a total rebuild of a 1930s house to become a beautiful french country house spliced into a montage with a Loire Valley country estate in France

French Country House

The ability to perform the transformation of the mundane to the magnificent is our stock-in-trade.  We took a house purchased by our client upon our recommendations based on our research on location suitability, neighborhood potential and soundness of the structures, totally gutted and rebuilt it with meticulous care, planning and design ingenuity.  A serviceable low-pitched roofed suburban house was turned into a magnificent French Country gem, unheard of in that part of town.  The client was so happy with the outcome that he commissioned us to build a brand new house for him ten years after, right next to the first project.

What Transpired

In a span of eleven years, we renovated an old undistinguished suburban house, turned it into a beautiful French Country home that generated so much interest on the street that land value went up more than 100% in eight years, just enough to warrant the construction of a brand new French classical house of solid white stone that rivaled the best houses in the city.  All the while the status of the street was gradually being elevated to be the most prestigious location in north Toronto, attracting big name architects and builders to come and build. Incidentally, the street ran to the front entrance of the Rosedale Golf Club, the most exclusive of clubs in Canada.  In 2000 when we started renovation on the old house, there was no new luxury home built on the street that could qualify for custom grade.  Today if you visit the street, you will be delighted by its architecture.  Even the Rosedale Golf Club has a brand new club house now with a high roof.

What Inspired Us

The original house was solidly built with double-wythe brick exterior walls. The roof was low pitched (3/12). The eye-brow arches over the garage doors and the round windows above the front door gave us the inspiration to turn the style of the house into French Country.

The Transformation

The typical Canadian suburbia house was transfigured as soon as we put a high-pitched (12/12) hip roof over it. We added a new story with a hip roof over the existing garage with round dormer windows. Three small false dormers were added to the main hip roof to give it scale. Note the small size of the dormers made the hip roof look taller. The French Country motif was added to the front entrance by a canopy supported by two hand-carved stone brackets set into the existing brick wall.

The Yellow Toronto Brick

The light brown brick on the old house was scrubbed clean and a lemon yellow color emerged. The yellow brick was produced in the brickworks at the bottom of Bayview Avenue in the 1940s.

Gutting and Rebuilding

We proceeded to strip the interiors of the house to the bare brick walls and floor joists. Many of the old paneled doors were left intact. The floors were reinforced and leveled. Blocking was put in to stop the squeaking. The part of the second floor was removed right above the front door to create a two-story foyer space and stairwell.  Once the part of the second was removed, structural pilasters were installed on the inside of the exterior brick wall to brace it against lateral forces.  The wall was then reframed, insulated and vapor-proofed.

New Addition Built

An addition was built in the back of the house thus extending the kitchen and providing a family room to the house. The master bedroom was on the second floor of the addition. The single window looking into the backyard and pool area was eight foot in diameter. This addition was clad in rough-hewn coursing flagstone to give it the rugged look.

The Normandy Style

Before we started designing, we took the example of a Normandy (Northern France) country house as our model and fashioned our rebuilding to the model.  Afterwards we put the image of the rebuilt house side by side with that of a Loire Valley country house.  The two houses suited each other perfectly as neighboring houses – they even shared the same circular driveway!

The Street Scene

The north Toronto street was a typical quiet suburban street with low-key houses mostly built between the 30s and 40s. The last image on the right was the one we took of the street when the rebuild project was finished.

Also read New Build & Rebuild.

view of completed house with newly added great window box in front and elevated addition in back all stuccoed in off white with dark fir wood trims and accent

Loire Valley Chateau

The original turreted house was commissioned by Henry Pellatt, the failed Canadian tycoon of the roaring twenties, not to live in (he was residing in the Casa Loma castle at the time), but for investment purpose.  The house was built in the 1920s in the Humewood/Cedarvale neighborhood of Toronto.  The incongruous multi-colored flagstone base of the turret stood out like a sore thumb.  The house had high roof lines but was very small in floor area compared to the Forest Hill houses.  It was solidly built with stone and masonry but the details were quite spare.

Humewood/Cedarvale was an up-and-coming neighborhood fifteen years ago.  It has become quite upscale and expensive.  Especially on the street where this Loire Valley Chateau is situated, real-estate price has risen dramatically.

This was a major rebuild project.  The house was gutted leaving just the exterior walls and roof framing.  The turret roof was totally reframed.  We turned a sham Scottish castle into a miniature Loire Valley style chateau.  Copperwork with weathervane, round eavestroughs and flashing were custom made on site for the project.  A rear glassed-in sunroom and a covered vestibule in front were added to the original structure

Project Challenges

There was a major issue on site : Trees.  A tree thirty foot tall in the backyard was leaning precariously towards the back of the house.  We had to apply to the City to get permission to remove it.  The biggest problem was the hundred year old maple tree that was situated only feet away from our planned addition on the side.  The City would not allow us to touch it, nor did the owner wanted us to remove it.  Our engineer devised a structural solution to support the addition without having to remove the tree.  We excavated hour holes and poured concrete into them to carry the posts that supported the addition like four spindly legs.  We then cladded the posts with reclaimed rough sawn fir to make them blend in with our overall design.  The leaves from the tree constantly clogged up the drains and eavestroughs.  This is a problem that city governments do not know how to deal with.  See our Construction Management section for more information.

