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1621 Dundas West, renovation by Mary Jane Finlayson, partner at Toronto’s Sweeny Sterling Finlayson &Co Architects Inc. Store front house on Dundas west for real estate.

Shai Gil

Architect Mary Jane Finlayson rarely designs houses. Although incredibly rewarding, it is not the mainstay of her firm's practice. Instead, the partner at Toronto's Sweeny Sterling Finlayson &Co Architects Inc. (&Co), focuses on corporate and institutional projects for clients such as BMW, the Toronto District School Board, Branksome Hall girls' school and Loblaw's.

She recently renovated a former haberdashery shop on Dundas Street West for a professional couple, he a project manager for an airborne geophysics survey company, she a designer. It boasts instructive examples of "trickle-down design": innovations that are often first seen in a restaurant, fashion boutique or corporate office that eventually trickle down into residential design and find their way into our homes.

This stretch of Dundas Street West, near the excellent Vietnamese eatery Pho Phoung, recalls Ossington shortly before it filled with trendy restos and funky boîtes. However, the gentrification process has a ways to go. One of Finlayson's first decisions was to move the original, recessed front entrance to the side, making use of a residual part of the triangulated lot and creating a small, gated court space, "because on main streets, recesses have a habit of turning into urinals at night."

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The structure, built between 1884 and 1890, originally housed coal and wood dealer Edward Abbs, according to architectural historian Robert Hill, author of the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada: 1800-1950 (

Upon learning of Hill's sleuthing, Finlayson noted that this would explain why the main sewer line was almost blocked with coal and had to be replaced, and why the walls were covered with black soot in many areas underneath the lath and plaster.

Now, the exposed, original brick walls contrast against crisp new plaster walls and finely detailed new custom millwork made of rift-sawn oak. Cut with the grain oriented 30 to 60 degrees relative to the board's face, it gives an even vertical lining.

The building—2,150 sq ft plus basement—had lovely bones. The triangular lot provides that rare amenity for a mid-block, main-street property: daylight on three sides. There was room in back for a generous patio and garden that steps down to a driveway roomy enough to park two cars. "The house has an interesting dual nature, with its connection to the activity of Dundas Street on one side, and the serenity of a quiet residential street on the other," Finlayson says.

In its as-found state, the building had been left to decline since the haberdasher's death about 40 years ago. The interior was a Rip Van Winkle time capsule of "sweaters, slacks, shirts in boxes and the most incredible tie collection," Finlayson recalls. "We could have dressed like the Mod Squad for the rest of our lives."

The roof was rotten and the joists holding it up were sagging. Finlayson and her contractor, A J Interiors, gutted the building, removing accumulated layers of wood, plaster and lath to expose the entire structure. This revealed that the front façade, an earlier repair effort had ominous cracks because it hadn't been anchored properly to the sidewalls. Indeed, many areas of the house required structural interventions. The $350,000 reno took place in 2010.

Now, on the inside of the front wall, big steel straps run the height of the house. Threaded rods screw through the straps to plates on the outside of the bricks that hold the façade in place like the meat in a sandwich. The exposed, cool gleaming steel straps, angle brackets and galvanized ductwork complement the wall's warm red brick and add a touch of industrial urban loft.

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The original fieldstone foundations walls in the basement were constantly shedding. To provide clean storage space, these walls were lined with filter cloth, strapped with 2x2 studs and finished with cedar boards, allowing the wall to breathe while exuding a fresh, woody smell that also repels bugs.

The first floor has nine-foot-eight ceilings and a kitchen-family-entertainment area that descends to the dining-living room, with its fireplace and walkout to the garden and patio. "Initially we thought that the storefront area was too large for the kitchen, but it evolved into a place where many things happen: transitional space at the entrance, pantry and informal seating along a bench. This is the room where the owners spend the most time."

On the second floor, she reconfigured the existing rabbit warren of small rooms to create two luxurious bed-and-bath suites. The bedrooms are at the far, windowed ends with dressing rooms, washrooms and the laundry room in between, providing acoustical separation.

