CAP-EGMONT, P.E.I. — These days people are experimenting with all types of eco-friendly building materials.
But the late Edouard Arsenault was far ahead of his time when he used thousands of discarded glass containers as the basis for his series of shiny structures now known as The Bottle Houses.
Tucked behind the Arsenault family home in Cap-Egmont, this trio of buildings — a six-gabled house, a tavern and a chapel — has attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world since it was opened to the public in 1981.
“He was a pioneer in recycling,” his daughter, Rejeanne Arsenault, says of her father, who died in 1984. She now owns and operates this long-standing local attraction.
It has been 30 years since the idea for the bottle houses was cemented in the mind of its creator, thanks to a souvenir postcard purchased by his daughter.
“In 1979, I was in Vancouver for a conference and before coming back I went to Vancouver Island and there was a place called the glass castle. So we went there for a visit and I brought back a few postcards,” she remembers.
“And when I showed them to my father that’s what got him going. He said, ’Well, gee, if they can do it there, we should be able to do it here!”’
And so Edouard, who was 65 at the time, set out to do just that. One man can only generate so many bottles, so he put out an appeal to the people in Cap-Egmont and the surrounding areas for donations to his bottle house building supply.
“He would go around every week with his old truck to dance halls and restaurants, the Legion and the dump (to round up bottles),” she says.
“And people were really good (about saving and donating bottles). In a sense it’s a community project because the people (contributed to it) and ever since my father built them we’ve never charged anyone from this community who donated bottles. It’s part of their work as well.”
Edouard, who worked in construction when he was not fishing lobsters, started his first glass bottle structure in 1980 next to a pond and gardens he’d put into place a few years before. It was a six-gabled house that required approximately 12,000 bottles of all shapes, colours, sizes and former uses.
There are liquor and juice bottles, jam and pickle jars, bulbous wine jugs, carafes and more forming the walls of this cottage-size structure and the others that followed.
There aren’t a lot of pop or beer bottles in the bottle houses, which makes perfect sense because they were the only two types of glass containers at the time that were returnable for deposit refund.
“(He used) anything he could get his hands on.
These are the (glass) lampions from the Catholic Church. They had candles in them and once they were empty they threw them all away,” she adds.
While it would have been much easier to just stack and tuck any old bottle every which way into the walls, Edouard opted for patterns and geometric designs in his bottle placements.
“And all of that was in his head. We never saw any design or anything on paper,” Arsenault says.
“But we remember sometimes he would come in (to the house) and say, ’Oh, now I’d like to have 36 or 24 of a particular type of bottle,’ so then the word would spread and people would try to find them.”
The response to his bottle house build was almost immediate.
“People started coming in right then because at that point in time the trees were just planted … so you could see the (bottle) house from the road.
And people started coming in to see what he was doing,” Arsenault says. “They thought it was quite interesting.”
Edouard was encouraged by their interest and opened the site to visitors as a local attraction in 1981. The admission was 50 cents.
“He would accompany them and show them around and I think that’s what got him going afterward because people really liked what they saw,” Arsenault says.
And so the bottle house-maker dove in headlong again for his second structure, which appropriately enough is known as the tavern.
The chapel came next. Inside Edouard cleverly used his stockpile church lampions to form the backs and side arms of the six spacious pews.
Most impressive is the altar area where he used various amber and clear glass containers to form a stunning spiritual backdrop.
“This one is special. If you come here and there’s nobody around it’s so peaceful,” she says. “And in the evening the sun sets directly behind it, so the colours are just out of this world.”
As ingenious as Edouard was in sourcing out low-cost bottle house building materials, there was one small mistake in the beginning that evolved into a major problem as time went on.
The railway ties that he had laid as the foundation for his houses could not withstand the crushing weight of all those bottle walls and their concrete mortar.
By the early 1990s, the early spring thaws had caused cracks to appear in the walls and some features were shifting to a point where they would soon become unsafe, so a decision had to be made — close down or dismantle and rebuild the three buildings.
This was uncharted territory. Bottle houses themselves are a rarity, but this time of demolition/reconstruction was unheard of.
“Nobody knew exactly how to deal with it,” Arsenault remembers.
Coincidentally, in 1992 the Canada World Youth program was looking for a posting for two of its female participants, one from Montreal, and the other from Senegal, Africa.
And so, bottle by bottle, they dismantled the tavern, which was in the worse shape of the three.
“Then we saw it could be done. I would say from that first building we saved almost all the bottles. We may have lost a few,” says Arsenault, who took photographs of all the bottle houses beforehand so they could be rebuilt the way her father had intended.
Local bricklayer Stephen Poirier and local labourers took on the task of meticulously rebuilding the tavern, which was set on a typical house foundation to prevent any shifting in the future.
“I would say it was twice the work (as the original build) because it was a lot of cleaning up,” Arsenault says of this reconstruction and the two that followed.
“It took us six years to rebuild the three buildings. We demolished in the fall and rebuilt in the spring.”
Over the years, people from every province, territory and state in North America have made their way to The Bottle Houses, as well as visitors from Scotland, Austria, India, Australia and New Zealand and other places farther afield.
The chapel and the bottle houses’ grounds have also become the site of a few weddings in recent years.
A Moncton, N.B., couple started the trend when they chose it as the location for their matrimonial moment in 2006. Since then a couple from P.E.I. and another from Ohio have done the same and used the gardens as a photogenic backdrop for pictures.
In keeping with Edouard’s plan for a bottle made from bottles, his grandsons, Etienne and Dominique Gallant, designed and built the one that now stands tall at the entrance to The Bottle Houses as a tribute to one man’s dream.
The Bottle Houses www.bottlehouses.com are located on Route 11, at 6891 in Cap-Egmont, on the North Cape Coastal Drive, in the midst of La Region Evangeline, about 25 kmwest of Summerside and 40 minutes from the Confederation Bridge.