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History of the Roy family and history of the family home at 375 Deschambault Street

13_Construction_MGR_11In 1997, the Maison Gabrielle-Roy Corporation, whose purpose was to transform the house into a museum, purchased the house for $155,000 and has since spent close to $650,000 in restoration. The museum opened its doors to the public in June 2003 and has since greeted visitors from all over the world.

Gabrielle Roy’s childhood home is an important symbol which often finds its way in the great Franco-Canadian author’s works. Her books and its descriptions have allowed us to remain loyal to the house, and its era, during the restoration process; this house is the setting for Street of Riches. Gabrielle was born here and she lived here for close to 28 years; she spent her entire childhood here as well as the first years of her adult life.

Around 1903, Léon Roy, Gabrielle’s father, acquired, for approximately $600, a large parcel of land which he subdivided into five lots. He sold four and kept the fifth, at the corner of Des Meurons and Deschambault, as the land upon which to erect his home. Without the need to hire a professional, he drew up the plans and chose the materials for his house; construction began in 1904 and the family moved in in 1905. Mr. Roy had the levelling and landscaping, as well as sidewalk construction and sewage work done by the city. As his job as colonization officer required him to be absent from home a lot of the time, Mr. Roy conferred the job of building his house to his brother-in-law, Zénon Landry from Somerset; the house cost $3,200 to build.

Due to poor supervision while the house was being built, it wasn’t long before many deficiencies were noticed: the lack of insulation in the north wall of the house was indeed the major one. Rigorous Manitoba winters made it imperative to install two more wood stoves in the house… on the upper floor and in the attic. Needless to say that this required a lot of maintenance… a daily chore of bringing in the wood and taking out the ashes—to and from each floor. In due time, a central heating system was installed by way of water heaters. At that time, this heating system was considered highly technologically advanced!

roy-ch-houseb-larger-tintedThe Roy family settled into their home on August 11, 1905. Mélina is very disenchanted the first time she enters her home and doesn’t hold back from rebuking her husband. She was disgruntled that her house resembled so much that of the Bernier family’s, and she did not like the layout of the house or the lack of central heating.

In 1911, there are five houses on the north side of Deschambault Street. For many years, Gabrielle would think of the corner of Deschambault Street as a great “forest”. In front of the house is a field inhabited by frogs. The house will see little, if any, changes during the course of Gabrielle’s childhood.

In 1915, Léon Roy loses his job with the Department of Immigration; he is not eligible for pension hence money is more scarce than ever. At the time of his death in 1929, he leaves his widow with a mortgage debt of $1,200; this amount will be payed down with the $825 from Léon’s life insurance policy. Mélina Roy then takes it upon herself to transform the upper floor of the house into apartments to be rented out. Money is scarce and the ravages of the economical depression throughout North Ameriaca are felt.

Unable to pay the insurance and the property taxes, Mélina sells the house to Frédéric Saint-Germain, from Québec, on April 19, 1936 for $2,842. She moves into a small apartment on the upper floor with Clémence and Gabrielle. Over the next few years, the new owner will make some changes: move the front staircase to the rear of the house, install a staircase through the summer kitchen which will lead to an attic apartment, remove the verandah and replace it with two small porches—one on the south side and the other on the west side of the house.

11008520_1082425601771007_6810903875105732577_nNow a widow, Mrs. Saint-Germain continues to live at 375 Deschambault Street until 1981—that is to say, for 45 years. Her daughter, Suzanne Saint-Germain Prince, then sells the house to Marcien Émond for approximately $45,000. The house, which by now was in ruins, was in great need of repair. Fortunately, the new owner spends eight years to its restoration. Aware of the house’s history, and wanting to preserve its heritage, Mr. Émond spends nearly $65,000 in manpower and materials repairing the foundation, restoring the flooring in the summer kitchen, and installing a new plumbing system, etc. He goes as far as removing the balcony in front of the dormer window in the attic, and restoring the verandah with “columns that resembled a greek temple”, as Gabrielle-Roy referred to them. While the verandah was originally on two sides of the house only, Mr. Émond decides to extend it the length of the eastern wall as well.

The freshly painted house, complete with verandah, and surrounded by enormous elms, now begins to rouse the interest of buyers. Some consider the idea of commemorating Gabrielle Roy, who is still living in 1981. When she heard of the possibility of such a project, Gabrielle begged that it be dropped. Upon her death in 1983, various undertakings were considered to purchase the property, however the lack of funds once again slowed the dreams of Gabrielle’s admirers.

