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Coach Houses of Toronto

By Margo Salnek

Photography by Donna Griffith

Boston Mills Press

160 pages $40.

Few residents in Toronto ever get more than a glimpse of the city's mysterious little coach houses, which are often tucked away behind grand homes in established neighbourhoods such as Rosedale and the Annex.

In Coach Houses of Toronto, author Margo Salnek and photographer Donna Griffith take the reader into that hidden world for a look around.

The pair gained astonishing access just by knocking on doors: A celebrity designer showed off his housekeeper's residence in one instance and in another, an artist opened up her children's playhouse.

One of Canada's richest business magnates opened his own front door to Ms. Salnek and rather irritably suggested that she call his office.

An astonished Ms. Salnek had no idea who he was, but in the end his property didn't make the book because it was not a true coach house.

Plenty of other charming examples did pass the authenticity test.

As Ms. Salnek explains, a genuine coach house was built to house the family's carriage and horses. Often, the groomsman lived in quarters above.

Since the coach house was often a scaled-down version of the main house, many were designed by the city's most prominent architects.

"With the invention of the horseless carriage in the early 20th century, these beautiful buildings usually became grand garages," the author says.

"The groom's quarters above served to store family memorabilia and collectibles and, during the Great Depression, provided extra living space."

The author tells the reader how to identify other features of a true coach house: The cupola on the roof, for example, was an air vent for the hayloft.

Today, the coach houses are turning out to be ideal for all kinds of unconventional uses and lifestyles. An order of nuns, for example, offers a serenely beautiful space as a reflection loft and refuge. Another space serves as a hideaway for visiting stars who need a place to stay while they're shooting a film or recording an album.

Ms. Salnek, who writes about her own coach house in the book, says they appeal to people who like to live in unusual urban spaces.

The architectural styles represented in this book include Victorian, Edwardian, English cottage and Georgian. The interiors are often vastly different from each other but invariably lovely, and many are surrounded by gorgeous gardens.

Ms. Salnek delved into the histories of all of the 22 examples she features. Well-known Casa Loma is there but most are small sanctuaries occupied by very private owners.

Perhaps most interesting are the many transformations the coach houses have undergone over the years: One location housed prized Clydesdales and carriages on a grand estate in the mid-1800s, served as a garage to a scrap-metal dealer in the 1920s or so, and was converted to a toffee apple factory in the 1960s. More recently a yoga teacher has been living in the space and leading classes under the soaring ceilings.

In another case, an infamous speakeasy has now become a respectable residence.

Ms. Salnek also collected lots of interesting anecdotes along the way, and she tells the reader, for example, about an elderly and very elegant retired interior designer who climbed atop a ladder and polished her pine ceiling by hand when she couldn't find anyone to do the job.

Coach house living is not without its quirks, we discover. In one house, the owner's dining room table and oriental rug cover what was once the giant turntable contraption that allowed an automobile to be turned around for easy exit. In another, the horse stalls now house the kitchen.

The most luscious part of the book is the photographs, which are beautifully shot in all four seasons.

Readers can enjoy a glimpse into a private and historic slice of city living and perhaps find some inspiration for creating their own secluded havens.