A delicate but decided intervention
A renovation by designer Mazen El-Abdallah remains sensitive to the architecture and history of a Toronto Victorian home
The listing: 90 Markham St., Toronto
Asking Price: $2,195,000
Taxes: $7,157.37 (2017)
Lot Size: 16.4 by 135 feet
Agents: Paul Maranger and Christian Vermast (Sotheby's International Realty Canada)
The back story
When a young entrepreneur purchased a Victorian-era house in the buzzing Queen Street West area in Toronto, he put in a call to Mazen El-Abdallah. A few years earlier, the designer had created a cool work space for the entrepreneur's technology startup. Could Mr. El-Abdallah also bring modern comfort to a circa 1887 dwelling?
Walking through the house, Mr. El-Abdallah appreciated the original staircase, the proportion of the rooms and the high ceilings. Many of the 19th-century details had been left intact.
"I wanted to do a light intervention – I didn't want to rob the house of its character," the designer says.
The twist was that the semi-detached red-brick house had been turned into a duplex.
Mr. El-Abdallah also found the rooms quite dark.
"I knew that what it needed was to open up the back on the upper levels to let more light in."
He began to plan the building's renewal.
The owner's suite consists of 2,500-square-feet spread over the front half of the main floor and all of the two floors above. The rear half of the main floor and the basement remain a separate apartment.
The owner had one paramount desire: he yearned to retreat to a relaxing third-floor haven when he arrived home after long hours at the office.
He also asked Mr. El-Abdallah to look ahead to the time when the building might be restored to a single-family home.
"We designed it in a way that it could eventually all be one big house."
The house today
Mr. El-Abdallah had visions of a pied-à-terre in Europe when he designed a layout that flows from one room to another.
"A lot of it came to me from apartments I've stayed in in Paris."
Visitors arrive through the front door to a formal living room with an arched window, a decorative fireplace with a Victorian wooden mantel and oak floors stained in deep charcoal.
To keep the emphasis on the architecture, Mr. El-Abdallah decided on a simple palette of soft white walls and charcoal floors. He had the original doors throughout painted off black to bring attention to entryways.
"The idea of entering a room should be celebrated."
The formal staircase was refinished and covered in a graphic striped runner. A square, industrial-style skylight brings light to the centre of the house.
Paul Maranger of Sotheby's International Realty Canada says the stairwell with a skylight above reminds him of an art gallery in London.
"The sound of the rain is beautiful."
Upstairs, in a former bedroom with a bow window overlooking the street, Mr. El-Abdallah created a family room.
At the rear, Mr. El-Abdallah designed a new kitchen with a wall of windows and doors opening to a large, covered balcony in the treetops. Contemporary windows wouldn't work in the old house, the designer says, so he chose black steel frames with an industrial vibe reminiscent of old warehouses in Toronto and New York.
"It's graphic and interesting," Mr. El-Abdallah says.
In the guest bedroom, a transom window and its hardware are reminders of the home's past. A vintage bell made by Bevin Brothers Manufacturing is affixed to the wall in the hallway.
The second-floor bathroom's claw-foot tub, hexagonal marble tile flooring, pedestal sink and tongue-and-groove wainscotting are all details that could have been original or added in a previous era.
"It's grounded in history," Mr. El-Abdallah says of the decor. "I've seen houses where they impose elements that have nothing to do with the house."
The third-floor master suite includes a bedroom and sitting area with a cathedral ceiling at the front. At the rear, a bedroom is currently used as a private office with doors opening to a balcony.
Mr. El-Abdallah added texture with a grass cloth wallpaper.
"It instantly transformed it into a more cozy space."
He also combined one bedroom and a tiny bathroom to create a new, larger bathroom and a separate dressing room.
The bathroom has all of the modern luxuries combined with timeless materials such as Carrara marble and white subway tiles with a rectified edge, Mr. El-Abdallah points out. There's a two-person walk-in shower enclosure with a teak bench, for example, and heated tile floors. The vanity has his-and-hers undermount sinks and unlaquered brass faucets which gain a dull patina over time. The cast iron claw foot tub looks antique but was actually recently imported from Portugal.
Throughout the project, Mr. El-Abdallah tried to remain sensitive to the architecture and history of the home.
"We were very mindful of life for the house past a young bachelor living there. I wanted to avoid any bachelor clichés."
Those tropes might include a media room or a bathroom inspired by a Las Vegas casino hotel. Mr. El-Abdallah didn't want to use any material that could be considered of a time.
"It should transcend that because the house has a longer life than one person living there."
The house sold for the full asking price after eight days on the market.
The best feature
The dressing room lined with floor-to-ceiling walnut cabinetry is an homage to the owner's family history in the tailoring business in Montreal.
The room has a pocket door, custom display shelves and dovetailed drawers with leather fronts and bronze handles.
"Having a proper closet was important to him," Mr. El-Abdallah says. "It reminds me of a nice menswear store."