After years of watching historic cottages fall to bulldozers, cottagers John Mehlenbacher and Scott Moffat have decided to save Muskoka’s past for its future
In an 80-year-old cottage’s bright warm dining area, banded by a row of windows with long views of Lake Rosseau, John Mehlenbacher sits comfortably in a wooden chair worn smooth and golden with age. The chair lived in his grandfather’s farmhouse, just west of Toronto, for 50 years before migrating to the Mehlenbacher family’s heritage cottage near Port Sandfield in Muskoka. Their sturdy wood dining table has been in his family for a century.
So when Mehlenbacher says he values Muskoka’s historic cottages and has a plan to save and preserve them, one tends to believe him.
“Our frustration stems from the fact that over the last 30 years we have seen countless old, beautiful places get bulldozed and replaced with more or less regular houses that don’t have the same charm,” says Mehlenbacher, a co-founder of The Rosseau Group, an investment firm specializing in real estate that will help facilitate the plan. “It’s hard, especially with Muskoka’s Planning Act. For instance, our property has a main cottage, a cabin, and a boathouse with accommodation. The Planning Act says you can’t have three buildings attached to plumbing. In order to put plumbing in the boathouse, we had to remove it from the cabin.”
“What that means,” adds Scott Moffat, Mehlenbacher’s cousin and partner in The Rosseau Group, “is when you have those beautiful old family cottage compounds, you cannot have two cottages with plumbing and the boathouse as well. If you tear down the cottage without plumbing, you don’t have enough space. Adding on to a building usually doesn’t work well. The government leaves people no choice; they tear down lovely, old cottages left, right, and centre.”
The quest to rescue historic cottages has already begun. A number of Muskoka contractors call when they are asked to do a quote on taking down a vintage building.The idea of saving vintage cottages and boathouses came to the cousins through a practical example. Moffat’s father protected a small heritage cottage on Mazengah Island on Lake Rosseau with few relatively simple upgrades.
“He did a few things using elbow grease, put in a boathouse and then sold the little place to someone who thought it was perfect,” recalls Moffat, a physician who shares a nearby cottage with his three siblings.
Mehlenbacher, his wife Kelly, and their three kids come from a large circle of family members who love nothing better than getting together in Muskoka. They often play vintage games like crokinole and hasenpfeffer, an old German card game so gripping they often play for up to 12 hours. But after years of watching Muskoka’s physical history disappear, Mehlenbacher and Moffat decided to help stop the trend. After some creative considerations, they came up with a solution – find a large property and build a historic village composed of rescued and reassembled cottages and boathouses. All of the heritage buildings could be rented to people who would also have use of everything in the village.
“We’ll have to find an area that can be granted an exemption from some of the current development laws,” says Moffat. “We’ve talked about Minett, Port Carling, and Gravenhurst, but every town and village in Muskoka has suitable space for a project like this. We want property with water access and enough land to build streets and create a great seasonal town. We’ve talked to a lot of small businesses that would be interested in turning historic cottages and boathouses into something fun. It could become an international attraction like Nantucket, Massachusetts or Gimmelwald, Switzerland. We’d put in restaurants and have activities for people of all ages.”
Part of the proposed historic village would be designed along the lines of the Lake Erie cottage community where Mehlenbacher’s family vacationed when he was a child.
“The cottagers walked from their cottages down to the water, as people do in Cape Cod and Nantucket,” explains Mehlenbacher. “Few people are right on the water, but everyone is at the water. This is done almost everywhere else but in Muskoka. We envision an area with shared docks and boats to sign out. Everyone would have access to everything as at a traditional cottage. Imagine having a wooden boat with a driver to take you and your guests out for cocktails so that no one has to worry about driving. There are lots of ways to keep the traditions of Muskoka alive by tweaking the expectations of the lifestyle.”
The quest to rescue historic cottages has already begun. A number of Muskoka contractors call Mehlenbacher when they are asked to do a quote on taking down a vintage building.
“That gives us the opportunity to reach out to the owner and ask if we can have it,” explains Mehlenbacher. The cousins rec-ently rescued a boathouse from a property undergoing extensive redevelopment. The boathouse in question is an exquisite multi-slip structure with accommodation that was hand-built in 1882 on Lake Rosseau. This historic boathouse will hopefully be the first inhabitant of their future village.