On June 7, 1982, the City of Winnipeg officially confers upon Gabrielle Roy’s childhood home the title of “Historical House” and on May 27, 1989, St.Boniface Historical Society (La Société historique de Saint-Boniface) takes the initiative to have a commemorative plaque installed. In October of that same year, a small island in Manitoba was named “Gabrielle Roy”.

In 1989, at a cost of $116,000, the house was sold to Edmond Degagné, who in turns sells it to Trevor Uruski for $118,000 on November 1, 1992. In 1997, Mr. Uruski sells the house to the Gabrielle-Roy House Corporation (Corporation de La Maison Gabrielle-Roy) for $155,000. In order to purchase the house, the corporation borrowed $121,000$ from the Caisse populaire de Saint-Boniface, $24,000 from Entreprises Saint-Boniface, and the remainder from St.Boniface College (Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface). In June 2002, the house was designated a “historical site” by the provincial government.

Mortgage free, the house had a kitchen, a summer kitchen, a dining room, an office, a living room (parlour) and a vestibule at the main entrance. On the upper floor were four bedrooms and the bathroom. In the attic were two more bedrooms—a large one and a small one. This floor of the house had dormer windows through which one could see part of St.Boniface. The house had running water, electricity, and a modern bathroom. The huge verandah surrounding the house is an architectural element with a particular Québecois influence. This house is very similar to that of the Bernier family (to the east of this house, on the north side of Deschambault Street). Mr. Roy and Mr. Bernier worked together as Colonization Officers; they build their homes around the same time and, more than likely, consulted each other about their construction. Their respective plans were very similar. The dormer windows and the verandahs are undoubtedly elements which served to remind Mr. Roy and Mr. Bernier of their Québecois roots.

Over the years, the house underwent changes, many of these when it was converted into apartments. A staircase was added to the outside rear of the house—originally, the staircase was in the vestibule at the front of the house. In order to make space in the attic apartment, the slope of the roof was changed, especially in making the spaces at the rear and the front of the house larger. On the main floor of the house, many walls were changed. The aim of the restoration project is to return the house to its original layout—at the time that the Roy family inhabited it. The house now rests on a concrete foundation; the plaster has been redone. Certain modern elements have been added to the house, allowing it to meet its new requirements as museum. For example, a water sprinkler system and public washrooms have been installed as well as an emergency exit on the eastern side of the house.

The hardwood floor is original to the house. Thanks to vinyl flooring, these have withstood the test of time. Thanks to the various markings left beneath the many layers of paint, etc, restoration of the house was able to remain loyal to its original plans and construction.

The colours we see on the walls throughout the house are authentic to the colours and shades which once adorned the walls throughout the Roy house; more than fifteen layers of paint were scoured away.

IMG_2221With the exception of the rooms on the first floor, this room will, in due time, become an exhibition centre or gallery. Various subjects will be addressed in this space… Gabrielle’s life and works, the Roy Family, Life in St.Boniface at the turn of the century, French Canadian customs, etc. This space is symbolic in Gabrielle Roy’s works. The dormer window is the subject of inspiration and relaxation for the author. At the time the Roy family lived here, there were very few houses on this street. When Gabrielle would gaze outside, she saw only fields and the Manitoba horizon. In her books, “Street of Riches” and “Enchantment ans Sorrow”, she describes the dormer window as the space where she would go to regain strength. As a child, she would spend many hours in the attic; she was a pensive child who liked to isolate herself. Gabrielle Roy gave herself completely to writing; without her solitary and adventurous nature, she never would have been the renowned author that she is today.

The attic window, overlooking Deschambault Street. Photo: Robert Barrow, 2006

In the attic, we can see some burn marks on the flooring. The story is told that at about age Gabrielle had played with paper and matches and had accidentally set fire to part of the ceiling.

In 1918, Léon sells one of his parcels of land in Saskatchewan and installs a central heating system in the house at a cost of $750. The coal boiler allows the house to be heated with hot water heaters. Now that this heating system is in place, Mélina will be able to have boarders who will help in making ends meet financially. Mélina buys coal, which is delivered to the house and stored close to the boiler in the basement, by the ton. The wood for the kitchen stove is stacked in close proximity.

There were beautifully tended vegetable gardens in the back yard at which Mr. Roy spent numerous hours. There were also apple trees in the yard, and according to Gabrielle, flowers had been planted all around the house.

In the front yard, elm and ash trees had been planted. On the west side of the house were rosebushes and cherry and plum trees. Further out back, Mr. Roy had planted oak and maple trees. Great care was taken in landscaping the house; dahlias, chrysanthemums, pansies, sweet peas, gladioli and roses.

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