Arcadian adventures

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McGill Reporter
March 2, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 12
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Arcadian adventures

A peek inside the former house of humorist Stephen Leacock

Standing in the room in which Canadian humorist and McGill political science professor Stephen Leacock wrote many of his gently funny stories, I can't think of a single witty thing to say. Perhaps the undergrad political economy papers he surely marked here sucked the room dry. It was famously messy and painted red when it was his study, but now the plain panelled room is made comfy with a couch, bookshelves and a fireplace.

Caption follows
Fang ensures that visitors behave themselves in the room that used to be Stephen Leacock's study.
Owen Egan

I'm in the house of Dennis and Mary-Louise Engels (he a psychiatrist and professor at McGill, she a retired McGill psychiatry professor) on CĂ´tes-des-Neiges Rd., across from Marianopolis College. After 27 happy years here, they're selling the house that was home to Leacock for 35 years.

The large semi-detached red brick abode was built around 1905 by William Slack, treasurer of Bell Canada, on property that was originally owned by the McCord family.

Leacock and his wife, Beatrix, leased the house in 1909 - early in his career as a McGill political science professor - and bought it in 1923. After Leacock's death in 1944, his only child, Stevie, sold it. The house had a brief ignoble period as a boarding house before being bought by Dr. and Mrs. Gerard Hurley in 1949; the Engels took it over in 1979. Now, with another hand-over imminent, Mary-Louise Engels invited the Reporter inside the historic place.

The building is grand from the outside but intimately proportioned within. Most rooms have generous window seats from which to admire the view. Beautiful oak trim running along the walls near the ceiling gives a cosy sense of space.

Caption follows
In the Engels' hallway hangs a photo of the Leacocks taken outside the house in 1916.
Owen Egan

But the calm is disturbed by loud, incessant barking. Engels opens the door to the kitchen to let out the frantic culprit, a miniature pinscher who believes herself to be truly ferocious, though she can barely leap up to my knees.

"What's her name?" I ask.

"Fang."

Engels says she likes the small kitchen and fabric- panelled dining room best. I could easily imagine the Leacocks holding court in the mid-sized room with the Arts and Crafts wood moulding above the fireplace.

Stephen and Beatrix entertained many notable people of the age. Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford were all guests. Author P.G. Wodehouse visited, too. Engels said, "When Leacock and P.G. Wodehouse were together, people thought 'Oh, what a wonderful event,' but it was apparently very quiet!" Perhaps the two wits were shy, she speculated, or not wishing to upstage one another.

Caption follows
The dining room saw many merry parties in Leacock's time. But by 10 p.m., Stephen would retire to bed, leaving Beatrix to entertain the guests.
Owen Egan

The second floor contains two bedrooms, the aforementioned ex-study, and the large balcony on which Leacock slept, even through the winter. At the time, the practice was believed to be good for the health, and he'd put on a raccoon coat when it was really cold.

Summers would see him in Orillia, Ontario, where he headed as soon as exams were over.

"His heart was in his house at Orillia," Engels said. "He was brought up on a farm, hated it, but there was something of a farm boy in his soul."

The third floor used to be the servants' quarters, now converted to a guest room and an office. More rooms (including what was originally the coalman's toilet), can be found in the basement, as well as in the modern wing that was added a few decades ago. The Engelses have their professional psychiatric offices in the new section. ("Padded walls," Engels pointed out, apparently a source of amusement to visitors.)

The storied place is on the market for $695,000. Mary-Louise Engels would love the house to go to McGill so it could be used for student residences, or to house an institute. But whoever occupies it next should definitely be a fan of fun and have a deft touch with hosting.

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