When this split-level bungalow in Toronto, Canada, designed in 1955 by British-born architect Basil Capes, was listed for sale architecture buffs Anda Kubis and her husband Dean Martin just had to take a look.
Its exceptional, private ravine site was a draw, and the couple loved everything about it: its zig-zag roof; carport, cedar-paneled ceiling, exposed steel roof beams and soaring windows.
Modernism is a passion for the couple. Kubis is a painter and department chair at the Ontario College of Art University’s Painting and Drawing Program. Martin is a creative director in an advertising agency. Kubis’ father was a furniture designer from Eastern Europe who worked in the modernist tradition so they have an extensive range of his furnishings as well as other mid-century modern pieces.
They bought then house, feeling adventurous, and then didn’t really know what to do. After a year of living in the cramped space they hired Levitt Goodman Architects to help.
What do you think was so special about the midcentury period in American design?
“It’s an incredible distillation of modern living when being modern was hopeful and forward-thinking rather than just a style. The seamless open spaces flowing into each area of the house, and the modesty of the bedroom and bathroom sizes really declared a position about the primacy of the shared spaces as the most important and the private spaces should feel domestic and quiet.“
Do you have any details on the client brief?
“The client really loved the mid-century feel and detailing but wanted our design to be a contemporary intervention that complemented the existing house. They are also big gardeners with an outdoor lifestyle, so we wanted to really create a strong indoor/outdoor relationship. Finally, the client has a stellar art collection and we wanted to make sure that the interiors would house the collection appropriately.“
What was the house like previously?
“It was an (almost) pristine mid-century house with an open living/dining/kitchen area and two small bedrooms and a shared bathroom flanking the east side. The lower level was a “play” room and quite dark.“
The renovation managed not to impact the modernist feeling of the home, instead preserving it while adding more natural sunlight throughout. Skylights were introduced and the entrance was shifted from the front of the house to the rear of the carport. A wall that separated two bedrooms was removed which brought light to the rear of the house and allowed for an open-plan kitchen.
The original kitchen is now a light and airy reading nook and a garage addition from the 1970s is now a private master bedroom opening up to a patio. Energy efficient windows and radiant floors keep the house warm through the cold Toronto winters.
What were your challenges for this project?
“There were several. The number one challenge was to insulate the house to bring it up to current standards without impacting the pristine original mid-century exposed ceilings. In addition, renovating and adding to the existing garage to make it into a bedroom in a way that made it feel like a cousin (rather than a stranger) to the existing house.
The clients are great cooks, and the existing kitchen was in the wrong place and far too small. Decanting that to the end of the house and relocating the bedrooms resolved the size issue but the design language of marrying a contemporary kitchen into the mid-century restored floor area was challenging.
We also relocated the front entry to the house to the side, to in part acoustically seal off the noise of the street (very congested at rush hour) and create a more logical entry sequence. The new entrance is at the side and close to the kitchen allowing for greater ease.“
What in your opinion are the best features of the home?
“The exposed wood ceiling, the light you get from all sides, the 3-dimensional shape of the primary living spaces, and the location beside the river are all incredible.”
Last but not least, do you have any tips for people interested in buying a midcentury house?
“It’s important when renovating a mid-century house to understand the design that underlies the layout of the house. It’s too easy just to take a superficial view of the house and start nibbling away at elements that, with the proper analysis, tend to be the unspoken magic of why the spaces feel so perfect.“
Owner Dean says: “It’s actually kind of amazing that we have this rambling space that’s actually not that big,” Dean says. “It feels expansive, it feels correct, without really being all that different than what it was in the first place.”
Photos by Ben Rahn/A-Frame and Naomi Finlay