TORONTO LIFE MAGAZINE MAY 2006
John O’Connor’s reinterpretation of his 130-year-old Cabbagetown cottage may irk the preservation association, but spirit trumps historical accuracy
At first glance, Amelia Street is a typical stretch of Cabbagetown, lined with houses in late-Victorian styles, lovingly tended by their preservation-conscious owners. But Amelia, just south of Wellesley, has a specialty. It’s unusually rich in a lovable little house known as the worker’s cottage. One or one and a half storeys high, with a central peak over the front door, the style descends from a prize-winning design that was presented at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. Basic and cheap, the idea crossed the Atlantic, and thousands were built in poorer neighbourhoods across Ontario in the last third of the 19th century. For the same reason, relatively few of the houses have survived. In the first block west of Parliament Street, Amelia’s cottages come tricked out in all the winsome details that this style inspires. One house is clad in rustic stones, others in brick and stucco. Shutters, etched-glass transoms and bay windows animate the cottage’s simple shape. The peaks are edged in the undulating wooden gingerbread that spells “Home Sweet Home” to lovers of Victorian architecture.
And then there’s 50 Amelia Street, the home of Rick Hayward, an executive in a multinational corporation, and John O’Connor, an architect. The trademark profile, dominated by the sharp gable, is in place, prefaced by an informal perennial garden. But the house completely lacks gingerbread, finials or any other reassuring accessories, and is covered in something grey and industrial-looking. The plain-spoken facade is not unfinished, as many passersby assume, but covered in cement board punctuated by vertical metal strips-a witty take on traditional board and batten. The cladding, plus a staggered path of cement panels, a swanky stainless steel handrail and a meticulously detailed but utterly contemporary mailbox-cum-lamp, announces a sensibility bent on something more complicated than restoration. This is a new way of acknowledging Cabbagetown’s heritage that is neither slavish nor precious. This is an Ontario cottage that does not do cozy.
John O’Connor never intended to toy with historical accuracy when he bought the house in the late ’90s. A tall, likable man with a ready laugh, O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career. He’d just finished managing the creation of the Don Mills and Downsview subway stations, and wanted nothing more to do with big, frustrating jobs “where the design aspect gets killed.” At the same time, he’d gutted and renovated a house on Brunswick Avenue and sold it a year later for a profit of almost $200,000. He’d found the hands-on experience of designing and building a house the most satisfying work he’d done, so he decided to start a small company of his own.
Hoping to duplicate his financial success in the Annex, O’Connor looked fruitlessly for an empty lot on which to build something new. Then one Saturday afternoon, he saw an ad in the Toronto Star for a Cabbagetown house priced at $225,000. He was there within half an hour and found an 1870s cottage in “really rough shape,” with a La-Z-Boy in the yard. An elderly woman had lived there for almost 50 years. O’Connor had only two questions: does the house have termites, and is there access from the laneway? As soon as he got the right answers (no and yes), he bought it.
Over the next couple of months, he arrived at a few key decisions. “The cottage needed to be torn down,” he says, “but the neighbourhood needed the cottage.” Derelict as it was, the house was a relatively rare survivor of an endangered species, and part of what makes Amelia Street distinctive. Not every modernist designer has such sensitivity to a very modest piece of the past. O’Connor traces his to the three years he spent in Venice as a young architect in the early ’90s, where he learned that a city disrespects its historic fabric at its peril.
But an authentic restoration of his cottage was never an option. A place has to be able to grow and change, O’Connor says, and the additions, “no matter how aggressive,” should acknowledge the older partswhile being absolutely of their own time: “Sure, you can have a Victorian neighbourhood, but is it going to be Disneyland, untouched forever? People are driving flashy cars these days, not horses and buggies.” When I suggest that many people want their 19th century straight up when it comes to a district like Cabbagetown, he says, “But diversity and layers of history living together is what makes cities. Without that jumble, it’s just a shopping mall, with everything looking like it was built at the same time.”
O’Connor decided that he would live and work on the property. First, he would convert the 525-square-foot cottage into his studio and office. Then, in the ample backyard, slightly set back from the cottage, he’d build a three-storey 2,000-square-foot house. He was interested in being faithful to the style, but on his own terms. In the modernist tradition, his front door is tall and thin, without the worker’s cottage’s typical transom. Opting for simplicity, he chose casement windows, which swing out when opened. After the fact, the neighbourhood design police, the Cabbagetown Preservation Association, put a note in his mailbox-”a nice note,” he emphasizes-with a recent newsletter attached, which pointed out that double-hung sash or sliding windows would have been more accurate.
But O’Connor was more interested in accuracy of the spirit than the letter. Ironically, his stripped-down, austere cottage comes closer in an important way to the house’s humble original design, which had none of the expensive flounces that decorate Amelia Street’s so-called restorations. His most radical move was covering the cottage with reinforced cement panels. Just as the edges of the wooden planks in board and batten were covered by a thin raised strip, O’Connor battened his cement panels with galvanized metal braces. Conservation-minded Cabbagetowners might have found that radical and even obnoxious, but O’Connor says, “My attitude is always keep your head down and just do it.” So when his neighbours would stop by while he was working on the house and ask when the “outside was going on,” he would mumble something about this being a contemporary version of board and batten. Oh, they’d say, relieved, so that’s what it is.
