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1621 Dundas West, renovation by Mary Jane Finlayson, partner at Toronto’s Sweeny Sterling Finlayson &Co Architects Inc. Store front house on Dundas west for real estate. (Shai Gil)
1621 Dundas West, renovation by Mary Jane Finlayson, partner at Toronto’s Sweeny Sterling Finlayson &Co Architects Inc. Store front house on Dundas west for real estate. (Shai Gil)

A couture home on a Toronto retail strip Add to ...

In the kitchen area, Finlayson restored the original blond maple flooring hidden away under tatty linoleum and a sub-floor. “It took two or three days just to get the nails out of the floor. There had to be 100 nails per square foot, and they were threaded, so they did not come out easily. They had to be pulled out individually with pliers.”

Elsewhere, she covered the floors in an eco-engineered product made from oak off-cuts and finished with a glare-free, natural oiled finish.

On this property, the grade falls from north to south such that the house is split-level. This naturally divided the house into two parts: the more boisterous kitchen area facing Dundas, and the more private living-dining area with access to the private back yard. A further grade change permitted a sunken parking area that blocks views of cars from the yard.

The dwelling adjoins historic Brockton Town Hall, designed in 1881 by prominent Toronto architect Joseph A. Fowler (1850-1921), who also designed Parkdale Town Hall at Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue. Under amalgamation, after 1884, when Brockton Village was annexed by the City of Toronto, the Town Hall usage was no longer needed. By 1891, the building became Brockton Weigh Scales. It also saw use as a fire hall, public library and police headquarters.

And thereby hangs a tale. On the ground floor, across from the kitchen area, a sleek, long, low custom bench artfully conceals damage in the brick wall of the old town hall. “The millwork covers a nasty part of the brick wall,” Finlayson says. “There are still jail cells on the other side of the wall in the town hall’s basement and we joked that, judging from the higgledy-piggledy repair job, it looked as though there must have been a jail break!”

Stainless-steel legs sourced from a commercial kitchen-supply store give the long bench a slightly retro, not-seen-before look. “I like the legs because they taper and look a little lighter when they hit the floor. And, they screw up and down so that they can be leveled, which was a real plus on the uneven existing floor,” Finlayson says.

You may not have seen the last of her millwork unit: “We’re thinking of developing the concept and marketing it as a modular system to suit any room, with components you can add like the flat-panel TV stand and the display cabinet.”

Gutting the original building and removing parging revealed yellow quoins or large, squared stones that emphasize the corner of a building. In this case, however, the quoins are made of brick like the rest of the wall, and they make the corner a focal point. “This type of polychromatic brick treatment was very fashionable from 1860 to about 1890,” Hill says, “and helps to pinpoint the building’s date.”

Another trickle-down-design device, on the storefront windows, is the graduated film made by 3M (of Scotch Tape fame). It is translucent at one end and gradually turns transparent toward the other. (Digital photo buffs will be familiar with the concept of the neutral density graduated filter, a useful tool in photo-editing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom.) The tricky part, when working with the graduated filter, is deciding how high to position the translucent midsection.

She had used the material for meeting rooms in office projects. “It reduces disruption and provides some privacy without totally disconnecting you from the rest of the workplace.”

Used in this residential application, the film permits the best of both worlds. Here she placed the translucent end at eye level and applied the film up and down from that point. “This space is bathed with indirect north light,” Finlayson says. “The film is effective here because you can still see outside and feel connected to the street. The owners are also fortunate to have a view of the charming, carved limestone façade of the World War One-vintage bank across the way. From the outside the film obscures visibility and passersby can’t see the interior. During the day it’s just a fog. At night, they can just make out the lights in the ceiling and the silhouettes of plants. The owners never feel that their privacy is being invaded.”

Finlayson sums up. “Stylistically, I hate to use the word ‘timeless,’ but it has a nice combination of, not slick, but clean details while remaining rough around the edges. This gives a comfort level that you don’t find when everything is pristine and precious and people are afraid to touch it. This house is very robust. Not counting pre-existing materials, such as the brick, we used one stone and one wood throughout. This simplicity helps to tie everything together and make the spaces flow.”

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