When the Ross family moved into their new home in 1995 there were a few things to get used to.
The rooms were unusually cold, laundry had to be done out of home, and everyone had to carry around a chatelaine – a ring filled with skeleton keys – to lock and unlock rooms during certain hours when visitors were around.
But, that’s what happens when you live in a nationally, provincially and municipally recognized heritage site.
The Emily Carr House, located at 207 Government St., was built in 1863; the famed Canadian artist was born in the home in 1871, and spent most of her childhood there. The home remained with the Carr family for several decades, before being sold as a rental property to a private owner.
The home went through a startling transformation from a family home, to a dilapidated building to a national historic site.
For the past 25 years Jan Ross, her husband Michael and their daughters Dian and Darien lived in and maintained the house, making Emily Carr an unofficial member of the family. Moving into the home, Ross recalled, came with a few surprises.
“There were rats, raccoons, squirrels and even river otters,” she said. “The otters made it all the way up to the attic!”
At the time of her death Carr’s reputation was just starting to grow, so for decades after she died the house was sold to several parties who let the property sink into poor condition. In the 1960s it was set to be demolished.
That’s when David Groos, a Member of Parliament for Victoria, stepped in. He’d overheard developers talking about the property’s upcoming demise and, having known Carr because of a shared interest in pottery held by his mother, recognized the significance the house would hold.
“He went to the bank and took out a second mortgage,” recalled his daughter, Hilary Groos, advisor at Emily Carr House. “He told my mom a long story about the property and he had her hook, line and sinker. When she asked what was going to happen to the house he said, ‘Well, I bought it!’”
Groos purchased the property in 1964, and it was eventually sold to the province in 1970 for a nominal amount. In 1976 it was deemed as a provincial heritage site – after it had already been declared a national heritage site and Carr had been declared an artist of national significance– and became open to the public.
It wasn’t until 1995, however, that Ross and her family would move in. Ross had trained at the University of Victoria in art history, and learned how to catalogue and restore art in her training. During her time at UVic she catalogued Carr’s paintings, and continued to be fascinated by her art as she moved to work at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
When the request for proposal for a live-in site manger came up, Ross and her husband decided to go for it, with an aim of living there for three or four years.
The upstairs portion of the home, which originally had been the bedrooms of the house occupants, had never been restored, and became the home of the Ross family. The Ross daughters were four and seven years old at the time, but already knew the importance of historical objects.
“Just from my line of work, they knew if I called something an artifact to put their hands behind their backs,” Ross said.
Growing up in the home wasn’t that strange for her daughters, Ross insisted. Just a couple of extra chores: polishing silverware for the downstairs displays, polishing heritage wood paneling, and sweeping the stairs with delicate brushes. As the girls got older they could do public tours in the home or work in the gift shop for their summer job.
There were, of course, a couple inconveniences: the old water tanks meant that a restored bathtub had to be filled with scalding water and then tempered with buckets of colder water, with fast movement between family members to try to get a warm bath. Additionally, laundry had to be done at Ross’ parents’ house nearby. One room was a “no-touch” zone for the kids, where artifacts and invaluable original paintings from Carr and other artists were stored for featured displays.
The downstairs portion of the home often hosted local and esteemed artists, as well as workshops and historian meet-ups. One display that Ross was most proud of was that of paintings made by children while attending a Port Alberni residential school. In this way, she said, the house was carrying on the legacy of Carr, who worked to bridge relationships with First Nations and their cultures.
“We’ve had such a wonderful life here,” Ross said. “What were benefited so much by the people who came to visit.”
Poets, painters, writers, world-renowned psychologists, ambassadors and celebrities came through, including famed Broadway actress Julie Harris. So many people, Ross said, become captivated by Carr.
“They come here for a pilgrimage,” she said.
After 23 years living in the home, funding finally came through to restore the upstairs, prompting Ross and her family to move into her parents’ home.
Most of the bedrooms were restored, while the area used as the Ross family’s living room was turned into a multi-purpose space with aims of hosting artists-in-residence.
Now, two years after moving out, the Ross family has decided to bow out as site managers. They will officially give up their positions at the end of March, with the province yet to find anyone to replace them.
In the meantime, Jan and Michael Ross will continue their work in curation and restoration – after taking a little bit of time to relax and playing a few extra rounds of golf.