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House Beautiful: A diamond in the rough

This house was built in the art moderne style back in the 1940s, but a sensitive and innovative restoration 75 years later led to its winning gold at the Construction Achievements and Renovations of Excellence Awards last year.

This house was built in the art moderne style back in the 1940s, but a sensitive and innovative restoration 75 years later led to its winning gold at the Construction Achievements and Renovations of Excellence Awards last year.

The home swept honours in five categories at the 2015 CARE event, including people’s choice, best residential renovation or restoration over $800,000, best bathroom under 160 square feet and best media room.

It also took gold for the best accessory building — a small boathouse by the shore and looking across to Oak Bay Marina.

“The original design of this house was amazing,” said owner Leonard Cole, whose company Urban Core Ventures did the renovations. He often has a house assessed by a feng shui consultant when he buys it, to establish whether the architecture and orientation of buildings is auspicious according to Chinese principles of harmonizing energies and flow.

“I was amazed this time because the house was perfect, so I didn’t alter the floor plan at all. The only major change was to take one wall down between the living room and den and I curved a few walls to make the interiors more art moderne.”

This streamlined style of architecture was popular from about 1930 to 1950 and is also referred to as “machine age” style. It typically features a low horizontal profile, flat roof, smooth white walls, rounded corners, glass block windows, perhaps a few portholes, and aluminum or steel trim.

This house has all that and more.


> See LARGE, page E4

Designed by architect PL James, who was renowned for co-designing the Crystal Gardens, it is on the heritage registry, but not designated.

“James was very forward thinking,” Cole said. “The room placements were wonderful. I mean, back in the 1940s, who was building ensuites?”

And yet the home was on the market for over a year.

“It was an eyesore and an earlier renovation had taken away much of its character and fine details. When you do that you end up with a very blah house. But on the plus side, a large, south-facing waterfront lot on a protected bay is a rare commodity in Oak Bay, and this property is one-third of an acre with 150 feet of waterfront.”

Cole said there were other deterrents beyond the age and shabbiness of the building. “When a building is on the heritage registry a renovation process can become very involved, with various committees holding things up, and in this area there can be archeological problems too, but luckily we weren’t doing any digging.

“And the planning department and heritage conservation committee members were pleased that I wanted to put the street side of this house back to the original, so they said I could do what I wanted on the water side. They were very co-operative and it was a neat treat. … I was able to move into the house within just 12 months.”

His goal was to bring the house back to its “glory days” and, guided by many historical pictures, he managed to retain its sleek style while creating a cool, contemporary atmosphere.

He also added a second garage on the left of the house to counterbalance the original on the right, and these his and hers parking areas are now linked by an almost invisible drive featuring engineered paving stones set into the grass.

“The main thing was to make the front authentic,” he stressed. “All the windows on the front are original and I let them fall where they may inside, designing around them when necessary.”

For instance, one of the small windows is now in a shower stall, another in the middle of a new powder room mirror.

On the right side of the new great room he removed a bay window and put a fireplace there instead. Interior designer Sandy Nygaard helped choose materials for the new feature wall that includes a creative interplay of wood, stainless steel and painted wallpaper.

Rather than putting a television over the fireplace — “Which is so overdone” — he placed it on a dark side wall where it almost disappears.

“It pulls out and turns when needed, but it’s not a focal point.”

While the front retains its authentic look, the glamorous waterside of the home is non-stop windows on all three floors.

“I was nervous about having a Nana Wall glass system because of the exposure to wind and waves, so I chose these lift and slide doors that are very durable and versatile because they open from the centre or the side.”

He also built a deck on the waterside of the 4,300-square foot home. “The original plans didn’t call for a deck but I built one that was in keeping with the original idea.” It measures seven by four metres and has a built-in barbecue nook.

The great room, which spans the full width of the house, includes living, dining and kitchen areas, floored in blond oak, and a mirror in the dining area to ensure even those with their backs to the view can enjoy it.

The original front door had a circular window in it and when Cole replaced the door with a much larger version he cut a new window, at the exact same scale.

Kitchen countertops are quartz and opposite a large island is a gas range and fridge, which is integrated into the cabinetry. A cupboard door at the other end of the counter appears at first to lead into a hidden pantry — except this is hardly a pantry.

It’s a long, narrow fully functioning kitchen where food prep and cooking can take place out of sight.

“The common term for this now is a frying kitchen, and this kind of thing is very popular in Vancouver these days. It means the main kitchen is less like a kitchen, more like a living area,” said Cole, who frequently entertains at home and recently had three cooks working here, behind the scenes.

His philosophy in this project has been to use locally sourced products that pay homage to the original design.

“I always kept one idea in mind: Could I have sourced this product in 1940? For instance, I used a slate roof on the boathouse.”

He noted the house was solidly built in the first place. “It was just at the brink of a time when construction was really good here and they were starting to use rebar [reinforcing steel to strengthen concrete and masonry].” So the revitalization project was straightforward.

He added new insulation and wiring, and by installing a heat pump he could “lose the old fireplace and interior chimney” and enlarge the living area on all three floors.

He also added more than a few lavish touches, such as a secret theatre room downstairs which is camouflaged behind two folding doors, which hold a pair of large televisions.

“I always wanted to have a hidden bookshelf room but it would have taken up way to much room to turn.

“And I like this system because of the advantage of being able to see a TV from outside, when the bi-fold are open. I plan to have a hot tub out there eventually.”