Perhaps this is an unlikely post coming from someone who considers themselves lucky to be living in a late 19th c. Toronto Bay-and-Gable Victorian home. It is hard not to get excited, however, about a house that is perfect for the time. The “Woodland Home” is a rare exemplar in a bad dream of surburban McMansion expansion…


The Woodland Home

Structures that dominate their site and would be as hospitable to live in as a freight container if it weren’t for the massive BTUs needed to be burnt in or pumped out depending on the season…

Simon and Jasmine Saville of Wales have, perhaps, built a house that is as iconic as Le Corbusier’s Savoy House was at the height of the modern movement. Of course, we are now all too familiar with the multiple failures of early modern architecture (every city’s skyline overwhelmed by poor knockoffs of Mies’ Seagram’s Building) and of course, the horrid urban planning of Corbu’s “Radiant City”  (residential monoblocks in sequestered parklike settings bereft of any of the interest and community that was taking place in the pockets of the old city that weren’t bulldozed).

Text Box:    Le Corbusier  Savoy House, Poissy sur Seine, France.

le Corbusier's Savoy House - A Machine for Living

Corbu thought of his Savoy House in very modern terms as a machine for living. The overused machine analogy of modern architecture and planning has been stretched to the point of collective yawn and shared contempt for its disappointments. Structures that dominate their site and would be as hospitable to live in as a freight container if it weren’t for the massive BTUs needed to be burnt in or pumped out depending on the season…

The suburban dream might still exist, but this purgatory between urban sophistication and pastoral rural living is a harder sell.

The Saville family Woodland home is needed as an ideal type that demonstrates everything that has gone so wrong with car dependent, energy dependent, socially homogenous, sterile suburban living.  If we are to believe the “doomers” then suburban living will be as short lived as Corbu’s success in getting people to think of their houses as machines. The “End of Suburbia” thesis aside, suburbia has lost some of its shine, its attraction and certainly its cultural capital. The suburban dream might still exist, but this purgatory between urban sophistication and pastoral rural living is a harder sell. I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s words referencing Oakland CA, after returning from France, “There is no There There“.

The Woodland home is a home you respond to in a very cerebral way. A home that you want to be in and explore on first sight. There may even be something Jungian about its appeal. Some yearning to be closer to a relationship to nature that was lost with advances in building technology. An inversion of modern thinking and the ubiquitous dissatisfaction brought on by rationalizing every detail daily life. A hand built home and the appeal of autonomy and self efficacy. A house that does not dominate its natural site, but is part of it. A house that does not require any more resources  to build than what many people of the world have available. And shy of $5000.00, a house that does not demand life-long mortgaged servitude and the accompanying joy killing time in cubicle to keep ahead of the interest…

Check out the Saville’s great website for more photos, architectural drawings and construction techniques.

A few year’s back MacLean‘s magazine published a cover titled, “Lawyers are Rats” that had the brotherhood of the bar up in arms and denying that the erosion of civil society occurred as a consequence of their handiwork. Recently, Chistopher Hume, of the Toronto Star, has directed his attention towards the conduct of developers who, among lawyers, share a special place in the imagination of a damning public.

Toronto’s record of historical preservation is shoddy, spotty and replete with many missed opportunities. According to Hume, Toronto’s weak historical preservation laws are open to exploitation by inviting nefarious developers to behave like barbarians that broke through our gates.

Sentiments build and are invested in spaces and buildings and this is what the buyer of a historical home or an authentic industrial loft sees as value. Destroying a house with that value for the sake of domino townhouses means, as a buyer, your new digs have a dirty secret – and in Toronto, the neighbours talk.

John Todd, president of 1626829 Ontario Ltd (not a snappy corporate acronym meant to be remembered) has deliberately destroyed the historical features of Toronto’s 7 Austin Terrace – designed by John Lyle who is also responsible for Toronto’s Union Station and Royal Alexander Theatre. As the home’s current steward, to little surprise, John Todd seeks to demolish the historic house and throw up some townhouses.

Original Windows Being Ripped Out, Along with Portico Torn Off. From Macleans Magazine: http://macleans.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/december162009.jpg

Apparently, destroying the architectural features of your home is enough to duck a historical designation in this city. According to Hume, the laws of civilization could not anticipate the actions of Barbarians.

“Todd may be an embarrassment to the city, but clearly this doesn’t concern him. Why should it? Eventually, he will build his townhouses and people will buy them blissfully unaware of their shameful history. As long as his actions are not illegal, it doesn’t matter if they’re wrong.”

