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the architourist

Toronto home of Alessia Kalish. Renovation by architect Kaegan Walsh.Kaegan Walsh Architect

There are really only three paths from which to choose when it comes to a heritage house. The first is to blow it away and start fresh – damn the torpedoes! – despite what the neighbours might think; the second is to save some parts, but add bits and bobs that are likely modern and hopefully tastefully done; and the third path is to respect what’s on the exterior – whether that’s from 1860 or 1960 – and change only the inside to suit one’s needs.

While future historians will thank those who chose number three, it can be a most difficult path owing to ego, vanity, showiness, apathy or, sadly, ignorance.

So, when an enlightened homeowner such as Alessia Kalish meets with a skilled-yet-humble architect such as Kaegan Walsh, there is cause for celebration.

The subject of celebration? A tall, handsome, red brick semi-detached in Toronto’s “Ave and Dav” neighbourhood (Avenue and Davenport roads for the uninitiated), which started construction in 1899 and was occupied a year later. And, surprisingly for a piece of real estate in such a big and busy city, it had enjoyed a relatively undisturbed existence since 1907, since it had remained in one family.

“She had been born in this house, died alone, never married, never had kids, and was just taking care of it,” Ms. Kalish says of the former owner. “And it was her nieces and nephews that sold the house.”

And for those about to clutch their pearls and cry out for the lost interior, ease your minds: the house had very simple baseboards and door trim, a workaday staircase, a lot of cracked plaster walls, and not much else save for a few stained glass windows. No grand fireplace, no oak panelling, no ballroom. It was a stripped-down, spare Edwardian rather than an ornate Victorian.

So, after deciding to save the original front door – which is set perpendicular to the street – one of the stained glass windows and, well, the entire façade (a highlight is the muscular square dormer with corbels in sets of two), the world was their oyster.

  • Toronto home of Alessia Kalish. Renovation by architect Kaegan Walsh. Basement playroom.Kaegan Walsh Architect

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And then they didn’t change very much, Mr. Walsh laughs. “Although we did play around with layouts at the beginning – you know, there could have been a staircase here,” he says, pointing to the middle of the space, “the layout is not too far off, specifically with the circulation, like where the staircase is.”

Indeed, while the new staircase sports a gentler angle than it did previously, it is in pretty much the same place. And although the original newel post is gone, Mr. Walsh has given the stair wall and handrail an elegant little flick into the hallway, which nods, design-wise, to other curves such as the arched doorway to the living/dining room, which, in turn, has a gently curving barrel vault ceiling above.

Most of the debate, architect and client say, went into where to place the four distinct spaces this family of four (Ms. Kalish has a husband and two very young children) required on the main floor. And, interestingly, Ms. Kalish chose to give the front, street-facing room over to the little ones – a guest will first set eyes on some brightly coloured Playskool furniture or flickering cartoons on the wall-mounted television – the middle portion to the tidy kitchen (with an original stained glass window), which is followed by a separate combined living/dining room and then, at the very rear of the house, a big mudroom.

“Yeah, the trade-off was the toy room versus less seating here,” Ms. Kalish says as she enters the living/dining room, which features a wall clad in craggy travertine that she chose (Mr. Walsh says much of the design should be credited to Ms. Kalish) for its warmer tones. “We’ve had people over and they’re sitting on the dining chairs … and that’s kind of cool, too.”

It helps, too, that the formerly unfinished basement was dug out and completely finished with flexible spaces that contain another playroom and a home gym; while dinner party guests may not spend much time down there, all of that space will come in handy during the teenage years.

Upstairs, the second floor was briefly considered for the primary bedroom and the kids’ rooms, but the desire for an ensuite and a kiddie bathroom made the plan unworkable. So, just the kids’ rooms and an office were placed here, which allowed for a complete adult’s suite on the third floor. And while there was worry about sleeping apart from the little ones, Ms. Kalish’s husband laughs that it’s been “a dream.” The black and “moody” ensuite is also a dream, with its Venetian plaster-style walls and little peaked roof over the shower, which was uncovered under a false ceiling.

There are other peculiarities that make this renovation interesting. Mr. Walsh, who hung his shingle out only a few years ago, worked for uber-modernist Rem Koolhaas in both Rotterdam and New York, yet his designs here are restrained, elegant, delicate and almost anti-modern. That, he says, might come from his brief time working in Japan at Atelier Bow-Wow.

“Yeah, it’s true, [this renovation] definitely harkens back to classical architecture,” he admits. “The trick is working with the existing structure … seeing opportunities to bring in different visions is really important.”

And with a general contractor for a father (Michel Kalish, who handled construction), Ms. Kalish had, literally, grown up speaking the language, so taking on a rather rough 3,000 square feet didn’t faze her.

It also made the choice of that third and more arduous path a walk in the park.