A Place In The Sun

You have to wonder how Toronto’s working-class Victorians made do with the rowhouses they commonly lived in. For the most part, these dwellings were small, narrow and dark, with squinched bedrooms, squinty windows and kitchens just big enough for a hefty iron stove. Turning one of these old worker’s cottages into a modern home is never a simple job. Done right, such a transformation demands a keen appreciation of limits, and considerable imagination when it comes to bringing light and air into once-gloomy interiors.

But such are the gifts of Janna Levitt, principal at Levitt Goodman Architects, whose recent $300,000 overhaul of an 1883 Yorkville rowhouse sets a new, high standard for renovations of this demanding kind.

Levitt’s client, an art consultant with growing collections of paintings, prints, drawings and African artifacts, among other things, wanted space for her books and artworks, places to work and entertain, and, above all, areas awash in sunshine, that most precious natural resource in the midst of the metropolis. Levitt’s response included strong changes to the south-facing rear of the house. Down went the kitchen (a one-storey add-on from a previous renovation), and up from the new foundation rose a crisply modern, two-storey annex. The first level houses the kitchen, which has been outfitted with a Jenn-Air refrigerator and stove, cabinets from Ikea and tile flooring in textured white porcelain. An island in the kitchen sits atop rollers, so it can be pushed out of the way or pulled out into the centre of the room to provide a space for informal dining. Counter stools by Arper Pamplona complete this kitchen ensemble.

Large box-framed glass panes in the rear wall and door admit sunlight into this white and stainless steel kitchen, and offer a view out to a charmingly tough little urban garden designed by Scott Torrance, who planted it with such hardy standards as bamboo, cotoneaster and service berry. (An attractive birch tree already stood on the site.) The upper storey of the annex is the new, bright heart of the renovated house.

Dedicated to the pleasures of reading, watching television and just relaxing, this peaceful room is flooded with light from the rear windows and also from a skylight above. The ample, sunny space is simply furnished with a Le Bambole orange two-seater from Kiosk and a white leather recliner by Jeffrey Bernett, as well as one or two items of Nova Scotian folk art – quite enough to provide a cozy retreat, up among the topmost branches of the birch in the back garden, away from big-city noise and bustle.

Though a large wall-like door can be swung round to close off the den, light still glances into the inner areas of the house through a high clerestory window. Down the well-lit hall from the den on this second level are the comfortable bedroom – whose original Victorian base boards Levitt retained, and reproduced in the study next door – and the client’s home office, which opens north, out to the quiet, dead-end street. The washroom, like most other places in this house, is bright, modest and efficiently chic, with a dual-flush toilet by Toto, Zucchetti taps, a sink by Catalano and a drop-in tub by Thalassa.

Back downstairs, in the open-plan living and dining room, Levitt knocked out an obstructive pillar, then re-strengthened the ceiling with a single horizontal I-beam. The staircase, which runs up beside the I-beam, has been lifted and straightened in the renovation. The result is a clear sweep of space between front door and kitchen, all of it unified visually by dark wenge flooring, white and beige paint, and a subtle play of leather and maple millwork. The dining room table is beautifully illuminated by a suspended system created Michele de Lucchi and Gerhard Reichert for Artemide. The easy, quiet colour scheme is accented by side-tables fashioned from red jewel-like plastic by Marcel Wanders, and, of course, by the client’s art collection, which adorns every free wall.

Most of them small, some purchases, others gifts, the artworks reflect a broad and eclectic taste, but one that runs to the expressive. There are African masks, a sculpture of seated twins from Cameroon and iron bracelets from Mali – presents from the client’s brother and father, both frequent visitors to Africa. Among her older pieces of Western art are a painting by the well-known Canadian abstractionist B. C. Binning, a print by Matisse, and a 1971 work – her first acquisition – by American pop artist Jim Dine. Most of the works on display, however, are recent paintings and works on paper, and they include surging drawings by Canadian artists Susanna Heller and John Scott, two typically elegant pieces by Tony Scherman, and powerful photographs by Geoffrey James and Peter MacCallum.

While the living and dining room is only 15 feet wide, Levitt’s skillful use of colour and light and her spatial rearrangements have given the cottage a sense of breadth and calm liveability that lifts it clear of the restrictions in the original scheme of 1883. This successful renovation has given another old Toronto house a fresh chance to live in the modern age. cI