105 Marsdale Dr., St. Catharines, Ont.
Lot Size: 100 feet by 128-feet
Taxes: $9,713.00 (2020)
Agent: Karl Vanderkuip, Broker, Re/Max Garden City Uphouse Realty
Architects and critics have trotted out many ways to describe the design philosophy behind mid-century modern homes, but Elizabeth Loomis may have landed on the most Canadian terminology for how her home functions: She calls it a mullet. “Business up front, party in the back,” she said.
The 3,000-square-foot home in St. Catharines, Ont., presents as a low-profile bungalow from the street, but like many homes of its era it seeks to create a privacy screen from passersby while the interior brings light and nature inside with sightlines from the main foyer through to a wall of windows on the rear of the house to the terraced deck and poolside. It has a number of features in common with a more famous mid-century ranch house designed by the same architect – James Secord – on nearby Wood Dale Avenue, which was awarded a silver medal Massey Medal for architecture in 1961.
As a child Ms. Loomis lived about 50 houses down the road, and would ride her bike past the home all the time. “I loved the house … I would park my bike and stare at the house and study its lines,” she said. She went on to study design at the Ontario College of Art and Design and worked in advertising for 20 years. In 2001, she was pregnant with what would be her only child and arrived for a showing to a house across the street from 105 Marsdale Dr. Keen to know whether her dream home was available, her realtor told her she could arrange an introduction to the owner – Robin Stewart, co-founder of Stewart & Hinan Construction and a local legend in the building trade.
What followed was an interview of sorts with Mr. Stewart who had built the house for himself and his wife, Yvette. “We were told, ‘This house has been full of parties and joy and wonderful moments,’” said Ms. Loomis, and while the couple had not planned to sell they thought a young couple might be a fitting successor. “I think it mattered to him that I was a designer. I think he trusted I would be a steward of the property, that I would maintain the integrity of the home.”
And over the past 20 years that’s what she has tried to do, keeping the structure of the home intact while updating interiors and changing some of its materials.
“The house was clad in cedar, there was a lot of natural wood, and the maintenance was prohibitive … was thousands of dollars every year to maintain the wood,” Ms. Loomis said. The cladding was replaced with stucco, a wood pergola in the rear was replaced with powder-coated steel, but the lines she had admired were retained. Most of her efforts went into the interiors, some getting nearly a full gut (such as the kitchen) and others just updated and brightened to fit 21st-century tastes.
“This is the very first time in 60 years the home has come for sale to the public,” listing agent Karl Vanderkuip said. The price point is raising eyebrows in St. Catharines, a town better known as a retirement community for snowbirds seeking quick access to Buffalo’s airport. But much of the interest has come from Toronto – two or more hours away with traffic. “In the last year the pandemic has allowed for more families and entrepreneurs that have moved from Toronto,” Mr. Vanderkuip said. “I’ve put in a few families who’ve moved to the area that were almost looking at being renters in Toronto that are able to get into a very comfortable middle class home here, for $600,000.”
The House Today
The foyer provides a good template for what visitors are going to experience in every room in the house: A mix of mid-century structural and design elements with contemporary finishes and materials layered on. “It’s a very sensual home,” Mr. Vanderkuip said. “It has such an amazing material to feel … from cowhide like wallpaper, to granite stone to rough sawn cedar ceilings – you get goosebumps on the arms, you feel you’re in the presence of something special.”
There are two bedrooms upstairs and two downstairs, the first staircase is right beside the front door. The closet has louvered shutters, straight out of the 1950s, that many guests have suggested Ms. Loomis replace. “People are very free with their opinions,” said Ms. Loomis, but wherever possible she kept original features, such as a long rose-wood banquet in the dining room. “It has a complete lack of hardware [there are spring-loaded touch latches]. That’s is so au-courant right now, and that’s what I love about mid-century modern: it’s timeless.”
The flooring throughout the main level is all new, Austrian oiled-ash installed in 2012, but straight ahead is the living room with original wood beams that lever up from the centre of the house to an 18-foot granite-faced wall with a fireplace. The window wall on the rear of the house climbs up to meet it, and the wall continues past the window frame connecting exterior to interior (the granite continues, wrapping around the other side of the exterior wall). Hidden inside a concrete fireplace mantle (a Loomis addition) is a television that rises up on a mechanism.
