This article appeared in the Globe and Mail Real Estate section on Friday, January 21, 2011…
Marshall McLuhan shed new light on a number of topics during the 1960s and 1970s, but at home in Wychwood Park, he was in the dark.
At least that’s what new owners Susan, a doctor at Sick Kids, and her husband Brian, a lawyer, thought when they first walked into the handsome 1913 Eden Smith and Sons-designed Arts and Crafts home in the spring of 2008. Entering a closed-in foyer with two small doors that opened to reveal dark-panelled living and dining rooms, it was clear that this was a home that needed to see the light.
“These rooms, when we came in, were very black, with deep stucco ceilings,” recalls the couple’s longtime friend and architect, Terrell Wong, of the light-sucking yet impressive quarter-cut oak, which had darkened over time.
It didn’t help that adjoining rooms, such as the outdated 1960s coral-coloured Formica kitchen, suffered from a lack of windows. Or that the sunroom was too small to allow light to penetrate into other areas. Or that the low-ceilinged basement was really more of “a dungeon,” laughs Ms. Wong.
But when dealing with a heritage home with a protected exterior (Wychwood Park is Toronto’s first residential Heritage Conservation District), there is often a great deal more consideration as to what to do with the interior. While the “dead-end” foyer needed to breathe because “you could never get farther than three feet away from this beautiful oak staircase,” says Ms. Wong, and those panelled rooms were too wonderful to demolish, a dialogue with the rest of the home needed to be created by extending views. Because “prominent” skylights are not permitted under the HCD bylaws, the sunroom and kitchen needed to bring more light deeper into the home.
But dual respect for the home’s internationally famous former owner (who purchased in 1968 at the height of his fame) and its locally famous architect, Eden Smith’s son Harry Eden Smith, meant that treading lightly was the only option. Ms. Wong’s brilliant solution was to remove the foyer doors and replace them with enlarged openings that allow views into the formal living and dining rooms and straight through the windows to Taddle Creek Pond. New columns to match the original stair’s newel post in these openings hint at where the doors were originally, and the dark paneling was lightened simply by cleaning and re-waxing it. The small, cramped sunroom was demolished and a new one extending just four feet further into the yard was built.
And flying in the face of current ‘bigger-kitchens-are-better’ thinking, the couple decided to turn what was a square kitchen into a smaller, rectangular galley kitchen in order to add a powder room. A door to a series of stepped decks was added to bring in more light, and two pokey windows over the sink were replaced with much larger ones. White cabinets and a smooth white ceiling help spread that light around, and a sexy red countertop makes a statement: “Some people are surprised when they come in here because it’s a pretty modern kitchen,” homeowner Brian says. “When you’re in the front hall, it’s more of an original, period house, so it’s an interesting contrast.”
It’s almost as interesting a contrast as the one Douglas Coupland posits in his recent biography of Mr. McLuhan for Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series. In it, he lovingly calls Mr. McLuhan “crotchety and obtuse” and points out that his status as new media’s greatest “cheerleader” is the ultimate irony, since he didn’t love it at all. Mr. McLuhan, he writes, “pined for another era, a different time stream, a different universe – anything different from booming North America’s guns-and-butter praxis.”
In other words, the dark, fusty Wychwood Park home was perfect for his sensibilities, and so too was the leafy quiet of the park for strolling and contemplating (Mr. McLuhan was hypersensitive to loud noises).
It’s altogether possible that Mr. McLuhan would not know what to make of his home today, with its juxtaposition of white-bright spaces and his beloved oaky-pokey rooms. Offers Ms. Wong: “I think that’s the thing with historic buildings, they have to change over time or they aren’t real; they are museums and people act differently in them.”
It’s a design balancing act of when to extend oneself and when to pull back, and only talented architects such as Ms. Wong get it right. For instance, while much work was done digging to create a habitable basement, the master bedroom – dubbed the “Marie Antoinette Room” for its ornate plasterwork – is untouched. While all electrical wiring has been replaced in those newly spray-foamed walls, some of the pokey rooms on upper floors remain pokey.
And new technologies, in some cases, are hidden: A sexy laundry pair at the top of the stairs, when not in use, resides behind a big, folding door that looks much like the old panelled walls downstairs – “I’ve done this so many times,” Ms. Wong says, “I use a hallway to be the room” – and out-of-sight LEDs illuminate objets d’art … and toilets: “My famous pee-lights,” Ms. Wong adds with a grin about the never-go-off pin-sized lights in the master bathroom.
A use for modern technology that would surely get a thumbs-up from Mr. McLuhan.