The first time I encountered the name of architect Grant Alan Whatmough (1921-1999) it was via e-mails, well over a decade ago, with Michael Seaman, then Oakville’s manager of heritage planning. Specifically, Mr. Seaman and I were discussing the 1950s homes of two Avro Aircraft Ltd. employees, that of Hamilton-born Fred Smye (president), and Manchester, England-born James Floyd (vice-president, engineering). I have long been fascinated with the tragic story of the Avro Arrow, and to combine this with my biggest love, mid-century modern architecture, was a particular delight.
And while I have never been inside either of those homes, I did, finally, get to tour a house the architect designed for Anthony Phillips in what was Galt, Ont. (now Cambridge) on a chilly Saturday last week.
Not only was it worth the wait, I now understand why, according to Mr. Seaman’s research (which included interviews with Mr. Floyd and Mr. Whatmough’s widow and children), the Thornhill, Ont.-born architect was, “in some circles … becoming known as ‘The Frank Lloyd Wright of Canada.’”
Completely invisible from the road due to dense Carolinian forest, Mr. Whatmough’s creation appears only after trundling along a rutted, winding, hard-packed dirt road. It is just as relief is experienced upon hitting smooth ground that the carport presses forward into view like the prow of a ship. Tucked above that carport, much like a ship’s bridge, the dwelling’s second storey is also visible but, much like Wright, the front door is shielded from view, and awaits discovery.
That ship architecture comes to mind is telling: after serving in the RCAF’s Eastern Command (Canada) during the Second World War, Mr. Whatmough moved to England and found employment as a naval architect at Portsmouth’s Vosper & Co. While there, he came up with a design for a jet-powered hydroplane, Bluebird II, that would, years later, set a world record. Before returning to Canada in 1948, he would serve on the design council for the Festival of Britain. After working a few unfulfilling jobs, Mr. Whatmough turned his attention to building design by the early-1950s, although, according to an ERA Architects blog entry, would revisit “his earlier interest in marine design in completing a floating offshore drilling rig, tug and fire boats, and a research vessel for Radar Explorations Ltd., of Toronto.” He would also, by the 1960s, exhibit his sculpture at a Yorkville gallery.
After being greeted by Helen Cummins and her two daughters, Helene and Michelle, I share some of this enticing information about Mr. Whatmough as Colleen Whitney of Whitney & Company Realty Ltd. and I admire the large, mahogany-paneled foyer. After that, the younger daughter, Helene, tells us about when her parents purchased the 1964-designed, late-1960s built home in 1977.
“The house wasn’t quite complete,” Dr. Cummins begins, adding that Mr. Whatmough’s client, Anthony Phillips, an engineer, had died, and his widow had been forced to sell. “And one thing that wasn’t complete was this whole front foyer, so when mom and dad bought, they had to put in the flooring, this is a cherry staircase they put in, and the master bedroom [and] bathroom wasn’t complete.”
As we move to the great room, my breath is taken away by the full-wall triangular fireplace, which calls to mind the one Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Cooke family in 1957 (Virginia Beach). Instead of Mr. Wright’s buff brick, however, here Mr. Whatmough has employed the same medium-red brick with splotches of mossy green as found on the exterior of the house. Also Wrightian is Mr. Whatmough’s use of an angular, mahogany-trimmed drop ceiling (with hidden cove lighting) to frame and direct the eye towards the feature and a small, two-steps-down triangular portion of living room floor where the Cummins family would place their Christmas tree.
“We had many a good party in here, mom and dad really entertained, and Helene and I would be little servers,” elder daughter Michelle says with a laugh.
In the kitchen, I am surprised to find all of Mr. Whatmough’s millwork intact. While it is glorious – cabinets cascade down from the ceiling like an inverted pyramid and countertops zig and zag like a meandering stream – it’s also rare for “dated” looking cabinetry to survive in our renovation-crazy culture. Then again, when I later see the care with which the family unrolls original blueprints, I understand their reverence for the original ship’s galley design. “My mom and dad were really focussed on being sympathetic to his vision and retaining the integrity of what he created,” Helene says.
After touring the family room – which also has a fireplace – the ridiculously large laundry room, and the workshop beside the carport, our little group climbs the second, Whatmough-designed staircase to the bedroom wing.
Up here, even the four children’s bedrooms are generous, especially the one at the end of the long hallway that spans the entire width of the floor plan (which also allows for a window on each side). And, of the five bathrooms in the house, it’s interesting to note that some still sport their 1960s finishes with pride, while others had to be completed in 1977. No matter, all rooms and all finishes, regardless of age or design, have been lovingly cared for over the decades.
“It’s heartbreaking to have to leave,” Helene says about her mother, who has decided, due to unforeseen circumstances, to put the home up for sale. As we gather again in the foyer to collect our coats, talk turns to how, unlike Americans, Canadians don’t trumpet our brightest and best architects, and how only a handful would be able to conjure up names such as Raymond Moriyama, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Eberhard Zeidler, or Ron Thom, and how even fewer would know the name Grant Whatmough.
Consider this little bit of writing, then, a necessary first step.
To see more photographs of the house or to view a floor plan, go to http://whitneyres.com
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