Charmed Life

This home’s exterior had historic charm, but the interior needed a total makeover

Written and Photos By Steve Maxwell

By Tracy Hanes
Photos by Tomasz Majcherczy

A Toronto baby boomer couple, who had long entertained the idea of buying a waterfront property in the Niagara Region where they both grew up, fell in love with a charming Craftsman-style home overlooking the Niagara River.

Built in the early 1900s, the home’s exterior was loaded with character, but the interior had a dated layout that didn’t function well. Sandra Kenney, president of Boulevard Design Build (a boutique design firm with offices in Toronto and Niagara-on the-Lake) was asked to create a plan for the house that was true to the original exterior architecture but provided a contemporary open concept, light-filled interior.

“The lot is about half an acre and has plenty of natural beauty. It reflects the serenity of the escarpment. The home had really lovely historical features, such as a bell-shaped roof with three-foot overhang,” Kenney says. “It was somewhat deceiving. When you opened the door, the house was much larger than you were expecting.”

The home’s former owners had updated the house to some extent, but their plan was to tear it down and build a new house at some point. The new owners wanted to maintain at least part of the original heritage home.
“The second floor ceilings were only seven feet high, the flow was not very good through the house and the layout was very chopped up with a series of small rooms indicative of that era,” Kenney says. “That made the house very dark. It had a spectacular view at the back, but you really couldn’t see it.”

One of the main objectives was to open up the house to see the river from the living room and to bring light in from all four directions. They also wanted to address the low ceiling height on the second floor.

Other must-haves on the homeowners’ list included a home office, large master suite with luxurious en suite bath, large closets with ample storage and walkout to an intimate terrace, overlooking the river. They also wanted two guest bedrooms and a guest bath, a large open-concept kitchen, a great room and dining area. Other needs included a high-end custom kitchen, a dramatic powder room, and a walkout to a large terrace from the kitchen at the back of the home.

That meant that the house would have to be completely gutted and rebuilt, internally and externally. Its original size – 2,800 square feet – would remain about the same.

“Doing the design was a challenge because we wanted to maintain the beauty of the original architecture as well as create a contemporary interior. We wanted a juxtaposition that was seamless and elegant,” Kenney says.

The exterior hadn’t been touched and was pretty much in its original condition. To stay true to the Craftsman-style architecture, new energy-efficient fibreglass windows were custom designed for the house. The third floor was removed, the second floor ceilings raised and a rear dormer addition added.

The original cedar shake siding was in excellent shape so it could be retained. By integrating the dormer addition with the original roofline and rafter tails and adding design details such as corner caps, Kenney maintained the more traditional style. The roof overhang was restored with a new roof, eaves and downspouts.

The heating and cooling system was changed from hot water to forced air gas. Two systems were used (one for the second floor, and one for the main floor and basement) to avoid bulkheads or build-outs in the walls.
Inside, the house was “an absolute blank canvas,” Kenney says. “We spent a lot of time thinking through the design and how to best optimize the space that was there.”

Some water damage that wasn’t evident until the walls came down had to be remedied, then Kenney changed her plan to add a large steel beam to the main floor that allowed it to be completely opened up with no obstruction.
“We kept the main floor ceilings at eight feet but the staircase design was part of the strategy to create a feeling of higher ceilings,” she says. “Open staircase risers, a glass catwalk to a guest bedroom, and a large skylight, created an illusion of more height.”

The floating staircase includes grey stained oak treads, grey-stained clear maple stringers, a glass stair rail and stainless steel handrail. When more than natural light is required, the staircase is lit by a Medusa chandelier.

“To reclaim space on the second floor, we used the space from a back staircase that was cutting into an area where the master bath would be and tore out a third floor loft. The dormer addition didn’t add square footage but added volume in terms of ceiling height,” she says.

The palette and finishes were chosen to reflect the natural environment surrounding the property and bring the outside in. Finishes included European white oak matte lacquer hardwood flooring with a light brushed surface and an oiled finish. Custom cabinetry is made of exotic materials such as walnut, Macassar ebony and Sapele mahogany.

The stunning kitchen has grey-stained walnut cabinets with steel glass front doors, a high gloss lacquered island, and commercial grade appliances. Brazilian Arabescato marble was used on the kitchen island with a waterfall end and 12-inch overhang for seating, while the other kitchen countertops are Organic White Caesarstone. The backsplash is custom back-painted Starphire glass. Blown glass Italian pendants dangle over the kitchen island.

The rustic grey dining table top, set beneath an Italian chandelier, is made from reclaimed wood mounted on a contemporary chrome base.

The homeowners got the dramatic powder room they wanted, with a hotel-style black onyx vanity, floor-to-ceiling mirror with high gloss lacquer frame, custom medicine cabinets in stained Sapele mahogany, and backlit LED lighting.

The sumptuous upstairs master bath has Grigio Fior Di Bosco marble slab walls in the shower and on the countertop, and a Cremita marble tile floor with a curbless shower. The cabinets are a stained Sapele mahogany.
The master bedroom includes luxurious touches such as a soaring cathedral ceiling and a Moooi Raimond chandelier.

Kenney said the Niagara Parkway house renovation, completed a year ago, successfully and elegantly blends traditional and contemporary elements.
“This is my preferred project,” she said. “I love to take an old house and restore it, and create a completely modern interior. It’s definitely a nice house to entertain family and friends in and it’s calm and Zen-like to reflect what’s going on outside.”