When Dale and Dave Cox drove up with the real estate agent to the old property in Glenn Williams, Ont. in 1978, it wasn’t the house that caught Dave’s attention, but the rustic little barn. In the years that followed, the couple slowly obtained evidence that the barn had historic significance as the backdrop for Group of Seven member A.J. Casson’s painting, Portrait of Harry Barrett, Glen Williams.
It’s that artistic significance that has seen the barn funded for historic restoration.
Both busy animators, Dale is known for her work on TV, including The Berenstain Bears, Ewoks and The Care Bears and Dave for his work on Inspector Gadget, My Pet Monster and Star Wars: Droids.
When a neighbour visited the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, he noticed the painting, then known as Old Man in A Rocker, featured the barn and Harry Barrett, whom he remembered from childhood.
“This was some time in the 1980s,” Dale says. “But we were so busy with work that we just tucked that bit of information away.”
The couple eventually confirmed Barrett had become acquainted with Casson and that the barn featured in the circa 1930 painting was the same one sitting on their property. That new information prompted a name change for the painting.
The couple applied for heritage designation under the Ontario Heritage Act, which was confirmed in 2020.
Following heritage designation, they applied for and received financial support from the Town of Halton Hills Heritage Property Grant Program. They engaged Toronto’s ERA Architects Inc., a heritage consultant, to begin the first phase of work, which includes structural stabilization, reinforcement of wall, floor and roof framing, repair of the existing metal roofing, and installation of a new rainwater system.
“The first level of the barn has a foundation that’s built into a hillside and it was beginning to come apart,” Dale says. “We’re getting a new section of concrete wall installed along that side.”
Juliana Guelber, a heritage conservation specialist and project manager at ERA, notes the project is a small one by ERA’s standards, but tells one of its most interesting stories.
“At this point it’s all about structural rehabilitation — stabilizing the structure and preventing water from penetrating the building envelope,” she says.
The damaged foundation sections have been removed and the barn is currently supported with an elaborate framing structure that will allow new concrete foundations to be poured underneath.
A future phase of restoration will involve removing the galvanized metal cladding that was added later and now obscures a door and a window seen on the main floor in the painting. The original door remains visible on the inside of the building.
“We would have started that removal sooner, but additional openings were made for windows in the upper floors, and covered with cladding,” Guelber says. “That would mean we might be required to replace the metal with more original wood cladding and to source period windows to fit the new openings, quickly bumping up the scope of the work.”
While the restoration project uses the Casson painting for reference, she notes it provides only partial guidance, with a small but recognizable portion of the barn depicted.
“The painting is the interpretation of the artist about what he saw almost 100 years ago,” she says. “At the same time, we’re trying to be consistent with what we find onsite. If we add windows that we can’t see in the painting, we’re trying to make them sympathetic to the existing windows and not introducing any new elements. In a way, we’re offering our own historic interpretation, based on what we’ve found.”
Dale and Dave envision carrying out the restoration over a period of several years, using successive grants to complete the work. They’re also creating a time lapse film to record the progress of the restoration.
“Our main house was a mess when we moved in, and I spent a lot of time fixing it up,” Dave recalls. “We neglected the barn and I’m glad we did because fixing it up wouldn’t have done it any good. Once we found out it was depicted in the A.J. Casson painting, there was no chance we wouldn’t restore it.”