Skip to main content

Call it what you will, call it "TD Modern" but even the designer of over 900 branches of the Toronto Dominion Bank had to start somewhere.

For architect A. Bruce Etherington, it was building his own home in 1950-51 near Oakville's Trafalgar and Lakeshore roads. It was his first, and built on an "unbuildable" lot that was purchased at a discount because it sloped steeply to meet a natural streambed. Rather than fill it with earth to raise it to street level like others were doing, he designed a modernist, post-and-beam back-split that co-existed with the lush landscape.

"It's really inverted," said the architect over the phone from Honolulu, which has been his home since 1963. "The daytime living is downstairs and the nighttime sleeping is upstairs."

Living, both upstairs and down, is enhanced by an enormous two-storey window-wall that welcomes in oodles of natural light; this light also softens an unadorned cinderblock wall.

"I didn't have much money," laughs the 85-year-old of his choice of inexpensive materials such as cinderblock, pine panelling and a fabricated-on-site, floating "acorn" fireplace in the walk-out lower level; even that huge window-wall was built by hand, since these were early days for Canadian modernism: "I had to work it all out, it isn't even sealed glazing, it's double glazing but it's not sealed, I had to put it in with just ordinary sheet glass."

In addition to sealed windows, inspiration was scarce as well. After graduating from Cornell in 1947, Mr. Etherington travelled to the University of Oklahoma for post-graduate studies in engineering under famed modernist Bruce Goff. He counts Mr. Goff as a lifelong influence, as well as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and, interestingly, Colin Chapman, designer of the Lotus automobile.

The task was a real "learning experience" - he remembers it was "quite a sensation the first time water came out of the tap." Five years later, Mr. Etherington designed, built and moved to larger quarters on the Oakville waterfront. By then, he'd landed the commission to design every new branch of the rapidly expanding Toronto Dominion Bank using a modular system that allowed each to "appear to be unique" but were really all related under the skin.

In 1962, just before he moved halfway around the world to teach at the University of Hawaii School of Architecture (a job that would last over 30 years), Bill and Catherine McVean were thinking of moving halfway between Hamilton and Toronto.

Mr. McVean, a broadcaster, was splitting his time between Hamilton's CHCH television station and the CBC in Toronto - a home in between made sense. "But it doesn't work that way," offers Mr. McVean, "because gravity will pull you one way or another." It pulled him, actually, to CFRB, where he would become a beloved personality for three decades (full disclosure: I currently work at CFRB).

The couple chose Mr. Etherington's former home, which Mrs. McVean remembers had become known in the neighbourhood as "that awful brown house." Languishing on the market for over a year, she thinks they were the first to really see the "openness" of the modern plan. "It was like a summer resort that you couldn't afford," adds Mr. McVean. However, after putting in an offer, they were outbid: "It broke my heart, the house was gone," remembers Mrs. McVean.

Determined, they tracked down the successful bidder, who turned out to be the commanding officer of the nearby Ortona Barracks, and convinced him that a military career meant constant relocation. He agreed to sell the house on one condition: Since he'd be living in a trailer, he wanted use of the bathtub until he found another place. They agreed, and he showed up with a towel a few days after they'd moved in.

By 1975, the McVeans needed to expand. Mindful of the home's unique character, they hired architect George Farrow (Farrow Partnership Architects Inc.), who seamlessly tacked a wedge-shaped addition onto the side. The kitchen moved into the addition - the narrow end a pantry and the wide end a cheerful sunroom - and the old kitchen became a bedroom for one of their two boys. The master bedroom was expanded and a large vestibule increased the foyer space.

The foyer got something else, too. A blank spot that "needed a wall hanging or something" was the perfect place to build what the couple calls "the folly," a little Gothic-arched window and Romeo-and-Juliet balcony that looks out onto the lower level. "I go out there after dinner and sing bawdy songs to the guests," jokes Mr. McVean. On the opposite wall is a fantastically strange metal boar's head surrounded by a halo of spears, given to them as a gift.

Other arches, carved wooden doors, exotic tchotchkes from the couple's extensive travels, a tapestry, moody paintings, ironwork and antiques seem to effortlessly co-exist with Mr. Etherington's modernist architecture, creating a castle-like environment that's warm and welcoming.

Call it what you will, call it "Medieval Modern" but the McVeans happily call it home.