House Beautiful: Mid-century gets modern facelift

One of this city’s most intriguing and historically interesting homes has been hiding on a quiet cul-de-sac in Oak Bay since 1948, but it will be on public display soon as part of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria House Tour, being held on Sept. 11.

Unassuming and apparently tiny from the street, it expands like a Chinese fan inside with 1,000 square feet on each of three levels that step down a steep slope.

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It’s interesting in that three well-known Victoria architects had a hand in creating the house as we see it today, beginning with Dexter Stockdill, who designed it as his personal home. The original plans were drafted by John di Castri and the home was recently given a full facelift — and an extraordinary new feature — by Terry Williams.

When owners Emma and Koji Zolbrod bought the home, they instantly loved its mid-century modern look, but doubted they would use the basement much as it was so gloomy and dark. “It was like a cave downstairs,” Emma said.

They knew Williams had worked at Stockdill’s firm years ago and decided to approach him regarding a renovation. They contacted him, described their special home and his amazed response was: “You have Dexter Stockdill’s house?”

“It was a perfect project to draw him out of retirement,” Emma said with a chuckle.

“Once he had visited the house and seen our concerns he told us he had an idea that would blow our minds . . . I figured that meant he had an idea to blow our budget,” but they loved his idea, even though a designer friend warned it was going to be a huge mistake.

Williams suggested cutting a rectangular hole, measuring more than two by three metres, in the dining room floor and creating a glass wall around it so that it would act as a giant light well through to the ground floor below.

The owners added a climbing wall up one side, which they plan to turn into a green wall in the future. It looks like a contemporary artwork today and in its next incarnation the vertical garden will become a living work of art.

Surprisingly, the Zolbrods were delighted to find this aspect, which called for the removal of seven joists, was not as expensive as they thought. The most costly element was the glass and the whole bill came to about $10,000.

Among other changes, the reno included all new windows, much larger ones on the ground floor and a glass-walled staircase too, and the result is a stylishly unique home, flooded with light and a groovy vibe.

Emma and Koji explained the house wasn’t for sale when they first saw it. The previous owner was hoping to rent it but the young couple wanted it desperately.

“I wrote the owner a thoughtful letter that demonstrated our love for everything mid-century modern and our desire to live in a neighbourhood where we could truly be members of a community,” said Emma, a marketing consultant for the tech industry.

“My wife can be very convincing,” said Koji, who is a science teacher and rugby coach at Oak Bay High School.

Williams, who scaled back his practice in recent years and is a consulting architect now, said the Zolbrod project was one of the most enjoyable he has ever worked on.

“Number one it was my old partner Dexter’s own house and two, Emma and Koji were fabulous clients. They knew what they wanted and were super enthusiastic.

“You now come through the front door, down a half flight of stairs, and see right through the floor to the lower level and straight out to the garden,” he said. “You see a very strong linear axis.”

The reno also included removal of exterior vinyl siding, which revealed the original materials that were then freshened up with paint that was custom matched.

“To build this house in 1948 with a flat roof and painted red, was pretty out there. Dexter was ahead of his time and did some very progressive work . . .”

Williams noted Dexter was also a very quiet, single-minded man and a strong Baptist, and the house mirrors those character traits.

“He was a modest man with a big interior and an expansive mind. Just like the house.”

Koji and Emma have entered into the mid-century spirit and modernity of their home by adding unique works of art reflective of their travels and life in other cities such as Paris and San Francisco.

The previous owner took very good care of the home, and while the new owners retained the white wall look, all the pale carpeting was replaced with dark-stained cork from Island Floor Centre, a material which is soft underfoot and dramatic to the eye.

Koji did as much work as he could and was on site every day. At one point he removed a wall of slats by the staircase, to refinish them, and enjoyed the effect so much he decided to replace them with glass.

“We tried to be environmentally conscious with all our decisions, and recycled all the wood,” he added.

There was no drywall in the house originally, it was all striated or plain plywood, and the updating of electrical and plumbing systems required its removal. They replaced most with drywall, but kept a feature wall of striated plywood around the original fireplace in the living room.

Landscape designer Ruth Currey collaborated with the architect and owners — “Who were very clear on their aesthetic and very decisive” — to create a continuous, strong axis leading from the house to the end of the garden.

Using a pathway of broad pavers, this feature can be see through the centre of the light well, and out through the garden. “Some houses are more closed in, so you can’t have such strong gestures,” she said.

“The garden design is crisp, clean and reflective of mid-century modern, but at the same time it’s useful with a working garden on one side and a relaxing space on the other.”

The owners are delighted with the reno and believe it was successful because they always asked, “What would Dexter do?”

“This question guided many of our decisions,” Emma said. “We were committed to staying true to his design while attempting to modify the home to meet the needs of a family today.”

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