We’ve all seen that movie or TV show with the mom who couldn’t let go after the tragic death of her child: the untouched bedroom – complete with juvenile wallpaper, high-school trophies and crisply made bed – has become a creepy shrine.
Thankfully, Tura Cousins Wilson took his sentimentality a different direction when reimagining “Granny’s house.”
An architect registered in the Netherlands, Mr. Cousins Wilson got hold of the keys to the Leslieville home when his beloved grandmother, Violeta Williams, was forced to seek assisted living about four years ago. While she was a “tremendous hoarder,” he enjoyed the process of cleaning the place out: “You’d go through a box and there’d be books and then a $50 bill would fall out or something,” he remembers with a chuckle. “You’d plan to come and clean up but you’d spend a couple hours just reading old letters.”
The plan after cleanup (and reading), you see, was to turn the wide, welcoming brick home into an income-generating triplex to help pay for Granny’s care. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the situation changed dramatically by Granny’s passing.
When life hands you lemons, right? So, switching gears, Mr. Cousins Wilson consulted with his mom, who now co-owned the house with him, and the duo decided to turn the detached three-storey into “a house to grow into” that had flexible rental opportunities.
“I kind of realized splitting it up into [separate] units, you could never live in a house like that,” the 32-year-old offers, looking over at his fiancée, Alex Snider, who now shares the third floor with him, while a bedroom-renter occupies part of the second floor. “I think it was very important to have a basement apartment,” he adds, “and we’d lived in basements, so for me it was important to have a basement apartment that got as much light as possible.”
Indeed, it’s a lovely basement apartment that reads more like an old-fashioned garden apartment, thanks to a dig-down that created high ceilings and a breezy concrete forecourt that leads to a separate entry.
And speaking of breezy, that’s how Granny has been memorialized: Over the dining room, where her second-floor bedroom used to be, there is now only light and air. And, of course, a commanding portrait of the Jamaica-born matriarch, who came to Canada in the mid-1960s as a single mother, worked as domestic help, and managed to buy two houses: one on Brooklyn Ave. (where Mr. Cousins Wilson’s mother grew up), and the one Mr. Cousins Wilson now calls home.
The idea for the 19-foot-tall, light- and air-filled volume, he says, grew out of the fact that there weren’t many heritage features to save; combine that with Granny’s larger-than-life persona, and it became clear that something abstract, such as a “void,” made the most sense. When a posthumous portrait – complete with Granny brandishing a machete – was completed by Rajni Perera on a four-by-six-foot piece of Mylar and hung in front of one of the void’s windows, it lit up much like the stained glass window beside it (a window Mr. Cousins Wilson says she brought over from the Brooklyn Ave. house). Clearly, Granny approved.
As for the crisp, white, contemporary design underneath that portrait, the jury is out on Granny’s approval. “That was part of the challenge,” says Mr. Cousins Wilson, who works at Diamond Schmitt by day and runs his own studio, Urban Rural & Suburban Architecture (URSA), by night. “There wasn’t this ornate fireplace that was left, or this beautiful staircase.” Instead, he laughs, he was working with “a floor that tilted one way and rotting joists and a raccoon in the roof, and a leak, and there was mould, so you really had to start from zero.”
So, almost everything has been reset to white, including the IKEA-hacked kitchen, all walls and ceilings, and even the staircase handrail, a simple piece of flat wood, which recalls the Cabbagetown “white-painters” of the 1970s. Green and gold are interjected in large doses, however, via the many houseplants and the golden oak stairs and floor. Currently, books are tucked into every space possible (Ms. Snider is co-owner of Queen Books at 914 Queen St. E.), and, although they add life and colour, Mr. Cousins Wilson promises to get them tucked into proper bookshelves soon.
A room dedicated to Mr. Cousins Wilson’s drum kit is on the second floor, and, one flight up, the master bath is notable for its retro-eighties grid-pattern – made simply by using square white tile and black grout – and black fixtures. An extra room on the third floor has been made possible by filling in Granny’s roof deck.
There is one feature Granny definitely would have loved. Taking down a squared-off, non-original front porch, Mr. Cousins Wilson and his father recreated the breathtaking, curved porch as seen in a 1919 City of Toronto archival photograph. And, thankfully, the porch’s pregnant balusters didn’t have to be guessed at: two homes on the street still sported them, so Mr. Cousins Wilson made arrangements to measure and sketch them so he could load the information into AutoCAD and give the drawings to David Watts, his contractor.
When that was done last August, the whole thing was painted in as bright a shade of yellow as possible since Granny loved colour, especially the yellow found on the Jamaican flag. “I think if it wasn’t done on a classic porch, it would be almost too much, maybe,” he offers with a laugh.
The result? A sunshiny, happy shrine that’s not at all creepy to honour a lady who was clearly a force to be reckoned with … much like her grandson.
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.