A Slice of History: Street House, Toronto, Ontario
PROJECT Street House, Toronto, Ontario
TEXT Gabriel Fain
PHOTOS Raymond Chow
The Street House is located in South Rosedale, one of Toronto’s oldest and most picturesque neighbourhoods. Here, the rich diversity of the city’s architectural history has largely remained intact, making visible incremental development dating back to the early 1800s. Meandering streets are lined with some of the city’s finest examples of Victorian, Georgian and English Cottage architecture.
Built around 1908 by William Alexander Langton, the Street House on McKenzie Avenue is a stately Edwardian-style house. Although Langton was more of an academic architect than some of his better-known contemporaries such as Edmund Burke and E.J. Lennox, the original house design is noteworthy for its simple massing and restrained detailing. The exterior is quiet and unassuming, while the original interior plan speaks of the various social hierarchies in place in the early 20th century.
A 2013 renovation led by Pat Hanson of the firm gh3 is about editing this history as much as it is about creating new domestic experiences geared towards contemporary life. The recalibration of the residence for a couple with three children and an impressive collection of Canadian art was not an easy task. Listed as a Class B Heritage Building, the city severely restricts any intervention to the front of the house, while any addition to the back must not be visible from the street. Working almost entirely within the existing footprint was also a requirement set out in local zoning by-laws; several minor variances were obtained to gain additional ground-level space and connect the house to a detached rear garage. Within these constraints, gh3’s work might have been a straightforward renovation project. Instead, they delivered a subtle yet complex, conceptually driven work: a project that’s minimalist rather than minimal.
If the Edwardian plan is about the strict division of spaces between servants and served, then the new scheme is about carving out open spaces and stitching them together into a coherent whole. This is made possible through a reformulated plan that provides longer, wider paths through the house.
The interior spaces are now experienced as a kind of promenade both in plan and section, through newly created vertical openings. The choreography of one’s movement begins at the street, with a generous path leading to the house. Once inside, a gallery-like foyer serves to reorient the house on a central axis. What was previously a modest corridor entry sequence has now become a double-height space filled with light and air. This foyer sets up an intuitive flow between all the public rooms of the ground floor. At the far end of the foyer, a well-proportioned spiral staircase serves to anchor the composition of the space, while creating a dynamic connection to the more private upper levels.
The L-shaped plan of the house functions as a found condition from which the project’s primary intervention is made. The big move: giving the house a new relationship to its own backyard. This involved slicing the existing back wall and lowering the floor level of the house to allow for a combined glass-enclosed gallery and kitchen space. What was originally the segregated servants’ quarters of the house is now an open space dedicated to the rituals of family life. The long marble kitchen island, for example, serves as a gathering space with views towards the old brick back wall of the house and a newly formed courtyard. This allows both the gallery and the kitchen to feel part of this courtyard space. The visual effect is enhanced by an uncompromising bare concrete floor which extends outside, blurring the line between interior and exterior.
This conceptual clarity is a unique aspect of gh3’s design vocabulary. The practice is committed to an ideal of contemporary life free of visual noise. In keeping with this approach, the tectonics of construction is rendered almost invisible in the Street House. A huge steel beam inserted between the ground and second floor at the kitchen is virtually undetectable, but allows for a column-free interior—and visually unobstructed corner at the floor-to-ceiling glazing.
Absent are many of the tropes common in renovation projects around Toronto. There’s no articulated millwork, superfluous framing of windows and views, or collagist approach to the application of materials. Rather, space is defined by plain surfaces with seamless interfaces between different materials. The sharp aluminum fins at certain thresholds and the minimal reveals between stairs and walls are clear examples of this strategy. A monochromatic palette of concrete, glass, Corian and marble is a recurring motif in gh3’s work—here used to provide a neutral backdrop for some of the more textured heritage elements.
This allows the history of the house to be both respected and preserved. For instance, take the existing bare brick wall that defines the gallery space. It’s made to look like an archaeological find, with traces of previous floor levels, door openings and joist pockets. Heritage details such as the crown moulding and wainscoting are strategically reapplied in the more formal rooms—not just for nostalgic purposes, but to lend a sense of character and finer scale to those spaces. Another exemplary detail is on the exterior, where brick was removed from the existing wall to accommodate the new glass incision. The same brick is reused as a thin soffit veneer to fill the cut where a servants’ stair was once located.
The Street House renovation is consistent with much of gh3’s recent work. Although many of their designs may appear materially reductive, here it is not done simply for stylistic reasons, but rather to bring attention to a rich historical narrative. While Toronto has seen every response to heritage preservation—from the jarring to the tasteful—this project demonstrates both a confident and skilled approach to an extensive renovation. It is exemplary among projects of this scale since it proves that a sleek contemporary intervention can work in harmony with an Edwardian house designed over 100 years ago. For these reasons, the Street House is a project that continues to build on Rosedale’s history of showcasing Toronto’s finest residential architecture.
Gabriel Fain, MRAIC, is an intern architect working in Toronto.
Architect Team Pat Hanson, Diana Gerrard Louise Calvin, Raymond Chow | Structural Truman Engineering Services | Landscape gh3 | Contractor Wilson Project Management | Area 5,405 ft2 | Budget $2.4 M | Completion August 2013