Skip to content

THEN AND NOW: Sans Souci often called 'China Bird House'

Sophia Street home's design has 'strikingly different take on the Gothic Revival style,' says history columnist

This ongoing series from Barrie Historical Archive curator Deb Exel shows old photos from the collection and one from the present day, as well as the story behind them.

88 Sophia St. E.

The zigzag that is Sophia Street once ran from Mulcaster Street all the way to Eccles Street before it was interrupted by Queen’s Park about 1867.

And the pronunciation of the street’s name is unique. If you know, you know.

In the heart of the historic Grove neighbourhood is an unusual home at the corner of Peel Street and the eastern end of Sophia Street.

Sans Souci, as it was called, was designed by Lt. Shearman Godfrey Bird. Trained as an architect and engineer, he also designed nearby St. Mary’s church, the Post Office/Bank of Toronto building on Owen Street and Trinity Anglican Church’s Sunday School.

It was while serving as a British army officer with the Royal Engineers and stationed in South China that Shearman met his future wife, Amoi, or Amy Laura, Chun.

Amoi was born about 1841 in Canton, China, into the prestigious Chun family, whose position in society allowed them to carry their family emblem into the emperor's throne room.

It was during the evacuation of women and children from the target area of a British attack that the couple met, according to family lore.

Following the couple’s 1861 marriage, Shearman resigned his commission, joining the Surveyor General’s Office of Her Majesty’s Public Works Department in Hong Kong. 

His poor health triggered a move back to England in 1867, but, sadly, due to cultural intolerance at the time, he was given a five-year leave of absence to find another job. That’s when the family moved to Barrie in 1869 and he began his career as an architect, surveyor and engineer.

Shearman designed their home, Sans Souci, in 1872, using a strikingly different take on the Gothic Revival style. The dark red, roughcast house featured a pagoda-like roof with highly ornamental finials and a tea house at the edge of a stream behind their residence.

The Birds' home was often referred to as the China Bird House. Shearman did not get to enjoy their marvellous home for long. He contracted pneumonia at the house warming of Sans Souci and passed away.

The Birds had eight children — four girls and four boys — and of the seven still living, some were sent to stay with relatives in England following Shearman's death.

Amy and Shearman’s son, Eustace, who was educated in England, became an architect as well, designing many notable buildings in and around Barrie including Glen Ormond at 11 Rodney St., 77 Mary St., Capt. Eustace Bird’s home (the younger Eustace's uncle) on Wellington Street, the Barrie Opera House, and the Methodist Church in Minesing.

Many of his homes had Tudor influences, such as the one at 88 Sophia St. E., that he designed for his widowed mother, when Sans Souci had become 'too much house.'

Amy Bird loved flowers and was known to spend a great deal of her time in her gardens. Her botanical passion and her industry in church life led to many improvements to her church’s grounds at Trinity Anglican.

The planting of trees, terraced gardens and other beautification of the church property was directly attributed to Amy’s efforts. She was also responsible for the memorial stained glass window placed in Trinity Anglican Church honouring Rev. Canon Morgan.

One hundred years ago this month, while downtown shopping, she suffered a stroke, declining over the following two weeks until she passed away.

After her funeral at Sans Souci, then Trinity Church, Amy Laura (Amoi) Bird was laid to rest with her beloved Shearman at Barrie Union Cemetery.

Amy Bird’s lovely home on Sophia (so-fy-yah) Street stands mostly unchanged today.