Next time you drive along Adelaide Street East and gaze at the student chefs in their whites beavering away at the stainless-steel cook stations at George Brown College’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, look at the upper storeys and enjoy the playful Mondrianesque colour-blocking enlivening the façade.
The centre’s designer, Jonathan Kearns of Toronto’s Kearns Mancini Architects, known for the Fort York Interpretive Centre and Ireland Park (near Billy Bishop airport), used those same blocks of colour to personalize his own house in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood. Here, the vehicle was Vitrolite, a sleek, hard and lustrous coloured structural glass ubiquitous in Art Deco storefronts and early Toronto subway stations. It was last manufactured in North America in 1947.
“I have a big stash of it that I found 30 years ago in a building-supply yard,” Mr. Kearns says. “They had a few pieces out on the counter. I asked if they had any more and the owner said, ‘I have 10 crates.’ I said ‘How much do you want for the whole lot?’”
“I tell you, he values it more than my life,” says Mr. Kearns’ partner , Corrine Spiegel , a wealth adviser. “I don’t even get to touch the stash. I might break one.”
“It does break easily; it’s brittle,” Mr. Kearns says.
He used the material for his own home’s front door; pieces in red and yellow combine to “paint colours in front of the house in a nice way,” he says.
“When I saw this door delivered, tears came to my eyes,” Ms. Spiegel says. “I found this to be the most beautiful door I’ve ever seen. I was just in awe.”
The couple occupy the upper two storeys of the three-unit house, with the ground floor and basements functioning as independent suites. It was here, for six years, that the young Aubrey Drake Graham grew up, renting the space with his family. The singer-songwriter, now known simply as Drake, included the old lower-level living space in his video Started from the Bottom. “We refer to it as Drake’s basement,” Mr. Kearns says. “Our boys living there now get a kick out of it.”
Back when Mr. Kearns bought the home, the steep entry sequence to the basement units made a bad first impression. “The real estate agent thought we wouldn’t like this house. You went down these beige-carpeted stairs with four winders, it wasn’t even legal. An inch in front of the bottom step was the actual door to the suite. It was very awkward,” Mr. Kearns says. (The building code permits two winders – or 90-degree turns – per staircase.)
“Then there was a horrible little vestibule that was stuccoed on the outside. That was the entrance to both units. So you’d come in through the front door and you’d trip over the downstair’s tenant’s shoes. I hated that: Drake’s smelly boots.
“The front door looked like a back door and undervalued the house. So we pledged that we would demolish that entrance and make separate entrances at the earliest opportunity. Now, everyone who comes in says, ‘Wow, it’s really big in here.’”
The alterations continued on the upper floors.
Gradually, as their kids grew up and some moved out (they have five), they would knock down walls in the upper floors and demolish the small, awkward existing bedrooms. “The children refer to these floors as The Museum,” Mr. Kearns says, “meaning, they can’t make it untidy.” The alterations didn’t add to the total floor area of 5,800 square feet, but increased the quality and convenience of the space.
Under the roof gable on the top floor, a screen combining butt-joined pieces of Vitrolite, clear glass and translucent film gives a view from the master suite of the street outside and the oak tree in the front yard. Mr. Kearns points to a back-painted, fire-orange segment. “I made this one myself with Chrysler car paint. I didn’t have a red and I wanted a red.”
The staircase down to the first floor provides plenty of wow factor. To enable the stairs to change course while avoiding awkward-looking corners, Kearns pulled the edge of the stairs away slightly from the wall as it descends and wrapped the living room’s dark oak flooring down the face of the stair wall. “It makes the floor and the wall feel like a big block of wood.”
To dodge a clumsy connection between walls with window openings and the bulkhead above the stair opening, he stepped the bulkhead forward in what he calls a “notch up,” which makes the bulkhead appear to float. “Then you can read this thing like a separate element. It doesn’t obfuscate the forms.”
Home decorators take note: “I never change colour on an outside corner. I always paint the colour in to the inside corner. We’ve got white, light grey and mid-grey [along the stairs] and they all intersect nicely.”
The sensuously curving stainless-steel stair rail, easy to grab throughout its rise, fits its container perfectly. “We swapped shop drawings six times before making it.”
Not just nice, but noteworthy: The focal point of the living room is the fireplace and its eight-and-a-half-foot expanse of split-faced and honed Irish limestone, subtly patterned with fossilized prehistoric oysters and sea sponges. This is probably the first domestic use of the black rock in Canada (it abounds at Ireland Park).
As for the kitchen island’s 10-foot three-inch blue marble top, he says, “It was almost impossible to find a piece of granite that size. I was always warned against using marble in a kitchen, but because this is so richly patterned and has a sealer, staining has never been a problem.”
Metaphorically, the kitchen was conceived as a railroad yard, “where you open the doors [of the train shed] and the locomotives come out and sit on the tracks in parallel,” with the knife trough separating the upper marble dining surface from the lower food-prep and stove-top area, and the smoke hood as smokestack.
Upstairs, custom millwork casegoods have shelves and drawers not in front, but at the sides because, he explains, “I wanted this to look like a monolithic cube.” Bottom drawers are shoe drawers: “I call them Imelda Marcos drawers.”
Another inspiration was the projecting rail, near the top, on which can be hung suits and shirts in haberdashery-shop style. “Okay, what shirt do I want now? You can take it down and line things up.”
“How does this even come out of somebody’s head?” exclaims Corrine admiringly.
The master suite’s entire radiant-heated Carrara-marble floor is waterproofed. “The bath could flow over and it wouldn’t leak. Who knows, we might have water fights in here.”