debbie’s extended family owns the two cottages next door.) “But we were completely taken with Albert’s work for her,” Debbie says, and they hired him for a few small projects (including an outdoor shower) at their own just-purchased cottage nearby. Like most of his clients, they then wanted him back to do more—including, eventually, a bunkie with a screened porch and deck, about 1,000 sq. ft. in all. “We showed him our general idea”—a drawn-on-a-paper-napkin kind of design, she says—shook hands on a price, and went home to Arizona for the winter, knowing that their builder wouldn’t be emailing them smartphone snaps of the work in progress. “We completely entrusted him to deliver a classic cottage with a timeless feel.”

Albert went home to his stash of wood. A year earlier, he had spotted “a mountain of old hydro poles” at a gas station north of the Soo. “They were Douglas fir and red cedar, from the ’30s and ’40s, used to carry power from a dam at Wawa to the steel plants in the Soo,” he explains. Unable to pass up such beautiful wood—reclaiming and reusing are also in his DNA—he bought a transport-truck load of the logs and had them milled into lumber. “I had no real purpose for them at the time.”

But, now, they were perfect for the walls and the ceiling of the Creedens’ bunkie. “The wood wasn’t the exact colour of the white pine used in the island’s original cottages, with the patina of 100 years of aging, but it was as close as I could come.” The mantel over the bunkie fireplace was expensive black walnut; the wood was bequeathed to a childhood friend of Albert’s by that friend’s father and passed on to Albert for a token payment. “It was the perfect contrasting match to the red cedar,” he says. “I can’t help myself—I have to do what fits.” Lucky cottagers.

“We showed up in June and it was done,” Debbie says. “We loved the look—it was both aesthetically pleasing and functional—and the cottage smelled, and still smells, spectacular. Albert has a deep love for the area, as we do, and an understanding of what belongs here.”

What he doesn’t have is formal training. He thought about becoming an architect, “but I was a very undisciplined student and couldn’t pay attention in school.” He’s also not a licensed draftsperson (“when I do drawings, I need an engineer’s stamp of approval on them to get a building permit”). In fact, with the exception of a single interior-design course and some on-the-job experience in cottage and house construction in his late teens, his design and building skills are all self-taught. Albert describes what he does as “common sense.”

The beams of the Creeden bunkie—clad in former-hydro-pole cedar—are actually steel, because the span Albert wanted exceeded the building code for use of wood. They’re 24 feet long inside, and instead of the standard two-foot overhang, they extend out four feet front and back. “Extending the roofline creates a protected feeling. An urban house would be different,” he says, “but I think at a cottage you want the feeling of being tucked away. It can have a high ceiling, but as long as a portion of it comes down, that’s the cozy part.”

Albert’s space solutions

One of Albert’s signature moves: finding unexpected additional storage. Marty Ray was delighted to discover that Albert had built cedar-lined cubbies for her towels behind the bathroom door. “I had no idea he was doing that; it’s such a brilliant use of space.” Debbie Creeden found five unforeseen storage spaces in her new bunkie. “They’re concealed in the wall above the Murphy bed—they blend in perfectly.” At another cottage, Albert built a tall, narrow pullout compartment in a sliver of empty space next to the stove to provide handy storage for trays and racks. He also has a knack for magically finding space in old cottages for larger amenities such as a bathroom. “Do you know how valuable a second bathroom is at the cottage?” says Debbie, after Albert surprised her by making room for one. In a ’30s cottage, he shrank the bathroom to put in a bedroom closet, but by relocating the bathroom door, Albert still managed to add a shower, which the bathroom had lacked.

This story was originally published as “The Go-To Guy” in the May 2017 issue of Cottage Life.

Chapter 3/ The Rays / A classic “fooler” cabin: simple on the outside and absolutely stunning on the inside

Wherein we learn to make a cottage feel cozy and warm, and also cool.

At Marty and John Ray’s cottage on the other side of the island, Albert gets his “cozy part” via a loft, which lowers a portion of the living room ceiling, creating a nook underneath. Although the Rays had wanted a loft for extra sleeping space, “originally there wasn’t going to be a lot of room up there,” Marty says. Albert convinced them to make it larger, so that it hung farther out over the living room below.

“His attention to detail—and aesthetics—is phenomenal. There were so many changes along the way, where we’d say, ‘Thank God Albert thought of that.’ ”

When you approach their three-year-old cottage from the road, it looks unremarkable, an unadorned box much like its Depression-era neighbours. “That’s purposeful,” says Marty. “It’s a fooler. We love to see people’s shock when they walk inside.” The interior is all exposed, natural-finish wood: spruce double rafters, pine-panelled walls, and floors of local maple from a nearby Mennonite mill. High-ceilinged and flooded with light, but at the same time also warm and intimate, the cottage seems both very traditional and very modern.

“Some people were horrified that the 2x6s and 2x8s in the walls and roof are exposed,” says Albert. The Rays report that they’ve even been asked when they’re going to put the drywall on. “We tell them, ‘Never,’ ” Marty says with a laugh. “And they say, ‘But it’s not insulated.’ We tell them, ‘It is, you just can’t see it.’ The insulation is on the outside, under the siding and in the roof.” The Rays, whose home is in Florida, are May-to-October cottagers, but the 1.” foam insulation isn’t for shoulder-season warmth. In summer, it keeps the cottage perfectly cool.