If only the objectionable professions did not share such close quarters…

There is probably more stigma to living in a townhouse built on the ruins of an important historical structure than Hume accedes. Cultures and meanings people have of their built environments endure once the destruction is done. Sentiments build and are invested in spaces and buildings and this is what the buyer of a historical home or an authentic industrial loft sees as value. Destroying a house with that value for the sake of domino townhouses means, as a buyer, your new digs have a dirty secret – and in Toronto, the neighbours talk.

Stepping foot inside a 120 year old  Victorian in Toronto’s Rosedale or Annex neighbourhood with anticipation only to find MDF mouldings, prefinished flooring, ripped out walls and ubiquitous pot lighting is a bit like being witness to a crime scene.

That being the case, most Rosedale and Forest Hill century home “renos” approximate barbarianism, if only the actions of the owners were more willful. Stepping foot inside a 120 year old Victorian in Toronto’s Rosedale or Annex neighbourhood with anticipation only to find MDF mouldings, prefinished flooring, ripped out walls and ubiquitous pot lighting is a bit like being witness to a crime scene. Toronto’s historic preservation laws have nothing to say about how one can best protect the interior features of a historic property. Newly gained professional salaries, an HGTV habit, precious little knowledge and big ideas combine to create interior designs that will  soon be abandoned as a signifier of pop cultural capital.

Perhaps, we are content with surfaces in this city, as the numerous “preserved” historic building facades would suggest. Eerie architectural artifacts lingering on a PoMo streetscape reminiscent of an old western sound stage or a New Urbanist “Main Street”. Though I suppose seeing at least some old brick in place is better than the alternatives.

Occasionally in Toronto, one can find an original Queen Anne Style window in a Bay and Gable, or other Victorian, styled home. Apparently, improved glass making in the 1880s meant that designers could build larger windows with fewer small mullioned panes, however, mullions were still appreciated for their aesthetics.

Queen Anne window style, the result of improved glass making, was a completely new style of window that did not exist in previous historic styles.

Queen Anne style "Fancy Top" window

Queen Anne style "Fancy Top" window

At this time, public preferences and architect recommendation called for widows with divided, or “fancy top” upper windows and single full lower windows that would allow for unobstructed view while still maintaining the look of a divided window in the top pane. In different windows the divided lights march around the casement, allowing for a larger central window. The look of multiple mullions of varying coloured antique or muffle glass can be very spectacular when sun shines from behind. Due to the era, these windows were largely installed in Queen Anne houses, from which they are named, but are also called “cottage” windows. This window style, the result of emerging technology, was a completely new style of window that did not exist in previous historic styles.

Reproduced Casement Window

Reproduced Casement Window

One will need to find a good carpenter when trying to replace a Queen Anne window given the intricate mullion that comprises the panes. Luckily southern Ontario has many good carpenter that specialize in keeping alive the large Victorian housing stock in the province. Hoffmeyer Mills in Sebringville specializes in period millwork and made a perfect sash to custom specs.

Glazing stained glass lights on a Queen Anne window requires a bit of knowledge of period glass used in 1880s windows. A local stain glass supplier was very helpful in locating the perfect classic Victorian cobalt, red and amber glass that was so often matched together in Queen Anne windows of the period. While the cobalt blue, red and amber was a popular combination, Queen Anne windows were glazed using multiple coloured and textured glass that was produced at the time.

Panes pressed into glazing putty and secured with baton strips

Panes pressed into glazing putty and secured with wood stop strips

Reproduction “Antique Glass” can be purchases in varying qualities from mouth blown to machine rolled. In both cases, a glass that is dynamic and brilliant in light is produced. The high quality mouth blown glass is exceptionally brilliant given the random striations and swirls produced as the glass maker spins the glass to fabricate the panes. In many instances, other rolled textured glass, such as muffle glass, were used in these windows.

Individual panes can be either be  secured with glazing points and putty or set in a small bead of putty and secured with small wooden stops. I would recommend using the wood stops since glazing points may be hard to secure given the small pane sizes and the increased chance of breaking a pane given that reproduction antique glass is more brittle.

Installed window

Installed Queen Anne casement window

The final window was installed using four inch reproduction Victorian hinges and window hardware. A minor amount of wood planing was needed to get a snug fit in the window jam. Given that it was installed in a humid bathroom, it will eventually get a good coat of oil based paint.

The Cabbagetown Historical Preservation Association takes the preservation of Toronto’s Victorian housing seriously and with good reason – Cabbagetown is the largest stretch of Victorian housing in North America. On their homepage they have made available the resource, “What Style is My House” which is good reading for anyone who can’t identify the historic home they live within.

