A CELEBRATION OF STYLE ON THE HOME FRONT
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.
In an era when many people have begun to scale back their mega homes and gardens, a middle-aged couple from Alberta is bucking the trend.
Michael Mabey and Heather Savoy are upsizing from their former 1,700-square-foot home in Calgary to a nearly 7,000-square-foot mansion in Victoria's historic Rockland area.
"It's a massive jump up for us," said Mabey, 50, of the huge chocolate-brown and cream house with five bedrooms, six bathrooms, two pantries - one for a butler and one for food storage - elevator, gym, wine area, large movie theatre and mini bar that wouldn't look out of place in the Fairmont Empress hotel.
The couple wanted room for their large extended family. In fact, the entire project is something of a family affair, involving their brother-inlaw builder and Savoy's sister, who is a wannabe interior designer.
Mabey admits he and his wife have been so busy preparing their grand new home for Sunday's Art Gallery of Greater Victoria house tour, they haven't had a moment to savour their new surroundings.
"We've hardly had any time to sit back and enjoy those 'holy cow' moments," said Mabey, who made his mark in software. He co-founded a company called Elluminate Inc. a dozen years ago. A leading provider of virtual classroom and "synchronous learning" technology, it was recently sold.
He and his childhood sweetheart wife, who were both born in New Brunswick, worked long hours in the company but have always been sympatico. "We lived across the street from each other as kids, started hanging around as friends at 14 and have been together ever since," he said with a grin.
After three decades in Calgary, Mabey and Savoy were missing the coast and their Victoria family, so they moved here with their son Brandon, who wants to study computer science at the University of Victoria.
They broke ground in January 2011 and the house was completed a month ago at the corner of Despard and Gonzales avenues.
"This entire house was designed and created by local people, and our builder is a longtime resident of Rockland," said Mabey, who explained Steve Peel is married to his wife's sister, who helped with the interior design.
During construction, a few neighbours grumbled about the house's height and mass, especially when compared to the small, flat-roofed, art deco home that used to be there. The old house was barged to Washington state.
"Victoria is quite unlike Calgary, where new buildings are going up all the time and are appreciated. Here in Victoria, it's the absolute reverse; there is such resistance to change."
It came as a shock - "especially as many homes here seem to be in need of some kind of some renovation or rebuilding" - but the newcomers hear nothing but praise now for their home, and even the previous owners' children came to visit.
Mabey and Savoy wanted their new home to fit into the neighbourhood and spent hours driving around Rockland to glean ideas.
While the house is complete, the garden is a work in progress. Savoy envisions a large patio on the south side, with retaining wall, planters and a flagstone walkway. "Coming from Calgary, I don't have much experience with gardening - yet."
In the kitchen, she wanted to create a welcoming, open space where friends and family could gather. "We have two stations for chopping and cleaning vegetables and I think the room looks very French."
Its nook has a cosy fireplace nestled between two sets of French doors.
"I know Victoria can be rainy and grey, so we have doors to look out on a clear, bright day - and a gas fire for when it's dreary," she said.
Savoy added that she and her husband are delighted to support the art gallery, "to get involved with the community and start putting down roots. This is such a lovely place."
Her sister, Karen Peel, who works for a bank but is a designer at heart, is thrilled they live here now.
"And because Heather is my sister, I could insist she have certain things in her house that I've always wanted - like a stunning makeup table in the master ensuite. The bathroom is so gorgeous and big. I love it.
"I also thought my sister should have a big pantry, and had to have a warming drawer and second dishwasher, too, because it's just so easy to take stemware right off the table and put it there. She now has my dream kitchen.
"And I want her closet," added Peel with a chuckle. "It's crazy big and my sister is not really a clothes horse, but she has kindly invited me to bring my clothes over."
Peel is hoping for some furniture-shopping expeditions with her sister. "This house is so big, it just sucks things up."
Steve Peel said the project was fun because Savoy and Mabey are so easygoing - "They're absolutely the best people" - and they let him indulge his passion for coffered ceilings.
"Every room on the main floor has a coffered ceiling, except the butler's pantry and powder room," noted the third-generation marble mason.
He and his crew spent seven months on the interior finishing alone. The study was the most challenging because its coffered ceiling is stained, not painted, "so there was no room for error - it had to be very precise."
The master bathroom, he said, also took a lot of work.
"With my marble background, I've done thousands of ensuites over the years, but this was absolutely the most incredible," Peel said of the 420-square-foot room adjacent to a 250-square-foot dressing room.
"We did an arched entrance, Italian travertine floors. - From a design perspective, it was very complex with all the cabinets, vanities, the huge shower and the granite curving around the tub with two little cabinets under each end for towels.
"The shower is huge and we affectionately call it the drive-thru car wash."
The shower measures eight-by-four feet with doors at either end, two sets of faucets at different heights - Mabey is six-foot-two and Savoy is five-foot-one - granite walls and a mosaic floor.
"Steve is a wonderful boutique builder who took a year and a half to build this for us," Mabey said.
He added that they love the Rockland area with its character houses. "We're from the Maritimes, so we don't like ultra modern," he joked, adding the most hightech area in the house is the 10-seat home theatre.
"It was specifically designed to optimize the visual and audio experience," Mabey said, adding it features a 149-inch curved-screen and high-contrast 1080 anamorphic lens projection system.
He stressed that he didn't come here to retire - now that the house is finished, he is starting to work on his next big idea.
What: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria House Tour
Where: Six spectacular Victoria homes
When: Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets: $35 at the AGGV, Peninsula Gallery in Sidney and all Garden Works locations.
What would the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria house tour be without some of this city's most famous painters and sculptors working on site at each of the homes?
A lot less colourful for one thing, and less interesting, too.
Six artists are taking part in the event this year and among them are partners in life, Linny D. Vine and Jeffrey J. Boron.
While most often painting in their home studio, they are looking forward to the busy event.
"I'm used to painting with lots of people around," said Vine, who has taken part in the Moss Street Paint-In for many years and enjoys meeting some of the 35,000 people who stroll up and down the outdoor gallery.
"It's fun when art is interactive," said the artist, who plans to paint one of her signature lighthouses in oils on Sunday, and will bring several completed paintings, too.
"I can see the Race Rocks lighthouse from our balcony at home, and the Fisgard lighthouse, almost," said Vine, who had a two-person exhibition with Boron at the Victoria art gallery in the spring.
Boron doesn't yet know what he'll paint. "I'm going to be spontaneous because I haven't been over to see the residence where I will be painting. I hope to find something in the garden I might paint. It will probably be a spur of the moment thing."
He loves to paint outside - "I take every opportunity I can to paint en plein air" - and says it has opened up his work. "A lot of my work has water in it, trees, skies, clouds - I like the outdoor environment and all its wonders."
This is the first time either of them has painted for the house tour and they are happy to support the gallery because "it is at the centre of the universe, artistically, in Victoria," he said.