Deborah Scott is sometimes astounded at the sturdy old Toronto houses that are being demolished or radically transformed. The architect recently completed the renovation of her own family house on the edge of the escarpment in midtown.
“I love finding a house with good bones and working with it.”
Ms. Scott and her husband, Lynn Schumacher, downsized from a larger house nearby when they purchased the tall, slender house stacked five levels high on a natural slope south of Yonge and St. Clair.
For Ms. Scott, it was the fourth time renovating a house for her family. She looks for properties that are not all done so that she can improve the house and update it for modern life. But she also avoids eradicating all vestiges of previous eras.
“You don’t have to totally gut your house,” she often tells clients and friends. “Does it have good bones? Don’t rip all of that good stuff out – evaluate it and determine what you can keep.”
In the case of this house at 57 Woodlawn Ave. W., Ms. Scott and Mr. Schumacher purchased the house privately when they heard that the previous owners were planning to sell.
Houses on the south side of the street are highly sought after because of their perch on the ridge created by the former shoreline of the glacial Lake Iroquois.
“I always wanted to live on this street because of the view,” Ms. Scott says.
In the summer, tall trees create a leafy canopy that provides complete privacy from the neighbours. In winter, when the leaves have dropped, the view opens up all the way to the downtown skyline.
The house also had an interesting history, Ms. Scott says. It is one of three created from the rambling house originally built on the spot. Eventually, the mansion became a rooming house until, in the 1960s and 70s, it was transformed again into apartments by some of the city’s prominent architects. Macy DuBois, who designed the Ontario Pavilion at Expo 67, was one well-known occupant.
Decades later, the Toronto-based firm of Gabor + Popper Architects turned the apartments into three adjoining houses with a 1980s facelift.
In an unusual arrangement, the land itself was never divided at the rear and the three houses continue to share the original garden.
The home’s verticality created the largest challenge, but also the greatest reward: There are lots of stairs winding up through the centre of the house, but each of the multiple levels has a relationship with the outdoors.
The largest part of the transformation was on the main floor at street level. The kitchen, which was at the front of the house, was moved to the rear to take advantage of the view.
“It was a big deal – in terms of cost – to move the kitchen,” Ms. Scott explains. “But that, to us, was important.”
Now, doors open to a wooden deck, which sits high above the garden.
Building the deck was also a major project – even though the deck itself is not large. Ms. Scott made it large enough to accommodate some garden furniture, but she didn’t want to create too much of an overhang over the level below.
But the structure had to be of steel construction, she says, to keep it from having any impact on the land, which is protected by rules governing urban forestry.
“This is considered a ravine,” she says. “I didn’t know that until I applied for permits.”
Ms. Scott designed the kitchen to be “modern and sleek” with white cabinets, a marble-topped island and a separate lounging area. She found the combination of high-gloss white and stainless-steel surfaces felt a bit too clinical until she covered one wall in wallpaper.
With the addition of furniture, the room looks less like a kitchen, she points out.
The wallpaper also creates a bridge between the modern and traditional elements of the home, she explains.
Placing the kitchen at the back meant moving the dining room to the front of the house. Ms. Scott finds the switch works well. The dining room is an easy room to keep looking nice, she says, so guests never arrive to the kind of mess that can overtake a kitchen in the throes of dinner preparations.
The living room is one level below the kitchen and dining room. It also has a wall of windows and access to a large, rebuilt deck outside. Ms. Scott had a gas fireplace installed in the living room so that the wall area above the fireplace could accommodate large works of art.
Also on that level, a laundry room doubles as a prep kitchen when the couple is entertaining. To create it, Ms. Scott reused some of the old kitchen cabinets, which she found were still in very good condition.
When the couple moved in, they were suprised to discover there was still another level below the living room.
“When we bought the house, we didn’t even know it was there,” Ms. Scott says. “They forgot to tell us.”
That basement level can only be accessed from the outdoors. At first, it was damp and neglected, the architect says, but she had it renovated so that it’s dry and comfortable. It provides lots of space for storage and she plans to create her own home office in the room opening to the garden.
Ms. Scott, who also consults for her daughter’s architectural practice in Los Angeles, says she endeavours to stay up on the features that people are looking for in houses.
“I do talk to real estate agents and find out what people like.”
When it came time to renovate the upstairs bathroom, she found that soaker tubs and luxurious showers are very important.
In the large second-floor bathroom, she removed a 1980s-era “megatub” and replaced it with a new stand-alone tub positioned under the window. There’s also a glass-enclosed shower and a new floating vanity. Ms. Scott wanted to keep the marble tiles on the floor, so she found an innovative solution: She filled the leftover space surrounding the new tub and under the vanity with a deep grey tile pattern, then painted accent walls in a charcoal shade to tie it all together.
Covering the triangular window overlooking the street also took a bit of ingenuity, but she found that she could have a blind specially designed for the unusual shape.
Throughout the house, Ms. Scott has blended modern elements with antique furniture and vintage finds against a neutral background. She finds it hard to live with an interior that is too strictly modern. Older pieces – such as a beaten-up steamer trunk in the living room – have meaning, she points out. Some of her antiques have been passed down through her family.
“If modern gets a dent in it, it shows,” she says, adding that houses inevitably become scratched and dented over time.
Ms. Scott notes that lots of houses in her neighbourhood are undergoing massive overhauls. In many cases, no “for sale” sign ever appeared outside, so she figures lots of properties are changing hands privately.
Lots of times, the big projects are undertaken by builders, who then turn around and sell.
Ms. Scott thinks homeowners will move from one renovated house to another without thinking about how they can change the house they’re already in or finding a place they can live in with a few creative changes.
“They just think they’ve got to move because it would be too much work to live through a renovation.”