J>ust over a month ago, artist Anna Sprague surrounded the boarded-up Morris House with giant white balloons, turning the building itself into a hot air balloon, symbolizing perhaps its journeyman history. And future.
On a to-be-determined Sunday in early December, the storied house will be hoisted onto a truck and hauled 4.5 kilometres from Hollis Street to a permanent north end home at Creighton and Charles Streets. This will be the building's third move in its 248-year history. It was built circa 1764 at Morris and Hollis, then moved 30 metres south to make room for the Victoria Hotel in 1898.
One hundred and eleven years later, Kim Thompson enters the picture. Thompson is an artist and natural building materials guru. In 2009, she was working with the Ecology Action Centre to create a guide for reducing construction and demolition waste, which accounts for a third of all solid waste.
It was during that time that Thompson connected with Louie Lawen of Dexel Developments. The company was building an 82-unit rental building, Vic Suites, at the Hollis-Morris corner, and preferred not to lay waste to the heritage landmark in its way. "They offered to pay as much to have it moved as the cost of landfilling it, about $15,000," Thompson says.
She scrambled and convinced Nova Scotia Power to lend a temporary home half a block away. With the house secure in its interim location, the next step was figuring out what to do with the new asset.
A council was assembled to toss ideas around. Several were pursued before any lasting leads materialized. The group kept coming back to affordable housing. "There is a huge need, and using existing housing stock is an obvious, underused approach," Thompson says.
Taking cues from existing operations like HomeMatch, a Cape Breton University-based organization that identifies appropriate vacant buildings and transforms them into affordable housing, the council reached out to the Metro Nonprofit Housing Association and The Ark, an agency serving street-involved youth. As Thompson points out, "Youth is one of the largest growing demographics of homelessness."
The vision is to house nine young adults struggling to find affordable housing. Metro Nonprofit and The Ark will screen and select tenants, and provide access to their other support services, like the drop-in centre. Tenants will be invited to sit on the Morris House council.
Thompson scoured the city for an available, affordable property, and finally found a small plot for $125,000---paid for by a local foundation---across from Joseph Howe Elementary School. The school hosts a display about the Morris House in its lobby, and has let Thompson chat with parents at parent-teacher night about the project.
The movers are ready, but NSP, the city, Eastlink and Bell Aliant all must work to clear the way of power and phone lines. A police escort is mandatory.
In all, that will cost about $25,000. The Morris council has a crowdsourcing campaign in the works to help (morrishouse.ca), with perks including silkscreen prints and engraved bricks with an image of the house by artist Carrie Jernigan. Thompson has seen enormous support from artists on the project, including three short videos, songs and several installations.
"It's appropriate because in the late 20th century," she says, "the owner kept the rent cheap for artists and people in need."
Thompson has put out a call for proposals to build the new foundation, which should be in place within a couple of weeks. She expects the move will be reminiscent of a carnival, celebrating the rumbling arrival of an ancient building on a giant truck, a natural for kids and other neighbours. "The HGTV show Massive Moves is sending a crew; they're really excited," she says. Once the house is moved, an addition to the back is needed, which will be about the same size as the house. The original component will be retrofitted into an energy efficient building.
The work will cost around $800,000. Thompson says funding is lined up with the federal and municipal governments, and they await the province's response: "I'm hopeful that next fall it will be ready to move into."