Skip to main content
the architourist

Fonthill, Ont., home, originally built for structural engineer Jens Holm and now owned by Robert Steinbauer and Shawna Chen.Harald Ensslen/MZE Architects

Architect Mike Zuberec, 89, walks quietly from the living room to the kitchen.

In that mostly original room, homeowner Robert Steinbauer is gesticulating as he tells another architect, Harald Ensslen, of plans to remove the two major walls that hide this rather large kitchen from the rest of the 1,900-square-foot home. If this major renovation alarms Mr. Zuberec – a 1954 University of Toronto graduate who co-hung his own shingle with Norm Macdonald in St. Catharines six decades ago – he doesn’t show it. Instead, the veteran designer runs his hand along one of the white laminate countertops, squinting up at the multiple clerestory windows and then down at the drawings that he penned of these very details in 1966.

Mr. Ensslen, who was 19 years old in 1966 and is the ‘E’ in MZE Architects (still located in St. Catharines), scans the pile of onionskin paper on the table and flips through; he stops at one of the floating staircase and marvels at his partner’s pochade technique, which involves penciling in an area on the back of the paper so that shading reads a little more softly to the eye.

A well-engineered floating staircase designed in 1966, outfitted with thin pickets and a thick handrail to match the glulam beams.Harald Ensslen/MZE Architects

“This is in the days when the architect would put rebar and structural [on the drawings]; it was all engineered,” Mr. Ensslen says, tracing his finger along the little dashed lines on the concrete landing. “This is reinforced because of the weight of the stair.”

It may well be engineered – ironically the Fonthill, Ont., dwelling was built for Copenhagen-born structural engineer Jens Holm (1925-2015) and his wife, Elaine – but it reads as pure art. Even from the street, the very visible structure of this post-and-beam home is a Mondrian-like composition of grids, lines, voids and texture. Thick glued laminated (glulam) timber beams painted dark brown form a cage that support lighter brown, custom-milled ribbed walls where long windows carve away voids, and a shadowed entryway is tucked under a wide, cantilevered roof. It’s wonderful.

Inside, a wide foyer delights the visitor with an abundance of choice: To the left, a rich wooden door to the kitchen; to the right, the sculptural staircase – outfitted with thin pickets and a thick handrail to match the glulam beams – leads to a walkout basement; and, straight ahead, a column of geometrically stacked brick that belongs to the two-sided fireplace. There, another choice: Pivot left into the large, light-filled living room, or right into the cozy den with built-in shelving by Poul Cadovius.

Harald Ensslen/MZE Architects

A rich wooden door opens to the kitchen and dining area overlooking the deck.Harald Ensslen/MZE Architects

“We had a lot of fun there,” Ms. Holm remembers from her midtown Toronto apartment. “It was a great place to entertain; we had the lights coming up through the birch trees, and the balcony out in the back – that was a great place to serve hors d’oeuvres – and we had the nice big dining room … we’d stick the kids downstairs.”

While the Holms sold the house in 1986, their knack for entertaining was recorded in a March, 1973, Welland Tribune article, Danish Touch in Fonthill Home. Writer Sophie Homenuck describes a 100-person reception held for Dane Preben Erichsen, who had returned to Canada after a two-year stay in his home country; in 1967, Mr. Erichsen had assisted the Holms with furnishing and lighting their new home. Ms. Homenuck describes some of it: “a beautiful rosewood dining room suite, upholstered in purple, and the living room pieces in comfortable black leather and wood,” along with noting daylight pouring in from Mr. Zuberec’s “square sky-light.”

Manipulating light is a skill every good Modernist knows, and Mr. Zuberec – born in Montreal to Slovakian immigrants who relocated to St. Catharine’s during the Second World War – was taught by some of the best during the early 1950s at the University of Toronto. In the same class as Raymond Moriyama, Mr. Zuberec counted Eric Arthur, James A. Murray, Ants Elken and Michael Bach as some of his instructors, and enjoyed guest lectures by Buckminster Fuller and other famous Modernists.

After graduation, Mr. Zuberec worked for respected St. Catharines architect Robert Ian Macbeth (1891-1978), where he designed a very Frank Lloyd Wrightian home for a local doctor. With money he’d earned, he took a two-year “work holiday” in London, England, where he found employment at Modernist firm Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, which was then working on Gatwick Airport (he worked on a hospital in Northern Ireland). During time off, he scooted over on his Lambretta to see Le Corbusier’s famous chapel in Ronchamp, France, and as far away as Vienna to visit his grandmother. Upon his return to Canada, he took a job with St. Catharines’ Thomas R. Wiley, who passed away unexpectedly in 1959, leaving himself and Mr. Macdonald at the helm. This author wonders: Did that scare him?

A column of geometrically stacked brick in the living area has a two-sided fireplace.Harald Ensslen/MZE Architects

“Didn’t bat an eye,” the bowtie-sporting octogenarian says with a laugh. “When I think back, geez we were cocky – not cocky,” he corrects. “We had confidence … based on the training that we had.”

That training would lead to dozens of 1960s schools to house the baby boom, credit unions, movie theatres and even a few art galleries, his favourite being the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, which he says “turned out quite well.”

Five years ago, the Holm residence was not doing well. Mr. Zuberec and his wife of 59 years, Mary, walked the site just before Brock University professors Mr. Steinbauer and Shawna Chen purchased it: “It looked as if some guys had used the site for a dump … the finishes were peeling, it was just a pile of crap.”

Luckily, with a cabinetmaker father who flies in twice a year from Austria, Mr. Steinbauer has been giving the home the love it deserves: “Now he has the world’s biggest cabinet to refinish,” Mr. Ensslen quips, “so the two of them have doing all the refinishing, rebuilding the deck, the glass, the trim.”

A balcony at the back of house can be used for entertainment purposes.Robert Steinbauer /MZE Architects

During the MZE Architects visit (which included architect Greg Redden and this author), topics discussed included unrelated things such as mountain biking, semi-related things such as vintage furniture finds and very related things such as Mr. Zuberec’s alternate plans for the Holm fireplace. Debated, too, were those kitchen walls: Contemporary tastes don’t like enclosed kitchens – dinner party people always gather in the kitchen – yet to remove full walls also removes mystery and the sense of shelter humans crave.

So, what to do?

A few days later, an e-mail from Mr. Steinbauer: “We appreciate the positive feedback on our renovation progress and everybody’s input on the kitchen wall. I am happy to report that it is up for negotiation again.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Vienna was behind the iron curtain.

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.