Nosy in a Nice Way
Over 20 years, Headwaters House Tour has transformed the art of genteel snooping into half a million dollars of hospital funding.
“It’s being nosy in such a nice way,” concludes Peggy Shannon as she wraps up our private preview of one of the homes on this year’s Headwaters House Tour. We had just finished walking through a boldly contemporary, 3,200-square-foot home in Mono, designed by the architect who lives there.
Peggy is one of the Headwaters Health Care Auxiliary volunteers charged with locating homes for the annual tour, now celebrating its 20th year. Over that time the tour has raised more than half a million dollars for the hospital. This year’s tour takes place September 20.
A recent transplant to the hills, Peggy had wanted to become involved in the community. Last year her neighbour, Rosemarie Eger, suggested she join the auxiliary as a house tour volunteer. Rosemarie has been on the tour committee for several years and was glad for the extra help. Despite how easy the auxiliary makes it look, putting the tour together is not for the faint of heart.
The home we had just visited is one you would never know existed. The sleek wood, glass and concrete structure is hidden behind a winding road and sits on a ledge overlooking a breathtaking view, just beyond the private forest that separates it from the road. Even on first impression you can’t help but feel you’ve arrived somewhere special.
As Peggy locks up the house, she reflects on tours past, “I notice it’s a lot of mothers and daughters or husbands and wives going out and really enjoying their time together, definitely happy, and looking at beautiful, interesting homes.”
Planning and organizing the tour is a year-long process. This year’s planning committee is about 25 members strong. On the actual day of the tour the volunteer roster will balloon up to 100. The volunteers serve gourmet lunches, oversee parking, and ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for both the homeowners and their hundreds of visitors.
Peggy, Rosemarie, and the other people hunting for houses to include on the tour have very specific criteria: homes have to be unique, located within a comfortable driving distance from each other, and offer sufficient interest and architectural diversity.
Once the team identifies potential houses, they have the immense task of convincing homeowners to open their sanctuaries for the enjoyment of hundreds of strangers – mindful that most people move to these hills because they are extremely fond of their privacy.
“The key is to find people who are willing to open their homes for fundraising. A lot of times it is people who have a connection with the hospital and understand the importance of supporting it,” says Cathy Campbell, who spent many years on the committee doing exactly that.
“They’re not doing this so people can go through their house and be nosy, they’re doing this to raise funds for the hospital, which are desperately needed,” adds Janie Kirk.
As a past committee member, Janie was the one who set the stage for what the tour is today. She came on board in much the same way as Peggy, but 20 years earlier. “I wanted to get involved so I went to one of the auxiliary’s executive meetings and they were talking about a house tour. At that point it was really ‘somebody has a nice house, let’s all go for lunch.’ Then it branched off to two or three houses and they’d get their friends to come. It was a house tour, but on a very small scale.”
The words “house tour” immediately got Janie’s attention. “My mother used to take me on the house tours put on by the Junior League of Hamilton and they blew my mind. We went every year! But I mean we’d line up for two and a half hours to get into a house on the Lakeshore in Burlington.”
Initially, Janie tread lightly, careful to not offend any of the senior auxiliary members. But when she eventually spoke up and they agreed, she arranged for a meeting with the Junior League. Then she assembled a team of 20 volunteers and set to work. “Everything we did was based on how the Junior League did it. We got a chef and brought in corporate sponsors for the first time.”
Janie continued to be one of the core tour organizers for the next seven years. Sometimes they featured three big homes, sometimes they focused on five “little gems.” She explains, “Our goal was to offer homes that people could feel inspired by.”
Flashing forward, Peggy says she was fairly nervous at the start of last year’s tour. It was her first outing as a tour volunteer, one of the 70 who would help guide visitors through the homes.
She admits she was a bit unsettled by the thought of being responsible for the safety and security of someone else’s property as 800 strangers walked through. But her doubts soon dissipated. “It just ran so well. There were parking people and house captains. We volunteers arrived at eight in the morning and the house captains briefed us on the history of the house and what made that particular house unique. They placed us in strategic areas in the house. It didn’t feel like 800 people had been through the house at all.”
She was also impressed by how respectful the visitors were. “They take off their shoes and carry them. Some of the people who have been on the house tour before bring slippers because they know the drill. That put my own mind at ease.”
That’s not to imply things always go as smoothly as it appears to the casual observer. What takes place behind the scenes really makes you wonder how these dedicated volunteers pull off such an amazing experience year after year.
Past organizer Cathy Campbell has no shortage of stories of mishaps and logistical challenges – everything from volunteers who take instructions a little too literally to sponsors who deliver on critical elements a hair shy of too late.
There are other stories too – like the time a septic system backed up three days before the tour, flooding the house. Luckily that time they were able to sub in another home at the last minute.
The same cannot be said of the year when one homeowner became seriously ill and had to pull out just four days before the tour. Cathy had worked diligently to locate homes close to each other and this particular house was critical for the “lag time” it offered. “It had a tiered garden and miniature trains outdoors, and all that kind of stuff. It was wonderful and visitors would have spent 45 minutes in that house, at least!”
