Blue Violin – Perseverance in Preservation

A breathtaking building restoration by two artisan developers, intrepid antique dealers, collectors and musicians resonates in the heart of downtown Belleville.

The violin has remained virtually unchanged for centuries; its design is said to be flawless.

Owners, restoration experts and designers Zubin Gillespie and Kim Fedor are first and second chair at Blue Violin, Belleville’s newest short-term rental destination, with each passionate note of their vast experience lovingly poured into its restoration and re-design. Kim explains, “Violin making represents the highest level of instrument construction and requires craftsmanship and tradition. This is a masterpiece of a building that required the same.”

As a young boy, Zubin was already building things and working with his hands. His construction and restoration journey began at fifteen by cleaning brick in Vancouver’s Gastown district. He attended art school and shortly after built his first home of timber and stone. After he completed a restoration project for the historic town of Barkerville, music beckoned and he joined a gypsy jazz band; however, he also had the wanderlust. As Zubin explains, “After a career in music, I began travelling to Asia in 1991 and did not stop until 2011. I went to Southeast Asia for silk, India, China and Mongolia for furniture and architecture, and Afghanistan and Central Asia for antique carpets and textiles.”

Located at 212 Front Street on the iconic Cummins block, the original Blue Violin’s building was erected in 1861 to manufacture saddles and harnesses. It burned to the ground in 1863, was re-built the same year, and a third storey was added in 1886. In 1955, it became O’Connor’s Jewel Box and remained in the O’Connor family until it was purchased in 2017 by Zubin and Kim. Although charming and storied, the structure was in rough shape, with rot, bowed support beams, sagging floors and sullied brick and stone. A restoration that should have been completed in two years became a five-year labour of love and sweat equity. Kim half-jokingly notes, “Take any number they give you and triple it. That includes timelines, costs, and expenses – and for every step in a renovation that you see, there are nine more that you don’t see.”

Kim was a smart, active child who loved academia. She was born in Calgary into a family immersed in their community. She later moved to Dallas, eventually living in seven cities over twenty years including Prague and Barcelona, working as a busking musician. The artist in Kim further blossomed as a graphic designer, writer and antique collector who was especially fond of textiles and rugs. She too has made many treks to India, China and Berlin. Kim explains, “Our background as antique dealers is the cornerstone of developing the style of interior design that you see in Blue Violin.”

The aesthetics of Blue Violin are an amalgamation of the couple’s education in Asian furniture design and architecture, 1920s European lofts and hotels, construction and restoration, and an impressive personal antique collection. There are two suites: the Yves Klein Apartment and the Madder Suite. Both are overwhelmingly rich in history, a mix of old world and modern day workmanship and an astonishing attention to detail. The brickwork alone was returned to its original state by meticulous hand-scrubbing, with Zubin personally repointing over sixteen thousand bricks.

The third floor houses the two-bedroom European-influenced Yves Klein Apartment, named after the French avant-garde artist who created a unique deep blue hue. The ascent up the wooden stairs is rewarded by an airy high-ceilinged room that further opens to the heavens via skylights. The eight-foot interior and closet doors, coupled with the skylights and white window trim, echo a French influence. Other features include ornately carved teak pillars and beams from French-influenced South India, an exquisite Jharoka panel that serves as the headboard in the master bedroom, and an alluring and lush Ensi carpet of karakul wool, which originally functioned as a door to a yurt and is now a mesmerizing wall hanging. The equally luxurious second bedroom displays the stone parapet from the original two-storey roofline, and like the tone of a violin, the space is a consummate blend of bright and crisp, warm and mellow.

Zubin served as lead contractor and project coordinator, doing much of the work himself; but he also assembled a tight, efficient team of craftsmen including Bob Dunsmore, Greg Wollerman and brick- and stone-cleaning guru, Edward Pearson. They employed local contractors including TAB Mechanical and G&R Insulation, and whenever possible, materials were locally sourced including Chisholm Lumber and Gordon’s Architectural Wood Products.

The aesthetics of Blue Violin are an amalgamation of the couple’s education in Asian furniture design and architecture, 1920s European lofts and hotels, construction and restoration, and an impressive personal antique collection.

The second floor Madder Suite is the antithesis of the Yves Klein Apartment: Madder represents Earth while the Klein blue represents the universe. Madder is a plant found in Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan and is used to make pink to red dyes for tribal carpets. Every choice of trim, doors, colours and décor by this creative couple is deliberate. Everything means something and you can feel this when entering. Madder is intoxicatingly exotic, with sapele trim and doors, stunning stone and brick restoration and a spacious, bright, modern, centrepiece kitchen. Chinese door panels in the hallway instantly transport you through time and space with exquisite relief and lattice. The master and guest bedrooms whisper decadence and indulgence with a fit and finish only a master craftsman can achieve, while retaining the historical warmth and charm in the preserved brick.

Kim and Zubin met as musicians and became business partners and globetrotting antique dealers – and eventually a couple looking for a building to save. They fell in love with the Belleville location as well as the area, and they injected that love and artistic mojo into the project. Zubin explains, “We hope that Blue Violin is an inspiration for what is possible and illustrates how perfection, art and beauty can override mediocrity, sameness and profit-motivated initiatives.”

At a time when Belleville is losing historic buildings at an alarming rate, Kim and Zubin haven’t just preserved a Belleville legacy, they’ve begun a new one by creating a must-see downtown destination, while hitting all the sweetest design notes.

Story by:
Greg Ceci

Photography by:
Christopher Gentile

[Spring 2024 features]