Trevor Wallace’s recent renovation took three months to execute but was in the offing for a full four years.
The Toronto architect, principal of a Reflect Architecture, first rented his Toronto row house in 2017, buying it from his landlord after 12 months. In the ensuing time, Mr. Wallace, who shares the place with his wife, Emily, became his “own worst client,” he jokes, weighing and re-weighing exactly what aspects of the Cabbagetown-area house to keep and what to reconfigure.
An obvious area for an overhaul: “Our kitchen was like this atrociously cute cottage kitchen from the late nineties,” Mr. Wallace says. “It had been repainted nine times and had iridescent glass and and this tiny little door to the outside. We didn’t want our house to stop at our kitchen. Instead we want to extend out into the backyard courtyard.”
Other areas were harder to parse. For clients, Mr. Wallace designs contemporary homes – clean-lined and refined, minimal and bright. His own pile dates back to 1870, and had much of the original, un-contemporary ornamentation: mouldings around the ceilings; a marble surround around the sculptural fireplace; turned balusters on the stairs leading up to the bedrooms on the second level.
Fortunately, that character captivated Mr. Wallace. “Victorian is like the O.G. architecture of Toronto,” he says. “I wanted to be authentic to that, in all its dark, ornate, moodiness.”
The challenge was to blend the eras in a cohesive, not clashing way. The existing, 1,700-square-foot layout, with its a somewhat modern open-ness, provided a head start. “The home had something really rare in Victorian houses,” Mr. Wallace says. “Typically, the stairs shoot straight to the front door, leaving a pinched entry. Here, the stairs turn away from the front door into the dining area, creating a nicer, more open vestibule area.”
The vestibule is next to the living area, which might be the most un-touched room in the house. In winter’s chill, a fire burns in the hearth, encased in the swooping lines of the mantle. Beautiful arched casings frame the glass in the big bay window.
With many of the remaining details, Mr. Wallace ostensibly stuck to his preferred, pared-down aesthetics. In the powder room under the stairs, the sink has square corners, the mirror is little more than a circle and the light is a single LED strip mounted to the wall. The simplicity contrasts with the Victorian-perfect, quasi-gothic drama imbued by the slate-coloured wall covering. “It’s American clay paint from Pure and Original,” Mr. Wallace says. “You scrape it on with a trowel, and you can see the plaster scraping. It gives it character.”
Mr. Wallace also tied the old into the new by eschewing a common approach in contemporary design. Rather than trying to make every room and surface as bright as possible, he embraced a bit more darkness. In the dining room, a spare dropped ceiling, edged with lights tucked into a recessed cove, washes diffuse light down the partly shadowed walls. It’s a romantic backdrop for a dinner party (if dinner parties are ever permitted to resume).
Some of the most minimal details belie inspiration from time gone by. The Davide Groppi chandelier over the kitchen is composed of ivory cylinders hanging at different heights. “It’s reminiscent of cathedral light tapers,” Mr. Wallace says. Also in the kitchen, a series of razor-fine shelves protrude from the backsplash to hold cups and plates beside the sink, then cut back to the wall above the stovetop, leaving a clear path for steam to reach the range hood. “It’s like the stone mullions in a stained glass window,” Mr. Wallace says. “The stone can look almost impossibly thin. But sometimes, thin things can be very strong.”
The back of the home has a decidedly un-Victorian relationship to the backyard. Mr. Wallace replaced the tiny rear door with wall-to-wall glass. “In the summertime, the glass slides open,” Mr. Wallace says. “The idea is to feel like the backyard is basically another room of the house.”
According to Mr. Wallace, the long wait to renovate was worth it (as was his choice of contractor, Encore Projects, which he says helped make the process “painless” despite the pandemic). He might have been his toughest client. He also might be among his happiest. The years he spent tinkering have paid off in tiny little details that only he and his wife might appreciate, but which make their house feel like theirs and theirs alone. The convenient USB chargers so he can power up his bike light and his wife can power up her phone (“she was always looking for a charger,” he says), the slight angle to the seemingly square kitchen island, which tapers toward the ground (“otherwise I might stub my toes,” Mr. Wallace says), or the small cupboard in the kitchen perfectly sized for the couple’s Dyson vacuum.
“Designing good residential architecture Is knowing as much about your client as possible,” he says. “Without that information, you just can’t do great work.”
And as long as the renovation took to come to fruition, Mr. Wallace is also mulling over what’s next. He’s thinking of a possible, all-new third floor. No rush, though. “My wife is four-months pregnant,” he says. “We’re going to be here for a bit.” In preparation, during the recent work, he added structure to the walls to support building up, an invisible step to allow for future modernization.