All homes are on-going projects, requiring perpetual maintenance, upkeep and improvement. And in some cases, over time, even when the walls and rooms stay in the the same place, so many details change that a house evolves into something unrecognizable.
That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s glorious reincarnation.
Perhaps Naomi London, a sculptor and art teacher at Montreal’s Dawson College, knows this better than most. She lives with her husband and 13-year-old daughter in the same house where she herself was born and grew up. Over the past six decades, she’s seen the pile’s complete metamorphosis, starting as a dilapidated Westmount rooming house now as a comfortable backdrop for contemporary family life.
Naomi’s mom, Shyrl London, the daughter of a contractor, wanted to be a professional architect. Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford architecture school so channeled her creative interests into fashion design, pattern cutting and sewing instead. “She made all my clothes,” Ms. London says. “Her old Singer sewing machine was always humming.”
Shyrl did, however, find an outlet for her architectural interests: her home. Built in 1910, the structure was originally a Westmount manor for a family of means, with a distinctive corner turret and big bay window crowned by ornate ironwork. During the post-Depression, post-war 1940s, that all fell apart. The insides were all chopped up into small apartments for rent. “My mother’s real estate agent described it as a wreck,” Ms. London says. “But my mom thought it was fantastic. She had a great sense of adventure, and saw the potential.”
In order to restore the house, Shyrl turned to architectural salvage – collecting and reusing bits of other old buildings. The panelling currently adorning the home – stately hardwood wainscotting that wraps the dining room and sweeps up the stairs from the foyer to the second level – was one of her finds. “She and my father were driving along Sherbrooke Street and saw an old home being gutted,” Ms. London says. “The panelling was lying on the sidewalk. My mom got out, found the contractor and asked if she could buy the paneling.”
Although the wood now looks like a rich, sumptuous mix of brown sugar and honey, when Shyrl scooped it from the curbside, the surface was badly damaged – scratched and covered in black paint. In order to install it, Shryl had to refinish the wood – a labourious, messy task but all part of her love for maintaining the house.
Ms. London knows such sacrifices herself. Shyrl passed away in 2009, leaving her daughter the property. At the time, the home was once again starting to fall into disrepair. “It was what you might imagine with an elderly person living alone for many years," Ms. London says. “The furnace was about to die. I had to replace the roof before winter set in. It was leaking and I was afraid it wouldn’t make it.”
The initial refurbishment – including redoing bathrooms and bedrooms – were not for Ms. London and her family. She had another place elsewhere. The Westmount home was once again for rent. As Ms. London’s daughter was grew older, though, she decided to move back in. “It had a lot to do with school,” Ms. London says. “The house is in a really good school district.”
Through her daughter’s school, Ms. London also met Sophie Robitaille, a landscape architect, and her partner, architect Andrew Curtis – two designers whose firm, Robitaille Curtis, is around the corner from Ms. London’s house. “I used to walk by and admire the property,” Mr. Curtis says . “I loved the way the number is painted above the door. I loved the big bay window.”
Ms. London started to work with Robitaille Curtis first on the exterior, fixing an old fence and replanting the garden. Then the project moved inside, reworking the ground floor.
“It was originally just supposed to just be the kitchen,” Mr. Curtis says. “But as it happens, sometimes these projects grow.”
At the outset, Mr. Curtis did three layout options for Ms. London, including a basic kitchen revamp and a more extensive one that reordered just about everything else – knocking down errant walls that block views between spaces, moving the stairs to the basement to allow for a larger powder room, shrinking the dining room (which was simply too “massive” to be comfortable according to Mr. Curtis) and widening the path from the foyer to the kitchen to make for a less pinched, more flowing approach.
“It was the most complex option,” Mr. Curtis says. “But it was also the option that was the most gracious, resulting in the best relationships between the best-sized rooms.”
Much of the house’s character – including Shyrl’s beloved panels and whatever mouldings and details were left from the original construction – were maintained. But the finery is offset against bright white walls, white built-in storage and white kitchen millwork. “The home was a bit busy before,” Mr. Curtis says. “Now you can really appreciate the detailing. It’s nice to be able to marry the old and the new that way.
The classic surrounds also influenced Mr. Curtis’s contemporary design ideas. Although the kitchen cabinetry looks stark white on first glance, the doors all have chamfered edges that, when opened, reveal layers of birch plywood. “It’s a nice little detail because we didn’t need any hardware,” Mr. Curtis says. “So in that sense it’s very minimal. You just slip your fingers over the edge, where you feel that nice wood. Then when you swing the door open, you see this bit of warmth.”
Over all, it plays well with the panelling. But would it be warm enough for Shyrl? “Oh gosh, I sometimes wonder,” Ms. London says. “She’d probably say it was interesting. She might question why it’s so stream-lined. But she did things in the spirit of her time. I think she’d be impressed, even though I’ve done this in the spirit of my time.”
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