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the architourist

The home at 30 High Point Rd., Toronto, built in 1975 by architect John Cresswell Parkin for Alfred W. Billes, son of Canadian Tire co-founder A. J. Billes.Sotheby’s International Realty Canada

While I’m unaware of any such poll, gut instinct tells me that a random sampling of Americans asked to name significant U.S. Modernist architects would produce names such as Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, or Eero Saarinen. And a similar poll in Canada would be a less successful, tooth pulling exercise that might, perhaps, come up with Moshe Safdie or Raymond Moriyama, if any at all.

“I think that’s right,” agrees 84-year-old architect Frederick Valentine from his home in Calgary. “And of course the architects themselves [in the U.S.] are more savvy about public relations.”

Mr. Valentine’s boss/mentor from 1966 to 1978, for example, John Cresswell Parkin (1922–1988), was arguably the most successful modernist this country has ever produced, yet his name does not fall easily from the lips of the average Canadian. However, those of us who study the period from 1945 to, perhaps, 1980, know that John B. Parkin Associates (his partner, John Burnett Parkin, ironically, was not related) was the largest office of its kind, with an output of modernist buildings nothing short of staggering. We also know that John C. was lucky enough to receive his Master’s degree at Harvard under legendary Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Oh, and one other thing: we know that the Parkin office produced very few private houses. One for himself at 75 The Bridle Path (demolished), one for his friend J. Douglas Crashley (when he was a bachelor) on Old George Place, one for the son of Canadian Tire co-founder A. J. Billes, and a few others. So, when the Alfred W. Billes house in Toronto’s tony Bridle Path neighbourhood came up for sale a few months ago, I decided to e-mail the listing agent, Jane Zhang at Sotheby’s, to have a look at the 26,000-square-foot mansion for myself.

  • The home at 30 High Point Rd., Toronto, built in 1975 by architect John Cresswell Parkin for Alfred W. Billes, son of Canadian Tire co-founder A. J. Billes.Sotheby’s International Realty Canada

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The first thing that struck me? What the well heeled wanted in 1975, when this house was completed, and what they want today, are very different. Had it not been bare-treed February, the house would have been invisible due to the raised mounds of earth and the small forest in front; today, most owners want to broadcast at least some of their bling to impress passersby.

Walk up the impressive stair and rather than being confronted by a baronial front door, 30 High Point Rd. sports a simple (albeit beautiful) wooden door surrounded by three panes of glass. And before I clunk-clunked the big knocker, I stop to admire the bush hammered concrete walls – a technique used by stone masons to give rough texture and visual interest – and its exposed pink and white quartz aggregate. And, in a classic Modernist move, these walls slip past the glass to blur the distinction between indoors and out.

“Material use was entirely John C.,” says Mr. Valentine, who served as project head and even enjoyed a few toots on the water on the Billes’s family yacht. “He was a devotee of I.M. Pei; he was fascinated by the modern use of concrete, and the treatment of concrete as a finish material.” Mr. Valentine adds that this was around the same time the office was working on the competition entry for the National Gallery in Ottawa and he’d been sent to both I.M. Pei’s Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. (1968) and his East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington (construction began in 1971) to do research.

And while Parkin’s National Gallery was not built (despite winning) the Billes’s residence takes cues from that project, plus the I.M. Pei buildings Mr. Valentine toured: the projecting and receding concrete façade; the wide, angled piers (better seen in construction photographs); and the interior’s wide, sundrenched, three-storey atrium – try selling that much unusable space to a wealthy client today – which collects natural light from a quartet of copper clad skylights.

Toronto’s futuristic City Hall, which the Parkin office worked on, can be seen in the ceilings (while penned by Finland’s Viljo Revell, his office had to partner with a local firm). Parkin, at every opportunity, created low, sheltering ceilings that, like at City Hall, suddenly zoom upwards, thereby creating a sense of wonder. This sense of undulation, of ‘travel’ from place to place, creates a building that despite boasting eight bedrooms and twelve bathrooms never feels unmanageable, cavernous, or ostentatious as I walk through it. It’s a testament to the design that, in the quarter century that’s passed since the Billes family sold it, it hasn’t changed much save for the bathrooms (I spotted some groovy original tile in the men’s and women’s change rooms beside the indoor pool) and some portions of flooring.

30 High Point Rd. under construction, c. 1974.Sotheby’s International Realty Canada

“There’s been really no major intervention, from what I could see,” Mr. Valentine says during our Zoom call, “which would be typical for most houses in that price range.” (For the record, 30 High Point Rd. is listed at $28-million.) He’s right: a less enlightened owner might have filled in the atrium, drywalled over the rough concrete, or replaced the Zen garden with a basketball court. Maybe, just maybe, the building has embodied some of the optimism architects possessed in the mid-century period.

“There was a real sense [of] history being made,” Mr. Valentine says. “I was pretty young, but it seemed very romantic and very exciting. You know, lots of people would say, ‘Oh, jeez, I don’t want to work in an environment like that, you’re just one of 60 [employees] in rows, everybody with a white shirt and tie, but I didn’t see it like that for some reason – I was enthralled by the whole business.”

Hopefully, a very well-to-do architecture buff will become enthralled by the former Billes residence. Too many John C. Parkin designs have met the wrecker’s ball.

John Cresswell Parkin in front of his home at 75 The Bridle Path, North York (since demolished) in 1964.Robert C. Ragsdale/Robert C. Ragsdale/CCA

Intrigued by John C. Parkin’s work but unwilling to rent the Ferrari needed to show up for a tour of 30 High Point Rd.? In an upcoming column I’ll feature John C. buildings that are accessible to the public. I’ll even throw in a few by his closest rival, Peter Dickinson.