Along with far out things such as telepathy, it's said that twins sometimes develop their own language.
In the case of houses, however, semi-detached dwellings rarely get to speak the same architectural language; sure, right after construction they're exact mirror-images of one another but, over time, this changes: One half gets a different paint scheme, the other gets new shingles; new vinyl windows in one, restored originals in the other. One may even get an addition while the other doesn't.
In some cases, like the Cabbagetown twins at 357 Wellesley St. E., one side sat empty, forlorn and forgotten, while the other lived the barely loved, slightly renovated life of a rental. Estranged and strangely different from one another for decades, these twins seemed as if they'd never speak again.
Until Janet Brown and David Swain came along, that is. After falling in love with the home's handsome Victorian façade, they undertook what became a massive restoration and expansion of what had originally been, in 1882, two identical 400 square feet worker's cottages with no kitchens or bathrooms. Of course, when they adopted the twins in January 2007, there was a separate kitchen addition tacked onto the back of each semi (probably done in the 1940s or 1950s), a poorly designed third-storey with a ceiling height of less than six feet grafted onto one half, and one of the original arched front doors was gone, replaced with an entrance via a shed-roofed porch.
Worse, it wasn't simply a case of knocking down the basement-to-second-floor brick wall to end the sibling rivalry, since doing so may have caused the entire house to come crashing down. The double-brick exterior walls were not tied together, explains Mr. Swain: "During [the renovation] they had to be braced on the outside and on the inside because we didn't know if it was going to stay up!"
"And we discovered there were no footings," adds Ms. Brown.
There were a few times over the two-year period (one year working through red tape at the Ontario Municipal Board and one of construction) that the couple almost abandoned the project, but a strong desire to live in Cabbagetown combined with a vote of confidence by esteemed resident Peggy Kurtin - who spearheaded the research in the mid-nineties that led to the heritage designation - steered them back on course (Ms. Kurtin passed away this past July).
It helped, too, that Ms. Brown and Mr. Swain entrusted the renovation to sympathetic, understanding Cabbagetowners: Expanding the home to over 3,000 square feet was architect Malcolm Freeman, who lives around the corner, their general contractor was David Weenan on Carlton Street, and lighting was done by Lamp Cage on Parliament St.
Today, standing on the sidewalk reveals few clues to separate lives. The only clue, really, is the old arched front door opening that was converted into a main floor window after the addition moved the entrance to the west side. The middle window on the second storey, once a fake, shuttered affair because of the wall dividing the house in two, should offer evidence but it doesn't since it looks like it has always been there (it has, but there wasn't any glass behind those shutters).
Those lucky enough to see inside during the annual Cabbagetown Tour of Homes this Sunday will be hard pressed to find any evidence there, either. The living room, which was once two small living rooms, seems about the right size, as does the master suite above it on the second floor. The only clue that the kitchen/family room/dining room is part of a new addition is the thickness of the wall dividing these from the front of the home.
So, tour-goers will make do with admiring the tidy décor (which the couple admits isn't quite finished yet), the near-perfect plaster moulding, kitchen cabinets by Bellini Custom Cabinetry or the striking collection of artwork, including a large woodland scene by Alex Cameron, which Mr. Swain describes as a "Group of Seven on acid."
There are also abstracts by Michael Adamson, including two in the dining room chosen by the couple's twin daughters: "He had a show and I took them when they were about 10, and they were each allowed to pick a painting," remembers Ms. Brown. "They're actually lovely little personality statements of the two kids because one's highly organized and the other is not, so we keep them side-by-side to remind us of them," she laughs.
Once "very ratty" and architecturally mute, a long, hard renovation has made two halves whole again. "We thought we were taking on one project and it turned out to be a very different project," chuckles Mr. Swain. In fact, these Cabbagetown twins are singing such a rich architectural duet that this couple can't help but share by taking part in the annual home tour: "Our neighbours put up with a lot of noise and mess on the street," says Ms. Brown. "As someone put it, the neighbours couldn't bear it any more, they had to come in and see it!"
You don't have to be a neighbour to visit the seven houses of the 31st annual Cabbagetown Tour of Homes. Tickets are $30 at Ticketmaster and select Cabbagetown merchants. The event runs from
1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sept. 20. Visit www.cabbagetownpa.ca.