Back in the 1950s, suburbia was rolling westward from Toronto over numerous old Ontario settlements, several of them shortly to become neighbourhoods in the new town of Mississauga. A young architect named Gerald Ambicki, so the story goes, saw both business and creative opportunities in the postwar land rush. He bought up property along what is now Lynchmere Avenue, just north of the Queen Elizabeth Way, and set about developing the area as an upmarket commuter enclave of his own design.
If the legend about him can be believed, Mr. Ambicki deserves considerable credit for the attractiveness of present-day Lynchmere, with its spacious, well-treed lots and well-sited, modestly modernist dwellings. Suburbs should always look this good.
But the architect had an interest in the street’s appearance that went beyond its appeal to potential homebuyers. Unlike most developers who lay out residential schemes, he wanted to raise his family in the place he fashioned. So it was that he drew off and built the Lynchmere house in which he lived from the fifties until his death not long ago.
Recently acquired from Mr. Ambicki’s widow by a young professional couple – thus becoming only the second family to own it in its 60-year history – this house is very much an artifact of its mid-century moment.
The long, low-slung building, for example, seems to be an annex of the thrust-forward garage, a signature element of high-car culture, then and now. Inside, with a nod to postwar California styling, Mr. Ambicki used exposed wooden rafters that sweep at a low angle from front to back over the kitchen, dining and living areas. Walls of glass open the interior to wide views over the ravine at the rear and they welcome in sunlight, which has always been worshipped by residential designers working in modernist idioms.
“It’s exactly the kind of structure I would do myself,” says Toronto architect Jenny Francis, who was asked by the new owners to refresh the completely unrenovated dwelling. “You can see where things are supported, and good materials were used throughout. You don’t need to cover anything with drywall. I wanted to preserve the original nature of the house.”
Since the bones of the 3,400-square-foot building were solid, Ms. Francis was free to expend most of her time and talent on appointments and finishes. Her energy was spent well, and the result is surely in line with what, generally speaking, the first architect intended. The overall good sense of his plan has come through the gutting and restoration intact.
The newer architect, however, has not been dogmatic. Mr. Ambicki apparently thought the open-plan concept was good for the common zones of his house, up to a point. But the kitchen was shut off from the dining and living areas behind walls, as it so often was in premodern residential layouts. Ms. Francis has taken down the partitions, releasing a clear flow of space over the new white-oak flooring and under the high, handsome wooden ceiling.
In another connection, Mr. Ambicki’s idea of design accents inclined him to choose rough and rustic textures. The stairwell between the main living level and the expansive lower storey, for instance, was faced with weathered pine planking, which enjoyed a vogue among interior designers a few generations ago and still has fans. Ms. Francis, for her part, has replaced this lining with walnut veneer that has been sawn to reveal the rich patterning of the wood grain. The wall now has a sensuous, fabric-like surface that lends a touch of luxury – certainly not too much of it – to the otherwise youthfully robust timber-framed house.
When I visited the project last month, the new owners and their little boy were just settling in. Furnishings were scanty and I got the impression the family had not really figured out how they want to use the territory.
If so, they are in for an interesting adventure of the mind and senses, especially when they get around to outfitting the lower level. It is definitely not an ordinary basement. Large rooms open out through glass walls to the ravine beyond. There is enough square footage to accommodate a home theatre and a games room or office, plus a guest suite, and lots of storage. A dozen imaginative things could be done with this space. Six decades on, the house Gerald Ambicki built for himself is still thought provoking, as every well-made modern dwelling should be.
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