The Rays had interviewed other builders. “One of them told us that he could have our cottage up in three months. John and I weren’t interested in that. We wanted it the old way, not the easy way.” When they were introduced to Albert by a mutual friend, it was clearly a meeting of like minds. Ballpark agreement on price; no bickering along the way. “The trust and camaraderie between Albert and John were remarkable,” says Marty. “One would say, ‘What do you think?’ The other, ‘No, what do you think?’ ”

Marty admits that she and John have esoteric tastes. “We like to take used things and repurpose them,” which made their relationship with Albert even more of a meeting of like minds. The wide French doors on the master bedroom—“to give the illusion of open space”—were on their way to a Florida dumpster when John rescued them. Marty gave an old Ohio meat-market counter a new life as her kitchen island; the railing across the front of the cottage loft incorporated iron headboards from American Civil War-vintage beds. And the windows that frame a view of the North Channel are rejects from their previous home in Michigan. “They were vinyl clad, and the vinyl was coming off,” explains Marty. “The company replaced them but left us the defective ones.” Over to Albert: he framed them with mahogany and set them in the wall.

“Meticulous,” says Marty, encompassing the windows and everything else. “I’m a picky person, and I couldn’t pick at all.”

Albert’s also just a truly thoughtful guy. “When the cottage was under construction, you had to use a ladder to get up to it,” Marty says. “One day I came back, and he had fashioned temporary steps and a makeshift handrail. ‘I knew it bothered you,’ he said.”

Albert’s Law of Unintended Consequences

Planned actions lead to unanticipated results: this dictum, beloved by economists, applies in cottage design too, Albert says. And it’s his job to save you from it. Say you want casement windows. The unintended consequence? “Casement windows crank open outwards. And if they’re along a deck or walkway, wham! Kids run into them.” He suggests installing double-hung instead. Or you want a screened porch that’s all screen, top to bottom. Albert will argue for a wide rail in the middle, about three feet up from the floor, to avoid the unintended consequence: banging into the screen at the bottom. “It looks nice too, plus it gives you a place to put your drink.” At Brooke Hallowell’s, the stone fireplace was a tight fit, dividing the small room in two. The possible unintended consequence: “People accidentally backing up into it,” says Albert. So he included a slightly raised limestone hearth. “You feel that first with your heel, and it alerts you that you’re getting close.”

Chapter 4 / Eileen Baldwin / The bedroom addition made to match the original 1930s log cabin

Wherein everything old can be new again. But not look it.

Albert would disapprove if you called him a renovator. “I rescue old cottages and houses,” he says, and Eileen Baldwin’s log cottage, built in the late ’30s, is a textbook example of his skills. Her parents bought it in 1957; her mother was a church organist, and the pine-clad harmonium in the living room sold her on the place. Sixty years later, the harmonium is still there; so too the builtin log daybed in the screened porch and the hand-operated dumb waiter in the kitchen. (It descends into the ground under the cottage—designed to keep food cool before refrigeration.) Eileen clearly cherishes the cottage and delights in preserving its history. By 2000, however, its piers were rotting, the entire back corner was sagging, and the doors and windows wouldn’t easily close. “I started asking questions,” she says. Albert Crowder, of course, was the answer.

Digging trenches in the sand underneath the cottage “with a metal snow scoop,” Albert put in new piers and replaced and re-chinked rotted logs. But that was only the start. Now, every year, Eileen says, “I make a request. And I come back in the spring, and it’s done.”

One year the request was for an addition, to create another bedroom. “It looks like it was always there,” Eileen says. Its new log siding is almost a dead match for the original—just a barely perceptible difference in size—but not close enough for Albert. His simple solution: a trellis covered in purple clematis, which neatly disguises the join. The modern vinyl windows also appear to match the old ones: after setting them into the log walls, Albert created a wood frame around each to mimic the originals.

Another year, Albert replaced Eileen’s roof, recommending that she break with tradition and go with steel. “Put it on once, and you have it forever,” he told her. Nonetheless, they agreed on a nod to cottage history: “Originally, it was rolled asphalt, then asphalt shingles, but always red,” she says. “So I stuck with red for the new roof.” Still another, she returned to a new ground-level deck—but Albert had also relaid the original cottage flagstones, which had become buried over time, using them to pave a walkway to the deck. “I knew them intimately from my childhood,” she says. “Now my friends were back.”

But occasionally Albert won’t take on a request. “ ‘You can do that on your own,’ he says, and then he’ll teach you how,” Eileen explains. “He’s a great enabler,” generous with his time and knowledge. With his encouragement, she’s added a window to a door (“he sent me to a mill and told me what to buy”), and laid a new floor, phoning him—“it felt like I was calling every few minutes”—for help along the way.

Perhaps her most telling story about Albert, however, is how he scratch-built the back door on her addition. He used the same log siding as on the cottage walls and gave it a small white-framed window and an old-fashioned wrought-iron latch. It’s a twin to the original door at the other end of the cottage.

“You could have just gone and bought a door,” she said.

“Not when you’ve come this far,” replied Albert.

This was Ann Vanderhoof’s first visit to St. Joseph Island. “When can I go back?”

This story was originally published as “The Go-To Guy” in the May 2017 issue of Cottage Life.

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