Peeling away boards and peering through greasy, cracked glass, it was the CN Tower blinking less than three kilometres away that convinced architects Adam and Katja Thom to buy the dilapidated Corktown building.
"I remember that was quite a moment, to realize we were right in the city," says Mr. Thom, 42.
It certainly wasn't the view of the room behind them: Bird feces, blown out walls, holes in the floor big enough to plummet through, discarded machine parts and even a bearskin covered in grease all told tales of their future home's past as a welding shop and a taxidermist's, but, mostly, of neglect since the two-storey, concrete block building on Gilead Place hadn't seen a regular tenant since 1968.
"They used this building just like a farmer would use a barn," offers Mr. Thom.
The neighbourhood below wasn't much better. Back then, in 2000, the somewhat secluded street - which feels more like an alley - was a regular haunt for prostitutes.
But the couple, who met at the prestigious Southern California Institute of Architecture, needed a base from which to launch AGATHOM Co. and their family.
Choosing Canada over the United States and Katja's native Denmark, they only considered places "between the white signs" in Toronto, meaning the old City of Toronto boundaries.
The building had to be flexible enough to perform triple-duty as a workshop for sculpture (they are both sculptors), architectural mockups and Mr. Thom's collection of vintage Land Rovers. It had to be both a cozy dwelling and an architectural office. And it had to be cheap.
"That's a lot to ask," admits Mrs. Thom, 40.
After offers on a few other properties fell through, the couple's third offer on the Gilead building - which included securing a buyer for the other buildings on the short street since all were owned by the same person - was accepted in 2003.
Once city services were reconnected, the southern portion of the building, now called 3A, was transformed into a rental unit before readying the north side for their purposes.
They admit that moving in before there was insulation, drywall or even a kitchen was "far too soon." Breakfast was consumed huddled by the woodstove, where Mrs. Thom would then stay with her laptop to run AGATHOM as Mr. Thom would don his "office garb" to go to Diamond + Schmitt Architects, which he left in 2005.
"I remember looking around the office and thinking no one had gone through this pioneer stuff before going to their job," he said. "Then I'd come home and Katja would have soup on the woodstove and then we'd work until one or two in the morning."
Thankfully, those days are over. The only reminder of the building's former life is on the ground floor, where the Land Rovers, table-saws and woodworking tools live. In wonderful contrast to the huge, metal garage door and cold concrete floors is the warm, slanted pine wall - affectionately known as the "wooden ice floe" - that shelters the stair to the second storey living and working quarters. That 1,300 sq. ft. floor is big enough to contain a small bedroom for 3 -year-old May and 18-month-old Tilley, a washroom, three large, repurposed old door worktables (AGATHOM has one employee), a living area around the woodstove, and a master bedroom, kitchen and dining area.
While it would be a stretch to suggest the Thoms are Canada's answer to American husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames, there are similarities. Just like at the famous Eames home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., here at the Corktown compound it seems that wherever the eye lands, it finds something interesting, silly or both. For example, a 1954 'O'-gauge steam engine regularly passes through a bookshelf into the girl's room; a stuffed squirrel climbs the kitchen wall (a remnant from a gallery show they participated in); architectural models cap bookshelves; and wonderful old things - toy cars, electrical gauges and bits of industrial glass - sit atop vintage filing cabinets. Inspiration is everywhere, along with a sense that anything can be created within these walls.
And while the Thoms didn't design their furniture - most was designed by famous Danes or Swedes and came over in a shipping container - a few pieces were reupholstered by Mrs. Thom's grandfather, a master upholsterer, using fabric designed by Katja and her father at the family's textile factory in Tylstrup, which was sold five years ago. Because of her extensive experience with textiles, Mrs. Thom now teaches the subject at Ryerson's School of Interior Design.
Should the couple add filmmaking to their creative mix, few would challenge the comparison to America's famous designing duo.
A good thing to aim the lens at, perhaps, is the continuing transformation of their building. In September, they plan to move the office into the rental space for a true separation of home and work and then, finances permitting, they'll build a glassy, modernist third storey for the bedrooms.
And as the camera pans and peers through the squeaky-clean window, maybe, just maybe there will be a lap pool on the roof, reflecting the blinking lights of the CN Tower.
While I've written about architects' own homes over the years, with this first one of 2010 I'd like to make it a semi-regular feature of The Architourist. If you're an architect living in an interesting space of your own design, please e-mail me at email@example.com.