This is an invaluable resource for those of us who had no idea they had bought a Century Victorian because there was little left to identify what the original house had looked like. For whatever reason, downtown homes, outside of the trendy preservation districts, tend to be hidden under layers of aluminum siding, inappropriate additions and a host of other measures over the years that often results in a house that stylistically “does not make sense”.

The Cabbagetown Preservation guide is oriented to Torontonian architecture with detailed styling points for Georgian, Queen Anne,  Romanesque, Gothic and Arts and Crafts styles. Two styles of housing are unique to Toronto: The Bay and Gable and the Annex House. The guide, however, only identifies the Bay and Gable. The annex home is a unique combination of Romanesque and Queen Anne that is characterized by mass, permanence and the exuberance of Queen Anne features. These houses are seldom seen outside of Toronto’s Annex.

This guide may also be of interest to Americans who are curious how uniquely American styles departed from English architectural heritage.

West Toronto Junction, or just “The Junction“, is unique in stade Toronto “The Good”. The Junction, named for the crossing of the Canadian National (CNR) and the Canadian Pacific (CPR) railways, was a booming prosperous late 1890s town with businesses breaking the bulk of the railway, lumber yards, stock yards, a flour mill, a foundry, and included factories that manufactured Nordheiner and Hienztman pianos, in addition to the Canadian Cycle Manufacturing company. Founded in 1884, the Junction later amalgamated with Toronto in 1909 and is currently celebrating the centennial since becoming part of Toronto.

Up until 1997, the Junction exercised local option in being a dry community after prohibition in 1904 (Fancher). At the turn of the century the area had the reputation for heavy drinking, street fights and prostitution that came with many young men migrating into the city for jobs in the new industrial factories.

The active West Toronto Junction Historical Society maintains an archive of Junction historical documents and photos, in addition to producing publications and historical tours of the Junction.

Some of oldest houses in West Toronto Junction date to the 1880s. Many Victorian Bay-and-Gables, identifiable by their tall narrow stance, octagonal or square bays, and steeply pitched peaks can be found closer to the heart of the original town. Larger commercial buildings line the central strip of the Junction along Dundas Street along with many church steeples, library and Mason’s Lodge that were and are a part of the City of West Toronto Junction. Later Edwardian homes were built as part of the expansion of Toronto suburbs located farther away from the “main strip” of the town.

THE LEADER & RECORDER’S: History of the Junction. Diana Fancher, Editor. ISBN 0-9686636-1-3

Circa 1850 Polymerized Tung Oil Varnish

Circa 1850 Polymerized Tung Oil Varnish

The original door on the house is a Queen Anne style that was unfortunately painted with the cheapest grade latex paint. This style of door can be found on many late Victorian Queen Anne styled Bay-and-Gable homes in Toronto.

After some research, Tung oil seemed like the the best possible finish.

Stripping layers of paint off the door revealed a honey pine stain on the exterior and a dark reddish stain that is the base coat on all of the interior wood work. This dark stain was used as the base for the interior Victorian tromp l’oeil faux oak finish. Paint stripping was time and I am loath to even recall the ordeal. I discovered too late that a carpenter in the area would have been able to  do the work at a reasonable rate, which I would suggest. Otherwise, you will be working with methyl chloride which is a very harsh chemical that is a VOC solvent and not terribly “green”.

First coat of stain applied

First coat of stain applied

Of course, follow usual guidelines when you suspect lead paint (see post on refinishing hardware). More environmentally friendly chemicals should be used if you are lucky enough not too have too may layers to remove.

First coat of Tung oil varnish

First coat of Tung oil varnish

I wanted as period a finish that I could achieve and that meant was very reluctant to use a polyurethane. The plastic coated look of polyurethane finishes are not very attractive to my eye.

After some research, Tung oil seemed like the the best possible finish.  Tung oil, the oil from a Chinese nut producing tree, has been used for centuries to water protect wood on Chinese sailing junks. The oil naturally polymerizes itself by linking up the molecules into chains creating a beautiful finish that repels water and allows the wood to breath. The finish is not “oily” in the least, is dry to touch and hardens to protect the wood. Best of all, with a light sanding, the finish can be touched up and renewed at any time.

I used Circa 1850 polymerized Tung oil varnish. Polermerized tung oil has been heated to encourage even more molecular cross linking during the curing process and has been traditionally used a Marine Spar varnish on beautiful wood hulled power boats.

