The sign in the window said TOWN SHOP. It was a convenience store with crumbling brick, four colours of paint and, also, a for-sale sign.
For most house hunters this wouldn't even register as a fixer-upper. But Aaron Letki is a young architect, and in 2005 he was idealistic, visionary and ready for a challenge. And looking for a bargain. Eventually, he got all he wanted – and, also, the chance to transform a piece of the city.
"Being a pretty broke guy, and single, I needed income," recalls Mr. Letki, who is now an architect at the highly regarded office of Maclennan Jaunkalns Miller. "The typical situation is to get a place with a basement apartment. This was different," he laughs. "But it meant my place would be higher up. And I was attracted to the idea of living on a corner."
So, Mr. Letki, then 30, bought the place near Dupont and Shaw as a new home, an investment and a canvas for experimentation. It was an investigation into about what a corner store could become, and how to live in a Victorian neighbourhood with space and light in abundance.
He knew the area well. Mr. Letki grew up just two blocks away, and his experience of the Christie Pits neighbourhood – dense, friendly, rich with parks and community space – was warm. But his childhood home, like other Victorian and Edwardian semis that make up the bulk of old Toronto, was less welcoming. "Those Victorian homes are dark," he says with a chuckle. "I remember, growing up, it being a bright sunny day and I would wonder why we had all the lights on."
His new home would have none of that darkness of a "Toronto slot," as he puts it. In 2006 he completed a first stage of renovation, gutting the second floor completely, carving out windows to face both streets, and adding on a third storey. Building himself with help from friends, Mr. Letki employed simple materials for a sturdy but not extravagant building. ("Doing it yourself, you think it's going to be free," Mr. Letki says wryly, "but building materials cost money, too.") It stands up well now, a couple of years after he began, even if the outside still needs a coat of paint.
His concept for the interior was dead simple: to open up the 1,000-square-foot spaces into a loft-like apartment. Some of this was achieved with careful selection of materials. He added aluminum windows; exposed some of the building's Douglas fir structure; and laid a new floor of Gypcrete, a smooth coating that resembles concrete. The kitchen is white Ikea cabinetry, topped with a slab of Statuario marble. Combined with white walls and the high-boned proportions of the building, plus a couple of Eames chairs, it evokes a chicly converted space in a large 1920s loft building. Since then Mr. Letki's partner, Angela Tsementzis, has moved in with him, and she works at home; she is, luckily, an architect, too, so Mr. Letki's restrained taste suits her well. The couple don't have kids, so she works out of the apartment's second bedroom, and it suits them well. "This, for a good long time, is home," she says. It is spare and beautiful, and very bright, unlike anything in the neighbourhood.
The views, however, remind you exactly where you are. The front of the building features a huge French balcony: two great glass doors that slide open, offering a prospect straight east down the nearby street. This happened partially by accident, Mr. Letki explains. There was a bay window here. "And when I started stripping out the lath and plaster from the walls," he says, "the bay window just started to fall apart, so I decided to let it fall.
"I had this huge, eight-foot-square masonry opening, and thought I could rebuild it – or put in a big sliding door." This is a spectacular result, connecting indoors and outdoors in the century-long tradition of modernist residences. And, because it's on the second floor, it has a degree of privacy. All the more so because Mr. Letki has added four trees, one in front of each of the building's windows. Now a few years later, these have filled in. "In winter I get tons of light, and in summer it's like living in a tree house."
This building is a landmark in the area, and that's because of his downstairs neighbour: a café, the Hub. For his first few years in the building Mr. Letki lived above the variety store; when its lease ran out in 2010 he went looking for a new tenant to complete his vision for the building. "A lot of these corner-store buildings, landlords have converted the retail space into apartments," Mr. Letki says. "And they're not really suited for apartments; you have big windows right at ground level. They're meant for business."
And he had strong professional opinions about what type of place would suit. "I had this idea for a number of years that this block needed a café," Mr. Letki explains. "As an architect and someone who believes in good urban design, and who's spent time living in European cities, I believe in amenities that you can walk to in the neighbourhood."
So he chose a café, which meant rezoning and "a year of lawyers and hearings," he recalls, thanks to the opposition of a single neighbour. And after restaurateurs Lisah Smith and Cyrus Lotfi took over the space, their Hub Locavorium quickly became a hangout of choice for the area, which is heavy on creatives and short on cafés. CBC host Matt Galloway hangs out here, among many other writers and media types. The shabby-chic interior looks very different from Mr. Letki and Ms. Tsementzis's place upstairs, and the architect-landlord cheerfully admits that he would have done a few things differently.
"But who cares?" he asks. "It works wonderfully." From a marginal business and a crumbling building, he's built a good place and some community. It's a small, meaningful act of city building.