rosedale narrow queen anne house reno project looking through dining room windows at night

Rosedale De Stijl

DE STIJL & THE 1910s

De Stijl was a Dutch artistic movement founded in the early 1910s in an attempt to make art a universal language that transcended all cultural barriers.  In De Stijl, all natural forms could be delineated into asymmetrical planes divided by black borders into square and rectangles.  Only black, white and primary colors could be used.  So the representation was purely mathematical and not reality based.   Around the same time Erich Mendelsohn was producing architecture that was streamline and seamlessly plastic.

We were given a task to partially renovate a red brick house in the Summerhill/Crescent neighborhood.  East Annex, Summerhill/Crescent and South Rosedale have a very discernible building type: a steep-peaked red-brick narrow house with trims, doors and window frames painted black.  Without a better name for it, most realtors called the style Queen Anne.  This was a style created by circumstance.  The lots were narrow, usually twenty-five to thirty foot wide.  Some may be quite deep such as in our case.  The lot was a hundred and fifty feet deep. Floor plates were typically small.  These houses could be three or four story high.  The high-peaked roof contained at least one story.


A group of these houses could be quite picturesque.  But the maintenance of them was no easy task, especially when homeowners were at best aloof and at the worst hostile to each other.  With only a couple of feet from the house to the property line on the side, homeowners often insisted on erecting a fence in between lots, without knowing the fence would make their houses impossible to maintain.

That was exactly the case with this house that we renovated.  The site was tight (thirty feet wide) and the neighbors were guarded.  There were fences everywhere.  Not only site drainage was done wrong, all the eavestroughs and downspouts were solidly plugged with leaves and debris when we first inspected them.  They had not been cleaned for at least twenty years and the area was a forest with large old tress. So the amount of leaves collected by the troughs were staggering. The roof was fifteen foot high from soffit to peak.  And the pitch of the roof was 14/12, a very steep roof indeed.  Nobody had been on the roof for at least ten years and the narrowness of the sideyards discouraged any gutter cleaner to do their work properly.  And the neighbors would not allow ladders on their sides.

There were at least a dozen things the building code and the zoning bylaws could have done for circumstances such as this.  But the governments chose to turn a blind eye to the detriment of the housing stock of the cities.

The first thing we did was to deal with the eavestroughs and downspouts.  We cleaned the ones we could clean and removed the ones we could leave out.

There used to be large sheets of ice that would slide down the steep roof and landed right in front of the front door.  And when it rained really hard, nobody could even stand outside the front door because rainwater would come down the valley of the roofs like a waterfall.


We devised a lovely looking curved glass canopy to divert the water. We even built in a drainage trough along the canopy to allow water runoff further away from the front entrance.

The canopy still needed to be cleaned and maintained but at least it was only ten feet off the ground.

At night it would light up like a lantern by the flick of a switch.  It became a neighborhood attraction when it was first installed.


Sometime in the 1970s, a previous owner had put in a new stair.  Probably without knowing it, the stair was done in a streamlined plastic style a la Mendelsohn.  We noticed the outstanding styling of the stair the first time we were in the house.  Typical to houses of this type, partitions were built inside to create small rooms.  We did not remove these partitions but enlarged the doorways and put in tall sliding panels of different designs.  One set of sliding panels by the stairwell had light-weight metal frames with perforated aluminum panels.

The streamlined staircase was totally refurbished.  The planter at the bottom was removed and a built in light trough was constructed to cast indirect light up to the bottom of the flight of stair going up.

Between the dining room and the kitchen, a set of De Stijl sliding panels were installed which formed a perfect backdrop for the space with the stair in front, the dining room behind the perforated screens and the kitchen beyond the De Stijl panels.

romanesque queen anne house in forest hill that po ku renovated

Romanesque House

The Scope Of Work

A lovely but somber red brick Romanesque Arts and Crafts house in the heart of Forest Hill that had never been updated except for some minor improvements upstairs and the construction of a large hanger-like garage structure in the back almost touching the house, was our responsibility to bring it up to date. We were given a budget allowance. A plan was worked out dividing up the work into four phases :

  1. Build the addition in the back which will house the new kitchen. Do the critical renovation inside the house which contained about 8000 sq.ft. on three floors.
  2. Build the detached garage in the back of the lot and excavate around the foundation and carry out repairs and waterproofing.
  3. Refurbish the exterior of the house and complete the landscaping.
  4. Upgrade certain rooms in the house to higher standards.

We never did carry out phases two to four after phase 1. However, what we did improved the livability of the house by a tremendous amount.

The original house lacked a proper kitchen and a family room. The old kitchen was a small galley type and the family room was just a 5’ by 10’ alcove. The plumbing and wiring were outdated. There was no air-conditioning. And heating was by old fashioned cast-iron radiators.

The addition was a vast room with a twelve foot high ceiling. It housed the kitchen and family room. Before we could break ground for the addition, the monstrous garage had to be demolished.  Steel beams and columns had to be dismantled and removed.  The metal overhead door which weighed a tone had to be taken apart piece by piece.

The styling of the kitchen was consistent with the Arts and Crafts style of the house.

Our work included new plumbing and wiring for the whole house. The existing radiator heating system was retained but refurbished. Air conditioning was added.

The addition was single storied with a flat roof. The double wall construction for stucco was our trademark. Framing was heavy duty. See Construction Management section.

