Home-builders in Victorian Toronto had very specific ideas about the way people should live their lives.
Dad was supposed to go out to work. Mom stayed home, tending to domestic chores and the needs of her preschoolers. The usual layout of the Victorian house reflects this division of labour. One rarely finds, for example, any provision for live-in servants or nannies in Toronto’s ordinary houses from this period. (The mansions of Rosedale are another matter.) Nor is there an equivalent of the modern family room or home office.
Family socializing in the pre-radio age was a starchy affair that occurred around the hearth in the parlour and in the dining room, both rooms clearly segregated from each other, and from the kitchen. Parlour and dining room were schools of propriety and respect for hierarchy (God, Queen, Empire and Dad). The dark little kitchen at the rear of the house, on the other hand, was the mother’s workshop of meal production – a place of gendered toil, that is, not really suitable (and hardly big enough) for family gatherings.
Back in the 1970s, when living in Victorian houses became fashionable among Hogtown people with modern lifestyles and aesthetic opinions, one typical response of home-owners to this heavily ideological domestic architecture was drastic. It included a thorough gutting of interiors, a replacement of flowery wallpaper by expanses of stark white paint, and the erasure of many decorative features (such as elaborate baseboards and crown mouldings) that Victorian architects believed signalled respectability and good taste.
The best recent renovations I’ve been seeing around town are less radical than they used to be, and more concerned with preserving some of the architectural details and structures – if not the strict social values – that Toronto’s 19th century bequeathed to the 21st.
For an example of what I’m talking about, take the Victorian Gothic house renovated and occupied by landscape architect Ina Elias.
Erected around the year 1890 on a quiet residential street in the Annex, this house got an inconclusive going-over sometime before 2000, when Ms. Elias and her family moved in. She picked up the overhaul at that point, and, 10 years later, she has very nearly completed the job of modernizing and simplifying the old structure. (The owner told me that updating one bathroom included in the pre-2000 renovation is all that’s needed to finish the work.)
The result is a thoughtful, beautifully realized revision and expansion of the original house plan. The overhauled 1,800-square-foot home embodies Ms. Elias exacting modernism – she is an unreconstructed disciple of the Bauhaus – but also her tolerance for historic details that give the building character and stylistic heft.
The wall that once stood between parlour and dining room, for instance, has been abolished. This move has exposed the middle of the house – the darkest part of the Victorian residential scheme –to natural light from both the front window and the newly opened glass wall of the kitchen.
But Ms. Elias has resisted the temptation to push the spatial flow of the living-dining area clear through to the rear of the house. The kitchen retains an attractive sense of separation from the more public room, though without the burden of yesteryear’s rigid doctrines about women’s work. Ms. Elias’ kitchen is a privileged place for her family and herself – a zone for both the activity of cooking and the quiet contemplation of the garden and the urban forest canopy visible through that wide, tall glass wall.
Like every other spot in the house, the kitchen is austere: Its high-end Bulthaup B3 cupboards and cabinets create an atmosphere of sleek, uncluttered efficiency that reflects the architect’s reductive design philosophy.
That Ms. Elias also has a sense of humour is indicated by her retention of certain Victorian elements a more dour modernist would have swept aside. The imposing plaster moulding that tops the walls in the living and dining area has been kept, along with the conspicuous baseboards. And the fussy flourishes of plasterwork that once framed ceiling light fixtures have also survived the renovation.
My favourite example of Ms. Elias’ tempered modernism, however, is the fireplace in the living room.
It’s a vigorously ornate, delightfully preposterous little affair that loudly proclaims its status as the glowing heart of a heartless city. Once upon a time, in a Toronto very different from the one we’ve got now, a family assembled around this hearth of a winter’s evening to listen to Father read aloud from the Bible, or from the final edition of that day’s Globe.
I’m glad Ms. Elias has held on to this scrap of high Victoriana in her otherwise minimalist project, if only to remind her visitors and family of the world that, for better or worse, we’ve lost.Report Typo/Error
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