O’Connor gutted the interior of the cottage and replaced its congested layout and small rooms with a centre hall plan. The studio for Basis Design Build, O’Connor’s new company, stands on one side, the office and bathroom on the other. The centre hall allows guests to walk through Basis on their way to the residential space without having to enter the office or studio, and O’Connor designed subdued lighting in the baseboards to emphasize the cottage’s evening personality as a long entrance hall. The only time that strategy fails is during the annual St. Patrick’s Day party O’Connor and Hayward give, when the bar is set up in the studio and most guests never leave it.
Once past the cottage, the visitor to the three-storey private space first walks through a kitchen and then a small courtyard garden that link the old with the new. From the street, the addition is mostly-miraculously-hidden by the cottage’s sloping galvanized metal roof. The houses on either side of Number 50 are taller than his residential tower, so O’Connor could design a space without diminishing his neighbours’ light or jarring the streetscape.
With only 18 inches between his house and his neighbours’, he studied all the angles to provide light, vistas and privacy. As a result, sun fills the house from a variety of ingeniously placed windows, from the skinny skylight over the kitchen counter to a two-storey window that illuminates the living room, dining room and bedroom. Every room has a view of trees or the garden, and the bedroom is the only one that requires a window covering.
O’Connor notes that every square foot of this house has been mulled over. And yet there’s no sense of over-intensity or of being shoehorned into a small container. His custom-designed furniture pieces and structures-including a wooden shower floor that lifts to reveal a sunken full-size tub and a bay window that juts out to conceal a peripheral view of the neighbours’ houses-give a feeling of space, not compression. O’Connor and Hayward love to watch the sun setting over the city skyline from their third-floor retreat, its glass walls warmed by a Douglas fir ceiling and surrounded by wooden decking.
That privacy and sense of space is what Hayward loves most about the tower, and that’s no small compliment when you learn that he once lived in the country near Guelph, on 15 acres. When he moved to Toronto and bought a 400-square-foot condo at Yonge and King, he went looking for ways to furnish such a small space. He met O’Connor at an open house in Cabbagetown while both were looking for design ideas. They fell into conversation and O’Connor offered to help design the interiorof the condo. The cleverness of his custom-made furniture-especially the dining table that served as a headboard for the bed when not fully extended-impressed him. Then O’Connor brought Hayward to see the house on Amelia. The addition was still a shell, with drywalling just starting, and Hayward remembers admiring that “John had designed this, and now he was building it along with his crew, with no attitude, no pretension whatsoever.” By the time the house was completed, they were in love and Hayward moved in.
As far as aesthetics, the businessman and the modern architect made an odd couple at first. Of his house in the country, Hayward says, “I decorated it to death,” including “library” wallpaper that featured laden bookshelves. With the tower, he had to dig in his heels to keep some of his treasured objects, small glass pieces and Inuit sculptures. O’Connor relented and built him three spare, well-lit shelves in the living room. Thinking back to the days when “Rick loved what he called Restoration Home Hardware and buying little tchotchkes,” O’Connor admits, “Rick’s made a huge transformation.” He’s now a delighted convert to simplicity.
Heritage restoration is not an exact science. Nor do the 450 members of the Cabbagetown Preservation Association, who meet about three times a year for lectures and news about heritage issues, always agree on what’s right for their neighbourhood. However, since 2003, when Amelia and 30 other Cabbagetown streets formed a Heritage Conservation District, there are guidelines about the appropriate shape, materials and character for houses in the district, and all exterior renovation proposals must be approved by the city’s Preservation Branch.
If O’Connor brought his plans in today, he’d most likely be refused a building permit. The cement panels, the windows and the residential tower could all be ruled out of bounds. Steve Yeates, a graphic designer and illustrator and the current chair of the Cabbagetown Preservation Association, accepts the addition, but feels that the cottage’s windows and cement panels are neither faithful nor sensitive to the area’s 19th-century ambience. The streetscape, Yeates says, is our museum, and if you play false with its materials and textures, you are devaluing the whole. “On the other hand,” he adds, doffing his CPA cap, “as a designer, I love that house.”
There’s no denying that if lots of people on Amelia Street covered their 19th-century houses with cement panels, the neighbourhood would lose something. But only one person has done it, with a cheeky sense of style and a genuine respect for the past, and it won him a coveted spot in Metropolitan Home’s 2005 salute to the best design in private residences. Talking about the tricky business of reinterpreting old houses, Rollo Myers, manager of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and also a Cabbagetown resident, says, “It takes some real humility and sophistication to do it right.” O’Connor has both, allowing Amelia Street to keep a distinctive feature, albeit redrawn in the light of the 21st century. Number 50′s modern metamorphosis isn’t a loss for conservation; it’s a sign of the worker’s cottage’s versatility and endurance-there’s life in the old style yet.