The Beatty House - A Community Project
by Johanne Yakula
Occasionally one comes across a heritage house that, although restored, has not lost the quintessential elements that made it special in the first place. A house whose owners have not sought to modernize or improve it. A house devoid of artifice or “decorating up”. Such a house is the historic Beatty House in Rimbey, Alberta.
Situated in the midst of prosperous farming country dotted with oil wells, this small town is home to 2,100 people. Originally settled by three brothers (with the last name Rimbey) in the early part of the last century the town got its real start once the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1921. This new prosperity benefited businessman and hardware store owner, Jack Beatty. He hired a local carpenter to build him and his wife Violet a modern house befitting their stature in the town. Between 1924 – 1925 Joe Jones constructed a one and a half story semi bungalow in the Craftsman Style that was so popular in the 1920’s in western Canada.
Jack died after a long illness and Violet continued to live in the house almost until the end of her life in 1984. Inherited by relatives who had no interest in returning to Rimbey to live, the house was sold to the town of Rimbey.
The original plan was to convert the house into a library. Although structurally sound as a residence, the house’s foundation was clearly not suitable for the weight of books. The house sat empty for two years. Soon, the talk of demolition began. Located on a prime corner in the town’s original commercial strip the house was a target for redevelopment.
Realizing the importance of this house to the history of the town, a group of nine concerned citizens organized a presentation and spoke before the Town Council. In spite of the agreement to protect the house, it was put on the market three years later.
Realizing the house could be doomed this time, the group approached the Rimbey Historical Society to act as an umbrella organization to purchase the house with the help of an “angel” investor/loan.
The Beatty Historic House Society was officially created in 1991 and plans were made for the restoration of the house. A grant from Community Recreation and Culture (CRC) helped to purchase materials and pay for specialized labor.
A community project in the truest sense of the word, dozens of volunteers gave freely of their time and expertise, and some their money, to make this happen. One of the challenges was finding craftsmen that knew how to work on old houses. Several older retired craftsmen, unable to do the work themselves, taught young volunteers how to plaster lath walls and work with stone.
The first part of the plan called for rebuilding the low stone fence that surrounded the house on two sides. When originally built, the house stood on a small hill with a gully at its foot. Over time the town added more and more soil until the stone fence became completely buried. The restoration called first for the retrieval of the original fieldstones – some buried 14 feet deep! Once all the rocks were rescued, the stone hedge was rebuilt in its original location – albeit somewhat higher!
All this activity began to create an awareness and interest in the Beatty House project. Slowly the “Match and Kerosene” attitude of some of the townspeople began to change. Fundraising efforts were successful in getting money to continue the work. Community yard sales, barbeques, art exhibits and private donations all contributed to the coffers. Talented quilters donated their quilts to raise money through raffles. Over $22,000 was raised through this method alone! All monies were matched by grants from the Alberta Historic Resources Foundation.
Once the stone fence was finished work began on the exterior of the house. The clapboard and shingles were painted, the roof was replaced and the foundation repaired. Volunteers were successful in researching the archives for photographs of the interior as well as exterior of the house. This made decisions for restoring much easier.
Once the exterior was completed the work on the interior began in earnest. Layers of wallpaper were removed with samples of each kept in sealed bags for documentary purposes. Once stripped, the walls were papered with an Art Nouveau stylized floral in coral, soft green and cream – appropriate for the 1920’s era of the house. Volunteer sewn drapery side panels in coral are held in place by the original swing rods. The warm, brown - orange patina of the fir woodwork coordinates beautifully with the paper and carries the color throughout the rest of the house.
The living room boasts an original fireplace faced with petrified wood pulled from the Blindman River. The bathroom exists exactly as it was in the 20’s. The original tube art deco design light fixtures indicate that the latest styles of the time were incorporated into the building of this house. And so with the wonderful deco wall sconces in “Violet’s” room – the small bedroom next to the kitchen. They cast a lovely warm glow on the wallpaper covered with green sprigs and small white flowers with pink – coral centers.
The kitchen is amazingly intact – from the cupboards to the eating nook with its original bead board high backed wood benches. On one side, above the bench, is a glass fronted china cupboard. A low window, perfectly situated for viewing the gardens outside is located between the benches . A “pendant style” bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling. The walls are painted, like the bathroom, in a soft aqua color.
The house was designated as a registered Historic Resource in 1991 and is included in the Register of Canada’s Historic Places. The Beatty Heritage House Society is justifiably proud of its accomplishments – not just because they saved an important historic building from eminent destruction but because it has become a special place the entire community can enjoy. School children sit cross legged on its polished wood floors watching local live theatre groups bring the history of the house alive. Weddings, family celebrations , business meetings, and garden parties take place here. At one such garden party, the late Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole attended the town’s anniversary celebrations. During the Christmas season over 2,500 lights adorn the house and surrounding gardens and the community gets together to celebrate the official “turning on” of the lights.
The mayor of Rimbey appreciates the countless volunteer hours spent in preserving the house for the benefit of the community at large. The Beatty House has gone from being just “an old house that nobody wanted” to being a source of pride for the people and an important part of the identity of the town of Rimbey, Alberta.
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