When Mohawk College architecture professor Shannon Kyles wants to check a fact concerning her long, low, Prairie-style split-level near Dundas, Ont., she calls dad.
Award-winning architect Lloyd Kyles, 81, knows the place well: His father, Hamilton-Halton Construction Hall of Fame inductee John Douglas Kyles, designed and built it for himself in 1955.
"He wanted a big place in the country," Ms. Kyles says as she takes in the intimate, prow-shaped living room of the modest 2,500-square-foot home, which she has owned since 1989.
The telephone call is fruitful: It's confirmed that the room's fantastic, angled stone columns between the huge, south-facing windows are dolomite from the local quarry. "It's not a building stone," says a tinny-sounding Mr. Kyles over the tiny telephone speaker. "They don't sell it for construction purposes."
Indeed, this was the scrap, the shards left over after the good stuff was shipped to Dofasco and Stelco to make steel for things such as round-cornered refrigerators and big Chrysler Imperials, the kind of car J.D. Kyles drove all his life.
Even without dad's help, Ms. Kyles can call up anecdotes by simply letting her gaze fall anywhere in the room, since it's much the same as "poppa" left it when he moved out in 1993 for a nursing home and she, the landlord, became tenant.
An expert woodworker, J.D. built the curved mahogany buffet that deftly defines the hallway while elegantly cradling the dining area. Bookshelves and a desk with the flip-up hi-fi door in the small but masculine library are his handiwork, too. Indeed, everything was built by J.D., Lloyd or one of their employees, since an economic downturn in the mid-fifties meant that the firm of Kyles and Kyles could either let its talented people go or put them to work on the house.
They chose the latter, and it shows: Rays from the low-flying winter sun are captured to heat the house via 50-feet of "perfectly planned" windows, while wide eaves shade summer's high noon. "When I know it's going to be sunny, I turn the furnace off for the day because it heats the whole house," says the proud granddaughter, beaming.
"This is the first house I remember," she continues, "partly because my grandparents were so much fun and also partly because the house was great and the pool was there in the fifties."
Looking out the kitchen window confirms that the very same pool -- the first in the area -- is still there under a lot of snow. Mimicking the voice of Eunice "Lovey" Wentworth Howell from Gilligan's Island, she explains that the "breakfast lawn" and the "crochet lawn" are beside the "pool lawn." As she does so, she produces a yellowed 1965 newspaper society page showing her grandparents sipping cocktails poolside while the kiddies splash around in the water.
And speaking of water, nautical touches abound in the house. The living room was modelled after a ship's stateroom, with the aforementioned prow shape terminating in an angled corner window. There are space-saving storage cubbies for phonebooks and dishware in the buffet, a built-in shoe-removal seat in the small foyer, and a railing on the master bedroom's "sleeping porch" made of the same wire mesh found on passenger ferries.
While her enthusiasm and knowledge of family history makes Ms. Kyles the home's perfect steward, it almost didn't turn out that way. Mr. Kyles may have designed Michigan State Prison, the Gothic revival Westdale Collegiate in Hamilton (while with the firm Prack and Prack), and conducted a good deal of research into how colour affects the mentally ill, but he couldn't sell his pride and joy to a woman.
"My grandfather was born in 1899 and his view of women was they're really cute and fun, and you marry them and that's that . . . so every man in the family was offered the house," she laughs. Even after reminding him she had the know-how and the finances, he still wouldn't budge. "So my father had to intervene and convince him that this is a new age."
Even though he never did tell her what he thought of this "new-age" decision before his death in 1999, she knows he'd be happy. Her father is certainly glad she has kept J.D.'s vision alive and hasn't "gone colonial" like many big-box store do-it-yourselfers.
"They go into these really nice houses that are made by architects, . . . they gut them and they take out all the fabulous woodwork and then they put in IKEA," she gasps. To remedy this trend and help her students understand the validity of older styles, she created in 2000. Thirty pages of architectural styles can be cross-referenced with the click of a mouse to 220 pages of terminology.
In 2002, an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant enabled her to buy a digital camera and travel to Sudbury and North Bay to document design styles. She plans to hit Kirkland Lake to record examples of First Nations architecture if an application for a second grant is successful.
Her other plan, naturally, is to learn as much about her own unique piece of Canadian architectural history -- a house one might describe as "Frank Lloyd Wright plays shuffleboard with Richard Neutra on board a streamline moderne ocean liner to Canada" -- until they carry her out feet first.
And if she needs to double-check anything, there's always the telephone.
Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Wednesdays during Toronto at Noon and Sunday mornings. Send inquiries to .