She inserted a new stairway at the centre of the house that acts as a solar chimney that exhausts exhaust hot air in summer and collects hot air in winter. High up, a reversing fan pulls air out in the summer and pushes it down in the winter. The stairway connects to a roof deck and garden. Enclosed by glass on two sides, the stairway also doubles as a lantern, allowing light to stream into the centre of the house down to the ground level.

In the kitchen area, Finlayson restored the original blond maple flooring hidden away under tatty linoleum and a sub-floor. "It took two or three days just to get the nails out of the floor. There had to be 100 nails per square foot, and they were threaded, so they did not come out easily. They had to be pulled out individually with pliers."

Elsewhere, she covered the floors in an eco-engineered product made from oak off-cuts and finished with a glare-free, natural oiled finish.

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On this property, the grade falls from north to south such that the house is split-level. This naturally divided the house into two parts: the more boisterous kitchen area facing Dundas, and the more private living-dining area with access to the private back yard. A further grade change permitted a sunken parking area that blocks views of cars from the yard.

The dwelling adjoins historic Brockton Town Hall, designed in 1881 by prominent Toronto architect Joseph A. Fowler (1850-1921), who also designed Parkdale Town Hall at Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue. Under amalgamation, after 1884, when Brockton Village was annexed by the City of Toronto, the Town Hall usage was no longer needed. By 1891, the building became Brockton Weigh Scales. It also saw use as a fire hall, public library and police headquarters.

And thereby hangs a tale. On the ground floor, across from the kitchen area, a sleek, long, low custom bench artfully conceals damage in the brick wall of the old town hall. "The millwork covers a nasty part of the brick wall," Finlayson says. "There are still jail cells on the other side of the wall in the town hall's basement and we joked that, judging from the higgledy-piggledy repair job, it looked as though there must have been a jail break!"

Stainless-steel legs sourced from a commercial kitchen-supply store give the long bench a slightly retro, not-seen-before look. "I like the legs because they taper and look a little lighter when they hit the floor. And, they screw up and down so that they can be leveled, which was a real plus on the uneven existing floor," Finlayson says.

You may not have seen the last of her millwork unit: "We're thinking of developing the concept and marketing it as a modular system to suit any room, with components you can add like the flat-panel TV stand and the display cabinet."

Gutting the original building and removing parging revealed yellow quoins or large, squared stones that emphasize the corner of a building. In this case, however, the quoins are made of brick like the rest of the wall, and they make the corner a focal point. "This type of polychromatic brick treatment was very fashionable from 1860 to about 1890," Hill says, "and helps to pinpoint the building's date."

Another trickle-down-design device, on the storefront windows, is the graduated film made by 3M (of Scotch Tape fame). It is translucent at one end and gradually turns transparent toward the other. (Digital photo buffs will be familiar with the concept of the neutral density graduated filter, a useful tool in photo-editing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom.) The tricky part, when working with the graduated filter, is deciding how high to position the translucent midsection.

She had used the material for meeting rooms in office projects. "It reduces disruption and provides some privacy without totally disconnecting you from the rest of the workplace."

Used in this residential application, the film permits the best of both worlds. Here she placed the translucent end at eye level and applied the film up and down from that point. "This space is bathed with indirect north light," Finlayson says. "The film is effective here because you can still see outside and feel connected to the street. The owners are also fortunate to have a view of the charming, carved limestone façade of the World War One-vintage bank across the way. From the outside the film obscures visibility and passersby can't see the interior. During the day it's just a fog. At night, they can just make out the lights in the ceiling and the silhouettes of plants. The owners never feel that their privacy is being invaded."

Finlayson sums up. "Stylistically, I hate to use the word 'timeless,' but it has a nice combination of, not slick, but clean details while remaining rough around the edges. This gives a comfort level that you don't find when everything is pristine and precious and people are afraid to touch it. This house is very robust. Not counting pre-existing materials, such as the brick, we used one stone and one wood throughout. This simplicity helps to tie everything together and make the spaces flow."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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