Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

New owners of a Toronto Special choose design over demolition

There were two possible places for the "column of space," says architect Paul Dowsett, nestling into a dining-room chair below the enormous "sputnik" chandelier.

The popular choice was the front. Runner-up was smack-dab in the middle of the generous 1700-square-foot floor plan. Formerly a tenanted, three-apartment Toronto Special – one of thousands of plain, boxy, infill buildings built by infill builders from the 1950s to the 1980s – this buff brick, 1959 building was a natural for an airy, double-height column of space now that it was going to be owner-occupied. The only question was: Where?

Homeowners Jacquie and Mike Green and interior designer Phillip Moody were in the minority with a vote for the runner-up. Seven different architects had visited, the Greens had stated their preference, and then each returned with a plan to place "the drama" at the front.

Story continues below advertisement

"Somehow or other I persevered," says Ms. Green with a chuckle. "I didn't say 'Gee, these guys all must know something that I don't.'"

When Mr. Moody came back from an extended trip and heard of the couple's plight, he introduced them to Mr. Dowsett's, at that time a new-on-the-scene green architecture firm that also knew how to rearrange good Modernist bones. "Anybody else probably would have torn this down and built one of these historicist piles like next door," says the 51-year-old architect, "but they saw value in this and I convinced them that, yes, they were right."

Besides solid construction, the Greens saw value in the unobstructed views of the Rosedale ravine across the street; placing the double-height space at the front of the building would rob them of seeing all that green from the second floor.

So, with a consensus finally in place, Mr. Dowsett, his right-hand man Donald Peckover, Mr. Moody and the Greens started the design process in 2009 and construction in early 2010. While the living-dining areas at the front of the first and second floors remain relatively unchanged, the two kitchens in the middle of each floor were sacrificed for the double-height space. On the main floor, this area now contains the dining room, and the new kitchen occupies one of the three bedrooms.

The original – and very groovy – stairwell at the east side of the building has been retained, but since large landings and solid doors are no longer necessary, the opening to the first floor has been enlarged dramatically; while the second floor stairway configuration made similar work impossible, the milk-delivery door has been turned into a tiny opening.

To keep the basement apartment separate for Ms. Green's brother, its staircase has been moved to the west side of the building.

And speaking of openings, bits of interior wall were removed here and there on both floors, and doors, where they must remain, have been stretched to ceiling height.

Story continues below advertisement

Box-bay windows bring more light into the east side of the building, and a new, two-storey "bump-out" was added to the west wall to enlarge the new dining area. All bathroom plumbing was kept in its original places.

"This whole project was an exercise in real restraint," offers Mr. Dowsett. "We kept the structure of the original house – 99 per cent of it – kept the original roof, kept all the rooms in the back.

"This house was more a process of careful subtraction."

It's true: Other than the six-by-14-foot bump-out (a term Mr. Dowsett thinks is lacking, so this author suggests "shaftlet"), the only extravagance is the new kitchen. Even without the knowledge that Ms. Green is an accomplished painter, the custom "Mondrian" feature wall suggests an artist lives here. But it's more than just a pretty (Cubist) face: Behind each jaunty rectangle is a cabinet, the refrigerator and even a secret door to the two remaining bedrooms.

Ms. Green, who acted as project manager for the renovation, explains that open floor plans allow for sightlines to everywhere, so kitchens require furniture-grade millwork rather than "kitchen-y" stuff: "I wanted it to look finished and interesting." After designing the Mondrian wall, she had a "knocked-together" prototype installed to see how it performed; a few months later, Gibson Greenwood created the permanent one.

On the second floor, the former living room is now a family room featuring an enormous 1950s purple couch custom-designed for a Don Mills home, and the former dining area is Ms. Green's office; the door that once led to the kitchen is now a Juliette balcony looking down onto the main-floor dining area.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Green's office and the master bedroom complete the second floor.

With a nod towards green thinking, the entire vintage – and very unique – slotted-baseboard radiator system was saved and married to a new high-efficiency boiler, a radiant floor was added to the area around the bump-out/shaftlet, and EcoShades applied a nanotechnology thermal coating to the south-facing windows. Also green was Ms. Green's decision to decorate the space with vintage furniture.

The result is a home that offers surprise around some corners and cozy predictability elsewhere; it has a gaggle of large windows but still can hold the Greens' dazzling art collection.

It's a "flexible" living space made possible by the versatility of the ubiquitous Toronto Special.

"We did small, intelligent moves," says Mr. Dowsett, looking up into the double-height space that's now washed in reddish early-evening sunlight.

"It's a great house to live in," finishes Ms. Green.

Report an error
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


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