- APRIL 7, 2006


Architect John O’Connor warns that the beauty of the city’s Victorian charmers may be only skin deep

During a massive overhaul of a charming mews house in his neighbourhood, Cabbagetown architect John O’Connor realized the writing was on the wall for Toronto’s flimsier downtown neighbourhoods.

Century-old homes built simply and cheaply for workers’ families in Cabbagetown and other downtown pockets command high prices because of their evocative historical facades, he says. But unless major structural work is done on them, these homes could start falling down around their owners’ ears within the next 20 years.

“Your house may fall down, and just your Sub-Zero fridge be left standing,” Mr. O’Connor says with a laugh.

More seriously, he adds, “investing in the infrastructure of these old and originally simply built houses is becoming paramount in preserving their property values.”

A five-year market surge that propelled Cabbagetown prices to $600,000 and more for a row house and $700,000-plus for a semi-detached has created a trap for buyers. Seduced by the Victorian-village streetscape, they are often heedless of what lies behind drywall slapped up by the “white-painters” of the 1970s.

“People are a bit naive; they think they can renovate cheaply,” Mr. O’Connor says.

“But the building stock is poor, and the cost of reconstruction is high because of access issues,” he says. “The days of the quick fix are over.”

People paying $600,000 for a crumbling house in Cabbagetown now can expect to spend an additional $400,000 to shore up listing foundations, level out floors, replace obsolete mechanical systems, and bring the house up to 21st-century standards, the architect says.

The white-painters of the 1970s employed a quick, cosmetic brand of renovation when they flocked back downtown from the suburbs. They sanded and stained floors and threw up drywall to hide crumbling plaster, corroding heat vents, old lead gas pipes and knob-and-tube wiring.

Now what’s needed is reconstruction, not renovation.

To make matters worse, there are special difficulties attached to construction in a neighbourhood of narrow streets and 15-foot-wide lots, and these drive up prices for the work.

Mr. O’Connor’s mews-house project is a case in point.

The last house on a small street that dead-ends at the fence of St. James’s Cemetery, the red-brick bay-n-gable semi is in the perfect location for owners Michael Temple and Andre Bourgie.

It’s quiet — there’s no parking and little driving on the narrow street — the community is close-knit, and the upper-floor view over soaring trees and tranquil expanses of grass punctuated with flowers and granite statuary soothes their souls.

But the home’s seclusion also made it difficult for delivery and disposal trucks to get in, there was no space for a dumpster, and contractors’ pickup trucks were frequently plastered with parking tickets.

Wheelbarrows had to be used to bring in concrete for the foundation footings — there was no room for a cement truck.

And the closeness of the neighbours on the street also raised the irritation factor, inevitable in any noisy construction project. Neighbours’ complaints increased the flood of parking tickets, the cost of which are generally passed on to the person getting the work done.

Dr. Temple (a specialist in image-guided surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children) said he and his partner wanted to create a permanent home for themselves and build it around their extensive art collection.

“My thought was, you do it once and you do it right.”

They looked around for something that met their needs without reconstruction, “but it was always either a bad house on a good street or a good house on a bad street,” Mr. Temple says.

So they hired Mr. O’Connor to build essentially a new house behind the Victorian façade, which had to be preserved under heritage bylaws.

The architect quickly found that the foundations had to be replaced, and new footings poured, as the main floor was three inches higher on one side than the other. While doing the foundation work, it made sense to lower the basement.

The thin party wall with the neighbouring house also needed major upgrading — Mr. O’Connor added another layer of wall, stuffing the space with insulation for better soundproofing.

“It’s amazing to me when you’re buying $800,000 semis and you can hear your neighbour through the wall,” the architect says.

The home still had the traditional Victorian layout when Dr. Temple and Mr. Bourgie bought it in the fall of 2004: a tiny living room in front linked by a wide archway to a tiny dining room — both rooms painted a startling shade of pink — and the kitchen at the back.

Mr. O’Connor turned the layout around, putting the kitchen at the front, raising the ceiling of the central dining room to double height so light could stream down from the second floor, and building a wide rectangular extension on the back for the living room area.

He screened the staircases to the second and third levels with see-through perforated steel, which allows light to flow down from large picture windows in the back rooms of the upstairs levels.

The double height of the dining room provided impressive, 10-foot-high display walls suspended from the second-floor ceiling.

Dramatic paintings by two Montreal artists loved by Dr. Temple and Mr. Bourgie — Sylvain Tremblay and Dominic Besner — have pride of place here, as well as on walls in the front hall, study and master bedroom.

Mr. O’Connor also built half a dozen lighted niches into the walls to hold sculptures.

In the cute little gable on top of the house, a feature prized by heritage enthusiasts, he made closet space.

Cabbagetown has parallel realities, the architect says — the pointy, period brick facades that line the streets, and the boxy glass, wood and steel additions you see when you walk the alleys behind the homes. “It has a split personality.”