All posts by Andrea Cordonier


Literary Houses: Margaret Laurence

That house in Manawaka is the one which, more than any other, I carry with me. Known to the rest of the town as “the old Connor place” and to the family as the Brick House, it was plain as the winter turnips in its root cellar, sparsely windowed as some crusader’s embattled fortress in a heathen wilderness, its rooms in a perpetual gloom except in the brief height of summer. Many other brick structures had existed in Manawaka for as much as half a century, but at the time when my grandfather built his house, part dwelling place and part massive monument, it had been the first of its kind.

- Margaret Laurence, A Bird in the House, 1963

I’m living proof that Neepawa, Manitoba is a town to pass through on the way to somewhere else.  I’ve passed through a half-dozen times, always with a vanful of children who, until fairly recently, couldn’t be left to their own devices while I sated my curiosity in the teeny tiny museums of the towns that connect this sprawling country.

Away they would fly past my driver’s side window (the museums not the children), me wistfully staring at what I was missing, carefully tempering each shot of bitterness a creative mind feels at being cut off at the knees.

But today we didn’t drive by the directional signs to Margaret Laurence’s childhood home, real bricks and mortar that double as a literary house in her fictional town of Manawaka. Today, under lengthening shadows, I followed the signs to an empty parking lot behind the vacant Co-Op, across from the lovely Knox Presbyterian church. I sent the youngest around the corner to the Giant Tiger in search of cheap flipflops while the others lounged in the van, feet dangling out the windows, books or games in hand.

Unfortunately, it was 5:30pm and the house/museum was closed for the day: ironic, but not all bad. I disappeared with my camera  for a quickie tour of downtown Neepawa, carefully calculating my window of opportunity before someone would come looking for me or I’d be greeted upon my return with the classic “What took you so long?”

I hadn’t read Laurence since my first year in college, her clear words about daily struggles irrelevant to an 18-year-old lacking in real life experience. Timing, as I’ve said, is everything in picking up a book and I felt excited to revisit her work.

We continued on to Riding Mountain National Park, through Onanole to Poor Michael’s Emporium and Bookshop. I made a beeline for the Canadian author shelves which were packed with the usual suspects. Yes to The Stone Angel, A Jest of God, The Fire-Dwellers,  A Bird in the House, and her memoir, Dance on the Earth.  I passed on a first edition hardcopy of The Diviners which would have completed the Manawaka cycle.

It was 10 o’clock when we finally arrived in Ethelbert. “What took you so long?” my pajama-wearing brother asked, his family half-asleep on the couch, Bella’s birthday cake awaiting our arrival.

“It’s Margaret’s fault,” I told him, which was mostly true.

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Wild Blueberries Sudbury

Wild Treasure

We crossed the Vermillion River and pulled off onto the shoulder as  instructed. “Look for sunny hills,” he told me. “Really, they’re everywhere. I’ve heard it’s a great season.”

It was going to be women’s work – girl’s work too – crouched under the July sun, nestled in the shrubby groundcover, squinting for treasure. There were the wild blueberries, of course, but also slyly hidden strawberries the size of a baby’s thumbnail ripe for the picking, so ripe they mushed between my thumb and index finger releasing their sweet smell onto my hands and into the air, and their warm, perfect taste across my tongue. That smell from our hands would stay with us the rest of the day, expanding in the heat of the van and circulating on the currents from open windows.

This is exactly what summer smells like, I think, trying hard to hold on to a thing I know cannot be caught. There are other smells, too, of crushed or brushed plants releasing their sagey, antiseptic oils. “It reminds me of lavender,” Bella says. She tells me this is her zen work, berry picking, unaffected by the thunder of transports on the highway below. We will work for a half hour or so and end up with two pints which will be eaten with vanilla yogourt this afternoon. She is already planning for the raspberries and the saskatoons that are to come.

There is ritual to our picking: a marking of passing summers, of simple things that we love, of time spent together, of children growing up.



Bethesda Terrace’s Magical Minton Ceiling

Like other great cities, New York is a museum unto itself. It is possible to visit and never set foot inside any building – save for your hotel – and come away filled to the aesthetic brim. It’s all eye candy: the people, the architecture, the street art, the signs of wear, seasonal changes, the movement of everything, the intentional and unintentional.

The Minton tile ceiling design is made up of 15,876 individual encaustic tiles. These are divided between 49 panels. There are two repeated panel designs that differ only in the central motif being either large or small. Each panel is made up of 324 tiles. The tiles were fixed to cast iron back plates by a simple brass ‘dovetail bolt’. This ingenious fixing used a special slot in the back of each tile that was produced by inserting a wedge-shaped piece of wood that burnt out during firing. The head of the bolt could then be fitted and cemented for extra strength (Figure 2). Once in place, the protruding bolt was threaded through the back plate and secured with a nut (Figure 3). Each back plate was held in place by a grid of structural cast iron work attached to the Arcade stone and brickwork (Figure 4). 