“The new owner didn’t want to save it, so we were able to arrange to have it carefully disassembled and stored for future use,” says Mehlenbacher. “Since the boathouse’s living area is larger than the allowed 650 square feet, we will try to get a variance to save this lovely building. If we can’t, we can put it on dry land. But the goal is to save it in its natural glory as a boathouse. We are glad we had the chance to save this iconic structure.”
The Rosseau Group hopes to work with the Township of Muskoka Lakes (and other townships) to find out when an application is received to tear down a structure. The building could then be assessed for historical value, and a decision made about saving it. The Group is also hoping a by-law can be passed to let the owner pay to move the building to an off-site location in lieu of standard development charges. As with cottages in other assembled historic villages in Europe and America, renters could lease a cottage for as long as they wish, but could not own the land.
“It is a half-baked idea right now, but we are serious about it, so we’ll figure it out,” says Moffat. “John and I will go on record to say Don Furniss, the new mayor of Muskoka Lakes, is fantastic. He cares a lot about traditional Muskoka and also understands the importance of prudent development. We need to preserve the district’s history while creating a thriving, more year-round community.”
The Mehlenbachers bought their vintage cottage in 2010 in the dead of winter. The main requirement was that it be within a certain radius of Moffat’s family cottage,
but the couple also wanted a sunset view, some elevation, and a beautiful water view. The solid two-bedroom cottage with its big stone fireplace, large country kitchen, and basswood walls and ceilings ticked all the boxes.
“When we bought this place, we couldn’t see the deck or the railing because there was so much snow,” recalls Kelly. “When the snow melted, we were surprised to find we had fantastic flagstone paths. We had a good feeling when we walked in here. Our three kids were tiny then, so they used a triple bunk in the second bedroom.”
The couple discovered another interesting feature once the spring thaw let them get down to the water. The boathouse’s exterior lights used to be on the RMS Segwun during the steamship’s first life on the Muskoka lakes. The lights had been fastened to the boathouse for about 60 years and were local landmarks for boaters looking for the cut at Port Sandfield leading to Lake Joseph.
“We had to make sure that whatever we did, those lights were incorporated into our new boathouse,” smiles Mehlenbacher. “This property had five or six owners over the past 100 years. We’re not sure which owner got the Segwun’s lights, but it’s been a while.”
The couple built a new boathouse with an airy upstairs living space and entertainment-sized decks. Reclaimed hemlock floors run through the living room, kitchenette, bathroom, and bedroom. A double-sided stone fireplace warms the bedroom as well the main living area. The stone is repeated on the steam shower’s walls. Glass doors to the deck swing away to leave an unobstructed walk out. Windows over one kitchen counter do the same to create a spacious indoor/outdoor bar for summer parties.
Downstairs, a mahogany boat built in Muskoka, but found by Mehlenbacher in a field in Arizona, lives in one of three slips. The launch, which languished in that field for 20 years, was shipped home and restored by Duke’s in Port Carling.
The property also sports a variety of antique business signs collected in the family’s travels. Many feature the Mehlenbacher name. In the three-car garage, one wall displays large logos of the NHL’s original six hockey teams. The logos formerly hung in the old Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. A vintage flat bed truck and soft top classic car are also housed in the lofty structure.
In September, the couple’s old cottage will be the next building saved. The entire structure will be moved to a new location and made ready for its next owner. In deference to their growing family, the Mehlenbachers are building a larger cottage on their property that will be ready for swimming season next year. “We are facing the same dilemma so many owners before us have faced,” says Mehlenbacher. “We’d love to keep our little cottage and build a family compound, but we’re simply not allowed. Hopefully, we can help start a new trend by saving our historic cottage instead of demolishing it.” Meanwhile, the search for the perfect place to protect Muskoka’s historic treasures continues.
“We are developing a small track record of protecting old buildings,” says Moffat. “To do the village right will take a lot of coordination with many people. But if we do it right – with heritage cottages, vintage lights, and a little cobblestone – we’ll create something charming that people will look forward to visiting.”
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