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This article first appeared in the September 21, 2016 issue of the The Low Down to Hull and Back News.External Link Reprinted with permission. Search complete list of Low Down Articles.

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Meech Lake's O'Brien House set for $4M face lift

Wakefield Mill owners to convert decaying Chelsea property into a boutique hotel

By Ben Bulmer

The Gatineau Hills couple responsible for the Wakefield Mill's transformation from a dilapidated relic into a swish hotel and popular tourist attraction are about to do it all again in Chelsea.

Hoping to replicate the success of the Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa, owners Bob Milling and Lynn Berthiaume are taking on Chelsea's O'Brien House, turning the 86-year-old derelict property into a boutique hotel.

O'Brien House
Bob Milling and Lynne Berthiaume stand outside the once grand Meech Lake property the O'Brien House. The couple responsible for the Wakefield Mill's success hope to replicate that achievement with the property's conversion into a boutique hotel. Ben Bulmer photo.

"It's a very beautiful building," said Milling. "We're honoured to have the opportunity to restore the property; it's a lovely heritage asset which was in danger of going to the wayside."

Milling describes the Meech Lake property as in "pretty raw shape," but that hasn't stopped the Wakefield entrepreneurs from signing a 25-year lease with the National Capital Commission, which owns the building. The total cost of the project will be over $4 million with $3.9 million coming from the NCC to pay for the restoration

A call for proposals was put out by the NCC in 2013 and Milling had hoped to keep the project under wraps a little longer, but Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson spilled the beans by mentioning the lease at a public meeting.

The three-storey, 8,200 square-foot hotel will feature 11 rooms, a 28-seat fine dining restaurant open to the public, and conference facilities. An additional three extra suites will also be built on the property's grounds. Although a name for the new digs has not yet been decided on, Milling said he could confirm it won't be called the O'Brien House.

The property was built in 1930 by businessman Ambrose O'Brien, who founded the National Hockey Association - the forerunner of the NHL - as well as the Montreal Canadiens. The federal government bought the property in 1964 and used it as a conference centre until the late 1980s, after which it fell into disrepair.

Milling said the new hotel will follow in the footsteps of the Wakefield Mill, which Milling and Berthiaume opened in 2001 and for which they have a longterm lease agreement with the NCC. "It will be a trip into the past with contemporary influences. The original grandeur of the building will be reinvented," said Milling. The property's six stone fireplaces will be refurbished, as will as much of the original hardwood flooring and staircases.

While other media have reported that the hotel would open July 1 2017, Milling said construction should start in January, and although the plan is to open in 2017, "which month is not really clear," he said.

The hotelier said the boutique hotel will cater to a clientele similar to that of the Wakefield Mill's, aiming at the leisure traveller and special occasion visitor; it will also serve as a site for corporate meetings and retreats, small weddings, and corporate dinners. Milling said it will be marketed to the "active lifestyle traveller," focusing on cross country skiers and cyclists.

On top of the restoration of O'Brien House, the project will include repair and renovation of the Asa Meech House, which will house whomever is hired to manage the hotel. Milling said he thought the hotel would create nine to 13 jobs, depending on the season.

Although Milling says it's too premature to discuss room rates, he estimates they will be similar to those of the Mill, which vary from $99 to $400.