40 Autumn St., Saint John
Asking price: $1.25-million
Taxes: $7,200 (2021)
Lot size: Two acres
Agents: Kelly DeCourcey, Re/Max Professionals Saint John Inc.
Though it has been profiled by HGTV, W Network, Playboy and Chatelaine magazines it’s actually not easy to spot the house that came to be known as Into The Wild just south of the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Saint John.
“We used to live about a block and a half away, we lived there for a year and a half when we mentioned to a realtor we were looking for a plot of land to build,” said Judith Mackin. She and her husband, Robert Moore, were directed to a two acre over-grown lot tucked in behind some of the stately century homes that typify an area that was once part of the rural boundary of Canada’s oldest incorporated city.
“It is one of the largest urban lots you’ll find in the city,” said listing agent Kelly DeCourcey, and its untamed nature was a callback to the origins of Mount Pleasant. “Back in the day, this would have been the outskirts, for the affluent people that owned the big factories. It’s where a lot of them owned summer homes.”
The story goes that a fire had claimed the original house in the 1930s and the land had been fallow ever since. “There were no services, no electricity – there were a lot of used condoms,” Mr. Moore said. “The woman that owned it had it on the market; we low-balled … her, and said basically, we’ll pay you half of what you’re asking.”
Surprisingly, that worked.
The couple knew there was only one way to approach such a huge site in a historic neighbourhood: build a thoroughly modern masterwork – the first home either of them had tried to build – from scratch.
“There is something really beautiful about creating your home … not encumbered from his stuff or mine from an earlier marriage,” Ms. Mackin said. “The house also was instrumental in the beginning of my business, Tuck Studio.”
The interior decorating practice initially occupied the ground floor of the home and has blossomed into a decor and furniture shop that occupies a storefront in a historic building in the core of Saint John.
The house is filled with unique and bespoke touches that are part of Ms. Mackin’s approach to business, but the overall design was created by local architecture firm Acre Architects, founded by fellow Saint John native Monica Adair with partner Stephen Kopp.
The fusion of their styles makes for a home that’s both fun and sophisticated, with sharp, almost industrial, angles that blend with eco-friendly materials.
The house at 40 Autumn St., is not on Google Streetview, never mind that Google hasn’t sent a camera to that street since 2013. But even if they had, the house is set too far back from the road to be gawked at by passersby. Even once you round the curving gravel laneway and spot the squared-off structure clad in steel and timber, you’ve still only seen a glimpse of what’s to come.
Into The Wild is built into the hillside, which rises to the north of the house and slopes down to the south toward the city centre. While some early plans suggested it command the top of the lot’s heights, the couple followed the advice of one of the 20th-century’s great star architects.
“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other,” Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in his eponymous 1943 autobiography. Mr. Moore paraphrases the quote and extends the logic: “If you build on a hill, you lose the hill.”
The first impression of the house is a series of rectangles and squares that meet at odd angles, with light wood-clad wings anchored off an imposing steel-clad garage.
“That was a wish-list item of mine; I really wanted a corten moment on the property. … I’m a fan of [artist] Richard Serra and he does these really large corten sculptures outdoors,” Ms. Mackin said. Corten is corrosion resistant steel that develops a protective patina of rust over time.
The living areas are clad in weathered grey planks reclaimed from Wyoming snow fences, which are vast structures designed to keep the windy state’s highways relatively snowdrift free. They are made mainly of hefty ponderosa pine and Douglas fir and last about 10 years before being replaced.
“The rust steel structure, the warmth of the Wyoming wood … the hillside has all of those same colours in the rock face. It’s a wonderful tribute to materials and landscape,” Ms. Mackin said.
The main entrance is in a breezeway and triangular front porch tucked between garage and house, and opens directly into one of Mr. Moore’s wish-list items: A library, or at least the right side of the hallway here is lined with bookshelves that climb up the open industrial steel stairs to the second level. “That’s his life as a professor of English and philosophy,” Ms. Mackin said. “His whole education right there.”
