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Heritage homes

A model of 1950s design, but time is up Add to ...

I’ve said it time and again: We don’t celebrate our own. If this was the United States, more people would know about Canada’s “Trend House” program; there’d probably be a book about it, too, just like the ones on California’s “Case Study House” program. But that would mean we regard architecture as something that transcends generations, or a teaching tool, or as our collective dreams made real from bricks and mortar.

But we don’t, and that’s why we’re on the verge of losing the Montreal Trend House in suburban Beaconsfield, Que.

“I’m sure many [area residents]have just driven by it and never realized the story behind it,” said Michael Goodfellow about his father’s design on CBC Montreal’s radio program Daybreak the morning of Jan. 28. “It was considered one of his proudest works … I know it was a project he put a lot of effort into.”

Philip F. Goodfellow (1919-1972) was one of 11 architects chosen to design a modernist Trend House. The program began in 1952 with a one-off exhibition home built to showcase B.C. lumber products in Toronto’s Thorncrest Village (profiled here in January, 2004), but was so successful the project expanded and 10 more were built in 1954. In addition to another home in Toronto by Fleury, Arthur and Calvert, Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, London, Montreal and Halifax each got a home designed by local architects of note.

In Toronto on a business trip the day after his radio interview, Mr. Goodfellow and I sat down for a chat at the home of his son, Phil Goodfellow (an architect like his grandfather) to talk about the fate of his father’s Trend House.

“It has been characterized as a rotten wood house that needs to be torn down,” he said in disbelief. “That’s how the town is characterizing it.”

It’s true: In the CBC interview, Beaconsfield councillor Brian Ross – one of many who were responsible for granting a demolition permit – states: “[I]’s been neglected for too many years. We have our architect’s report that there’s very little salvageable left in the house; the original plan had been altered … so it’s not quite the same as it was back in the fifties when it was built.” Citing code issues with the wiring, wood rot and the possibility of mould, he summed up with “there’s an awful lot wrong with it.”

Funny, I visited the home in July, 2006 and, in addition to remarking at how little the architect’s plan had changed, I wrote that the then-owners were busying themselves with a number of improvements. When Mr. Goodfellow and his son visited in 2007, they too were struck at how well the house had held up.

So who’s right?

As it was reported in the Montreal Gazette’s West Island section by reporter Karen Seidman, the home’s new owners, who live across the street, “want to build a home for their older parents so they can be close by.” And since the Trend House is not protected by any sort of heritage designation, it’s well within their rights to rip it down and do just that. So, yet again, the situation becomes one of preservationists against private interest. And since private interest almost always wins, what then becomes of our architectural history, since almost every building is in private hands?

The very first Trend House, on Rathburn Road in Etobicoke, was torn down in 2006 shortly after its one-and-only owner, Hugh MacDonald, passed away. While the Victoria, Calgary and the second Toronto home enjoy new life by owners who appreciate the architectural pedigree, the fate of the others is unknown.

After suggesting that the Canadian Trend House houses are “equally important” as their American Case Study counterparts, eminent Yale professor and London, England-based architect M.J. Long (who worked in Mr. Goodfellow’s office as a young woman) writes in an e-mail: “I think it would be a real shame if [the Montreal house]went. It is a good early example of a really good architect’s work. The houses themselves are an important record of that period of architecture. Each [architect]was setting out to do the best possible house for Canada in the fifties.”

So what to do?

Says Mr. Goodfellow, simply: “I hope that the new owner will realize what he has is more valuable the way it is than by tearing it down.”

The younger Mr. Goodfellow suggests that a property tax incentive based on size might encourage retention and restoration of the smaller Trend House over a larger new build. Or, alternatively, Beaconsfield city council could allow the new owners to build the “granny flat” on their own lot, which was what they wanted to do in the first place (they were refused).

“In the same way we trade off density on a certain lot to allow for parkland or public art or social initiatives in the city, is there a way that one could go back to city council and say: ‘Could we look at allowing this person a certain amount of overage on their [lot]coverage to retain this home?’ ” he asks.

We’ll see. Beaconsfield council votes Feb. 21.

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