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Alexander J. Rothe

Vivian Reiss says she didn't start out with a grand plan, she just wanted people to feel a connection from one room to the next

All photos: Alexander J. Rothe

The listing

  • Asking price: $9.495-million
  • Taxes: $30,385.06 (2015)
  • Lot size: 61 feet by 138 feet
  • Listing agent: Eileen Farrow (Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd.)

The back story

The grand Victorian at 36 Lowther Ave. had been turned into a rooming house and allowed to fall into near-ruin when Vivian Reiss and her family bought it 30 years ago.

"It was a derelict mess. There were 20 unrelated people living here."

The artist and urban farmer spent many years renovating and reimagining the red-brick dwelling, which has three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a studio.

The house was built in 1883 for the widow of Augustus Warren Baldwin, who was a naval officer and Upper Canada politician. Real estate agent Eileen Farrow of Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. says the house once sat on a much larger property.

"It had a side orchard that went all the way to Bedford," Ms. Farrow says of the avenue that is now approximately half a block away.

Over time, the land was severed, but the house still has a large garden, where Ms. Reiss tends to sunflowers, broom corn and rows of vegetables.

Alexander J. Rothe

The house today

Ms. Reiss says she didn't start out with a grand, master plan at first for the 5,600 square feet of living space, but she wanted people to feel a connection from one room to the next.

"I have a background in dance, so I think that really influenced the rooms so you can flow through the space."

The stained glass and some of the decorative tiles and plaster mouldings were still in place, but many other original elements were lost.

The doors were reinforced with steel during the rooming house days, for example, so Ms. Reiss had some new ones made and some old ones refurbished. The paint was chosen to bring out all of the details.

She had plaster mouldings recreated and used a combination of new and reclaimed materials to restore rooms throughout the house.

Ms. Reiss says her paintings give people comfort with their vibrant colours and beauty and she wanted the interior of her house to do the same.

Her main inspiration, she says, is "being creative and making people happy through beauty."

The paint colours throughout the house are created by Ms. Reiss.

For the principal rooms on the main floor, she was partly inspired by the fortress and royal palace Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The living room overlooking the street is light and vibrant, for example, while the music room in the centre is painted in a deep, saturated shade.

"In a lot of Moorish architecture, you move from the dark to the light."

In the kitchen and breakfast room, Ms. Reiss found ideas in the Art Nouveau buildings of the Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi.

She had cabinets with flowing lines and floral motifs carved from clear pine and curly maple. The curvilinear doors and windows in the breakfast room overlook the back garden.

The kitchen took a year to complete, she says.

Ms. Reiss says she was influenced by Spain "at that particular moment," but she also drew ideas from her sojourns in India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Japan.

The artist also designed the wood floors of black walnut and ornate marquetry created from exotic woods. The pattern varies from room to room.

"I like design challenges," she says.

She adds that the craftsmen working on the projects always took great care in bringing her visions to life.

"People don't always get to do things that use all of their resources. People have to do a lot of mundane things to make a living."

Ms. Reiss says her love of objects inspires her to seek out reclaimed artifacts and objects.

The arched dining room window, for example, came from a church. Ms. Reiss designed the patterned marble inlay floor.

Upstairs, an entire bathroom was created from the marble rescued from a demolished bank building at Yonge and Queen. It took time to decide how best to use the marble, she says, but gradually a design came together.

"I am just an idea machine. Once I think of something, I actually follow through."

Ms. Reiss says she just had to go with the materials and what felt right in the room.

"It was like creating a painting, one stroke at a time. The whole thing is really intuiting and interpreting the space."

In the master bedroom, Ms. Reiss had a double-height ceiling installed. One of the home's original balconies has been enclosed and is now used as a walk-in closet. The expansive master bathroom was created in space from some of the original bedrooms and embellished with tiles and mirrors that reflect light from every surface. A fireplace in the bathroom has also been decorated with mirror and tile.

The third floor, which was once chopped up into small rooms, has been opened up with a raised ceiling and skylights. It's currently used as an art studio, but Ms. Farrow points out that it could also be a large bedroom.

The house is well-known in the neighbourhood for the exuberant gardens, which extend all the way to the curb.

Ms. Reiss says her urban farming is not motivated by activism or any political stance. She's currently working on a cookbook with recipes she has created over the years with the bounty from her own patch.

"My take on it is an aesthetic one – it's so beautiful and people can enjoy it."

With some plants, she adds, gardeners can consume produce from various stages of its life – from the sprouts to seed pods. "The ability to use plants like that, you can really only have when it's in your garden."

Ms. Reiss's family was in the textile business and her love of fabric is evident. She designed the back garden with a paisley pattern carved into the lawn in the form of flower beds.

The lower level was excavated to create an underground garage that has parking for four cars. Another three parking spots are above ground.

Ms. Farrow points out that the house has been featured in many magazines, including Elle Decor Spain and Architectural Digest Russia this year.

"An artist has done this," she says. "It's all so whimsical."

Alexander J. Rothe

The best feature

A Hollywood emissary looking for a sumptuous bedroom to accommodate Tom Cruise found it at 36 Lowther. Parts of the movie Cocktail starring the American actor were filmed in the master bedroom and bathroom.

"A location scout knocked on the door and said: 'We need a bedroom with a fireplace,'" Ms. Reiss recalls.

One scene featured Mr. Cruise in the large free-standing bathtub, which is covered inside and out in tiles of ceramic and pewter.

Ms. Reiss has held benefits in the home, including a fundraiser for contemporary opera. The musicians and singers found imaginative settings for performances in every part of the house – including one pair who used the elaborately tiled bathtub as a backdrop.