The floors on this level are clad in 24-inch square tiles, and down a short hall to the left is an office with south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows and a walkout to the breezeway. On the way, there’s a three-piece bathroom with a live-edge wood vanity and a walk-in shower. On the dark walls of this room is a burst of colour in a wallpaper mural from JF Fabrics depicting enormous flowers.
Past an enclosure in the Wyoming fencing (hiding stairs to the lower level) the main hallway opens up to the combined living and dining room; if you weren’t sure this was the party room the disco ball in centre of the ceiling is a clue.
The kitchen on the right soars upward to the second-level ceiling, and is open to the loft above. Huge windows facing north draw in light. The backsplash is plexiglass over a custom-made wallpaper from Rollout.ca featuring drawings by artist Chris Lloyd, that were used in Mr. Moore’s book of poetry The Golden Book of Bovinities, published as the house was being finished in 2012.
White Corian countertops zig-zag around, making a U-shaped prep area with a peninsula extending toward the living room. Initially, there was built-in banquet seating here, but it was removed for lack of use: “Maritimers like to stand,” said Ms. Mackin, particularly at kitchen parties.
The rear wall has more floor-to-ceiling windows and a sliding door to one of the five decks and to the sweep of lawn that climbs up the slope beyond. The south wall is anchored by a fireplace with a concrete hearth surrounded by Rorschach-patterned tiles in red, orange, blue and pink and white from the Scottish arts collective Timorous Beasties for Clé Tile.
On the upper level, the stairs open to a “flex space” loft (above the kitchen) with seating area, TV on the wall and large windows looking over a rooftop deck facing south. Half of that outdoor space is dedicated to one of the two green roof plantings on the flat-roofed building (the other, above the garage, is accessible from the primary bedroom).
“The ongoing joke is that we have a green roof and we have no interest in gardening at all,” Ms. Mackin said. There are eight types of sedum in the roof, and after desultory weeding Ms. Mackin confesses it was looking a little shoddy about five years ago, but somehow things have turned around and now it flourishes. “You see how lush it is, we’ve gotten a blanket out and laid on it, and it just bounces back, its incredibly durable and hardy.”
This level is floored entirely in a stained and planed version of the Wyoming fencewood, and the rich yellow mixed with dark grain gives it a rugged polish. A long hallway connects the two bedrooms on this level with the laundry room and five-piece bathroom, which has an arresting white penny tile in dark grout that flows across the floor and up one wall to the ceiling. The primary bedroom is not enormous, but has rock and nature views behind window walls to the north and city views to the south, and a wall of closets opposite a feature wall of stormy cloud wallpaper called Nuvolett from Cole & Son.
The third bedroom is on the lowest level, there’s no actual basement in the house, as the slope allows for walkouts on “level zero”, which was the former home of the Tuck Studio has its own entrance south side. Currently set up like a cross between a man-cave and a gallery featuring Mr. Moore’s artwork, the polished concrete floors connect the bedroom and a large living/studio space under a white-painted ceiling of exposed rafters and ductwork. The powder room wouldn’t be complete without a wallpaper mural of steam-punk style dirigibles.
There’s no doubt this high-design house in its own urban park has a luxury price for Saint John – one of the most affordable real estate cities in the country – but is practically a steal compared to what you pay in much of the rest of the country.
“My sister still lives in Burlington, [Ont.] she’s always sending me ads of this garage behind a tree for $1-million in Toronto,” Mr. Moore said. “It’s surreal to us! Why would anybody buy a piece of crap in Toronto when you can live here?”
For Ms. Mackin, who has lived and loved Saint John her whole life, it’s been amazing seeing the amount of interest “from away.” And it’s been a boon to her decor business.
“We have been inundated, and we’re just one store,” she said. “Out of the last two years, 50 per cent of my work has come from people moving here.”
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