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The industrial-looking door is the first clue that the people living here feel no need to show off their house to passersby. The door, fitted into a wall of aged concrete blocks on an unmarked laneway near Bathurst and Dupont streets, is nearly invisible from the street. Walking through it, one gets the further sense that this is an oasis set apart from the neighbourhood of red-brick Victorians.
A courtyard opens up behind the door, creating a buffer between the home and the world beyond. Behind a garden with a lush red maple sits the real front door, leading into a home that no one would suspect is here.
Inside, the playful decor confirms it – these are independent, creative people, able to see the aesthetic potential in things other people would overlook, or discard. Louise Levitt, who is active in many Toronto arts organizations, and her husband, Gareth Wilson, a set dresser in film and television, bought the building in 1998 for $330,000.
At the counter in the spacious, open-concept kitchen, Louise and her cousin Janna Levitt of LGA Architectural Partners, explain how a neglected remnant of the neighbourhood’s light-industrial past came to be transformed.
The building, in an area abutting the Annex known as Seaton Village, is first mentioned in city records in 1906. It was once a dairy, once a truck servicing depot and once an artist’s studio.
When they heard it was for sale, Louise and Gareth and their two daughters were living nearby in a perfectly normal three-bedroom brick home. Intrigued by the architectural possibilities, as well as the promise of space to accommodate Gareth’s hobby of fixing up motorcycles, they decided to take a look.
“I walked in the door and I called Janna and I said, ‘How soon can you get here?’ Louise recounts. “And Janna said, ‘We could do something great with this.’ And so we bought it.”
The first surprise was zoning. They had verified, or so they thought, that the building was zoned residential. It was indeed in a residential zone, but they learned when they submitted their plans that the building’s actual designation was “residential non-conforming.” This meant they could move in, but could not renovate, that the building was to be used for its original purpose.
“It’s dangerous to assume anything when you have these kinds of buildings,” Janna says. “It’s never what you think.”
Not being interested in light-industrial pursuits, they hired a consultant to walk them through the lengthy bureaucratic process that would eventually change the designation to residential.
Another surprise was the prohibition of functioning windows on a property line, which in this case was the cement wall on the laneway, the outer boundary of the property. Thus, the courtyard, which allows the house to have windows that open and close. Additional light is provided by glass brick windows and skylights.
From the beginning, they set out to preserve as much of the building’s original character as possible. The kitchen is open to the dining and living areas, creating a great room. The ceiling retains the original roof joints and wood decking made of old-growth pine. The wall behind the counter retains the original brick. The oil-stained concrete floor was equipped with radiant-in-floor heating and covered with polished concrete.
The builders kept asking Louise if she wanted them to cover up the old bricks and wood. “It was 100 years old,” she said. “I liked the look. There is a life to it.”
The exposed brick is softened by wood countertops and an inviting dining room table Gareth fashioned from wide pine planks from another part of the building. Recycled lights from old Toronto streetcars fit right in.
The sitting area has an angular Corbusier-inspired wood-burning fireplace of steel and concrete. One wall of the room is red, echoing a dramatic display of African fertility dolls and other items that reflect Louise’s passion for travel.
The walls are for displaying art, much of it Gareth’s and a focal point of the room is a desk bearing a large lamp he made from a Meccano set. The room’s eclectic furnishings improbably come together in a pleasing unified whole.
Behind the great room, an attached garage has indeed become a motorcycle workshop.
The other half of the house was rebuilt, turning one storey into two by digging down 16 inches, after Janna learned that zoning restrictions prohibited building up. Wall-to-ceiling windows and glass-panel doors framed in spiral mahogany provide light for a cozy den with a small sleeping area.
A wooden staircase leads upstairs to the master bedroom, which contains more brilliantly placed recycled subway lights and a niche for original art and a display of handcrafted jewellery from around the globe. The master bath must be one of Toronto’s most unique. It came together using vintage persimmon-coloured filing cabinets connected by recycled I-beams to a pyrok counter. The effect is at once retro and modern.
There are two more bedrooms upstairs and another roomy bathroom. This one has a large fish sculpture Gareth made partly out of old neon tubing, a material he enjoys using in sculptures.
The architect is asked if “eccentric” might properly be used to describe the house and its decor. But she has a better descriptor.
“It’s mannered more than eccentric,” Janna says. “It’s so much about the people who live here. A mannerism is a kind of channelling of certain aspects of your character and refining them. And that’s what this house is for them.”
For instance, she explains, the wood beams allow “crazy wire things” to be hung from the ceiling. “For this family, you had to have a place were they could do things like that.”
Louise calls their home a “playground for creativity,” adding that they didn’t want anything “too precious.”
This home gives them the freedom to be themselves and express themselves. But, she admits, there are a few drawbacks to living in a nearly invisible house on an unmarked laneway.
“We have difficulty getting our mail,” she laughs. “And you can’t call a cab.”