381 Markham St., Toronto
Asking price: $1.75-million
Lot size: 24.5-by-129-feet
Agents: Edward and Robert England (Forest Hill Real-Estate, Inc.)
The back story
Canadian playwright David Young almost didn’t get the house he desperately wanted.
The century-old semi, located on Markham Street in the Annex, had sold quickly and for more than he had initially offered. He was on a hiking trip through Newfoundland when it happened and so he couldn’t control the bidding war that ensued. But even though the house was something of a dump (and that’s putting it delicately), the three-kitchen boarding house, a former sanctuary for Galician Jews escaping the Holocaust, had spoken to him.
On his return from vacation, he stood out front on the sidewalk, bemoaning the one that got away. A neighbour caught him mooning and struck up a conversation. When Mr. Young started telling his story of loss, his audience of one came up with the perfect ending: try buying it again. It seems that the neighbours had joined together to purchase the run-down property, fearing that the wrong type of person might buy and it and well, there would go the neighbourhood that is home to such Canadian high achievers as filmmaker Bruce McDonald, fine art photographer Edward Burtynsky, architect Shirley Blumberg and a Cowboy Junkie. Obviously, Mr Young, the award-winning writer of Inexpressible Island and the Stratford Festival production of Glenn, inspired by the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, would fit right in.
The tacit understanding being that as a man of the arts he would bring a certain aesthetic sensibility to any updates he might want to impose on the property. The neighbours sold it back to him, at a profit, but, still the tragedy had been thwarted and in 2003 Mr. Young and life partner Jill Fraser took possession of what was to become their oasis of joy.
“There was a couch house in the back that was falling apart and some rooms in the house you couldn’t go in,” says Mr. Young, a native of Oakville, Ont., who worked for 20 years at Coach House Press (publisher of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, among other Canadian literary greats) before becoming a full-time writer. “But if you squinted you could see all the original detail was in the house. It hadn’t been maintained, but it was all there. So, the idea was to fix it, treat with respect, to make it last another hundred years.”
Mr. Young hired two architects to help him bring the 1890 house into the 21st century. Sharon McKenzie was in charge of the home’s mechanicals, updating the plumbing, wiring and adding radiant floor heating, while John Thompson was the designer whose love of all things Japanese ensured that the interior was streamlined and as ergonomic as it was modern and simply beautiful. “I had no budget,” says Mr. Young. “But I had standards.”
And the main standard was a house that was really practical and really comfortable, “A place where I could hang pictures, and hang with my friends”
Original details such as the antique tile surround on two gas fireplaces were painstakingly restored with Mr. Young sometimes commandeering out-of-work musicians from nearby Kensington Market to help him pull apart the house only to rebuild it again. It was hard work and it lasted for 10 straight months. After the dust had settled, Mr. Young had himself a three-bedroom, four-bathroom house with a new Bonaparte Red kitchen, a finished basement with additional bedrooms and a coach house converted into a studio where he is currently writing a novel.
To connect the two buildings, Mr. Young created a fantastically lush inner courtyard planted with 13 Japanese maples and landscaped with glacial stone harvested from the Canadian Shield.
“There had never been a plant in the backyard before. The whole of it was paved with the bricks used to build this house in 1890,” says Mr. Young, who worked with Mr. Thompson, who has since relocated to Victoria, B.C., on the design.
“The garden took years to get right. But I am a nature freak. I wanted a house that would open up to nature and where I could have dinner parties of 10 looking out into the trees even though we were in downtown Toronto. I will miss that. But life is about taking on new challenges.” Selling his house begins the next chapter.