First things first: There was nothing wrong with this house.
Built by “the butcher of Queen Street,” laughed homeowner Mike Mills, co-founder of an advertising agency, the Beaches house – originally owned by a local butcher, “not a murderer,” he clarified – was well cared for and solidly built.
The only problem was that folks lived a little differently 111 years ago, and this house hadn’t changed much since then. There was the usual collection of tiny rooms, gloppy scalloped plaster on most walls, a busy marquetry floor underfoot, and a “strange, small addition” at the rear that was only big enough for a small sofa, architect Barbora Vokac Taylor said.
“Katie [McLaughlin] and Mike bought this amazing house, but it was not functional,” continued Ms. Vokac Taylor, who partnered with architect Winda Lau on the project. “It was dark and dated and a bit gloomy.”
However, all parties agreed there were too many good things to simply gut the place and start over. After all, taking the guts out of a home can remove the soul, too.
Writing for Curbed.com in March, Kate Wagner of McMansionhell.com says, “Remodeling and other house-fussery has become a national pastime” when, in most cases, “there is nothing wrong” with our houses. HGTV and other mass media have conditioned us to see houses “as monetary objects to be bought, sold, invested in – consumed – rather than places to be experienced.” Ms. Wagner closes her article by suggesting it’s “time we enjoyed the historicity of our old houses.”
Even though Ms. Lau and Ms. Vokac Taylor opened up the main floor for this modern family of five – the couple have three boys under the age of 10 – there is history aplenty to enjoy. Past the big porch posts (which were restored) and through the front door, there is still a vestibule. Inside the foyer and to the left, a big brick fireplace dominates the far wall. Red oak trim continues to outline each door frame and, straight ahead, while there is now an eye-line to the greenery of the backyard, the stately newel post and staircase still divide the space into distinct areas on the main floor.
And about that actual floor: While the marquetry had to go because it would’ve traced phantom walls (and consequently made things look like a funhouse), its replacement is equally historic. Displaying saw-marks and knots, and being of irregular widths, the rich chocolate- and gold-toned pine floor once made up the walls of a barn that belonged to Ms. McLaughlin’s family – a barn, it should be noted, that hosted the couple’s wedding reception after they were married beside it.
“It’s nice to have that family heirloom in here,” said Ms. McLaughlin, a research director at the Centre for Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children.
In the kitchen, which is housed in a new addition, non-heirloom barn board is used to clad the enormous island and a trough has been created to corral the hanging light fixtures above it. This, Mr. Mills said, is “a good sign” of how the architects listened to them, since most of the inspiration photos he provided at the beginning of the project showed kitchens with exposed, rough-hewn beams. Since nobody was interested in creating fakes, this was a good compromise.
Halfway to the second floor, the wide landing offers a place to pause and admire wonderful stained glass windows that match those in the foyer. Once up the stairs, it’s time to admire the beautiful – and original – cove ceiling. Up here, it should be noted, the three bedrooms work as follows: parents in the larger rear one; one boy in the middle; and two boys in bunk beds in the front room, formerly the master (it must have been, since it has a cove ceiling and a gorgeous green-tiled fireplace). Ms. Vokac Taylor remembered the couple saying “we’re not those people” when it was suggested that they build a third floor “retreat” with enormous closets and a huge en-suite bath.
Nope, on the third floor there are just quaint, slanted walls and empty guest bedrooms that, perhaps, will house independence-craving teenagers in seven or eight years.
Much of the second floor (which has some of the marquetry floor intact) and all of the third, Ms. Vokac Taylor said, was tied to the rest of the project “with paint” rather than bold architectural moves. “There was a whole lot of area to cover, but the budget had to be really focused, so we focused it on the new construction [and] we focused it on certain key features,” she explained.
Budget had to be allocated for phase two also, which included pulling off original exterior cladding to better insulate the home, and then installing cedar shakes and Equitone fibre cement panels (which were lapped in some places) over top.
From the street, a passerby wouldn’t notice much that’s different about this Beaches home, and that’s the point. Even inside, with all of that barn board and original oak trim, things still read as heritage. That’s because this was not a “tear it all out, change the face of Canadian design,” project, said Ms. Vokac Taylor, who stressed that there are still jobs out there for architects that require only a light touch and a medium-sized renovation budget.
“Still to this day, Katie and I come into this house and say, ‘Wow, we’re so lucky to live here,’” Mr. Mills said. “It’s such a warm and welcoming space.”