Couple restores family’s historical Fort Amherst homes
Nicole and Peter Gill own and operate Fort Amherst Vacation Homes, renting out the former head lightkeeper and assistant lightkeeper’s houses. Peter Gill’s grandfather was the last head lightkeeper when the famous site was still operated by hand. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
Peter and Nicole Gill throw in a little something extra when tourists rent out their vacation home: a sunrise that possibly nobody else in North America has laid eyes on yet.
If that’s not quite enough magic for a vacationer, how about sleeping at the site of the first lighthouse in the province? Or at the entrance to the harbour of the oldest city in North America?
Peter Gill’s grandfather, Leo Power, was the longstanding lighthouse keeper at Fort Amherst. He kept the lights turning from the 1940s through to the 1970s. It was about that time that lighthouses became automated, and the family moved from the edge of The Narrows, leaving the two houses there to stand their own ground against the elements.
The lighthouse was, and still is, kept up by the federal government, but the houses and the property where Gill’s mother was raised fell into disrepair. For close to 20 years it was left to fall apart. Ownership of the property and the houses passed through the hands of various levels of government. At one point, there were even plans to tear the two houses down. Eventually, they became the ownership of the City of St. John’s.
In 1996, Gill’s uncle, Jack Power, was getting ready to retire from his job at Memorial University. He had been eyeing the property where he grew up, watching it become more and more decrepit.
“Jack grew up out here, and he was retiring, and he was saddened to see the place falling apart,” says Gill.
His uncle approached the city about the Fort Amherst properties. He made a deal to lease the property and the two houses on it for 25 years in return for his using it as a tourism business.
Gill’s uncle made one of the houses livable for himself, and turned the other into a museum and tea house. It was a bit of a dream for Gill’s uncle, albeit something of a short one. Jack Power started a battle with cancer, and by the mid 2000s, the properties at Fort Amherst were becoming too much for him.
“It was a labour of love for Jack, but he had to face reality. He was getting sick and his time was limited,” says Gill.
His uncle asked if anybody in the family would be interested in picking up where he had to leave off. Peter and Nicole were a young married couple without children at the time. The opportunity to take over a piece of family and provincial history had just landed in their lap. They purchased the lease from Gill’s uncle and did a little renegotiating with the city.
“We needed it basically for a lifetime if we were gonna do the right kinds of things with it and really put our energy into it,” says Gill.
They got the lease for 50 years with the understanding that they would turn the property into tourist accommodations.
Gill and his wife moved into the house that had been used as a museum, and stripped the other house down to the studs.
“It was really falling apart and it needed a lot of work,” says Gill.
The basic structure of the house was very good, he says, but everything else was replaced, including the plumbing and electrical. They improved everything they could inside while keeping the original look to the outside of the house.
Living there was a unique experience, says Gill. They were still living there when they had their first daughter.
“I remember many times up at the crack of dawn with my daughter seeing the sun come up, and thinking that I’m probably the first person in North America to see the sun rise right now, and I had many, many, many of them,” he says.
Off the front of the house, the Signal Hill side of The Narrows towers up from the ocean. Through the front window, fishing boats heavy with crab pots toddle out to sea. Look off another side of the property and Cape Spear can be seen.
That is, of course, if anything can be seen at all. When the fog rolls in, anybody staying there will find themselves sitting right on top of the foghorn that can be heard all over the city.
“It gets to be soothing,” Gill assures, adding that it’s not nearly as loud as one might think and never kept him, a self-proclaimed light sleeper, from getting a full night’s rest.
Eventually, the Gill family outgrew the house in Fort Amherst. The idea was to use the houses as a tourist business anyway, and this summer will be the third season they’re offering tourists the opportunity to stay in the house they have restored. They’re already taking reservations for the second house, too, which they plan to have completed by mid-June.
The federal government still owns the lighthouse and maintains it, but the Fort Amherst property has the feel of being publicly owned. A steady stream of people pedalling bikes and walking dogs pass the steps of the houses to get to the lighthouse and the crumbling military bunkers below it.
The Gills have managed to preserve a part of Peter’s family history, and a broader piece of Newfoundland history.
“It’s been awesome. We’re the luckiest people in the world,” says Gill.
For information on renting the properties, email firstname.lastname@example.org.