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A home that honours art 'We loved that everything was virtually original, dating back to 1892

Extensive renovation restores 120-year-old Fernwood home and creates an elegant backdrop for the owners' art collection


Writer Grania Litwin and photographer Frances Litman are known for their sense of style and knowledge of outstanding design. They tour homes around the south Island, talking to homeowners, interior designers, architects and artists who influence the way we live.

Exceptional art, luxurious fabrics and lighthearted decor are just some of the design elements that make Kari McLay and Bill Myles' Fernwood townhome so charming.

Their walls are painted in shades of caramel and apricot - and covered with paintings by Phyllis Serota, Joe Average, Flemming Jorgensen, Lindy Michie, Bill Porteous, Norval Morrisseau and McLay's late mother, Ayn Maxham, a painter as well as a potter.

The living room's 11-foot ceiling is wrapped down to the picture rails in a subtle British-made wallpaper encrusted with beaded glass to bounce light. Tables and mantles display unique pieces of ceramic art.

"I grew up surrounded by artists and was raised to appreciate pottery as well as paintings, so we collect that too - works by people like Walter Dexter, Wayne Ngan and of course, made by my mum," said McLay.

After studying art history at university and majoring in social work, McLay was employed at the Jubilee Hospital and in private practice, counselling people with eating disorders. She now offers fashion advice through her two Tulipe Noire clothing stores, on Oak Bay Avenue and in Duncan.

Decor is another passion. "This house is not about window dressing or contrived design," said McLay. "It's about creating an environment that honours art and the complexity of how it evolves in our life and time."

McLay said her late mother raised her to believe that everything in a house should have meaning and history. "It is not just about things - it's about creating a beautiful environment."

She and Myles, a history buff and teacher, have been together since 1988 and have a 20-year-old daughter. They moved to Victoria in 1992 from Montreal and initially had bungalows in Oak Bay and James Bay, "but I found it kind of boring and noisy," said McLay with a chuckle.

"I like a vibrant neighbourhood on a quiet street and each time, we ended up with the opposite. We were looking for a funky, downtown Montreal, artsy feeling and we found it in Fernwood."

They both love heritage and spotted their dream home in a row of nearly identical Italianate houses near Victoria High School. "Every house in this row is very modest, about 2,000 square feet. They are not grand mansions, but they have a lot of character and they're a bit like the painted ladies of San Francisco," said McLay.

The house had been owned by one family for 86 years, and was most recently owned by a contractor who did some improvements. But the real work began when they moved in and spent $300,000 on restoration.

"We saw the potential and loved the fact that everything was virtually original, dating back to 1892," said Myles.

They put on a new roof, restored all the woodwork, added upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, redid the kitchen and opened a new doorway from living to dining rooms, for better flow. They also went into the eaves to create a laundry room upstairs and more storage.

They started with some "major landscaping" and almost immediately found the post and beam foundations at the back of the house had rotted and were virtually gone, said Myles. So they lifted the house and added new concrete and steel beams.

"We actually started outside and worked our way in - not knowing how massive a renovation we were facing inside, which eventually meant we had to move out for seven months."

Outside repairs and landscaping rang up a bill of $100,000.

But their new garden is a jewel, a picturesque environment with stone walls, planters and staircase created by Integral Design. They took off an old porch and transformed the steeply sloped garden into a terraced space that's great for entertaining, with its outdoor speakers, rambling clematis, hydrangeas, roses, plum tree, lavender and geraniums.

Inside, they focused on authenticity. When they found a damaged windowpane, they replaced it with glass from the period, thanks to expert help from Vintage Woodwork, which also redid all the ropes and counterweights and found original latches. Vintage also made custom storm windows.

"Every inch of the wood was hand-refinished," said Myles. "It had all been painted over, stained, shellacked and in some areas, faux-finished to look like wood."

The new kitchen was originally three rooms, including a laundry/utility room and pantry. They turned it into one large cooking, eating and relaxing area. The long, thin pantry became a bathroom.

The new Urbana kitchen includes solid-stain-finished cabinets with a pewter glaze called Corn Silk. The hand-worked finish and hand-applied glaze replicates an aged patina, but is longwearing.

