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The Thomson House addition to Montcrest School, by Montgomery Sisam Architects.

Doublespace Photography

The particular shade of yellow that nature paints onto fall leaves is like no other: Part cheap florescent spray-bomb, part expensive gold-shavings, but when sunlight hits, an explosion of otherworldly light results.

That light is currently pouring into the second-floor corridor of the new Thomson House addition to Montcrest School in Toronto through floor-to-ceiling windows, where its current occupants – architect Daniel Ling, head of school Erin Corbett, director of advancement Michael Dilworth and your humble Architourist – are motivated to linger a little longer during a walk-through. Why? Because good architecture enhances good feelings, and human beings crave good feelings.

“First recess, 10-something in the morning, I was up here,” Mr. Dilworth recalls of when staff and students moved into this phase of the project a year and a half ago. “Kids gathered here – literally, Grade 8s, sitting along all the benches,” he pauses to signal his relief with a mock-sigh, “[with] space to sit, and connect, and work.”

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“It took a while to figure out what’s the right balance for the new [architecture],” adds Mr. Ling, a principal at Montgomery Sisam. “The old houses are also very much a part Montcrest… so what’s the new identity?”

The school stands among big, red-brick houses on Broadview Avenue just south of the Danforth in eclectic Riverdale, and maintains its sense of history.

Doublespace Photography

The new identity, it turned out, was to allow the school’s “old” houses – located on Broadview Avenue just south of the Danforth in eclectic Riverdale – to continue to take pride of place. Big, red-brick beauties with wide bay windows similar to those found in the older Annex neighbourhood: No. 658, a Queen Ann Revival, was built in 1908 for builder/bricklayer Thomas Cruttenden Sr.; No. 660 the next year for William Peyton Hubbard (Toronto’s first black alderman, who was born to escaped slaves who came via the Underground Railroad) in Edwardian style; and No. 650, also a Queen Ann, in 1912 for brick maker David Wagstaff. Notable among them is Hubbard’s home, designed by George Gouinlock (1861-1932), who also penned the CNE’s Beaux-Arts buildings.

Acquired in the 1980s and ’90s by Montcrest, these heritage homes served the private school well for decades. In fact, their nooks, crannies and quirkiness is what set the school apart, Mr. Dilworth says: “Our alumni have always talked about that they remember that they’re at school but they’re comfortable and they’re at home.

“You were using the front foyer, when there were only 40 or 50 students here, your assembly might be there, so there was that sense of history that we wanted to maintain, and the other reality is that we’re not a school that wants to just … demolish because it’s going to make an easier, more functional school for us.”

The classrooms are flooded with light and have ample space.

Doublespace Photography

When Mr. Ling came around to have a look about four years ago, he found the 320-plus students elbow-to-elbow, the 50-something teachers with spatial wish-lists as long as their arms, and all the nooks and crannies filled with desks, musical instruments, art supplies and the what-have-yous an elementary school needs. Even the 1996 gymnasium/library/classroom addition – tucked in behind the old homes since lots stretch all the way to the lip of the Don Valley – was overtaxed.

So, rather than take the easy route and put an enormous glass box behind some Frankensteined façades (an earlier plan not penned by Montgomery Sisam had suggested this), a more difficult plan that considered the “in between spaces” was drawn up, Mr. Ling says. Why not wedge a thin, lantern-like, purple-grey brick box between the southern pair of heritage homes – but push it well back so the old front porches still dominate – and let it run between them? Not only would this provide a new drop-off point for parents, it would provide a large indoor gathering space, and pockmarked red-brick walls in some of the classrooms. Behind the middle house, build a long extension to house classrooms (and that wonderful sunlit corridor), and connect everything with jiggity-jaggity spaces that mimic an old house vibe. And the old houses, of course, would be restored by professionals and given a common paint scheme to tie them together.

The result? A sort of Jarvis Street National Ballet School, but in miniature.

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“It really was an interesting challenge; it was fun,” Mr. Ling says. “If you’re walking down Broadview, you wouldn’t notice the addition at first,” he continues, a hint of pride in his voice. But, as one approaches, “you say ‘Oh wait a second, there’s something going on behind these houses, I want to know a little more.’”

Kids gather along the benches to sit, connect and work.

Doublespace Photography

And because thin mullions on the new addition are closely spaced, that façade changes as one walks: a solid wall, a reflective glass surface or, at night, a beacon on Broadview, Mr. Dilworth says: “I left the other day, and it was dark already … I looked south, and immediately you could feel the campus because of the lighting.”

It’s a campus that now feels properly stitched together. The old homes – some with oak trim and fireplaces intact – offer intimacy and warmth; the asymmetrical new addition offers both tall and airy spaces along with cozy classrooms with peek-a-boos into other classrooms (or the treetops); outdoor spaces are now sheltered and micro-climated to allow more usage; and, most importantly, the school has a proper “front door."

“Guests really wouldn’t know where to show up,” Mr. Dilworth says. “It’s created a central point, a focal point," along Broadview. “It sounds funny, but it creates more community … it really has made a difference.”

Not funny at all, really: If gold-lit corridors cause folks to linger inside, great spaces outside can certainly create great community, which makes a difference to everyone.

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The new architectural identity of the school brings with it a strong sense of community.

Doublespace Photography

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