Ottawans can be forgiven for possessing a certain wariness toward Torontonian invaders.
When those T-Dot interlopers show up in a neighbourhood as tightly knit as Briarcliffe – a pocket of 23 covenant-protected, architect-designed houses from the 1960s – and construction debris begins to fill an enormous waste bin outside, well, that’s just asking for trouble.
“The first time that James encountered one of the neighbours, he was wearing a Tyvek suit and a respirator,” says invader Danielle Jones about her husband, James Laish, while reflecting on the early days of their work on the 1964 Butler residence, which they purchased in 2009.
The thing with alien invasions, however, is that there’s always the chance you’ll get Spielberg’s E.T. rather than the H.G. Wells kind. Luckily, Briarcliffe got the former, as Mr. Laish was just taking out the trash. Even better, when the dust had settled at the Kindle Court construction site, recalls Ms. Jones, neighbours asked: “‘What did you do?’ Because it looks exactly the same,’” she says.
“And that’s how we know it was a restoration.”
It was more than a restoration; it was a love affair. How else to explain the attention to period detail, the patience to do picky, time-consuming work, and the sensitivity practised when bringing in 21st-century conveniences? Add to that the five-year, province-wide sweep to find the place, and the Award of Excellence at the City of Ottawa’s 2012 Architectural Conservation Awards the couple recently received, and it’s case closed.
After all, Mr. Laish is the sort of guy who will stand for weeks and weeks on a scaffold to fill woodpecker holes on cedar siding, then carve fake wood grain into the repair work before it is painted. And they’d both rather preserve the original, cedar-framed, double-pane windows – all 82 of them – by taking razor blades to the “kilometres and kilometres” of old, brittle caulking rather than put in something less appropriate and likely made of vinyl. Better, they decided with advice from the eco-energy audit folks, to take walls down to the studs and do “massive insulation work.” Better, also, to completely demolish the basement floor and have a new, radiant-heated slab put down. The payoff, they say, is a monthly energy bill that’s one-third of what it was before.
Why create landfill, asks Ms. Jones, by trashing a glorious mid-century kitchen with hanging cabinets and a long laminate breakfast bar that “was considered pretty futuristic in its day?” And why seal off the beautiful living-room fireplace that doesn’t agree with her severe allergies? Why not just clean it?
Why indeed: With no hallways, rooms that effortlessly flow into rooms and a design so sublime it makes 1,200 square feet feel more like 2,500 – “I think the most significant aspect of this house is how good the plan is,” agrees Mr. Laish – this is a house worthy of respect. A glass box with a thick stand of trees for curtains, it’s Mies made warm for the cold Canadian climate.
It’s also a rarity. In 1964, just as the Butler family was watching their new house go up, their architect, 35-year-old Englishman Brian Barkham, died of cancer. As with his countryman, Toronto-based Peter Dickinson, who died at 35 in 1961, one wonders what Mr. Barkham might have achieved if given the chance to build bigger and higher, since he’d already notched his belt with a grand prize at Milan’s famous Triennale (with partner Paul Schoeler).
Instead, only a precious few get to experience his architecture: “To lie in bed here is almost like being outside. You look to either side and you see the treetops,” Ms. Jones says. Adds Mr. Laish: “It’s very special to wake up in the morning.”
The neighbourhood is special, too. The 1959 creation of a like-minded co-operative of architects, engineers and scientists, Briarcliffe’s rocky, forested lots are a half-acre, creating a “really unusual and desirable combination of privacy and accessibility,” says Ms. Jones.
Vienna-born architect Walter Schreier, one of the first to build here, was the driving force behind covenants that not only protected the site’s amazing topography, they also ensured all houses were architect-designed in the Modern style. A devout humanist after witnessing the horrors of the Second World War, Mr. Schreier created a special place of contemplation, relaxation, inspiration (from both good design and nature) and sensitivity. And because of the covenants, Briarcliffe stayed that way well into the 21st century, when they expired.
It’s not difficult to see why an artistic couple from Toronto would be like moths drawn to this flame, or why extra time and money would be spent replicating original baseboard profiles and door surrounds for the rebuild of the Butler residence’s lower level. Since Mr. Laish and Ms. Jones both work from home as artists/designers (they met at the Ontario College of Art, now OCAD U), they needed an ultramodern workspace, but their own sensitivity to Briarcliffe’s original vision meant it had to be done respectfully, so they called upon architect John Donkin to make it seamless. He did, and the result is part of the reason for the Award of Excellence.
Beyond winning awards, the new space has also changed how the couple works: “In Toronto, we had separate offices,” says Ms. Jones. “We’re collaborating here … and we’re rebranding ourselves.”
And, to pay it forward, the couple helped Briarcliffe re-establish its brand, too: In February, it became Canada’s first Mid-century Modern heritage conservation district.