Jonah Samson grew up on a wild stretch of seaside in southern Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. For many generations, his family lived in Louisdale, a tiny, working-class fishing village. His great-grandfather was a lighthouse keeper, and his grandfather, an electrician, kept a sprawling garden that Samson would help tend in the summer, watching in wonder as seeds sprouted into plants.
This memory tugged at Samson 30-odd years later. He’d bounced around Europe and lived in Halifax and Toronto before settling down in 2004 as a successful family physician and artist in Vancouver. By then, Samson’s father had divided the Cape Breton land between his four children. “My brother had already built a house right next to my parents, and then my sister built a house right next to him,” says Samson. “We essentially have a family commune all the way down the road.” He’d been living in a 600-square-foot condo and dreaming of more space to garden. In 2013, he moved to Nova Scotia, becoming the fourth Samson to build a house on the family land, and worked at a community health centre in L’Ardoise, a village about a 30-minute drive away.
Samson’s home is the black sheep of the bunch—and an austere twist on the area’s gabled fishing shacks. To design it, he approached Omar Gandhi who, at the time, had only a few homes in his portfolio. He has since become one of the country’s buzziest architects, earning a Governor General’s Medal in 2018 and designing high-profile projects like the proposed Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Still, says Gandhi, “Of all the work we’ve ever done, Jonah’s house is the one that I hear most often that people wish was theirs. Maybe it’s because of the scale, and that people can imagine affording it.” The budget was just $300,000 for two buildings—a main house and an artist’s studio—and the footprint had to be a slim 1,200 square feet to fit the one-acre plot.
Because of the intimate nature of Samson’s work as a family doctor and the fact that he is, as he puts it, “related to absolutely everybody” in Louisdale, he wanted a private sanctuary. (He’s joked that he asked Gandhi for a house that tells strangers to “fuck off.”) And so the side of the house that faces the road is almost entirely windowless, a black boundary illuminated at night only by a slot in the bathroom that stares out like an ominous eye. “It’s like you stumble upon this perfect black composition of objects in an environment that’s completely whited out by snow,” says Gandhi, who named the residence Black Gables. To handle the punishing Atlantic winters, black metal covers the pitched roof. Samson and Gandhi loved seeing the contrast between this mysterious duo of boxes and the rest of the buildings in the community.
The flip side of the house, however, is an expanse of welcoming windows that looks out to the water and a cluster of diminutive islands in Seal Cove. In summer, stone paths snake through tangles of bright blooms and a fledgling orchard of apple, plum, peach, cherry, pear and apricot trees that Samson planted. “In Europe, you’ll walk down the street and see huge stone walls with giant doors, but behind them are gorgeous courtyards. I like that there’s a beautiful, private surprise once you get past the front door,” he says.
Inside, a gallery wall stretches the length of the home to showcase pieces from his art collection, which contains several thousand vintage photographs. His current obsession is the work of Bob Mizer, a mid-century photographer whose playful images of loincloth-clad men influenced the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney. “Mizer is one of the most underrated gay artists of the 20th century, who never got his due,” Samson says, who might curate a book about him in the future.
Samson also creates his own work in the 450-square-foot studio and darkroom, often repurposing found photographs into cheeky and surreal pieces that make you see old images anew. At the moment, he’s developing silver gelatin photo prints with found negatives and, through chemical processing, erasing parts of the original images. He was inspired by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who examines the disappearance of traditional photography as it’s replaced by its digital counterpart. “What happens when physical things disappear?” Samson says. “It’s this idea of vanishing.”
When he’s not squirrelled away in his studio, Samson spends his time with his French bulldog, Arlo; his greyhound, Beans; and his 10 nieces and nephews—in true commune style, childcare is a shared duty. Samson isn’t a big cook (his kitchen is tiny), but he shares many meals with his siblings. Don’t let the black exterior fool you. “We very much live together,” he says.