Paint was removed using a few specialized scrapers for the moulding. Plenty of steal wool was used to remove paint and old varnish from the grain. This raised the grain of the wood which allows stain to be taken up. The door was sanded with 80 grit paper, then 120 grit paper, then 150 grit paper and finally 220 grit paper.

Entrance, The Frick Collection, NYC

Entrance, The Frick Collection, NYC

The 120 year old door had an amazing heart pine grain. Since it was a soft wood, a coat of wood conditioner was applied prior to stain to ensure the stain was soaked up within the wood in an even manner. Three coats of stain were applied allowing 24 hours of drying between coats. Then three coats of Tung oil varnish were applied scuffing the finish with fine steel wool between coats. A visit to the Frick Collection in New York provided the inspiration for our choice of stain colour. Of course, I had to make this enterprize more difficult than it needed to be, but the hue of the stain was perfect, very warm and complemented the golden hues of the aged heart pine of my far more modest door.

The result was better than anticipated and the stain and tung oil really brought out the antique patina of the aged wood.

Three coats of Tung oil varnish

Three coats of Tung oil varnish

Antique front doors are a bargain at most architectural reclamation stores. Partly because, many home owners are not willing to take the trouble to either refinish the original door or have  a carpenter fit in a suitable antique period door. Nonetheless, the very minor additional effort is worth the results. A big box steel door on a period home is an act that frees space in hell for lost souls. While I had the original door to work with, it can be great fun picking out the perfect door at your local salvage shop.

Those of us who are more academically or artistically inclined may experience difficulty conforming to the linear timeline of a typical house project. This limitation of mind is hard to accept. My preference is to rely on inspiration to start projects, spread my energies across many projects at a time, while always maintaining my faith that it is my process, and not pragmatic goal directed behaviour, that will produce results that cannot be faulted. 

This works for me on small projects without the need to ignore too much counterfactual evidence. Now when contemplating a bathroom or kitchen reno, or larger contracted work that is far less inspiring than installing crown moulding or restoring stained glass (think: HVAC, electrical, etc.), I reach my own limits of mind and descend into a disorganized abyss.

So if you find yourself partnered with a more managerial linear thinker, he or she may insist that you plan those damn house projects. Presumably, self preservation on their part …

House Project Planner Template (MSword .doc)

For those that have grown weary of paying for buggy frustrating software, the template has also been saved in the incredible Open Office productivity suite which is a freely downloadable (http://www.openoffice.org/) open-source alternative to MS products. 

House Project Planner Template (Open Office .odt)

The basic template organizes multistage projects, the priority rank of the project, estimated and actual timelines and costs and completion dates. Alter and change the template as you need.

Note on WordPress ads: Occasionally you may see ads on this blog placed by wordpress.com. These are not endorsements on my behalf and will be tolerated until I find a non ad hosting alternative. 

The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach.

Faux finishes are not limited to late 1980s interior decor or to low budget “trading rooms” television programming. The Victorians were fond of making the ordinary appear extraordinary, especially when the extraordinary exceeded one’s reach. I found some original Victorian wood graining under layers of paint that easily peeled off. The art of trompe l’oeil, “to trick the eye”, used an elaborate painting technique to simulate quality hard wood grain on softwood or marble on plaster. More elaborate applications would apply decorative frieze or even painted simulated scarves over doors or birds on ceilings (Guild, 2008). As I expected, there is very little new in post-modern aesthetics… Apparently, trompe l’oeil applications were most popular near the lat 19th c. and used in small and grand houses alike. Skilled artists gained prominence and were sought after for their work in the best homes.

Original Oak Painted Finish

Original Oak Painted Finish

The oak appearing on my door would have first been painted with a deep beige base colour that would then have been glazed with burnt umber and ocher to give it light and dark highlights. The artist would then pull a multi-toothed brush through the glaze to produce the grain by revealing the base coat, then finish by flogging with the brush to break up some lines (Guild, 2008).

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Trompe l'oeil Oak Finish on Pine

Many homes will still have these finishes preserved under layers of paint. These finishes can actually be restored by using solvents to rub down to the trompe l’oeil finish that is protected by glaze (Nigel, 1997). Paint stripping will destroy these original features. Leaving the finish under paint is an accepted preservationist approach.

Guild, R. (2008). The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decorating. Firefly Books.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

Old windows are so worth saving and so much a part of a house’s style and character.

