54 Croft St., Toronto
Asking price: $3,250,000
Taxes: $9,495.14 (2021)
Lot size: 27.7 by 44 feet
Agent: Paul Johnston (Right at Home Realty Inc.)
In the early 2000s, Toronto-based Kohn Shnier architects began the work of transforming a vintage worker’s cottage near College and Bathurst Streets into a modern residence for a family of four.
Their elegant solution to the challenges of a compact site has influenced the creation of laneway houses in the city ever since.
The zoning regulations of the day required the architects to preserve the footprint and exterior walls of the cottage, which for many years housed the manager of a factory next door.
Martin Kohn and John Shnier designed an “upside-down” house that placed the sleeping areas on the ground floor and an expansive living space above.
In those days, the city’s approval process was lengthy and complex, and the 1,300-square-foot house was listed for sale soon after it was built in 2005.
Around that time, architect and entrepreneur Lorne Gertner was searching for a condo to buy. He visited one high-end suite that he saw featured in a magazine but it didn’t offer the seclusion he was craving. The real estate agent suggested he take a look at the unique house he had listed on a quiet back street.
They closed the door to the condo and drove to Croft Street to see the Kohn Shnier house. Mr. Gertner toured the house and declared on the spot he would like to buy it.
“The architects are world-class architects,” Mr. Gertner says. “I knew them – I knew how good they were.”
Mr. Gertner had been a student at the University of Toronto’s school of architecture in the early 1980s when a professor showed the students a laneway house he had built in Kensington Market.
“It inspired me and the entire generation of people that I went to school with,” says Mr. Gertner, who currently teaches in the faculty of architecture at U of T.
Mr. Kohn and Mr. Shnier are members of the same generation, and their award-winning laneway house remains incredibly influential today, Mr. Gertner says.
The house today
When Mr. Gertner took possession in 2005, the construction was mostly complete, but some details remained unfinished.
“You basically walked out the back door and fell down a hole,” he says of the building site.
Mr. Gertner called up Mr. Kohn and asked him to see the project through.
“I said, ‘I want to complete the house with your vision.’ ”
Mr. Gertner requested the addition of a fireplace, a kitchen island, a steam shower and a Japanese garden. The simplicity of traditional Japanese design suited the house perfectly, he adds.
“I spent a lot of time in Japan doing business,” he says. “I loved everything about Japan.”
The completed house has an L-shaped ground floor with a small courtyard at the front. The crater at the rear was filled in to create an enclosed garden with a shower, a tub and a fireplace.
“I wanted to have outdoor showers,” he says. “I essentially built an outdoor spa.”
The primary suite on the ground floor has an ensuite bathroom with a tub sunk to garden level so that the bather can gaze into a pocket of greenery outside.
Two kid-sized bedrooms on that floor have built-in desks and beds.
The lower level started out as a playroom, but Mr. Gertner turned it into a comfortable guest room with an ensuite bathroom. It could also serve as a home office or family room.
Upstairs, the second floor burgeons into an open living space with the kitchen cantilevered over the parking spot below. The living and dining areas are lit by windows on all sides.
“All of the views are on the second floor, where you want the views,” Mr. Gertner says.
Throughout the house, the architects designed built-in furniture and cabinetry. A three-piece bathroom is positioned next to the landing, halfway up the stairs.
“It’s an incredible puzzle,” Mr. Gertner says of the efficient use of space.
Each year, Mr. Gertner would call Mr. Kohn with an idea.
“I’d call Marty up and I’d say, ‘I want to do a deck. I want to do lighting.’ ”
One morning Mr. Gertner went down to his car parked in the carport and found that a vandal had thrown a can of white paint over the black Mercedes. Mr. Gertner was so delighted with the original work of street art that he didn’t want to remove it.
“I was thinking, ‘I’ll leave that because it’s so cool!’ ”
When he told his friend and celebrated artist Charles Pachter his plan, Mr. Pachter urged him to clean the paint off the Mercedes.
“That was when I decided I had to build some doors.”
Today, the carport has been turned into a garage.
Another project was the creation of the rooftop deck. When Mr. Gertner learned that by-laws would prevent him from adding a pool, he opted for a curvilinear shower designed by Mr. Kohn.
“I built that outdoor shower, which is a stunning piece of architecture,” he says.
Mr. Gertner says he created a welcoming vibe by keeping the outdoor fireplace lit when he was expecting visitors. Guests would arrive to the front door and see through the interior to the glow of the fire.
“You would just be seduced by the whole space,” he says.
During his tenure on Croft Street, Mr. Gertner was a developer, chief executive officer of the designer fashion label Pink Tartan and the co-founder of cannabis retailer Tokyo Smoke with his son, Alan Gertner.
When the elder Gertner purchased a new house three years ago, Alan told his dad he would like to buy the laneway house.
“It was that fast,” the father says.
Alan Gertner says he enjoys the quiet haven.
“The light is unbelievable,” he says. “You get the experience of being propped up in a little glass box.”
The Gertners hope that the home’s next curators will add some personal touches but mostly love the house as it is.
Lorne Gertner says the attention paid to every detail has created a house that buoys the spirits of its residents.
“Everything you do in that house is celebrated – having a shower, having a bath – it’s a happy house.”
The best feature
The dwelling’s upside-down plan means that the main living areas have an abundance of light and views across the neighbourhood to the city skyline.
While he was living in the house, Lorne Gertner made a tradition of gathering that year’s cohort of architecture students in the second-floor living area on their last day of class. He also invited design and architecture mavens from around the world to drop by when they were passing through the city.
“It’s a world-class piece of architecture,” he says. “I’m incredibly proud of the house.”
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