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A DIY art gallery becomes a beacon on gritty downtown Toronto street

In the past, walking east along Howard Park Avenue after crossing busy Roncesvalles was a chore: auto body shops, a squat 1970s apartment tower and a sprinkling of workaday Bay-n-Gables assaulted the eyes.

Despite giant letters spelling out "Believe it or not, THIS IS THE PLACE" over a variety store positioned where Howard Park is swept away by Dundas Street West, not many believed this to be true, despite the excitement of the coin laundry and janitorial contractor buildings nearby.

Today, however, facing Howard Park at 2068 Dundas St. W. is a tall, dark and handsome three-storey beacon designed by Altius Architecture for Belinda Chun and Ian McFadyen.

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But Gallery House almost didn't happen: "We almost didn't continue at one stage, we almost abandoned the project," says Mr. McFadyen. "It was a hard two weeks."

Those difficult weeks would have taken place some time after Valentine's Day, 2010, when the couple purchased the two-and-a-half storey, flagstone-clad janitorial building with a rabbit warren of dark rooms and a long, attached garage, and October, 2010, when construction began to transform it into a wide, bright art gallery on the first floor, and the couple's home on the existing second floor and proposed third floor.

Although the duo had purposely selected "an as broken-down a building as possible," a confluence of things – a completely crumbled foundation, a constantly rising general contractor's quote and stress at their jobs – led to a discussion of killing the dream and reselling the building at a loss.

"You can only evaluate a building like this so much before you start uncovering things," says architect Joe Knight, who worked on the project while with Altius (he's since started his own firm, blackLAB Architects). "[The clients] had some very specific ideas to start with when we first met." These were big, sexy ideas that were often at odds with the small budget, which had to include unsexy things like ensuring the building wouldn't fall over first.

The solution, all agreed, was to make Gallery House a partial Do-It-Yourself project for the young couple.

"We basically took it from when the walls were just taped and there was no flooring," says Mr. McFadyen, to which Ms. Chun adds: "We did all the framing and drywall; we had a contractor do the tiles, plumbing and electrical and we did everything else." And the best thing about the DIY approach, says Cathy Garrido, a partner at Altius, is that "you put a level of care into it that you don't get from your average trades person."

And the stuff that happened before the couple took the reins? "We basically gave Joe and Cathy creative freedom," explains Mr. McFadyen. "Belinda's in the arts, I'm in design; if you give creative people freedom and let them do what they want, you'll end up with something way better, so we just suggested little things here and there."

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Trusted partners in heavy lifting, you might say, and the result is a building full of "little things" to savour and big gestures to boast about: For instance, the façade asserts itself with eight glass exclamation points within a well-tailored suit of dark fibre-cement panels and cedar strips; under this is a fully glazed street level.

Yet, a step inside the cool, white, 2,000-square-foot gallery – currently filled with the strange and steampunky works of Ray Caesar, Gottfried Helnwein and Anita Kunz – and the eye might wander to a small detail, such as the point where drywall stops short of the floor to allow for an indented tile baseboard (an easy-clean trick Ms. Chun borrowed from NYC galleries). The eye will most certainly travel up the wide staircase before the feet do; while it's a wonderful moment of ceremony, it also serves to separate the formal space from the lounge, where guests are encouraged to sit and chat by the double-sided fireplace, which Mr. McFadyen built using an inspirational photograph as a guide.

Those lucky enough to be invited upstairs will be rewarded in similar fashion. While the two residential floors sacrifice square footage to allow for skylights over the first floor lounge, they still offer gallery-like openness, albeit with warm wood underfoot.

It helps that art on the walls is by the same artists – the best gallery owner is an art collector – and that other items, such as the octopus chandelier by Philadelphia's Adam Wallacavage over the dining table, kitchen cabinets by Leslieville's Greentea Design, or the bathroom vanity by local recyclers Brothers Dressler, all contribute to a single design language.

That the backdrop for these moments, big and small, has been put together by a combination of naivete – "Now that we know, I don't think we'd do it again," laughs Ms. Chun – instructional YouTube videos, backbreaking labour, late-night telephones calls to their contractor, regular site visits by Altius, and the help of the local Home Hardware guys – makes this adaptive reuse project all the more sweet.

"They stretched every penny," finishes Ms. Garrido. "We really pushed them and I think it looks fantastic."

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Walking down Howard Park, in other words, will never be the same: believe it or not, this really is the place.

To see a photo gallery of construction pictures, visit galleryhouse.ca/category/construction

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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