March 29, 2016
by Stuart McLean
Two views of Toronto’s first laneway house, which the author—and Vinyl Café host—calls home.
TEXT Stuart McLean
PHOTOS Robert Burley
You enter through what feels like a side door, for when you come in, you land in the kitchen. This gives an immediate sense of comfort to your arrival; an informal and friendly feeling.
A friend visiting the house for the first time said that seeing it was “the most invigorating and utterly comfortable experience I have had in years.”
When I first moved in I wondered if it would change me—if all the glass and all the openness, the double doors and soaring ceilings would alter the way I lived. Could design overcome habits? Could a space change behaviour?
All that glass, that draws you out and connects you to the outside, drew me in.
At that point in my life I used to take my dinner in restaurants as often as five nights a week. I was a regular at a little café an easy walk away. I enjoyed the nightly routine—the walk to and fro, and the welcome I received when I got there. A day or two after I had settled in Jeff’s house I headed off for dinner, as was my habit. I only got a block or two before I pulled up short. I was overcome with a feeling that I didn’t want to go—I didn’t want to leave the house. I turned around, went to the market, bought groceries and cooked my own supper. The house had called me back.
I discovered that working in the kitchen, looking over the dining room to the fireplace and out onto the terrace, is a joyful thing. There is a comfort to it. It feels right. When you are cooking in Jeff’s kitchen, or when I am anyway, I feel like I am where I am supposed to be. The galley kitchen lends a grace to movement, a grace that I don’t often have. It makes me feel graceful. The view from the kitchen of both the house and terrace makes me feel at home.
Sometimes I feel like I am living on a ship. Or more accurately beneath an overturned schooner. The vaulted plywood upper ceiling brings to mind the interior hull of a moulded plywood sailboat. Or perhaps the fuselage of a downed aircraft, or the belly of a submarine.
Alone, at night, you feel like you have taken shelter in a safe and secret place—the way one, caught by a summer storm, might crawl under an upturned dory on some windy beach. You are safe.
This is all the more so in stormy weather. For the house is a weather amplifier. When rain hits the steel roof it always sounds more dramatic than it is. And that makes the inside
all the more comforting.
I love that it is on a dirt lane. A dirt lane in the heart of the city. It gives it the feel of a cottage. Of being in the country.
Yet for all its cottagey comfort it is a theatrical place. Sometimes as I walk around I feel like I am on a stage. Standing on the upstairs walkway, looking down over the main floor,
I could be overlooking a market from the second floor of a small Italian hotel. I feel like I should call out.
Above everything, it gives a sense of comfort—a sense of being at home. That has been my overwhelming feeling from the moment I saw it. A sense of belonging.
It may well be modern and adventuresome—all catwalks, single-lane stairways, passageways, guy-wires, block risers to the very upper story—but it is above all humanist.
It is, first and foremost, a home.
Stuart McLean is a writer, broadcaster, and host of the CBC Radio program The Vinyl Café. He lives at 5 Leonard Place in Toronto, a laneway house that was designed by Jeffery Stinson as his own home.
The book Jeffery Stinson Architect, edited by David Sisam, FRAIC, can be purchased at www.lulu.com/shop/david-sisam/jeffery-stinson-architect-building-drawing-teaching-writing/paperback/product-22438599.html