FLEX TIME

KATHERINE VANSITTART
CANADIAN HOUSE AND HOME JUNE, 2001

A city semi gets a modern facelift that answers the evolving needs of a young family.

There is a small crowd of mothers with young children on the front porch at Kathryn and Michael Bowen’s residence. Seems I’m late for a tea party but a little early for my interview with Kathryn. She and her son, Henry, wave goodbye to their friends, and we go inside. Standing in the front hall, sunshine streams in from every direction. Kathryn apologizes for the mess. There are traces of the party on the dining table, the chairs are askew and a few toys lie about. Beneath this surface dishevelment, however, the rooms are as neat as a pin.

Clearly, the house lends itself well to the rambunctious spontaneity of family life with a small child. One room flows to the next along a seamless path of wood floors, pale putty walls and natural light. Furnishings are strong and simple, and of no single period or style. They seem chosen for their individual character but work together because they express the tastes of the homeowners.

When Michael and Kathryn bought the house three years ago, the interior had barely changed since the house was built, around 1905, save for a 1960’s kitchen renovation. “It was a tired house in need of a facelift”, Kathryn recalls. Finishes included worn grey broadloom and musty green paint throughout. Despite a southern exposure and plenty of windows, rooms were isolated from one another, so the light didn’t filter through. But thanks to the vision of Toronto architect John O’Connor, who came to see the house when the couple were considering buying, they saw its potential. It had all the essentials: good neighbourhood and schools, a solid brick structure with a backyard and parking. And, although the couple didn’t have children at the time, one thing that the couple liked was that the house still had distinct rooms, particularly on the second and third floors. “We wanted a house with enough space that it could evolve, that there could be children’s rooms, or a study, a playroom or guest room. Flexibility”, says Kathryn.

“John designed the house as a whole”, recalls Kathryn. Nothing was done piecemeal, such as picking paint colours or kitchen tiles after the fact. The challenge, as O’Connor saw it, was to open the space up while maintaining the discreet functions of individual rooms.

The house didn’t have a lot of noteworthy detailing when the Bowen’s bought it, so the structure was essentially gutted. Some walls were moved (although the location of the various rooms remained the same), and wider ceiling-height openings created, as with the back sunroom. The Bowen’s didn’t initially like the boxy room that jutted off the kitchen into the backyard. “It wasn’t very attractive”, recalls Kathryn. But when O’Connor opened it up the kitchen and dining room, it became the focal point. “it’s an absolute dream for family life,” says Kathryn. Now they can work in the kitchen or entertain friends in the dining room while keeping and eye on 17-month old Henry at play.

The couple love to sail, so throughout the house O’Connor incorporated clever boat inspired elements: Built-in shelving and a television cabinet in the master bedroom, a long kitchen counter with a niche in one end that houses a TV, and, in the tiny main-floor powder room, sliding doors secured with marine style latches. “It’s John’s house, really,” Kathryn likes to joke. “Mike and I just live here.” In fact, it was great teamwork. O’Connor suggested novel ideas, materials and colour treatments, then discussion ensued.

The grey kitchen cabinetry and sandstone backsplash, for instance, were a stretch for Michael and Kathryn. Wouldn’t they make the already small kitchen feel claustrophobic? “It’s more ‘furniture grade’ than ‘institutional kitchen'” O’Connor explains. As it’s totally exposed to the dining room, he thought that the kitchen should have a warm finished quality. And the red oak floors are a switch from today’s popular light maple. O’Connor likes how the richer tone and grain mixes well with contemporary black furniture as well as more traditional pine and mahogany. These natural stone and wood elements also add a tactile, slightly Arts and Crafts sensibility to the house in keeping with its original design.

While O’Connor’s vision was invaluable, the couple put a lot of their own energy into the house, working on it most nights and weekends during construction. That physical involvement helped create a bond with their new home and sealed their relationship. “We got engaged during the renovation,” laughs Kathryn. “That’s how we know that our marriage is solid.”

They considered the house a long-term investment, and that affected their choices. “The attitude was ‘do it once and do it right,'” says O’Connor. The same went for the furnishings, many of which were chosen with or devised by Christopher Wood of Toronto home shop L.A. Design. It has been a gradual process that has taught them the richness of living simply with a few well-chosen pieces. Pieces built to last. “we wanted to live in our house,” Kathryn says, explaining choices such as the vintage living room chairs in a durable textured chenille, their first purchase, and the more recently bought coffee table. “It’s by Martha Sturdy, and its really sturdy,” she muses, tapping the indestructible piece of thick, burnished metal in front of her. With a growing family and a couple of cats, she adds, “We didn’t want to be fussing all the time.”

Since being at home with a young baby, Kathryn has found the airiness and ease of their home a real boon. “I love being here. It’s beautiful – the light, the different spaces. It’s a great place to be a new parent. It was a house built to evolve,” she concludes. “And it has.”

 
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