Many private buildings in NYC restrict public access for reasons of privacy and security, so gems like the Woolworth Building are no longer open to common curiosity seekers. But for every inaccessible space, there are ten public jewels like Bethesda Terrace.

Although it appears to be natural, every detail in Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park plan was purpose-built.  Bethesda Terrace, adjacent to the park’s 72nd Street Cross Drive, too, was purposely designed and implemented by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey to be “a place of social gathering.”1  Standing on the footbridge above, onlookers are presented with a lovely view of the terrace, fountain and lake. But its subterranean delights are well-concealed; the tiles aren’t visible until you descend the staircase and step inside.

I was triply rewarded for my visit: a bright sunny day cast dramatic shadows, furnishing high contrast between dark and light; the Peace Industry Music Group provided a breathtaking musical accompaniment in a cathedral-quality sound space; and nearly 16,000 magnificent Minton tiles, flanked by frescoes, stretched from one end of the arcade to the other.

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This is one of the most important installations of Minton tiles in the United States. Others include the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC and the exhibition display collection housed in the Smithsonian.  Bethesda Terrace is the only known use of Minton encaustic tiles in a suspended ceiling2


As if I wasn’t already agog at the tiles, I plunked myself down on the floor to stare at, listen to and photograph the beauty of the Peace Industry Music Group. Like a modern Van Trapp family, the group includes seven of nine siblings, plus guest players, led by father John Valiant Boyd.  The singing begins @ 2:30.

I returned one rainy morning and had the place mostly to myself. With a book and a thermos of coffee I could have tucked up in a niche and spent the day reading to my heart’s content, a sublime woman-cave in the picturesque heart of the city. Alas, my tile obsession – and corresponding list of must-sees – got the better of me, and off I went in search of the next treasure trove.

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Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, New York by Danny Callaghan July, 2013





Perennial Splendour

This is it.

The day Bella and I cut the first bouquet is my hands-down, best-of-the-best, favourite day of the calendar year.

Peonies. Catmint. Lilac. Chives. Lemon balm. Siberian Iris. Roses.  False Blue Indigo. Spirea. So many perennials to choose from that decisions centre around what to leave out, rather than what to add in.

There will be many more seasonal bouquets between now and first frost, but none as sweet as this.

Not much to smile about

Jiminy Crickets


I hold the receiver away from my ear until Husband finishes laughing.

Glad he thinks it’s funny that after installing a third of the front face of the house I have realized that the siding boards are not uniform in width: they vary between 4 3/4″ and 5 3/4″ while the company cites 1/16th of an inch as the acceptable margin of error.

This explains why, although the skirt boards are dead-level, the siding up the left side of the window doesn’t align with the siding up the right side, and why, when I hold up my 18-foot story pole, marked in 5″ increments, it looks like it was made while under the influence.

Chris and I match board sizes, cheat them up a little, and trim a few extra large ones to size, all the while trying to minimize precious waste. But we are putting our fingers in the dyke, holding back the inevitable failure if we follow this plan. We will eventually run out boards of similar sizes, particularly on the long south and north walls. And working in the window of our pre-scheduled hydro outage, there is just no time for this kind of unnecessary nonsense.

But wait, there’s more.

I made a cut and leaned the remaining board against the wall. “Jiminy Crickets!” I exclaimed as I contemplated what was wrong with this picture. Seems the factory “forgot” to coat the back side of the board, and did a pretty sloppy job with many of the others I’d seen, lacking the clear glossy finish of my previous sample boards and colour decks in the installer’s kit. So much for the premium two coats of UV-protectant  and the three topcoats of colour creating a six-sided bomb-proof polymer coating.

These mistakes come hot-on-the-heels of the siding order I returned in the fall for being the wrong custom colour (not to mention heavy on edge drips).

I call the factory (again) and call off work for the day. No point throwing bad siding after good trim. We re-attach the power line conduit in preparation for the inspector’s visit and tear down the twin lifts of three-high scaffold in the pouring rain. I have used up my carefully planned one free annual disconnect/connect, so the next time I need one I will be out-of-pocket several hundred dollars.

I don’t know yet how this will play out, although my company contact is coming to see it for herself next week. Tomorrow I need to prepare the documentation – photos, samples, time sheets, record of  disconnect and other relevant information – all taking me off the scaffold where I need (and want) to be.

And I type this wondering what the learning here is and come up blank. I visited the factory, received day-long product training, asked plenty of questions, read all of their guidelines/instructions, installed the product on the house we built at school, Googled customer feedback and shopped around for comparative products. I did my due diligence. What more could I have done?

But fiddle-dee-dee as Scarlett would say. Tomorrow is another day and I have little interest in sitting around watching train wrecks.

Not like working on a bungalow that’s for sure