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House Beautiful: Garden with a sense of mystery

Up a mountain and down a panhandle driveway lined with dense cedar hedges nestles a charming and unusual home. Like a beautiful pendant hanging on a chain, David Flaherty’s house is a gem set in a Japanese-style oasis of subtle greens and greys.

Up a mountain and down a panhandle driveway lined with dense cedar hedges nestles a charming and unusual home.

Like a beautiful pendant hanging on a chain, David Flaherty’s house is a gem set in a Japanese-style oasis of subtle greens and greys.

This Mount Tolmie home is one of those places where you want to go right inside and begin exploring, but can’t seem to tear yourself away from the series of secret gardens that flow around it like a stream.

Flaherty has lived here 21 years, and it’s hardly surprising his hidden driveway, which curves gently to promote a “sense of mystery,” expands into an ultra private, one-third acre property. Flaherty was this province’s first information and privacy commissioner, and his life has been defined by confidentiality and discretion,

At 74, he still works as a privacy consultant and expert witness in litigation. He has penned or edited 14 books and is a long-serving member of advisory committees and boards for both the federal and provincial privacy commissioners. After earning a PhD from Columbia he taught at Princeton, as well as other universities, and held fellowships and scholarships at Harvard and Oxford to name just two.

“When this house came on the market the previous owners had trouble selling it,” recalled Flaherty with a wry smile. “One of the issues was the lack of eye- or street-appeal. It’s ironic, in terms of how I value it for its privacy, the fact I can hold sensitive meetings here, retreats or intimate parties.”

The New Brunswick-born Flaherty was a single father of three when he moved here in 1993. After being shown three-bedroom homes in Oak Bay, this jewel is what caught his eye. He bought it in 24 hours.

“It was so different … although I don’t know if I could have seen the potential without the help of my friend and designer JC Scott,” who quickly responded to the home’s character.

“JC envisioned what was possible and helped me overcome my innate conservatism. When he works with you, he practically does a psychological assessment. I’m smart enough to give him a relatively free hand — except to say ‘no’ now and then. He has renovated every part of this house.”

The home is full of character and Flaherty is an engaging and stimulating client, said Scott, who noted walking around the house is like strolling through a gallery with world class paintings and a premier Canadian ceramic collection.

“The space functions as a very private home office, a retreat and in the evenings it flows and functions beautifully for entertaining,” said Scott. He particularly appreciated the atrium at its heart, which drew his mind back to both early Roman and Asian traditions.

He suggested an Oriental-modern theme and “David ran with that inside and out.”

It is always a treat to work with just one owner, as he did in the home of collector Michael Williams. “You can tailor a house to one person, one taste, someone who is doing a house for themselves, not for resale or a family.”

The 1978 house reflects many West Coast design elements, including views of nature inside and out, and the layout comprises two wings with corridors around the central courtyard. It feels open yet private, and Scott enhanced that by widening windowsills. It allows more display space for ceramics, focuses sight lines to the garden and affords a deeper sense of privacy.

He noted: “David likes to collect the very best, and some of Canada’s greatest potters are here, at very affordable prices, so he can buy top quality art from living artists.

Scott’s other improvements include refinishing all the woodwork, designing new window dressings and valances — with an Oriental influence — and putting down oatmeal-coloured natural wool and sisal carpets as well as Indian brown slate.

It gives the house a masculine, tailored touch while reinforcing the Japanese aura: “You could imagine a Samurai standing there,” said Scott with a chuckle.

Original, handmade kitchen cabinets were refinished — a 70-hour project — new insulation and electrical service was installed and three bathrooms completely redesigned. A handsome, mahogany-wrapped spa tub was put in the guest room because Flaherty preferred a big shower in the ensuite.

“We used the largest tub possible, without overcrowding the room,” said Scott, who took out the bathroom wall. “I always encourage people to put in a slightly more luxurious bathtub than first considered … its use and enjoyment goes up considerably.”

The resulting corner looks like a scene from an Agatha Christie film, a 1930s room that could have belonged to her famous Belgian detective who was known, like Flaherty, for his sang-froid.

The top is surrounded in black Vancouver Island Carmanah marble, from Matrix Marble.

Ubatuba granite was used as the base for an indoor reflecting pool. Hard, dense and highly polished, it is similar to the porphyry used to make Egyptian sarcophagi.

As the home’s interior was being redesigned, Flaherty set about recreating the landscape. In the mid-1990s, he was impressed with the work of Michael and Sean Greenfield on the Japanese gardens at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, and asked them to work in his gardens.

“I keep thinking they are finished but each year seems to bring something new.”

Ten years ago, he also learned of Francois Frutiger and his wife, Catherine, who came from Geneva and opened a landscaping business here, Sagitta Landscape Solutions.

“He had been the head gardener for the Rothschilds in Geneva, and she had been on his staff. I was able to hire them in part because we could speak French; since then, they have maintained my gardens in fine style.”

This left him free to pursue other interests, such as opera and art collecting.

Flaherty grew up with seven brothers and sisters and was an elder brother of the late federal finance minister Jim Flaherty.

A passion for art and museums began early, when he went to Columbia University as a graduate student at age 22. He started going to the opera — “buying 50-cent standing tickets” — and visiting galleries.

He now focuses on older paintings, abstract expressionist works and pottery such as the museum-quality Mata Ortiz pieces of Mexico. He also appreciates the fine ceramics of Vancouver Island, and helped inspire a show at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, called Back to the Land.

Since moving here, he has been a “significant” supporter of the symphony, AGGV, Capriccio, the Victoria Conservatory of Music and Pacific Opera Victoria, of which he has been board president since 2010.

“POV is brilliant and Patrick Corrigan [its executive director] is the one who inspired me to become more philanthropic.

“You get a big bang for your buck at POV; your money goes a lot further than in Toronto,” and Flaherty is now supporting the new Pacific Opera Centre in the hall of St. John the Divine. “I’m trying to ensure that interesting people continue wanting to move here. We already have high art, fine restaurants, culture, galleries, hockey rinks — but they need support.”

He notes every opera company in North America is in trouble — “New York City Opera closed, Hamilton Opera closed and a lot of others are teetering” — but not POV.

“We are surviving and our new centre will be a wonderful rehearsal and performance space, and also allow more outreach, workshops and master classes,” Flaherty said.

“There is nothing I’m more interested in right now than giving money to POV, and ensuring all the funds are used in an honest, ethical and efficient way.”

The next opera is The Marriage of Figaro, opening Thursday, so he will likely be putting on his tux again.