Although there is plenty of art and sculpture to admire in Susan Nickerson’s recently completed home in Toronto’s Bennington Heights neighbourhood, there is no bust of the two-faced Roman god Janus.
But there should be.
Janus, as we all know, could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other. He represents transition, change, duality and growth, and was worshipped at the beginning and end of things, such as planting and the harvest. And, strangely, Ms. Nickerson’s home, which started life as a 1910 farmhouse, has ended up as one also, albeit one with a very modernist bent.
The corner house, you see, started life as stonecutter Joseph Daniel’s residence; in 1959, it was purchased by writer James Bacque and his wife, Elizabeth, who sold it to Ms. Nickerson and her husband in 2008. And they lived in the old farmhouse, quirks, warts and all (no closets or a shower upstairs) for about a decade. They tweaked and tinkered with its finicky old rooms to make them livable but, eventually, the decision was made to call in professional help.
“It was originally going to be a renovation,” says Ms. Nickerson, a lawyer, “where we were going to keep this and then put a modern wrap up … but it got complicated.” Since the old building was relatively frail, only bits and pieces could be saved.
“So,” says Gloria Apostolou of Post Architecture, “zoning-wise, [the city] was going to consider it a new build anyway because you need to keep 50 per cent of the old house to call it a renovation.”
Ms. Apostolou was chosen, Ms. Nickerson stresses, because of her deft handling of heritage architecture, of taking old houses “through time” and making sure they don’t “look odd.” So, when it was determined that a completely new build was in the cards, the challenge for the University of Waterloo graduate was to figure out how channel ol’ Janus. Could the old house’s profile – the gable, the chimney, the zeitgeist – be incorporated into a new scheme? Could the house look to the past and the future simultaneously?
Of course it could.
“It’s layering,” Ms. Apostolou says. “It’s all built at one time, of course, but it’s just thinking about how the old house was, and the feel of that, versus what a new addition could look like.” In fact, as she was designing, Ms. Apostolou thought of the two pieces as “the farmhouse” and “the addition to the farmhouse.”
And, from the street, this is clear. Clad in a rough, charred (shou sugi ban) wood siding stained white, the gabled farmhouse stands out. While there are no eaves, there are modern shutters and much smaller windows on the western façade. Also on the western façade is a white-brick chimney that’s identical to the original. To the east, clad in black steel, the flat-roofed “addition” pushes back, slightly, on the second storey to give prominence to the farmhouse shape and, on the main floor, dissolves an entire corner by opting for an almost frameless window.
Just like the original, the home is raised from street level to the same height, but the garage door betters what was there before by virtually disappearing underneath faux bois concrete tile.
Inside, of course, is another story – not a completely different story as Ms. Nickerson’s decor is modern Scandinavian farmhouse – of rooms spilling into other rooms, an abundance of light, and a palette of light woods, grey quartz and classic black and white.
Rather than chew up space with hallways, Ms. Apostolou opted for millwork “objects” that separate uses; these room dividers can contain anything from shelving to HVAC, or even closets and bathrooms. And so these somewhat monolithic pieces don’t overwhelm, a half-inch reveal at the top and bottom “float” them in the space. The first of these a visitor would encounter, for instance, is an ebony box in the foyer; it contains a bench for sitting down to remove one’s shoes, a closet, a powder room and a route to the couple’s home office.
Should that visitor instead head in the other direction, her jaw might drop as she considers the massive fireplace surround of ribbed quartz and how it matches the many wooden screens and doors throughout the space. Or, she might notice how that quartz carries over to the massive kitchen backsplash and countertops. If she were really detail-obsessed, she’d definitely pick out that there are two sets of windows: black-framed units for the ‘addition’ and white-framed units for the “heritage” portion, each from a different supplier.
The white windows, explains Ms. Apostolou, have “more traditional proportions. Some of them are nestled under the bulkheads [and] all of that is a little bit cozier, and then, beyond it, the den, being an addition to the original footprint, that got the big black windows.”
And, strangely, although the neighbouring house is quite a distance away, the big black window that faces it had to incorporate industrial sprinklers. However the builder, Inline Design + Build, made them almost disappear. “They got it figured out where it actually looks good,” Ms. Nickerson says.
In addition to containing the principal suite – with an ensuite that pops out in order to accommodate a long window on either side of the sculptural tub – the second floor benefits from four skylights that illuminate both artwork and the hidden laundry pair. In the basement, another, larger laundry pair isn’t used as often, but, since it shares space with wine storage, it gets the occasional fist-bump. The home gym and home theatre do see a lot of use, however.
Dropping something new into an established neighbourhood is rather like translating a piece of classic literature. Rush it and you end up with something clunky and difficult to understand, something that will surely annoy the literati. Take one’s time, look back with respect while boldly moving forward, and a new classic is born.
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