"I love dark wood but wanted it light in here," said McLay, noting the room doesn't seem crowded but is filled with large furniture and storage. An ultra-narrow custom cabinet holds glassware, while another hides the sound system.

Heather Draper at Bespoke Design helped create the interiors.

"Heather was able to tap into exactly what I wanted, without creating it for me," said McLay. "She was like a great psychotherapist ... guiding me toward things like Fortuny lamps from Venice, Elle Décor and other magazines," which helped McLay zero in on her personal style - an eclectic mix of old-world charm and whimsical funk.

Draper said her first impression of the house was that the rooms were small, dark and cold.

"It wasn't horrid, but Kari's taste is so incredible [and] individual and her art collection is so incredible, the house wasn't as interesting as she [was].

"I wanted to give her the confidence to embrace who she is, and not necessarily take the opinions of those around her."

To brighten things up, they added a British ceiling paper with crystals, metallic tables and gold fireplace tile. They warmed the rooms with a palette of fuchsia, apricot and peachy gold.

"Kari is very good when she trusts herself," said Heather. "Take those great carpets she added in the hallway, typically a room with not a lot going on. You can take liberties in a hall - it is a wonderful space that few people take advantage of."

She also likes how McLay placed armchairs in the dining room.

"Kari has completely created a moment there, in what is an awkwardly shaped room with a main passage through it. The chairs are perfect for an after-dinner cocktail, listening to music. They add an air of romance.

McLay admits she is a furniture-aholic, a fabric nut and a decor addict. "I have diagnosed myself with Attention Deficit Decorating."

So when her designer introduced her to Designers Guild in London fabrics, she was in raptures. "I couldn't afford a sofa, but we covered a small chair, ottoman and some cushions." Even though she was able to use only a small amount of the "ridiculously gorgeous fabric," McLay says it still has a big impact on the room's decor.

She mixes major splurges with second-hand finds and pieces from Design Source Warehouse and has several exquisite antiques inherited from her great-grandfather, Sir James Lougheed, whose family was "like the Dunsmuirs of Calgary."

Most of the family pieces are in the family home, now a museum in Calgary.

"A little foolishly perhaps, we have put a crazy amount of money in here," said McLay. "But we feel this home deserves it and we love Fernwood. We've been here five years and done everything inside and out. The only thing left is the attic.

"But we have to figure out how to get up there."

After three years of exhaustive research by 16 volunteers, the newly updated and revised first volume of This Old House is hot off the press.

"It was first published in 2004 and sold very well," said project leader Jennifer Barr, who noted the volume was reprinted nine times.

"We had to do a fair amount of revision because when we started [doing these books] there weren't nearly as many resources available on the Internet. This time around we have been able to do much more research."

The updated book includes more archival photos, new pictures, 16 additional houses and more information on the families that lived in the historic homes.

"What was really fascinating was how many people contacted us in the past eight years asking us to include more information about their families, and offering photos," said Barr, who retired as executive director of the Victoria Heritage Foundation in 2009.

Although 65, she has no plans to stop working on heritage.

"I didn't want to do something completely different. I am absolutely passionate about heritage - I admit I drive some people crazy. This was a fun project because there was so much new information.

"We added about 100 pages, 220 new images. Volunteer photographers retook shots of all the buildings."

The local bestseller is available at all area bookstores for about $25, and from City Hall and the Victoria Heritage Foundation (where it is sold without tax). This is the fourth volume in a series that has sold a total of 6,700 copies. Volume 1 covers Fernwood and Vic West. The other volumes feature homes everywhere from Rockland and Burnside to Hillside-Quadra, North Park, Fairfield and Gonzales.

All have spiral binding, "because we expect people to use them, photo copy them, drive down a street and fold them back."

Barr noted they are now updating Volume 2. She said that while it is a herculean task redoing the painstaking research to add as many details as possible, there are always exciting discoveries to be made, such as the truth about a "boring looking, stucco-covered house that was thought to be built in 1899.

"It turns out it was actually built in 1861, and was moved from it original location where McCalls funeral home now is.

"It was built for a black family that came here from San Francisco at the invitation of Sir James Douglas, and it is the oldest house built for a black family in Western Canada."

Lots of houses were moved back then, she said. "They didn't tear things down in those days.

A house was very valuable."

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