“She and Jerry, they did this house together,” says the client, still beaming about the country place his best friend, Toronto architect Jerome Markson, designed exactly 40 years ago, and his other best friend, his wife, has decorated over the years.
His white hair tinted amber by the big, bright half-circle of stained glass behind the dining table, he speaks of this rambling-yet-cozy, informal-yet-modernist, remote-but-not-isolated home almost as if it’s a member of the family … albeit one he didn’t want at first.
“I didn’t want a country house,” says the retired town planner, who has asked that his identity and the home’s location northwest of Toronto remain a family secret. “The building itself was $60,000 – I thought I’d never pay it off,” he says with mock alarm. “The land was 50 acres for $6,000, it’s a joke now.
“And none of it is my thinking, none of it is my doing and none of it is my design –”
“– I forced it on you,” says Mr. Markson, passing behind him on the way to fill a glass with cold beer during a visit on a sweltering July afternoon. Friends for a half-century, the duo exchange barbs like an old, perfectly timed Borscht Belt comedy duo, while their wives roll practised eyes.
The shtick flows easily here because this is architecture of the old-slipper variety: Moulded to its inhabitants, it’s hard to imagine a time before it existed. In fact, it was Mr. Markson’s own modernist country house, built outside Uxbridge, Ont., in 1968 as an escape for wife Mayta, a potter, and their kids (profiled here in 2005) that was the inspiration: “It was like that line in When Harry Met Sally,” explains Mr. Markson’s friend, “that the lady in the deli, played by Rob Reiner’s mother, says: ‘I’ll have what she’s having!’”
Truth be told, Mr. Markson, an architect since 1953, is too good to deliver a carbon copy, so he assigned his friend’s wife the task of finding components to add to the design, such as reclaimed windows or old Gothic decorative trim pieces. “‘Find me,’ Jerry would say to [her], ‘a window that’s about, like, you know,’” remembers the homeowner, demonstrating size with outstretched arms, “and she found four windows from a 1920s cinema that was being pulled down on Parliament Street, I think.” When Mr. Markson asked for bigger windows, he adds, his wife made some phone calls and found someone who’d demolished a church along the St. Lawrence River.
Pointing to the old wooden arches placed over the tall screens in an airy dining porch, Mr. Markson says: “If you look at the house without these pieces, it’s a contemporary, slightly goofy piece of massing, and then these things were inserted where they should be.”
Where best to insert the house on the heavily treed lot, however, was not determined by Mr. Markson or his friend. One of the homeowner’s professional partners was a landscape architect who “walked the site with a stepladder” to sample various views. The sloped patch that was selected gave Mr. Markson the opportunity to play with sharp angles and split levels. Battered and bruised now by four decades of wind, sun and snow, however, it’s hard to imagine this home as a pristine, angular presence on the land; besides, Mr. Markson remarks that buildings, like people, should be allowed to age.
Inside, too, the sometimes-silly, always-interesting “themed” collections may steal the spotlight, but, again, the architect is clear: Clients that fill his “container” with life, laughter and, yes, plenty of stuff, are the kind he prefers. Even so much stuff that new visitors are cautioned with a lighthearted “be prepared” as they enter? “Why not?” he asks.
A visitor’s eye lands first on the “quasi-religious area” down the front hall, which, fittingly, is placed under a reclaimed Gothic window with lovely periwinkle trim. Here is a matchstick crucifix, another of tin, various candelabras, and the quirky folk art of Howard Finster, a Baptist minister from Georgia.
In the kitchen, of course, are decorative plates; a few standouts are by Syracuse China for Santa Fe Railroad dining cars. Another wall features Middle Eastern “tamata”: stamped tin offerings given to the church to cure various ailments. “So there’s a leg and a boob and a foot … and a 1947 Buick,” laughs the homeowner.
Glass candlesticks here, nautical stuff there, and, over the couch, portraits of the Queen, Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, by a Kingston Penitentiary inmate. Abstracted animal head “trophies” over a doorway, dog portraits and a giant pencil all vie for attention. Upstairs, the bathroom sports “hands and feet” paraphernalia.
About that second-floor bathroom: To gain headroom in the kitchen, Mr. Markson cantilevered only the top half – just enough to put in a generous vanity. A smart move, but done with a sense of humour … which, come to think of it, is the perfect way to describe this house.
“He’s a genius,” finishes his friend.