After years of pushing through the challenges of renovating many of Toronto's heritage buildings, Eve Lewis and Paul Oberman set out to restore their own landmark house in Rosedale with the assurance that comes from planning for nearly every possible obstacle.
Then the salamanders turned up. The sudden discovery of a colony of amphibians was one of the more novel complications in the meticulous rehabilitation of the Georgian Revival estate, which would take 18 months of planning, five years of building, a globe-spanning search for materials and dozens of artisans to complete.
"There aren't many great houses like this in Toronto," Ms. Lewis says. "So many homes of historical significance are torn down."
The couple knew they had found a rare property at 30 Rosedale Rd. when they purchased it in 1995. The mansion was designed in the mid-1920s by the architectural firm of George, Moorhouse and King, which also designed the Toronto Stock Exchange building, Graydon Hall and the art deco masterpiece that was once Eaton's flagship store on College Street.
Contralto Maureen Forrester and her family had lived in the house many years earlier but eventually it had become neglected and then abandoned.
When Ms. Lewis and Mr. Oberman took ownership, the front yard was a parking lot and some heedless remodelling had gone on, but elements such as the grand staircase, egg and dart cornice mouldings and a room panelled in rare Honduran mahogany had not been savaged.
They appreciated the house's spectacular perch atop the precipice of a natural ravine. The fact that one of the largest concentrations of red-backed salamanders in North America was living on the slopes below came to light only when they brought in a naturalist to study the ravine's eco-system before they sought approval to build a swimming pool.
The transformation at Rosedale Road began when the couple realized that the scale of the three-storey house suited their large family of six children but that the layout did not provide the relaxed living spaces they needed. "The house was originally designed to be run by servants," Mr. Oberman says. "It's difficult to find the balance between restoration and adaptive reuse."
In their zeal for preservation, the couple have faced that struggle many times. Mr. Oberman is the chief executive of Woodcliffe Corp. His list of significant projects includes King James Place, the Gooderham Flatiron Building and the transformation of the derelict North Toronto railway station into the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's venerated Summerhill store. As a measure of how dauntless the developer is when faced with difficult logistics, he went to inordinate lengths trying to get permission to build a restaurant on the station's Canadian Pacific Railway overpass, next to an active freight train line.
Ms. Lewis, founder and president of MarketVision Real Estate Corp., has spent years working on the planning and marketing of large condominium projects.
"If we were to come back in another life, we would probably both come back as architects," she says.
At Rosedale Road, they brought in the architectural firm of Heintzman Sanborn to oversee the design. Howard Heintzman and Maureen Sanborn say that finding an equilibrium meant a constant struggle between pushing forward the agenda of restoration and allowing room for contemporary lifestyles and the unembellished aesthetic of Modernism.
"Paul is really a Modernist at heart," Mr. Heintzman says. But the couple and the architects agreed to respect the old house. The craftsmanship in the house merited a painstaking restoration and the classical details suited the original enfilade of principal rooms, which unfold from the large entry hall. The layout means that the scale and grandeur of the rooms are not diminished by hallways and circulation zones.
"I think he recognized that it was what the house wanted to be," Ms. Sanborn says.
Once Mr. Oberman committed to preserving the authentic architecture, he pursued the cause with unrelenting zeal. "There is a thematic consistency that really is part of the grandeur of the house," he says.
Craftsmen spent five months using dental tools to restore the plaster ceiling in the living room. Throughout the house, baseboards, crown mouldings and door-casing profiles were preserved and replicated. The panelled walls of walnut in the living room were restored with 30 coats of hand-applied French polish.
Many people who know Mr. Oberman relate anecdotes that illustrate his exacting standards. One of those people is Ms. Lewis. "It's so hard to find people who live up to Paul's expectations," she says. "Paul's fastidious. He's a perfectionist."
To put the word "perfectionist" into perspective, she points to the lengthy process of finding the right artisan to restore the red-brick exterior and build an addition that would blend seamlessly with the original structure. "Paul went through 13 bricklayers."
Mr. Oberman points to the home's spacious grand foyer, where he asked each of the craftsmen vying for the job to build a mock-up brick wall. He wanted to see how each contender would clean, repair and lay the brick, how he would tint the mortar and finish the joints. He wanted to know how they create a consistent patina for bricks assembled from different locations.
To obtain the deep-red bricks of the right vintage, he obtained the remnants from an entire house in Forest Hill as it was being torn down. As word spread that he was looking for aged materials, Mr. Oberman became inundated by callers trying to sell him another pile of bricks.
"It became quite comical for a time," he says.
In the end, he assembled bricks from five different houses. Often, he was able to cart them away for free so that the owner could avoid paying disposal costs. His work on the Shops at Scrivener Square - otherwise known as the Five Thieves - was under way at the time, so he had a site available and workers dedicated to sorting, cleaning and stacking the bricks.
Today, the replacements are undetectable on the home's exterior.
After many years of work, Ms. Lewis, Mr. Oberman and their children moved into a house with eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms and a commodious kitchen. The lower level has floor-to-ceiling doors and windows to create a living space with a spa, bar, media room, billiards room, exercise room and nanny's suite. On the main floor, former service rooms were turned into a dining room with a dramatic vaulted ceiling. The family room has a bay window and a window seat for contemplation of the ravine.
"Wherever you are, you see the ravine," Ms. Lewis says of the views from the interior.
Outside, the couple had detritus carted away from the ravine and restored the land to a more natural shape. "There were deep, unnatural gouges in it from days gone by," Mr. Oberman says.
The infinity edge pool now holds back the earth, while below indigenous trees and grasses were planted and the natural eco-system of decomposing logs and moist earth was rejuvenated "mainly for the salamanders," Mr. Oberman says with a smile.
But, with their children grown and out of the house, Mr. Oberman and Ms. Lewis now find 30 Rosedale Rd. much larger than they need. They have listed the house for sale with Elise Kalles of Harvey Kalles Real Estate Ltd. with an asking price of $14.8-million.
"The bones of the house were always magnificent, but they really brought it back to its original splendour," Ms. Kalles says.
George, Moorhouse and King designed three houses in Rosedale, including 8 May St. and the home of the late Kenneth Thomson. "They're all landmarks," Ms. Kalles says.
Mr. Heintzman and Ms. Sanborn say the house illustrates how families of 2010 can live in a modern way without ripping out historical details. There's a conversation between the inside and outside aesthetic; furniture from different eras can be layered with the architecture of the past.
"The city grew up before Modernism came into being. There was an accepted language," Mr. Heintzman says of the importance of preserving that legacy.For Ms. Lewis and Mr. Oberman, the house has provided an astonishing 17,500 square feet for their large family. They hope that their work to conserve the property will last through generations. "We have maintained the historical accuracy and veracity to perfection," Mr. Oberman says.