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Built with long-lost wealth

For sale: rare stone home fallen Morden titan built

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MORDEN -- In 1902, this is how the rich lived -- and died.

Harry Black was a lawyer and the son of the famous Rev. John Black, the first Presbyterian pastor of the Red River Settlement in 1851. (The settlers were promised a Presbyterian minister for their new settlement in 1812 but ended up having to wait four decades.)

Black moved out to Morden, which held great potential as the next metropolis, in 1895, following his lawyer brother, William. In 1902, Harry built a 4,000-square-foot stone mansion, or at least what passed for a mansion at the time. Its three storeys are built in the Victorian style with a castle-like turret on the west side. It is one of the twin turrets of Morden's Stephen Street. A similar stone home with a Victorian turret is directly across the street.

Over the years, Black became more investment wizard than lawyer, handling investments for himself and people in the community. Then he lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash.

He didn't just lose all the servants and other accoutrements of wealth. He and his wife, Jane, ended up spending one winter in the gardener's shack in the backyard just to save on heating bills. The shack is not much bigger than a tool shed. Black died in 1936 at about the age of 70.

"He apparently died penniless. He lost nearly everything," said Alain Kolt, current owner of the home along with wife, Camille Watkins.

The house is now up for sale.

It's as elegant inside as you might expect, judging from the spectacular granite exterior constructed by itinerant stonemasons from Ontario. (The era for construction for stone buildings on the Prairies was 1888-1908.) The granite fieldstones were taken from the Lake Agassiz escarpment that borders Morden to the west -- the incline you drive up to get to the Stardust Drive-In or the Super 8 Hotel.

Stepping inside, the entranceways are almost the size of elevator doors -- eight feet high and wider than normal -- and the 10-feet-high ceilings could accommodate people on stilts. The room on the immediate left was originally Mr. Black's reading room and includes a built-in granite fireplace. The Blacks were childless and "were known as intellectuals," said Watkins. His "smoking room," where he liked to puff on cigars, was on the second floor.

The room immediately to the right is oval-shaped -- the ground floor of the turret. That was Mrs. Black's parlour for receiving lady friends. The walls inside are all curved. There are also rounded windows in the dining room at the back, looking onto a one-third-hectare yard.

Minnesota oak was used for the woodwork, including hardwood floors, panelling and staircases. Neither does the place suffer that scourge of many older homes: subsequent owners who felt the need to overpaint the woodwork. All the woodwork is in its original condition with the original stain.

The walls are about two feet thick. There's the outside fieldstones, which are up to a foot thick, then an air space to serve as insulation, then another layer of wall made of rubble, then the interior plaster walls. "For its day, it was a well-insulated house," said Kolt.

On the second floor, a balcony was later added, creating an interior wall out of the exterior igneous stone. It makes a remarkable facade: Canadian Shield rock, with all its pinks and blues and blacks, sparkling with quartz and mica. The masonry style is called "roughly squared." The face of the rocks isn't cleaved but the natural surface. Lines of masonry make them look square, as if on a grid.

There is also a full, unfinished basement. For example, the original kitchen cabinets are now the basement workbench. Another display of wealth: The house had forced air in 1902, not radiated heat. That was quite extraordinary for the time, especially outside Winnipeg. There is also a wraparound veranda with white, rounded pillars, and a low spindle fence.

Watkins has researched old newspaper clippings and other archives about the house. But the greatest source of information came from a visit from Black's niece, then 92, in 1996. She told them everything about the house and the original owners.

Morden has perhaps the best collection of fieldstone architecture in Manitoba. The former Black house is one of 14 stone houses still intact in Morden.

Asking price: $449,000.

Kolt and Watkins are only the fifth family to own it in its 111-year history. The house stood vacant for six years after the death of John Harry Black (his full name). Then it was owned by a Judge George, then by a Judge Ken Hansen, then by a veterinarian Eric Radke, before Kolt and Watkins, both chiropractors in Morden, took possession. The couple's four children have grown up and they are looking to downsize, after living here for 22 years. (That's almost exactly the average stay.)

"People who have lived here don't want to move," said real estate agent Sandra Wiebe of Gables Realty in Morden.

Only serious inquiries are welcome. "You've got to get the right person, someone who loves this kind of house," said Wiebe.


The historic Morden house from the street.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 0

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