To the right is hallway that connects the old house to the 1970s addition, a principal bedroom with a wall of closets and storage, cow-hide wallpaper, cedar ceiling and a magnificent lava-rock and riverstone fireplace (behind which is a sauna spa and a walkout to an in-ground hot-tub). The master bath has more of that unusual river-bed lava stone for the shower and standalone bath enclosure.
To the left of the foyer is a sitting room, and past that the second main-floor bedroom suite, currently her daughter’s room, the bathroom here has also been updated with porcelain-tile walls, penny-tile countertop and a separate bath and shower.
The kitchen is one of the first rooms Ms. Loomis remodeled, blowing out separating walls that chopped up the space and replacing it with a massive 14-foot central island. The sink is in the island, the fridge in the wall behind the sink and the stove is next to a massive new wall of glass added to connect the backyard seating areas to the kitchen. On the opposite wall is a wall-mounted wood-burning fireplace surrounded by massive sheets of stainless steel stamped into a crocodile-skin pattern. Next to this is a dine-in area framed by a large window facing onto the streetscape from the corner, just beyond this is a laundry and pantry area made out of custom cabinets.
It adds up to a lot of textures and materials, but it’s also been about experimentation for Ms. Loomis whose work has moved from purely graphic design to a mix of interior and retail space design work.
“I call myself a dual-discipline designer, I have been doing it freelance up to now, and I would have clients come see my personal space,” she said.
The backyard was a huge undertaking by Natural Landscape Group Inc.: two new steel I-beam pergolas (one for lounging, one for the outdoor barbecue kitchen and dining table) with permanent roofs, a wall of frosted glass for privacy along the side-yard and a series of concrete pads separated by stone gardens and Palm Springs-inspired plantings that step down to the in-ground pool.
A Mid-Century Time Capsule
There’s also a set of stairs here that takes you into the basement, which has been kid-central as her daughter grew up. It’s also the space that has the most original interiors, maintaining much of the wood decorative features that made this home such a mid-century marvel.
“I left all the door frames the original oak, I don’t want to touch them too much,” said Ms. Loomis, who did the most updating in a kitchenette that was originally a wet bar. “I wanted to use it as an in-law suite or it could function as a 2,000-square-foot separate apartment. I also wanted it to feel like a private space for the kids – you can have 20 kids down there, you don’t even see them.”
The layout is a bit of a maze down here, but carpet tiles with some Granny Smith green tints act as a way-finder from the back door entrance to the front stairs. Immediately to the left of the rear entrance is an office space in a hallway that leads to the mechanical room. To the right is a TV room with the original cedar cladding on the walls and some newer built-in cabinetry for the media centre. A geothermal furnace was added by Ms. Loomis, necessitating the running of some pipe through this space, but she made a virtue of a new bulk-head by running perimeter lighting behind it, giving this windowless room a generous amount of light.
Ahead through a short hallway is the galley kitchenette on the left, original oak cabinetry but a new cooktop bar with a passthrough to the second basement lounge. Around the corner you walk into perhaps the most spectacular collection of mid-century finishings: a sitting room lined with cedar beams on the ceiling (painted white in between, once a dark cork added even more cloistered darkness) that run toward two walls of exposed brick with firmly rectilinear shapes jutting out to form the fourth wood-burning fireplace, the hearth and a bench next to it. This room harkens the most to the influence of architect Ronald Thom who Mr. Stewart’s company worked with on Shaw Festival buildings.
The final space is a set of rooms that can be closed behind a door just past the front stairway for that in-law suite. One small bedroom, more an office at this scale, and one larger one with a cedar feature wall, are joined by a modest-sized bathroom with a large glassed-in shower. There aren’t a lot of windows down here, but with everything white except the wood it’s remarkably bright, like a stateroom in a cruise ship more than a basement.
Ms. Loomis wouldn’t leave this labour of love behind – she estimates she spent twice the original purchase price over the years on her updates – but with her daughter heading to university the call of downsizing is getting stronger. She hopes to find some land on the water somewhere in Niagara and build something new for the next phase in her life.
Like Mr. Stewart before her, she’s not looking for a price so much as to understand the personality of those interested buyers. “I’m going to feel happier knowing if a buyer understands my desire to hand this house over to someone with the same passion to maintain the integrity of the house,” Ms. Loomis said.
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