The stark beauty of a well-worn home

Toronto — Special to The Globe and Mail

Inside 53 Indian Grove, the former home of George and Harry Mills, now owned by Ginger Sorbara. (All photos courtesy Telephone Booth Gallery)

While it’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, those words can be wrong sometimes.

To look at Greg Pacek’s and Ginger Sorbara’s photographs of 53 Indian Grove – on display until June 4 at Telephone Booth Gallery (3148 Dundas St. W.) – one might gather that this was a house that suffered from severe neglect caused by sad shut-ins who had given up on the world.

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It would be a logical assumption: paint peels everywhere; where it’s not peeling, it’s filthy with oil from a thousand hands; ivy tentacles crash through a pane of glass; ceilings are water-damaged; appliances have atrophied from lack of use; and stickers now welded to walls claim “Hello, my name is George” and “Hello my name is Harry.”

But that assumption would be wrong. By all accounts, George and Harry Mills were well loved in this little enclave adjacent to High Park, and they were happy, incredibly social and very engaged with the world.

“I’ve been through houses that kind of look like this, but it’s sad and it’s a bit tortured,” says Ms. Sorbara, an intern architect and photographer who now owns 53 Indian Grove. “But the karma of this house, for lack of a better word, was fantastic.”

Ms. Sorbara first said hello to the Mills brothers seven years ago. She lived in the area and was intrigued by the apparent neglect of this grand old house (built in 1911), so she telephoned its occupants “out of the blue” to see if they wanted to sell. She was rebuffed, but invited over for a chat just the same. Immediately, she was struck by the warmth of the two elderly brothers, and not at all put off by the mounds of stuff inside that caused them to spend most of their time on the front porch. “I think it was a function of having lots of great things, of having lots of passions and collecting different things,” she offers, “and that predilection was exacerbated by age and infirmity.”

She enjoyed the Mills brothers so much, in fact, that she began to make a habit of walking past. Then George died in 2005, followed by Harry in 2008.

In February, 2009, with her architect husband, she purchased the house from the next-of-kin. During her visits with the family, she learned this house had been such a hub for the neighbourhood – from elaborate communal meals served in the oak-paneled dining room to classical concerts and the skating rink in the backyard – that it demanded documentation, so she enlisted the help of her professional photographer friend Greg Pacek.

“I was amazed at how much energy I felt in the house,” he says, echoing her.

The duo took snaps while the family cleared away more than seven decades of the flotsam and jetsam of life – 11 construction-sized bins were hauled away – and then, after she took possession, they took gallery-quality photographs. But the family didn’t take everything: 1850s family photographs were found in a basement box along with letters from the Great War, newspaper clippings and, in a red tobacco tin in the backyard, a stash of 16mm film reels. When Ms. Sorbara had them transferred to DVD, she saw a flickering image of Harry Mills as a newborn baby, held by his father.

To share these unexpected treasures, a companion booklet was created and offered for sale when the photographs first hung at a different gallery in June, 2010. It’s offered at Telephone Booth Gallery as well, and is well worth the $45 price tag. “There’s something very still about this place,” begin the authors on page four. “The music of many millions of notes played has been quieted. Gone are the back yard summer concerts that echoed through the neighbourhood. Gone are the winter skating parties, the late night porch talk with the clinking of cheering glasses.”

Gone, but not forgotten. Lovingly documented in its 74 glossy pages are photographs of mutton-chopped men, a postcard sent from the house shortly after it was built (before the senior Mr. Mills purchased it) and intimate snapshots taken by Mr. Pacek and Ms. Sorbara of a sign reading “No hockey sticks” propped up on a shelf and a ham radio area on the third floor. Of course, the gallery photographs are also included, but it’s better to see them in large format at Telephone Booth Gallery (look for the authentic 1960s telephone booth in the window).

While tempting to lump these gallery photos into the currently popular “decay fetish” scene, they don’t quite fit. Rather, these are portraits of lives lived without design snobbery in a house that tired only when its occupants did. They’re a gesture of respect, too, on the part of Ms. Sorbara, who feels she must now remove “95 per cent of what was there” in order to make the house her own: “You can’t take something that’s in pretty good shape and feel good about erasing it,” she says. “I think it’s environmentally irresponsible [and]it feels too self-important.”

Look for the results of her very necessary renovation in this column in late 2011. For gallery information, visit www.telephoneboothgallery.ca.

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