The listing: 1901 21st Ave. SW, Calgary
Asking Price: $1.485-million
Taxes: $5,212 (2017)
Lot Size: 287 square metres
Agents: John McNeill, Century 21 Bamber Realty Ltd.
The house today
Almost everything about the house that celebrated Calgary architects Lesley Beale and Jeremy Sturgess built for themselves was about enhancing the “phenomenal light quality” of the city they have lived, worked in and helped to build for more than 30 years.
A 20-foot high window wall on the front and a 10-footer on the back of the house, the interior space is almost devoid of separations, and yet everywhere there is privacy, too. “There are no blinds on our windows,” says Mr. Sturgess, who angled the house toward a view of downtown Calgary’s skyline, and angled its front deck toward the street in such a way that blocked an easy view into the interior of the house from passersby. This is a structure that drinks in the light: “It’s pretty bright in Calgary, we’re so far north. The deck on the front - it gets sunshine in the evening.”
The backyard garden, Ms. Beale’s pride and joy, gets more than its share of light, too. Framed by columnar Aspen trees (perfect for surviving Calgary’s chinooks), it combines a large seating and entertaining space with lush plantings and the architects' eye for landscape design. Again, despite feeling like a park, there’s “absolute privacy in it. There’s no view into the garden,” she said, even though there are houses on the slope above them.
“This was the house for us after our kids had grown up,” Mr. Sturgess said, and it is a living example of their architectural legacy.
The back story
Seen from the street, you realize the black and silver modernist house set into the slope of a hill is actually a duplex, sharing a common-wall and a common front staircase (meant to evoke houses from Mr. Sturgess’s boyhood in Montreal) with a neighbour living in the twin of this unit. It’s one of six houses the couple built or designed over the years in the immediate area (one was an addition to a domed house across the street, another was their own first home in the neighbourhood). This house sits in the middle of three units on a corner lot they subdivided with the other two homeowners.
“This part of Calgary is really on a big hill; by topography we’re taller than Nose Hill, which we have a big view of. It’s a very old community, we’re on a steep narrow street, so it’s our own little bit of San Francisco,” Ms. Beale said.
Built in 2002, the house was also a chance to experiment with modernist architecture. “In our earlier houses, there were still dining rooms, still separation of uses. This is really about creating singular space that accommodates changes of mood and program,” Mr. Sturgess said.
Inside the front door is one vast two-storey space. The sitting area and front-porch access is separated from the kitchen and dining area by a floating steel staircase to the upper floor (and also a stairwell down to the garage-accessible basement, with utilities, two guest rooms and one of three bathrooms). The floor and stair risers are the same variegated Brazilian cherry wood, which mixes lighter tones with richer tones in a warm organic patina that never repeats itself.
“Instead of having interior walls, you have a steel beam, and instead of putting the steel beam around the window and burying around the window frame, we decided steel is really a beautiful material - let’s expose it in that middle beam,” Ms. Beale said. “It harkens back to Maison Chareau in Paris, also known as the Glass House. That was part of the modernist movement with ‘honesty in materials’ and you express and show - you don’t cover stuff up with decoration.”
That same honesty in steel is reflected in the couple’s later works, including the Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park, a marquee landmark.
In 1932, in his Maison de Verre, Pierre Chareau made liberal use of concrete, screens and glass brick, but the Sturgess-Beale house prefers slate where hard surfaces are needed; the kitchen counter is split-face slate (“One of my favourite materials; after 15 years it looks brand new,” Mr. Sturgess said), and the fireplace is black slate. There are no screens, but the stairwell’s railings also resemble the thin, almost delicate feel of the Maison de Verre. The rear wall of the kitchen is also panes of glass, with sliding walkouts to the garden. It’s a space designed for entertaining 100 people at a time. "We had the entire National Youth Orchestra of Canada in here,” Ms. Beale said.
Upstairs is the 10- by 19-foot master bedroom, a walk-through closet and master bath (walk-in shower and soaker tub) and laundry room - which can be screened from the rest of the house by sliding panels hidden in the walls - and the office, which bends around the balcony of the second floor which is open to the living room. There’s rooftop access in the office and a small balcony next to the master.
“It’s a really special house, a prototype for how to live an elegant but modest sort of lifestyle,” Mr. Sturgess said. “When I say modest, the house is 171 square metres - which is large. This is an alternative to buying a penthouse apartment; it offers something that’s a little more rooted in the neighbourhood.”
The house has been on sale since August, but the couple is not in a rush (they already own their next home in Vancouver, where more of Ms. Beale’s family has relocated over the years). Their agent has also warned them it could take a while more to sell with Alberta’s economy in rough straights.
“The market is challenged,” Century 21 Bamber Realty Ltd. sales associate John McNeill said. “But we have something really special and a very high level of quality. There’s always a market for the best.” The neighbourhood is also special, he says - a diverse community close to downtown and due west from the prestigious Mount Royal area. It’s clearly ideal for a single or a couple, but could accommodate a small family, too. “I’ve had a family in the neighbourhood look at it … the draw of the architecture is so compelling.”
The best feature
It’s a cliché, but families spend most of their time in the kitchen, and the Beale-Sturgess kitchen is open and modern but also playful with one of the bold dashes of colour in the house with lime-green cabinets and backsplash behind the gas range. Framed by the remaining dark wood cabinets and dark slate of the island, and the lighter exposed wood-framed windows of the rear wall and that cherry floor extended throughout it’s both modern and comfortably warm. The same colours continue outside into the verdant garden and wooden deck.
There’s also a secret: the pantry behind the kitchen has its own prep space and counters, a small sink and enough space to offer an out-of-the-way place for catering staff to work those hundred-person parties.
And if you’re worried about the price, consider this, Mr. Sturgess said: “People come to us to design houses, I don’t think they come to us anymore for anything less than $1.5-million.” And that’s without the land, he notes. Here, for the same price you can have a piece of Canadian architectural heritage, and that phenomenal light, too.
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