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Toronto heritage building transformed into welcoming home for Casey House

The Architourist

A big red home to match Casey House's big red heart

After years of fundraising and renovations, the mansion is ready.

Decay forced staff to retreat from the 1875 Italianate building but they are finally set to move back into their new, permanent home

Those who know Casey House, Canada's first stand-alone HIV/AIDS hospice, know that their logo consists of an open door and a big red heart.

Now, they've got a big red home to match.

If you hadn't noticed the 1875 Italianate building at the corner of Jarvis and Isabella Streets until now, you're forgiven. Designed by Langley, Langley and Burke – designers of the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor Street West – for wholesale clothing merchant William R. Johnston, the home had been dubbed "The Grey Lady" by locals when heritage-restoration superheroes ERA Architects were handed the keys in 2012.

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William R. Johnston House was completed in 1875.

Behind unkempt shrubbery, battleship-grey paint obscured architectural delights of bright red brick and bands of decorative, pinky-beige sandstone, most of which was in an advanced state of deterioration. Dirty white paint on window frames caused the eye to skip over their delicate beauty. And while Casey House had used the grand old mansion for outreach services upon acquiring it in 2000, they were forced to retreat back to 9 Huntley St. in 2009, where they'd been since 1988, because of safety concerns.

Indeed, ERA's assessment listed windows and doors to be in "fair to poor condition," found many areas of spalling brickwork and, inside, documented multiple ceiling cracks, issues of peeling paint and crumbling plasterwork and water damage – all to be expected, of course, but still a tall, expensive order.

Today, however, after years of fundraising, report writing, drafting, power tools, hand chisels and the combined sweat of hundreds of experts, those deficiencies are but a memory as staff prepare to move in, officially, in June. And where there was a small coach house at the rear of the property, there now stands an amazing, modern building by Hariri Pontarini Architects that provides the main entrance to the hospital.

A long unobstructed view on the first floor of the heritage home allows visitors to see the new building located at the back.

"In the eighties, because of stigma, we were kind of hidden back off Jarvis," Casey House chief executive Joanne Simons says, "and now we're proud to say we no longer are."

Because of the intimacy of its nooks and crannies, the 2 1/2-storey heritage house portion of Casey House will host group therapy sessions, family meetings and discussions, and what Ms. Simons describes as "social community" services for former patients, such as movie nights or dinners, to help keep them connected to the facility. And the much larger, more open-concept new building will do the heavy lifting when it comes to patient care.

This is because the kind of care the typical Casey House client needs, Ms. Simons explains, is anything but typical: "About 20 per cent of our patients are homeless, another 30 per cent are not stably housed – so they're either within the shelter system [or] they're couch-surfing – so this really does become part of increasing both their capacity and their dignity.

"A lot of our clients are coming in with five other chronic conditions," she continues. "Fifty per cent of them are over the age of 50, and they've been living with HIV for 10 to 15 years, and generally they're in crisis when we see them [because] their health is deteriorating; combined, about 75 per cent are living both with mental-health issues and substance abuse, so it's a very complex client that we're seeing."

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An Owen Sound stone fireplace is located in a double-height lobby of the heritage building.

Fittingly, the architectural complex created by ERA and Hariri Pontarini is complex also – with examination rooms, isolation rooms with negative air pressure, a community/teaching kitchen, medication-specific lockers (for homeless clients), gender-neutral bathrooms, a massive dining area for 88 people, a double-height lobby with an Owen Sound stone fireplace, an art-therapy studio, parking spaces for motorized wheelchairs and a large courtyard – while also managing to stay home-like, friendly and welcoming.

To wit: Just inside Johnston's former front door (facing Jarvis Street) is lovely porcelain tile featuring a Greek key border underfoot; beyond the foyer, in rooms that will now house offices, there are original parquet floors with a patterned border and, tracing the ceilings, unique "pierced" mouldings. Upstairs, the "second floor hall" sports a wonderful barrel-vault ceiling with a trio of stained-glass dormer windows that allow golden light to spill onto the dark-stained staircase.

The second floor hall features a barrel-vault ceiling.

That staircase, it should be noted, had to be moved slightly from its original position on the first floor to create a view all the way from the front door of the heritage home to the back of the Hariri Pontarini building. This, plus moving an entire room in the heritage home, was done to accommodate Siamak Hariri's "big idea" of a long, unobstructed corridor that allows clients to quickly orient themselves within the building, ERA principal Michael McClelland explains.

Long-term patient rooms are also colour-coded for ease of orientation. Since these clients typically spend 40 days during treatment, Ms. Simons explains that these rooms have been designed to look as domestic as possible. For instance, the headwall over the bed containing oxygen and suction can be covered by a panel that matches the wood panelling, there are ample windows to allow oodles of natural light inside and each room will have a piece of commissioned artwork.

Just as it isn't easy caring for this segment of Toronto's population, it isn't easy rehabilitating a heritage building that has seen multiple owners (including the YWCA, which purchased the home in 1941), multiple layers of renovation and, unfortunately, deferred maintenance.

"Back in 2000, when they bought it, I think a number of people were thinking, 'What are you doing?'" ERA's Scott Weir says. "Toronto wasn't booming as much and it seemed like they were taking on this white elephant."

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How silly: With enough determination, even a white elephant can be transformed into a white knight with a big red heart.

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