Houses of the Gatineau Hills

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the March 28, 2018 issue. Reprinted with permission.

O'Brien House restored to former glory - to take guests back to the 1930s

by Nicole McCormick

Seventeen years after transforming the Wakefield Mill into a thriving hotel, restaurant and spa, Robert Milling has pulled it off yet again, bringing the decrepit, historic O'Brien House back to life as a cushy, boutique hotel. And the best part is he did it all without a single letter to the editor published in the Low Down.

Houses of the Gatineau Hills
Robert Milling takes in the view from the deck of the O'Brien. After four years of restoration work, the formerly decrepit historical building once owned by Ambrose O'Brien has been brought back to life as a boutique hotel in Chelsea set to open March 30. Nicole McCormick photo

"That's my fist pump," said Milling, adding that, so far, the only negative feedback he has received regarding the project was a single comment on an Ottawa Citizen article. "I guess we're lucky," he said.

And it's not hard to see why.

Stepping through the doorway of O'Brien House for the first time, it's immediately evident that this is not an exact replica of the Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa, despite the fact that it is meant to be a sister to the Mill (the two properties are even connected by a cross-country ski trail).

Built by Ambrose O'Brien in 1930, the property overlooking Meech Lake, also known as Kincora Lodge, was acquired by the National Capital Commission to be used as a conference centre in 1964. It went on to receive a 'Recognized' designation by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office in 1984. O'Brien was both a railway baron and the first owner of the Montreal Canadiens as well as being one of the founders of Canada's first professional hockey league, which would eventually become the NHL.

Houses of the Gatineau Hills
The O'Brien's Canadiana room houses several pieces of art on loan from the the Crown Collection of the official residences. Andrew Van Beek photos

"This was the era where rich guys kind of defeated nature. They built places to see and to be seen," said Milling. "You built a place at the top of the hill so everyone could see you. I guess the intention was to prove that you're rich."

When Milling and his wife, Lynn Berthiaume, who separated amicably in recent months, first took on the project four years ago, the property had gone untouched for around 25 years, with the exception of some maintenance including a new sewage system and structural stabilization. Needless to say, a lot of work was necessary to bring the property to its current state.

"When we took it over, it was all plastic," said Milling. "All the windows had holes in them."

But instead of taking inspiration directly from the old interior design, Milling instructed his design team to mix things up.

Houses of the Gatineau Hills
Left: The four storey estate of Ambrose O'Brien overlooking Meech Lake now operates as a boutique hotel following $3.9 million worth of renovations paid for by the National Capital Commision. Andrew Van Beek photo.

"I saw pictures of this place when it was open and it was so hideous I actually had to run away from the photos," said Milling. "It was just so bad. I thought, if we come up with something even remotely that ugly, we're dead in the water."

Mixing contemporary design elements like leather wallpaper with touches from the past such as a grandfather clock once owned by Sir John Thompson - Canada's fourth prime minister - along with a 1920s Underwood typewriter, and a phonograph, O'Brien pays homage to its history by complementing the era of the 1930s while serving as a "modern interpretation" of what it once was. The Canadiana room is a prime example with jazz music playing in the background and art on loan from the Crown Collection of the official residences on display.

"You're supposed to go back as much as you can," said Milling. "We're really happy with the final version."

Houses of the Gatineau Hills
There are 11 rooms in the O'Brien ranging from $229 to $729 per night. Andrew Van Beek photo.

And so is O'Brien residence manager James Henderson.

"It's a special place," said Henderson. "[It's] a real treat to drive up to every day, let me tell you."

Many of the hotel's staff hail from the region and the building is decorated with adornments provided by area vendors and contractors like Glen Foster who created the dining room tables and the hardwood flooring by Marc Bizier. The local angle is important to Milling due to his upbringing in northern Ontario and degree in rural development.

"Like any one of our projects, this has been a big local support project," said Milling.

Houses of the Gatineau Hills
The hotel has two dining areas that seat up to 30 people for dinner by reservation only. Nicole McCormick photo.

In terms of the cost to complete the whole project, Milling preferred not to talk financials, but the Low Down reported in 2016 that the NCC had approved a $3.9-million restoration of the O'Brien House and for Milling to lease the property for five years with a 20-year option to renew and turn it into a boutique hotel. Milling said that the project has involved his own as well as the NCC's funds.

"There's a lot of time and money that's been put in here," he said.

O'Brien has eleven suites that can sleep up to three people (each comes furnished with a daybed) ranging from $229 to $729 per night. There will also be two modernistic cube tree houses built on site in the near future.

Houses of the Gatineau Hills
Robert Milling signed a five year lease with a 20 year option to renew to run his new hotel business within the O'Brien House. Nicole McCormick photo.

For those who have difficulty getting a good night's sleep while staying at a hotel, half of the rooms are furnished with firm mattresses and the other half with softer ones to accommodate specific preferences. If clients take a liking to the blankets and pillows used in the rooms, they can buy them online via Shopify.

The goal was to "make up for every mistake we made [with the Mill]," said Milling.

O'Brien will be mainly marketed to the leisure and tourism market as well as being a venue for weddings, special occasions, and corporate events.

"We expect a lot more private functions," Milling said, adding that the intention is to require the entire hotel be booked for events to avoid hotel guests from clashing with event goers.

Those without room bookings can get a taste of O'Brien in one of the two dining rooms that can accommodate up to 30 people for dinner - which is by reservation only - but there is no bar on site.

Along with executive chef Patrick Marion, who was previously a chef at the Mill, O'Brien House will employ between 16 to 20 staff members, many of whom are residents of Chelsea, Gatineau, and Aylmer. Berthiaume will remain as a member on the board of O'Brien House and continues to play a role in human resources. She has also just announced her plan to run as a Liberal candidate for the Gatineau riding in next fall's provincial elections.

O'Brien will officially open to the public on March 30, three days a week for a five- or sixweek period, after which it will remain open for five days a week. The opening will be commemorated with a three-day open house event, the date for which is yet to be announced.

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