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House Beautiful: Owners turned diamond in the rough into California-style gem

Cutting down a giant hedge can transform a garden and in this case the result was utterly astonishing, as the monster greenery was six metres wide and bordered all sides of a half-acre Oak Bay property — stretching over four metres on the owners’ sid

Cutting down a giant hedge can transform a garden and in this case the result was utterly astonishing, as the monster greenery was six metres wide and bordered all sides of a half-acre Oak Bay property — stretching over four metres on the owners’ side and two on the neighbours’.

“It was 60 years old and so large we couldn’t walk down the side of the house,” said new homeowner Jane McCannell, who explained the Leylandi hedge was 10 metres tall.

“I’ve heard this hedging is banned in most of Great Britain and parts of North Vancouver,” and small wonder considering how its removal created instant impact — and an expansive location for Blue Bridge Theatre’s upcoming party. (see sidebar)

And the reborn garden is only half of the story.

The rest of the story concerns a classic mid-century home given new life as a California-style gem, with dipping pool, outdoor dance area, broad patios and waving palms. When McCannell first spied the house online her goal was for it to evoke the1950’s era of Hollywood hills homes.

She and her husband, Joe Van Belleghem, bought the property sight unseen a couple of years ago, rented it initially then began renovating a year and half ago, while living part-time in San Jose, California.

Van Belleghem, the visionary behind the LEED platinum Dockside Green development here, was named one of the 20 most influential people in residential construction by the Canadian Home Builders Association in 2009.

He is now senior director of development for Google.

His current project is a vast complex in San Jose called Downtown West that includes 7.3 million square feet of office space and 4,000 housing units —1,000 of which will be affordable.

“It’s a really cool project .… with Triple bottom line, carbon positive,” he said referring to the triad theme of profit, people and planet, all going beyond net zero carbon emissions.

“It has all kinds of eco elements including a community fund to deal with homelessness,” and it will cover about 32 hectares.

Although working in the States the two have called Victoria home for 29 years and plan to retire here.Van Belleghem said they wanted to save and restore “this great house,” and renovate it with the environment in mind.

“Right now we are focusing on landscaping and are already noticing the amount of butterflies, honeybees and tons of hummingbirds showing up.

“The next step is to put solar on the house to get the carbon down. We did all the basic stuff: upgraded all the insulation, installed energy efficient lights and windows, re-insulated the hot water piping. It was really interesting to find in the recent hot period it was pretty cool in the house. White exterior paint also helps reflect heat.

“I don’t think we have to worry about air conditioning here.”

He plans to spend more time in the garden. “I’m not someone who stands still… and there is a lot to do here.”

McCannell also likes to keep busy.

Among other things, the retired value-for-money auditor with the provincial government enjoys refinishing and reupholstering furniture, making lamps, and keeping people’s spirits up.

She started the Broadcast Love project where she records people’s love stories and helps turn up the dial on positivity and happiness.

She explained their home was only 1,100 square feet when built in the 1950s, but added onto and renovated two decades ago.

For the current facelift the kitchen layout was unchanged but they redid countertops and cabinets using original pulls on drawers and doors.

The new butler’s pantry is her dream hangout with a large built-in desk by the window, file cabinets, laundry, coffee station, hidden microwave, pantry, wine fridge and more.

“It’s the command centre of the house,” she said with a chuckle.

Almost half the upper storey used once a massive bedroom but they reconfigured it into two bedrooms, an office, bathroom and large playroom. Their daughters, Nicole and Maddy, have left home but ask: “Why didn’t we have this house when we were growing up?”.

The house also held some surprises.

For instance, the family room fireplace was drywalled but they wanted stone. When it was stripped it off they discovered original stone underneath.“It was like finding an old masterpiece.”

They redid all the exterior stone work, created new pathways, built low curved walls at the front, expanded patios back and front, and added an outdoor fireplace and fountain.

This is their tenth home in 10 years and while they fell in love with the home online, seeing the garden for the first time was a shock.

“It was hard to imagine. The whole south side was covered in ivy, you could’t walk down any path, the hedge was massive, the emoter garden had been let go ….I was overwhelmed.” She got in touch with garden designer Terry LeBlanc who’s place she’d seen on a garden tour.

“Terry is the reason we have this garden. She is absolutely amazing, a miracle worker.”

Challenges are part of any big project but LeBlanc saw more than that ahead. “I saw agony,” she said with a grimace.

“It was so overgrown, so uncared for, weeds everywhere, ivy, brambles. I thought we’d never get it under control.”

LeBlanc’s crew worked relentlessly, hacking, cutting, and weeding, removing old, dead and unhealthy trees and plants and both owners were actively involved and creative.

Removing the hedge, combined with a whole new driveway and plantings out front was transformative.

Fencing was added to deter deer in the rear and plantings now include palm trees, geraniums, spring bulbs, alliums, ground covers, poppies, ferns, hostas, foxgloves, lupins, euphorbias, hellebores, tall verbena, unique roses and fruit trees.

An existing, high chain link fence became a living wall, planted with fast-growing roses, golden hops. silver lace, clematis and akebia.

“The owners like colour so we spent hours and hours creating colour combinations and a profusion of wonderful plants,” said LeBlanc


WHAT: Cats in the Garden, Blue Bridge Theatre’s annual garden party fundraiser

WHEN: Sunday, July 25 from 1 to 4 p.m.

WHERE: Private garden in Oak Bay (see related story)

TICKETS: $50 each or $75 a couple see or call 250-382-3370

Readings from a collection of whimsical poems about cats will be just part of the feline fun at Blue Bridge Theatre’s garden party July 25.

The fundraiser is being held in a newly designed garden which sits atop a sunny knoll in Oak Bay where months of labour and creativity have breathed new life into an old landscape.

Besides celebrating cats, the event will include wines from Cherry Point Winery and a silent auction with ink renderings of cats by artist and set designer extraordinaire Mary Kerr, among other items.

Guest can wander through the garden while being entertained, said artistic director Brian Richmond, noting nine actors and singers will present selections from the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, writings upon which the musical Cats was based.

Performers will include Carter Gulseth, Sarah Carlé, Noa Paster, Andrea Lemus, Christopher Mackie, Amanda Lisman and Iris Bannerman, with Stephanie Sartore on keyboards.

Funds raised will help the company prepare for its next show, a musical tribute to Doris Day which runs August 3 to 15 staring Sarah Murphy. The show celebrates some of Day’s greatest hits and is a world premier commissioned by Blue Bridg