Canada, 1967: Surely one of the destinations to plug into the fantasy time machine as a feel-good vacation spot.
As the last licks of paint were being applied to Montreal's Expo and the rest of the country was in similar party-planning mode, the Leafs were on the way to yet another Stanley Cup and alternative art and literature was psychedelically swirling out of Toronto's Yorkville.
It was also the year that architect Ron Thom, gliding from success at the University of Toronto's Massey College to Peterborough's radical Trent University, put pen to paper for a house just north of Stouffville built for Mr. and Mrs. Donald Stewart.
Bringing the outside in
And much like the complicated, brilliant man who designed it, it’s a home that still jumps with celebratory joy and, alternately, offers Zen-like moments to catch one’s breath as it sucks in stands of trees through enormous plate-glass windows in some areas, but provides nooks in others when weather – or mood – dictate a need to feel tucked in and sheltered. Yet, because that hand learned to draw in Vancouver, there is always something natural, whether cedar or stone, within easy reach.
In short, it’s the kind of house that some folks will move heaven and earth to experience.
Current owners Micky and Cathy, for instance, a couple of creative types – he a professional musician, she an advertising executive – had been living in downtown Toronto and escaping to a cottage in Beaver Valley when they saw the house featured in the National Post in 2004.
“I have never had the opportunity to live in a piece of art like this,” says Cathy, cradling a glass of white wine, elbow planted on Mr. Thom’s custom-built dining table. “And Mickey said: ‘We have to go look, this is going to be your dream home…’”
“… she’s like Dean Martin, you know,” Micky interrupts, “like, where’s the circular bed, gimme 1960s; so I said: ‘If you like that, you have to see this house.’”
He’d been a guest in the widely published Toronto home Mr. Thom designed for Barbara and Murray Frum near York Mills Road and Bayview Avenue, and so knew of what he spoke.
Long story short, they sold both properties and purchased the house.
And while the couple (who have asked to withhold their surname) had the kitchen and master bathroom renovated during their 11 years here, the rest remains largely as the master designed it. After a short, winding drive through tall trees, the structure presents itself in true modernist fashion: long and low, and with a somewhat blank face to the viewer; indeed, a visitor might have trouble finding the front door.
Inside the ample foyer, however, clerestories bathe that visitor in soft light while, underfoot, pink-hued, quartz-veined river rock provides a visual anchor. To the right lies a typical Thom treat: Wide, graceful stairs mimic the upwardly sloping site, which one can view directly through a series of floor-to-ceiling windows (also on view is an amazing aboriginal sculpture from Duncan, B.C., brought here on a flatbed).
At the top of those stairs, one pauses again under a tilted, barrel-vault skylight trimmed in cedar – an architect as talented as Mr. Thom, who died in 1986, gives homeowners and guests little moments to collect one’s thoughts – before moving into the living room to ogle the Rat Pack-worthy built-in couch (with orange-leather upholstery) that wraps around a sideboard with a hidden liquor cabinet, and the minimalist concrete-and-stone fireplace. Just beyond the fireplace there are panes of glass so large it is easy to forget one is inside: “To me, it’s like we’re in a terrarium,” Micky says. “The [Ontario] Science Centre does that too.”
Then, it’s either off to enjoy a sun room (a later addition, but done sensitively in Thom-like style) or down a little set of curling stairs that hug another Thom-designed storage cabinet - “This would be another bar,” says Cathy with a laugh, clicking it open – to the long, built-in dining table beside the kitchen.
The kitchen, while expanded and outfitted with Viking appliances, has retained original clerestories and cedar panelling; it’s worth noting, too, that in places where a perpendicular interior wall “pierces” a glass one, the cedar cladding travels outside – an old modernist’s trick to erase the boundary between indoors and out.
While windows are larger than in a builder’s home in the three secluded bedrooms, there are private areas where one can undress without an audience of disapproving squirrels.
The master bedroom sports a long rectangular window near the bed (a favourite of Mr. Thom, there’s even one in the three-car garage), but it’s positioned so that, when head hits pillow, it’s above the sleeper’s sight line.
The renovated master bath features a Jacuzzi tub under a skylight, and the other full bath (there are two two-piece bathrooms as well) has been left vintage 1967 with a mint-green sink, toilet and tub, and groovy grass-cloth walls.
As at Trent University, many cabinet doors throughout the house have Mr. Thom’s signature leather pulls.
The late CBC broadcaster Barbara Frum once eloquently said that living in her Thom house taught her “to love raw surfaces and the natural, to recognize harmonious proportions … to be wrapped in a cocoon of a dark room, punctuated by the sparkle of tiny beams of light…[and to know] how many steps made a walk inviting, how many made it too far.”
And while Micky and Cathy are part of the exclusive club that truly understand this – Ron Thom designed only 50 or 60 homes in Ontario – it’s time for their architectural celebration to come to an end; the home has been listed with Farquharson Realty.
Looking into the deep forest outside her window, Cathy observes: “I don’t know what our lives are going to be like after this.”