Transformation

Additions were made to the front and the back of the house, thus enlarging the living room in the front to accommodate a full-size Bösendorfer concert grand piano.  The rear addition provided a much needed family room with a full-height window wall overlooking the Cedarvale ravine across the backyard.  The original house had impressive height but lacked girth.  We added horizontal volume to the composition and greatly improved the proportions of the house.  The distracting colored flagstone that showed up sporadically on the exterior of the old house were left intact but where stuccoed over.  The off-white color stucco was applied over all of the wall surfaces, new and old.  This gave the composition unity and the structure looked coherent.  Dark stained rough-sawn fir beams, columns and trims provided the needed contrast and embellishment.  Exposed underside of rafters beneath the soffits of the rear addition completed the French provincial styling of the design.

Related Section : New Build & Rebuild

london pall mall montage showing po ku's rosedale rebuild on the left and london's pall mall on the right

Pall Mall House

Originally the Fielder House of South Rosedale, it was designed by N. A. Armstrong architect of 19 Melinda Street, Toronto for Fred A. Fielder and family. The year was 1937. Armstrong was a progressive ­­architect not timid in using new material. The house had a strong and precise concrete-masonry foundation and many of the decorative elements were made of aluminium instead of the ubiquitous iron and bronze. There was a thoroughly modern limestone-block fireplace in the original living room. The grand staircase was ‘20s modern. The stair railing and ornaments were aluminium. The library was a jewel box. The walls were paneled in gorgeous Australian Walnut with pronounced vertical grain.

Related Section : New Build and Rebuild

Related Section : Kitchen Update

The House Was A Hybrid

However, something was amiss. The front elevation was neither Art Deco nor Georgian. It was a hybrid and the proportions were wrong.  It could be the desire of the client or that Armstrong had chosen to be more ‘respectable’ for this Rosedale project. His Silver Rail Tavern in downtown Toronto designed about ten years earlier was an Art Moderne masterpiece.  Whereas for the Fielder House, Armstrong seemed to have given up trying.

Rebuild

We envisioned transforming the front of the house into that of a London St. James/Pall Mall club house, while following the Art Deco/Art Moderne theme within.  This was a complete rebuild project.  A second floor was added above the garage and a two-story addition in the back was built to contain the kitchen/family room on the main floor and bedrooms on the second floor.   The original staircase was refurbished and the surrounding walls and floor removed.  The oval shaped stair became a prominent architectural element in the new double-height living room with an 18′ ceiling.  The interiors reflected the sophistication of a 1920s London townhome, Georgian on the outside and Art Deco on the inside. The Kitchen/Family Room was one great space looking out into a tastefully manicured backyard garden.  The full height kitchen cabinets formed a backdrop for daily activities with their softly illuminated glass windows.

The Facelift

The front of the house demanded much of our attention and efforts.  The flat-top portico was topped with a matching stone pediment.  Stone corbels were added at the base of the front roof gable. Batten seam copper roofing replaced the rotting asphalt shingles.  Dormers and a cupola were added at the front of the roof.  All doors and windows were new and that included the overhead garage door.  A finely etched wrought iron grille was fitted over the glass of the front entrance.  Stone and masonry were thoroughly cleaned and repointed.

Opening Up the Space

The original layout of the house was like a rabbit warren.  There were walls, partitions and narrow corridors everywhere.  The oval staircase was contained within a closed room with a supporting wall underneath the stair.  So everything was closed off.  We virtually gutted the inside of the whole house.  We removed the supporting wall under the stair and installed a curved steel beam to hold up the stair.  The ‘floating’ effect you see in the pictures of the stair was due to the invisible support we put under the stair. An eighteen foot high white limestone fireplace mantel was made for us by master stone-carver Rob Little.  The white maple treads of the grand staircase were bleached to a light ivory color.  The aluminum railing was painted black.  A matching Art Deco grille was designed for the oval shaped skylight above the staircase.  To add the space we needed, we had to apply for approval by Committee of Adjustment.  We encountered no opposition.

Creating High Space

The entire second floor over the front area of the house was removed.  Thus creating a living room in the front with an eighteen foot ceiling height.  The new addition we built in the back had a twelve foot ceiling on the main level and ten foot ceiling on the second level.  We had also created a back stair going from the main floor to the second floor.  The ample stairwell had a twenty foot high ceiling.

Custom Work

A limestone fireplace mantel was carved for the wood-burning fireplace in the family room.  A custom kitchen with a twelve foot long island was created for the house by Po Ku.  The original flush-face modern limestone fireplace designed by Armstrong in the 1930s was refurbished, cleaned and was fitted with gas logs.  The fireplace was located in the new butler’s pantry/sitting area.  The Australian Walnut paneled library was totally refurbished with a new bar cabinet built for it in the Art Deco style. On the second floor, a large master bedroom was designed in the C. R. Mackintosh Art Deco style.  The master ensuite was finished in white marble.

Addition in the Back

A two-story addition was built in the back of the house.  Not only was it built with very large picture windows to capture the full view of the lovely backyard, it was constructed of the best framing practice to ensure that a strong and durable structure was added to a very fine house.  This type of framing used 50% more timber than normal framing work.  The exterior finish was stucco over a sandwiched wall containing an air-space layer between inner and outer walls. Any moisture trapped inside the wall could easily run out of the bottom. Please read the section Construction Management to see how the framing was done and the cross-section of the stuccoed wall.