Canada's Magdalen Islands offer a seaside retreat to landlocked Quebecers, two of whom have turned the local vernacular on its oreille with a winsome vacation home.
After a bumpy ride out of Montreal on Air CanadaJazz—a fleet of tiny planes with a service schedule as capricious and unpredictable as a Coltrane solo— we touch down on the windswept and largely treeless Havre-Aux-Maisons, one of Canada’s six interconnected Magdalen Islands. This little archipelago of red crags and endless dunes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has a small year-round community, but has become quite the summer destination for Quebecers, like a rugged, Francophone Cape Cod but with fewer miniature-golf courses. Dirt (and often sand) roads are common, a local delicacy is harp seal (a fatty, fishy red meat that’s better than you might expect), fences only serve to pen in the few tranquil cattle, and the rolling green hills and lush meadows are sparsely dotted with humble farmhouses.
The eye-catching blue of the modest 1,690-square-foot vacation home owned by Montrealers Yves Bériault and Diane Decoste (a native Magdalen Islander) is very much of a piece with the rest of Havre-Aux-Maisons’ vibrant residences. “We wanted something lively for the house, something spectacular but not vulgar, so we looked at yellows and reds,” says Bériault. “I was a bit more conservative color-wise, but Diane and Marie-Claude took over, and I know now that they were right.” Decoste and architect Marie-Claude Hamelin, of Montreal firm YH2, settled on a cerulean blue inspired by the sea, the sky, and, as Hamelin puts it, “a child’s chalk. The architecture on the islands is rather naive, so we wanted to evoke that childlike quality in the color.”
Restoring the house to its original form was something of a coup, but it’s what YH2 did behind the house that’s so impressive. Houses on the Magdalen Islands are often square affairs, with smaller outbuildings situated just behind. “In the old houses you’d have the main house and then about 20 feet away a small duplicate,” says Bériault. “It was used as a storehouse to dry fish or keep cranberries.” These tiny replicas still abound, though now they more likely house lawn mowers or tandem kayaks.
The second house and cedar corridor dealt deftly with the main house’s small footprint, but the biggest puzzler was the basement beneath—a shabby space half sunk below ground level that Bériault and Decoste transformed into a guest apartment with two small bedrooms, an undersized common room, and a petite kitchen. “It’s just a little something for guests with pretty, simple Ikea decor,” says Bériault, but he proudly points out the living room’s massive chalkboard, a nod to the building’s original function. “Once you understand these islands,” says Bériault of the couple’s admiration for the local vernacular, “you realize that you can’t just pick up an architecture magazine and find some crazy thing you like and say, ‘I want that.’ There’s a certain naiveté, almost a childlike quality, about the architecture here, which we love, and we have to respect that.”