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The Globe and Mail

The stylish overhaul of a Toronto ravine home

Toronto architect Paul Raff was asked to unsnarl, simplify and brighten the spatial flow of this Edwardian home in Toronto's Baby Point neighbourhood.

Steve Tsai

If I had to name the most unaffectedly gracious and artistically successful planned subdivision in Toronto, the winner would surely be – not the Annex, not Moore Park, certainly not Forest Hill – but Baby Point.

As far as I can tell, developer Robert Home Smith got everything right when he laid out the new neighbourhood's streets, parklands and ample building lots in 1912. Edwardian and later architects and builders then filled in the blanks that Mr. Home Smith had inscribed on the plateau above the Humber River. The result of these efforts is a set of beautifully well-ordered streetscapes with broad lawns and spacious family dwellings.

By and large, the public faces of these detached houses speak of solidity, rootedness, propriety and other cultural values cherished by our Edwardian ancestors. And they weren't the only people who have done so. Numerous house-hunters nowadays want to see these old-fashioned ideals embodied in the buildings they live in, and about a thousand current home-owners and their families have discovered such architectural traditionalism on the pleasant, shady streets of Baby Point.

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But while many people like the exterior look and feel of a district such as this, fewer enjoy living in the interiors crafted by the designers of yesteryear. Spaces that worked well to support the lifestyles and express the domestic ideas of former times often fail to perform that well for contemporary couples and families. An interior overhaul is called for.

I recently visited a Baby Point house that, just a couple of years ago, needed such updating in the worst way.

It was built in the 1950s, but cut to a stodgy pattern that was considerably older. Set on a wide, splendid site overlooking the Humber River valley, the sturdy two-storey brick structure had a stingy little kitchen and tiny washrooms. The total floor-space of the house was generous – about 2,800 square feet, not counting the basement – but this area was diced up into too many cramped compartments. And, for some baffling reason, the original architects left the rear façade seriously undersupplied with windows – thereby blocking the view toward the back garden and the lovely valley landscape beyond.

Of course, the unreconstructed building was survivable – the present owner, a software developer, grew up there. But by the time, a few years ago, that he moved back in with his wife and two small children (there are three now), the limitations of the place had become all too obvious. So it was that the young couple contacted Toronto architect Paul Raff, and asked him to see what could be done to unsnarl, simplify and brighten the spatial flow.

Mr. Raff's work of transformation is not quite complete – the frumpy little foyer at the front entrance definitely needs a spruce-up – but the story so far is exciting, smart and thoughtful.

The architect fashioned the space for the new, elegant bulthaup B3 kitchen, for instance, by emptying the old kitchen, demolishing the walls that defined two small adjacent rooms. and opening up the west-facing rear of this much-enlarged territory to the garden and valley. What was once an isolated, partitioned-off corner of the house has become a central gathering place for the family, and a spot no longer separated from green nature and the lights of afternoon and sunset.

The atmosphere of relaxed openness one finds in the kitchen pervades the downstairs portion of the house (with the exception of that unredeemed foyer I don't like). But this is no starkly modernist open-plan interior. While broadening and evening out the spatial rhythms on the main floor, Mr. Raff has also subtly underscored the distinctive character of each place in the scheme.

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The kitchen's dark floor, for example, rises slightly above the level of the dining area. The living-room level, floored with white oak planks, is sunken, and its quiet composition is completed by a very handsome, formally minimal fireplace finished with light, leathered Loire limestone above and, lower down, an expanse of chiselled black basalt. The kitchen, with its long island topped in stainless steel, is about efficiency and convenience and good ergonomics, but the living room offers a range of sensuous pleasures for the civilized eye and touch. This generation of differences between spaces – the transcendence of the routine open plan – is one of the most attractive aspects of Mr. Raff's design.

Or, I should say, the parts of the design that have been translated into reality. Most of them have been. That said, there is still work to be done. But Mr. Raff and his clients have already gone a long distance toward remaking the Baby Point house into a dwelling in which a modern family can live well and grow.

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