Photos: Inside a Nordic-Cool Home in Northern B.C.
A historic community hall gets a second life as a warm and welcoming home for a young family.
When Caroline Marko first glimpsed her now adoptive home of Smithers, B.C., she feared the airplane was making an emergency landing. “There was nothing,” says the fiery Swedish-born redhead. But she stayed. Perhaps the region’s bleak, snow-encased landscape fit with her minimalist upbringing, and no doubt the handsome Canadian she’d met on vacation helped. Nearly 20 years on, the classically trained tailor and owner of Salt Boutique brings her unique style to this northern community, most recently with the transformation of a historic hall into a chic modern loft.
When she first laid eyes on the old Elk’s Home, a former dance hall, she didn’t hesitate. “When I saw it, I thought it was a great project. It was a team-building thing,” Caroline says, remembering the day her husband, Scott Marko, brought her here. For 64 years, the windowless two-storey building had stood awkwardly on a corner more than a thousand kilometres north of Vancouver, as if waiting for companions: it hosted weddings, dances and community meetings, but when the Markos bought it in 2014, it had finally found its family.
From northern B.C.’s gritty streets, visitors enter the Markos home via an enclosed staircase tiled with repurposed red brick that leads to the upstairs living space. A taxidermied elk’s head, a relic from the fraternal club that once called this place home, keeps watch from above, seemingly unmoved by the burlap bow and eucalyptus wreath that now adorn its neck.
Founded in Vancouver more than a century ago, the Elks of Canada built its Smithers base in 1950 using materials recycled from the previously demolished post office—which explains the weathered fir doors crudely engraved with “NM, Nov. 11, 1931.” Stepping inside, the home is transporting: we’re no longer in small-town B.C.
The home’s 32-by-36-foot great room, which recently boasted fabric-panelled walls, particleboard ceilings and linoleum flooring, glows with its pale palette. Formerly blank walls have been opened up with an 18-foot-wide, 12-foot-high bank of windows. The couple worked alongside their teenage children with Scott, a contractor, contributing labour while Caroline provided artistic direction.
A kitchen island fronted with an antique shopkeeper’s desk from the early 1890s draws in visitors. Caroline estimates that the hefty piece, a relic from her tailoring days, was moved 20 times before being laid to rest under an expansive raw-zinc countertop fabricated by local welder Austin Currah. An industrial pendant light illuminates the island, its shade salvaged from a snowbank in Clinton, B.C., and married with a compatible fixture. Additional lighting was sourced from Scott Landon Antiques in Vancouver, while antique Jieldé lamps found their way from Sweden in Caroline’s mother’s suitcase.
“I like things that age,” Caroline says about the patina developing on her countertop. “To me, those are the fingerprints of what my family does.” The kitchen’s unlacquered brass taps by Kallista will do the same.
Already aged and standing stately against the back wall is a Southbend gas stove, likely purchased when the building was new. “This was one of the treasures that we were like, yes! We knew we wanted it,” says Scott. It took heavy machinery to lift the 800-pound stove from the basement through the upstairs windows, even before the couple had tried to light it to make sure it worked. Caroline was cleaning it when she uncovered printing under decades of grime: “I’m like, holy sh*t, it’s the instructions! Holy f*****g eureka!”
Above particleboard ceilings and a foot of sawdust—the roof’s only insulation—the couple found rough-sawn beams, also likely salvaged from the long-departed post office. Caroline feared a fight: keeping the beams meant adding a new roof, and she wasn’t sure Scott would acquiesce. “Then he goes, ‘Isn’t it cool?’ and I’m like, yessss.” Structural tension rods allowed the original builders to create great spans, leaving the space open for large gatherings. Today, they add charm to the rustic ceiling.
Under the old lino flooring, the couple discovered maple planks, still slick with decades-old wax. “That’s the original dance floor,” Scott says. “It was a bit of a hazard, actually.” The boards were removed, reshaped and replaced before being finished with Minwax in classic grey.
“Mabel’s room,” named for a member of the Royal Purple, the Elks’ female auxiliary, and rumoured to have been a lounge for the otherwise-dry organization, is now the master bedroom, its textured grey plaster walls creating warmth on a chilly day. Scott made the bed from reclaimed timbers, while aged wood boxes pulled from a dump in Sweden function as bedside tables. Along with a clawfoot tub, the ensuite boasts a ceramic sink salvaged from a shuttered elementary school.
Perhaps as a result of Caroline’s own minimalist upbringing (“I never had a lot of toys, but I had a sewing machine,” she says), the kids’ rooms bear none of the frivolous accoutrements of childhood, but they still maintain a healthy sense of adventure: one of the few adornments between the rustic ceiling and modern concrete floor in her son’s room is a world map the 17-year-old stencilled onto barnwood; the whimsy in her 14-year-old daughter’s room comes from an eight-foot-high loft bed.
Perched on her kitchen island, strong coffee in hand, Caroline gazes out at the snow, considering her home: its history enveloping the community’s warmest events during long, cold winters; the expansive floors that invite family play, just as they have for more than half a century. Not one to wax philosophical, she chooses her words carefully: “When I’m in here, there’s a deep calm,” she says. “It has a great feeling to it.”