Unfortunately, many old houses have lost their windows after manufacturers claimed thermopaned windows offered such superior

Wood planing the bottom edge of the storm window

Wood planing the bottom edge of the storm window

energy effeciency. Civil engineers from the University of Vermont, The Vermont Energy Investment Corp., and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (James et. al, 1996) presented evidence that the savings of removing old windows and replacing with thermopanes is so small, that it may take over 80 years to recoup the investment – longer if the original windows are properly maintained. A well-maintained original wood sash or casement window with storm window offers many other advantages, including the ability to abate a larger amount of ambient and street noise due to the larger distance between each pane. Original windows will also last a lifetime if properly maintained. This justifies repairing the existing window when needed. Sedovic and Gottheif’s report (at traditional-building.com) addresses many of the overblown claims made by replacement window manufacturers and the advantages of well maintained historic windows.

There are also security issues with “vinyl” windows, since they are not as strong as wood frames. Vinyl framed windows cannot normally be painted

Brass fastener

Brass fastener

either, further detracting from the original character of your home. This is to say nothing of the fact that once you are on the “replacement window” schedule, you can expect to have to replace the thermopanes once the gas escapes and the moisture infiltrates the unit resulting in a lovely “fogged window”.

I guess it is really not necessary for me to directly state my abhorence for vinyl windows, especially since the POs installed a couple of them. I can’t wait for a few of them to start “popping” so I have a reason beyond aesthetics to get rid of them and have custom antique sash windows installed.

Anyways, instead of replacing a wonderful old Queen Anne divided-top window with stained glass, I decided to repair it and have a custom milled storm window made by Hoffmeyer Mills located in Sebringville Ontario. The mill still uses the original machinery dating back to the 1870s. They told me that the storm was one of the largest made in recent memory at the mill and

Installed and in keeping with the look of the original windows

Installed and in keeping with the look of the original windows

their work, using traditional mortise and tenoned joinery, was excellent. Given the ambient noise of urban life, I requested that the window be glazed with 4 or 5 mm glass. The mill requested specific measurements and it only took a small number of runs with the hand planer to get a perfect fit. I used a simple compressible foam weatherstripping and antique styled brass fasteners and interior latch locks to hold the window in place. The result is no drafts whatsoever and I cannot even hear a delivery truck rolling by while reading the paper. Well worth it.

I wanted to put up bead board in a small laundry room, but lost enthusiasm for the project after realizing I would need to spend a couple of hours nailing boards over my head. So perhaps I did not really need a pneumatic Brad nailer, but now that I own one, I have tons of ideas for more projects! As if there were not enough items on our “to do” list. 

The unremarkable "before shot" made worse by the "track lighting"...

The unremarkable "before shot" made worse by the "track lighting"...

Tools and Materials:

  • Brad nail gun
  • Mitre saw
  • Stud finder
  • Chalk line
  • Pine beadboard
  • Pine crown molding
  • Measuring tape

I choose a small room to gain some experience working with the nail gun.

Paint or prime the beadboard first. This will ensure the tongue and grove of the boards are fully covered as it will be hard to get into any uneven joints once the boards are up. For this project, I used a lower grade pine that was meant to be painted. Using the nail gun will also ensure that you do not split boards and that you do not leave hammer marks or nail heads that need to be putty filled.

Snapped chalk lines

Snapped chalk lines

To put up a bead board ceiling, I first used a stud finder to locate the ceiling joists and then snapped a chalk line to mark their location. The beadboard should be installed perpendicular to the joists so that you get solid wood stock in which to nail.

It is recommended to leave around a 1/4 inch gap to account for expansion of the boards. This gap will be covered by your trim. If the beadboard is going to be installed in a humid room, then you may also want to back prime the boards so they are less susseccible to expansion.

If your ceilings are not true (and chances are they arn’t true) then you may want to account for the irregularity to ensure that the bead will line up and run parallel with the trim molding. This room is a small “scullery” and I did not bother with the added fuss and the slight irregularity is not noticeable at all. The first board should be face nailed, but after that board I “toenailed” the boards to hide the nail heads within the tongue and grove of the beadboard.

Mitre cut the crown molding

Mitre cut the crown molding

Some boards may be so warped that you won’t be able to use them on long stretches, but can be salvaged to work around light boxes. I tried to keep the alignment of the tongue and grove as tight as possible so there were no obvious gaps.

Once it is all nailed up, then it is time to cut the crown molding. I thought this would be easy, but the experience brought back my regrettable experience of high school math. How to cut a mitered corner is a post in itself… there are some good guides online and your saw’s owners manual should give you the angle degrees you need for the right cut.

Not the hardest work to get a classic period look

And done

Using the Brad nailer is fun, quick and easy, just do not forget the ear and eye protection. Beadboard looks great in an old house and gives it some Victorian character where there would otherwise be drywall.