The listing: 281 Brunswick Ave., Toronto
Asking price: $1,795,000
Taxes: $7,218.94 (2019)
Lot size: 17 feet by 119 feet
Agents: Paul Maranger, Christian Vermast with Sotheby’s International Realty
The view from the front room of 281 Brunswick Ave. makes a strong argument for floor-to-ceiling glass in all homes: It positively embraces the leafy Annex street and when the garden is in full bloom, it’s like viewing a massive terrarium.
Light floods in from the curtain wall that runs the width of the house’s street-facing wall (and turns a corner with no bracket, giving the glass an L-shape). “We never really close down these blinds until the heart of the summer. I just think it looks lovely,” homeowner Gail Misra said.
Some might feel pressure to keep the space as showroom perfect as it is now and not reveal to gawkers a glimpse of the usual clutter of life, dirty plates, junk on the floor, unopened mail. “That’s not my life, it never happens … it almost always looks like this," she said with a laugh.
You might not be able to tell from the modernist glass and sharp angles seen from the street, but inside this house still beats the heart of a more than 100-year-old worker’s cottage. The front of the house is an addition designed by Gary McCluskie of Diamond + Schmitt Architects and finished in 2010. It features two large living rooms (the one above with 15-foot ceilings and more glass) and a bridge to the old house.
“[Gary] doesn’t usually do houses; he does opera houses,” said Ms. Misra, a lawyer, arbitrator and mediator, as well as a former vice-chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Indeed, Mr. McCluskie was a key partner in the design of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Queen Street, the home of the National Ballet of Canada and another modernist block with dark exterior, tonnes of glass and blond wood in the interior. There’s a grandeur to what really is a smallish space: 1,675 square feet with two bedrooms and two bathrooms.
There’s no “front” door here; the walkway that zigs and zags around topiary takes visitors to what her husband, Mark Rowlinson, calls a side “entrance plaza” that’s not visible from the street and serves as a transitional space between old house and new addition. There’s a rain-chain (a more attractive option than gutter downspouts) that runs from the upper level through the entrance plaza into drainage below: in winter the dripping water often turns into an ice sculpture.
It’s not just their humble cottage that has changed over the decades, the neighbourhood too has evolved along with the city. “There used to be more professors and other people teaching at the University [of Toronto] and many more houses renting. Student housing … that is a totally diminishing and disappearing group,” Ms. Misra said.
“It has less of a student feel largely because the Brunswick House used to be on the corner [six doors north] … it’s now a Rexall,” said Mr. Rowlinson, also a lawyer and assistant to the vice-president of the United Steelworkers of Canada. The “Brunny” on Bloor Street, once a infamously cheap beer hall in business for more than 140 years, closed in 2016. “That made the neighbourhood somewhat quieter,” he said.
“Not somewhat, it’s unbelievable now,” Ms. Misra said. “We would find the odd bottle of vodka stashed in the hedge, someone wanting to come in and pee somewhere along here. But that is such a thing of the past now.”
The house today
From the entrance plaza a right turn takes you to the aforementioned glass-walled living room, a left turn takes you into a dining room that once marked the borders of the old house. Through here is a hallway to the kitchen with doors for powder room, pantry, storage and basement access.
In the kitchen a wall of dark cabinets on the right house the stacked wall-mounted oven and microwave and fridge. On the left is a run of Caesarstone countertop with dark lower cabinets and lighter uppers framing the window above the sink. The gas range at the end of this counter run sits next to the door to the backyard deck (and laneway parking). Here in the back it opens up again slightly for a breakfast nook and the stairs upstairs (above is a restored tin ceiling, original to the house but painted white now).
Upstairs at the back of the house is the master bedroom, a full-wall window on the back with low skylights on the left bring in more and more light, and the ceiling vaults upwards on a steep angle that ends on the opposing wall with an asymmetric 15-foot peak. The room is open to the stairwell, allowing light to flow through the hallway.
Through a short hall with closets on both sides is the master bath, a three-piece with no tub but a glassed-in shower stall, with skylight and window. Just outside is a small six-foot-by-six-foot office space with the laundry hidden behind in a closet.
Travelling forward to the front of the house is that bridge that sits above the entrance plaza. Here, the space in the house compresses, narrowing even as more glass brings in more light, and then as you move to what is now the study (but could be a second bedroom) it releases into a 15-foot-tall room with another L-shaped corner glass panel and another floor-to-ceiling window facing the street. This time there’s more wall than glass, providing for quiet corners and some privacy (plus a lot of shelving for books). Closing it off from the rest of the house is a gigantic barn-style sliding door on a rail.
The best feature
These two rooms above and below, designed by Mr. McCluskie, serve the needs of the homeowners in different ways. Mark can watch sports upstairs in a light-filled library; Gail can read downstairs while in communion with the neighbourhood street life. Not only are these rooms eminently livable and architecturally clever, but because they were built forward from a deeply set-back house, even the modernist shape, with its grey-louvre-like siding exterior on the front, doesn’t brashly impose itself on the streetscape.
“I was at a fall fair of the Harbord Village Residents Association, and I saw they had this board up with a picture of our house,” Ms. Misra said. The woman at the booth told her it was there as a positive example of how the largely Victorian neighbourhood – famously the home of preservationist and livable city guru Jane Jacobs – can adapt to modern forms. “This is from people who really feel quite strongly about maintaining neighbourhood character, so I felt so much better about that. We didn’t ruffle feathers.”
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