Without the built-in loitering opportunity, “people were zipping through the houses like mad and arriving for lunch at exactly the same time.” With more than a hundred people beyond the hall’s capacity, the organizers had to close the doors to manage the demand. “So we had a little problem that year,” recalls Cathy ruefully.
In spite of the hiccups, though, visitors always seem to take the quirky events in stride, and walk away with fond memories. One year it rained solidly for several days leading up to the tour and all of the homes were on dirt roads. “It’s too bad we didn’t have a car wash as a sponsor that year. You could tell the cars that had been on the tour because they were all covered in mud.” Cathy and Janie chuckle as they retell the story. “At least on the actual day the weather was beautiful, dry and sunny.”
When you buy your ticket for the Headwaters House Tour, you can never be sure of what you are going to see. That’s all part of the fun. You receive the map for the self-directed tour, including a brief description of each home, when you buy your ticket. The ticket price includes lunch at the Orangeville Agricultural Centre, where there is also a chance to bid on the silent auction items.
Caterer Laura Ryan, who is also mayor of the Town of Mono, has been on the house tour committee since 2011. Her role is to source food donations from local businesses and assemble them into a gourmet offering served on china plates. When Laura took over the responsibility from former Orangeville restaurateur Virginia Ridpath, she made the decision to move away from boxed lunches. They were convenient because visitors could maximize their time on the road, exploring the houses. But the committee decided there was too much waste associated with the clamshells.
For many people the tour has become an annual tradition. “I remember sitting down at lunch one year and the people beside us told us they were former neighbours who no longer lived near each other. Every year they get together for a couple’s weekend. The men go golfing and the ladies do the house tour,” relates Nancy Stewart.
Before joining this year’s committee Nancy was a regular on the tour, usually going with friends. Last year though, she went with her husband. “He really enjoys driving and it’s a very pretty drive through the country to get to all the homes.”
For the visitors, the house tour isn’t only about the hospital or even the homes themselves. It’s also about the stories. Every home comes with one. Maybe it’s the fact that it was the home of the first veterinarian in the area or the first two-storey log home in the township. Or maybe it is the mundane plastic lawn chair that seems so out of place amid the haute décor of the house we got to see on the preview of this year’s tour. Of course, there is a story about its sentimental value. But you’ll just have to attend the tour to find out what that is.
A Preview of the Tour
This striking wood, glass and concrete home in Mono is one of the seven or eight houses to be featured on this year’s Headwaters House Tour. It was constructed to blend seamlessly with the landscape and leverage the sun in ways every home deserves to but often doesn’t. Its thoughtful siting and extra wide roof overhangs mean the sun never enters when it’s least needed and is always there when it’s wanted most. The open floor and partial-height walls allow natural light to penetrate deeply from the floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides of the house. Painted the purist of white, the walls in summer take on a green tinge and in winter they become bathed in soft blue tones. Wherever possible, recesses add convenient shelf space and offer shadows ample room to flirt with light.
The original Victorian farmhouse in Mulmur was constructed in the early 1900s and renovated three years ago by its current owners. “We wanted to retain the integrity of the original exterior, but modernize the interior. The new kitchen and entrance hallway take up the entire floor plan of the original house. What used to be four rooms is now one and a half!” The decor throughout is clean and simple with carefully curated antique elements. The owners also introduced an elaborate new addition, also “very open with mainly glass for walls.” It blends seamlessly with a large, formally landscaped outdoor living area in the rear of the house. The screened summer room is perfect for an afternoon snooze, sunset cocktails or an intimate dinner with friends. It overlooks the pool, cut-stone patio and perennial gardens. The nearby French-inspired vegetable garden – its four raised beds enclosed by a cedar fence – supplies the family with fresh produce all summer long.
Gothic Revival Redux
From the outside this Mono house is a classic replica of the Ontario Gothic Revival style at its finest, complete with elaborate gingerbread and elegant finials on its triple gables, and polychromatic brickwork. However, on the inside, the home is an eclectic mélange of whatever makes the owners happy. Its Victorian tone is certainly present throughout, but so are the varied influences of the owners’ diverse tastes. Inside, you will find contemporary elements such as sleek light fixtures and a long, double-sided fireplace. A round turret graces a corner of the living room and serves as a backdrop to the owners’ favourite nook – “a cuddle-corner perfect for reading, watching television or just cuddling.” Built in 1985 and recently renovated, this house is a reminder that each of our homes is, or ought to be, our personal “happy place.”
When, where and how to tour
The Headwaters House Tour takes place on Saturday, September 20, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The self-directed tour will feature seven or eight houses ranging between north Caledon and Mulmur. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased online at headwatershousetour.com, or at various local retailers, also listed online. The ticket comes with a map and brief description of each house. The ticket price includes lunch at the Orangeville Agricultural Centre between noon and 2 p.m.
In addition to the on-site auction at the ag centre, this year organizers have introduced an online auction – a way to support the hospital even if you are unable to attend the tour. Bidding is open from August 11 to September 21 at 32auctions.com/housetour. Appropriately, one of the prizes is a three-day motor home rental from Motor Home Travel.