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An intricate weave of home and garden near Toronto’s Don River

The rushing tributaries of the Don River have sculpted the landscapes of several scenic Toronto neighbourhoods, though none of these residential districts is more lovely than Hoggs Hollow. Densely forested, with deep ravines, the area cries out for housing that mindfully responds to the rugged natural beauty round about.

Unfortunately, designers have not always given Hoggs Hollow the architectural respect it's asking for.

I am thinking specifically of a home I visited there not long ago. Put up about 40 years ago on one of the neighbourhood's narrow streets, this family dwelling cast in an indifferent Arts and Crafts manner was probably too large for its site. Worse still, the architect decided, for some reason, to turn the structure's blind side toward the picturesque Don branch that runs along one edge of the property. None of it – the style, the size, the orientation – made sense in its attractive context.

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The couple who now own the house, however, saw potential in their place, and so decided to do something about realizing it. For openers, they bought and demolished the residence next door, thereby giving the house the room it needed to breathe. And they hired the Toronto firm of LGA Architectural Partners – known, until recently, as Levitt Goodman Architects – to plan out a complete revision of both the original house and the grounds. The couple's intention, LGA's Janna Levitt said, was to create a "healthy, restorative, responsible place" for their own enjoyment and that of their four married children and nine grandchildren.

The result of LGA's efforts, together with those of landscape architect Scott Torrance, is an interesting house-and-garden complex that offers its owners and users a wide variety of hospitable experiences, especially in the warm months of the year.

A meandering path leads the casual wanderer through beds planted with tall grasses and flowers for every season, and along the edge of the stream. A hot tub and a rock-ribbed saltwater swimming pool invite dips and plunges in whatever weather, and there is an ample sand pit and a grassy patch for garden sports. Stands of trees shelter and shade the house's street-side façade.

In fashioning these renewed outdoor spaces, Ms. Levitt said, the owners recycled material where feasible – the remnants of the demolished next-door house, for example, were donated to Habitat for Humanity – and they remediated parts of the property, such as the river bank, that had long been neglected. The project, especially the fabrication of the outside elements, involved restoration and preservation, and co-operation with the natural and built facts of this small urban precinct.

Such co-operation is nowhere more obvious than in the treatment of the original house. The story of local residential architecture surely would not have suffered a loss had LGA and their clients decided to knock it down and start over from scratch.

They chose, instead, to build on what was there. LGA pushed out the rear toward the flower garden and the pool, for instance, adding a glass-walled living and dining room that opens up the formerly closed house to the natural and civilized beauties in the vicinity. Expansive terraces extend outward on two sides of the house, linking the interior to the river and the various exterior zones dedicated to playing, relaxing, dining.

The outcome of these various moves is a marriage of new and old that saves and enhances what was good about the original building, such as the horizontal lines and the deep overhang of the eaves. But LGA`s gestures have also transformed it from a quite ordinary house into a garden pavilion suitable for a large family whose members like to enjoy life together.

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That said, I can't give this project an unqualified thumbs-up, because of questions that nagged me when I visited the place, and have been on my mind since. Was it really necessary to program every square foot of the site so carefully? With sand boxes, hot tubs, decks and so on, is there simply too much going on? The answers may come down to taste, although I would like to hear the views of an expert designer of playgrounds on the matter.

But on the question of the general success of the scheme, I have no doubt. Scott Torrance and the architectural team from LGA – Janna Levitt, Eric Cunnington and Allison Janes – have brought vitality and vigour to a tired swatch of urban fabric that needed it, and effectively restored the dignity of a small extent of our wonderful Don River system of waterways.

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John More


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