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Touring a trapped-in-amber Kitchener mid-century modern house

The Architourist

MCM with a twist of Canadiana

Kitchener home designed by Eb Zeidler

Kitchener home designed in 1959 by legendary Eb Zeidler is a retro-renovation learning lab

Pam Kueber, who runs the popular website, called this one a "time capsule house," but, after seeing it in person, I'm more inclined to call it a learning lab.

Earlier this month, I participated in a television shoot that allowed me to spend about seven hours in the custom home built by businessman and philanthropist William H. Kaufman (1920-2005) for his family in the Westmount neighbourhood of Kitchener.

Designed in 1959 by German-born, Bauhaus-trained and Toronto-based architect Eberhard "Eb" Zeidler (who was design chief at Peterborough's Blackwell & Craig at the time) the 6,000 sq. ft. residence is an interesting hybrid of solid mid-century modern architecture combined with a sort of conservative Canadiana, while being peppered with sculptural flourishes here and there.

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The garage is accessed via a carport under the home’s second storey.

From the street, the Kaufman home hides much of its girth by placing the three-car garage behind the main façade – accessed via a carport/opening under the second storey – and angling the single-storey east wing toward the backyard.

The curved staircase in the home's foyer. Shauntelle LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

And while the front door is secreted away on the east wing to avoid baronial connotations, the view, once inside, is anything but conservative: stepping onto a creamy terrazzo floor, the eye is immediately swept upward along a glorious, floating and curved staircase that's back-lit by a two-storey window with crisscrossing muntin bars that form a serendipitous Star of David pattern.

Indeed, in true MCM fashion, many of home's largest windows were meant only for the enjoyment of the family, says Mr. Kaufman's son, Tom, who moved in when he was six years old.

"The house, conceptually, is built on the lot backwards: the street-side of the house is, in essence, the backside of the house," he explains.

"Why would you want to look at a street when you can look at this beautiful, big, green space?"

The rear of the house.

To balance the incredible amount of natural light, Mr. Zeidler clad the opposite wall of the circular foyer in dark, ribbed wood panelling.

The home's impressive double front doors – each features 24 symmetrical panes of mottled, amber glass that give a sort of "men's club/steakhouse" feel – are also surrounded by rich, detailed panelling.

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That conservative, men's club look continues at right, where the architect created a sanctuary for Mr. Kaufman in the form of an intimate living room with a peaked ceiling held aloft by chevron-shaped beams.

The formal living room with chevron ceiling beams.

Guests to the home, on the other hand, would be led to the left toward the large, sunken family room. Here, two walls of windows are balanced by a stone wall punctuated by a minimalist, mantle-less fireplace; texture is provided by popping out random stones for shadow effect.

As with the rest of the house, furniture was supplied by the family business, Kaufman of Collingwood, which started up after the Second World War to supply bombed-out Britain but switched to local markets by the 1950s. Although classically styled furniture ruled in this household, the company did manufacture modern lines, such as the "Simcoe" collection.

With the aid of a solid door and a sliding screen, the kitchen could be closed off or opened to the family room at will. While much of the Kaufman home exudes a woodsy and cozy vibe, the kitchen is a good example of the futurism found in many high-end MCM homes.

The sunken family room features a minimalist, mantle-less fireplace.

Belief that 1960s technology would see hotels built on the moon, or pioneering families homesteading on Mars, produced kitchens that looked like science laboratories. In the Kaufman kitchen, a large stainless steel island holds the electric cooktop while the twin, stainless steel wall ovens behind it sport gauges and dials that would look at home in Chuck Yeager's X-1 rocket plane.

Above and below a crisp expanse of white Formica countertop are Kaufman of Collingwood-manufactured cabinets; in keeping with the lab-like look, these are without ornament. Adorning the wall of the attached, informal dining area is another sculptural flourish: a copper-hooded indoor barbeque surrounded by beautiful ceramic tile producing an abstract design reminiscent of pioneering Modernist artist/sculptor Jean Arp.

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"We used to have a lot of fun," Mr. Kaufman recalls of the kitchen. "That indoor barbeque was used regularly; I'd have a couple of friends over, my sister would, and dad would fire up the barbeque and cook up hot dogs for all of us on a Saturday afternoon."

The kitchen is a good example of the futurism found in many high-end MCM homes.

And, like many houses of the period, with the exception of a long, "walk-through" closet off the master bedroom (which also has a fireplace), the upstairs bedrooms aren't particularly large by today's standards.

Mr. Zeidler, now 91, first met the Kaufmans while skiing at Osler Bluff Ski Club. He remembers visiting the home throughout the years as the couple "were good friends of ours," he says.

"It's a nice house, it was made to their life, with their furniture and their things," he says.

"When you design a house, you design it for the people, how they like to live, and each house is different."

Vintage sinks in the children’s bathroom.

After designing a second home in Collingwood for Mr. Kaufman in the late-1980s, the Kitchener house was used "less and less" according to Tom Kaufman. For the last 15 years or so, it was barely used at all, which resulted in its trapped-in-amber status.

While the home recently sold and will likely experience some renovation in the near future, it can be seen through a full set of photographs posted on the retrorenovation website … and by television viewers who keep their eyes peeled this summer.

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