On a quiet street corner at the heart of Toronto’s Riverdale district stands a 150-year-old building, originally a dairy, that encloses three elongated units of different configurations. The corner unit is Graham McLeod and Tim O’Fallon’s home.
Mr. McLeod purchased the 1,432-square-foot home in 2004. “As soon as I saw it, I just fell in love,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to be back in a house, but this had the characteristics of a loft in the form of a house – so it was perfect.”
A screen of trees and a cedar hedge create a buffer between the street and the privacy of the home. Through south and east facing windows, the unit looks into a small front garden lined with trees that give the outdoor space a courtyard feel.
When you walk into First Avenue residence, you walk into an ethereal space filled with natural light and grounded by subtle wood details. But it wasn’t always like this, the building was first adapted for residential use in the 1980s, and while the previous owners had done some renovations, the space could be improved. “The ceiling height is fantastic,” Mr. McLeod describes. “I knew it had a lot of potential.”
After a stint working abroad, Mr. McLeod and Mr. O’Fallon wanted to return to a renewed home. In 2018 they hired Plant, a Toronto-based landscape and architecture firm they worked with a decade ago for the renovation of the garden. “We liked their aesthetic immediately,” Mr. McLeod remembers. “We were really happy with the yard.”
Collaborating remotely with lead architect Lisa Dietrich and Plant partner Lisa Rapoport, Mr. McLeod and Mr. O’Fallon developed their vision for the home. Initially, they wanted to do something about the “clunky” stairwell and a larger master bedroom with an ensuite. The couple had a budget of $500,000 for the renovation – which expanded beyond the initial scope of the plan.
“[Ms. Dietrich and Ms. Rapoport] wanted to hear from us about what we wanted to accomplish,” Mr. McLeod says. “… They really came up with ideas to enable our vision and what we intended to use the space for.”
The designers at Plant saw the potential of the space too. “There’s a tremendous amount of light and this very high ceiling,” Ms. Rapoport says, highlighting the unique proportions of the unit: long, narrow, with high ceilings.
The removal of outdated carpets and flooring, as well as unnecessary partition walls exposed the central elements of the space’s ambience: light and wood. Together they would create a modern yet warm environment in which to live, work and play.
“We opened up the whole ceiling and did new lighting everywhere,” Ms. Rapoport says. Plant also installed new windows with walnut frames in the first floor to match the front door and the recently renovated kitchen.
Before the renovation, the couple’s sizeable art collection had been scattered around the house. “It looked good, but we didn’t love it,” Mr. McLeod says. In response, the design team consolidated most of the collection in a strategically-lit single wall along the stairwell.
Each of the three floors of the First Avenue residence has its own unique character, but there’s also a sense of interconnectedness and continuity among spaces both vertically and horizontally. “We’ve built each floor in a way that … there’s a kind of place for everything in the way you would have in an old steamer trunk,” Ms. Rapoport says.
The stairwell plays a key role in this. Located in an unconventional position at the middle of the space and running along the north wall, the stairwell visually divides each floor and provides a central structure that functions as a vertical connector and a vessel for natural light from the skylight installed above.
“It’s just so dramatic how different that area is,” Mr. McLeod says.
The stairwell structure on the second floor was rebuilt with white oak, and a pane of glass was installed to replace an encasing wall to open up the space visually. Besides letting light through, the new waterfall stair draws attention to the couple’s art collection hung along the north wall. At night, discrete light fixtures bring the nuances of the design to life, like a custom-made hand-rail whose powder-coated steel grip is underlined by a cherry wood insert.
The kitchen and dining room share the open layout of the main floor. Initially, the dining room’s floor was below level, breaking up the flow of the space and creating an excess of empty space – the ceiling is 11 feet high at this level. Now the kitchen and dining room are on a level, and a sculptural Vitis Pendant chandelier by Rich Brilliant Willing hangs over the dining table. “I really like having lighting that actually has a presence,” Ms. Rapoport notes.
Upon landing on the second floor, a change of the stairwell’s layout creates a more efficient use of the space, and a series of bubble lights hanging at different heights from the ceiling 10 ft. above connects the living room and the study. Cherry wood paneling defines the unique character of each space. “The idea is that, yes, there’s a difference between one side and the other, but [the design] is trying to find a way of making that [space] cohesive,” Ms. Rapoport says. Walls are not necessary.
The renovation radically changed this floor. Reclaimed white oak flooring was installed to match the new stairwell, and cherry wood panelling cleverly conceals a bulkhead running lengthwise along the south-facing wall and connects the living space to the study, where a built-in bookshelf at one end of the space is the defining element.
“Lighting this floor was tremendously difficult,” Ms. Rapoport admits. “Something just didn’t feel right about just zoning: this is the office and this is the living room.” Instead, the team opted to use pot lights strategically positioned to highlight the art and some of the wood.
While the couple loved Plant’s design on paper, they were stunned with the results. “Now that it’s come to life… it’s really dramatic, really beautiful,” Mr. McLeod says. The living room is the couple’s favourite space in the house. “It’s just very relaxing,” Mr. O’Fallon says.
Up the stairs, on the third floor, the master bedroom and dressing room are warmed by the pine sub-flooring, original to the building, and pot lights discretely enhance the texture of the walnut wood cabinetry of the closets. A well-concealed Murphy bed can quickly transform the dressing room into a guest room.
While initially the couple wanted to build a penthouse to make room for a spacious master bedroom, Ms. Dietrich and Ms. Rapoport offered a more efficient solution. “There was a point where they made a decision that if they were going to spend that much money, they would rather … put that money actually into making the other floors better.” The couple followed Plant’s advice and the renovation was completed last November.
“The whole process was really driven by Plant to create a space that was modern but warm – and functional, too,” Mr. McLeod says. “They had a really good sense of how we use the space and how we wanted to continue to enjoy it.”
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