The Kitchen

This was our pièce de résistance.  We made use of the high ceiling in the addition and built a tall bookcase, plate rack and desk/counter near the window wall in the back with walk out to the patio. A Tudor column was created to camouflage the structural steel column inside.  A glass railing across the upper landing allowed view and conversation from the floor above.  A short island was built to suit the space but a long oak refectory table was installed for the children to do their homework and to eat on. The kitchen cabinets were a light cream color with little ornamentation.  The appliances were stainless steel and modern.  Some of the features of the kitchen were :

  1. stainless steel and white subway tile backsplashes
  2. satin nickel cup pulls
  3. large porcelain farmhouse sink
  4. plain shaker style cabinet doors
  5. honed charcoal gray granite counter tops with double ogee edges
  6. wide elliptical arch on top of the full height bookcase
  7. full height kitchen pantry (not shown in pictures) with ample storage

See related section : Kitchen Update



Tudor Manor

We have been exceedingly fortunate to be given the commission to restore one of the most important English Arts and Crafts Tudor houses in Rosedale.  In Rosedale, as in many exclusive neighborhoods in Toronto, developers have been tearing down century old houses to make way for what they consider luxury manor homes which are remarkably undistinguished.  When we took over the project, a previous contractor had already stripped away all the original finishes inside the house and had turned the interiors into a nondescript builder’s job with blank walls and a run-of-the-mill kitchen.  Many of the recessed-panel oak doors were painted white.  The original staircase and wide plank white-oak flooring were luckily spared as was much of the exterior of the house.  For us, the project has turned out to be an on-going concern with work first started six years ago and still continuing.  Our first step was to restore the main floor to its original architectural style by stripping away the store-bought ornaments and replacing them with custom-made pertinent details. The first stage was mostly about dealing with style.  The second stage which occurred five years later, was more substantial and involved structural alterations.  But before we get into the details, here is some background of the project:

Background of Project

The client that we built the Cortleigh house for in 1993 moved to the States after our firm had undertook two projects for him in Toronto.  When he came back we were engaged to look for a house for him and his family.  At first we looked in the Forest Hill neighborhood upon the insistence of the real-estate agent.  Po Ku strongly recommended Rosedale to the client instead, having known him for twenty years.  Rosedale was a quiet, lush, low-key and moneyed neighborhood.  Forest Hill which was once home to Canada’s business elite, had become more of an ostentatious showcase for the nouveau-riche.  After listening to Po’s succinct analysis of the neighborhoods and taking a late afternoon stroll on a trail in a nearby ravine, the client made a purchase in Rosedale.  The property’s Arts and Crafts Tudor details were deftly restored based on drawings and archival research done by Po Ku Design Build.  Oak doors were stripped of the paint and re-stained.  Oak casings and moldings were installed.  Wood paneling that suited the style were put in.  Coffered wood ceilings were installed in the library and the main hall.  A new hand-carved stone fireplace mantel replaced the builder’s resin-moulded mantel.  Ceiling mouldings were added to complement the styles of the living room and dining room.  Blank walls were panelled, silk upholstered or trimmed to form integral parts of the interior architecture.  The Given (unalterable), the Resultant Style and the Intended Effect guided the course of the project from the very beginning.

Second Stage of Project

The distribution of floor area in the house is such that the second floor holds the most floor space due to the vast area immediately above the double car garage.  The main floor comprises a very large living room, a modest dining room, a smallish kitchen, a comfortable library and an attached double car garage.  Lacking were a breakfast nook and main-floor family room.  The vast space above the garage has always been a family room albeit on the second floor.  To access it, one must mount the stair near the front entrance and traverse a thirty foot hallway to reach the family room.  While contemplating the possibilities, Po came up with the idea of connecting the kitchen to the second floor family room with an outside stair.  The idea developed into constructing a fully enclosed addition in the back containing the connecting stair and a storage room underneath.  The addition increased the floor area in the kitchen and provided a much-needed breakfast nook which is connected to the existing family room with half a flight of stair.  The second stage of the project included a brand new kitchen installation, a new breakfast nook, connecting stair to the second floor, a new mud room in the back of the garage, adding five inches to the ceiling height of the entire basement, complete renovation of the basement, completely new mechanical system and exterior repair and refurbishment.  The fine Gothic detailing of the fascia boards over the front entrance were hand-carved in wood.  After many years of neglect, the wood was rotten in many places.  The decayed wood was gouged out and a composite repair compound was used to rebuild the shapes.

The Mystery of An Old House

The existing home was built with brick and stone as loading-bearing elements.  Wood frame structures served as floors and roofs. Wood studs were added to hold drywall and insulation on the inside.  The foundation, partly stone and partly brick, were typically between 12 to 24 inches thick.  Internal partitions were also masonry, supporting load above.  So removing walls was not an easy task and requires engineer’s approval.  Wherever a small opening was made, an approved steel lintel was installed above the opening.  When a large section of a wall was removed, temporary shoring was set up before-hand and steel I beams were installed to support the load above.  To enlarge the kitchen and build the new stair, a thirty foot length of masonry wall was removed.  In the course of removing the wall, a hidden vault was discovered in the basement surrounded by thick stone walls but without apparently access.  The vault was filled with a substance called Perlite which looked like flour.  The substance was widely used in the 1920s as insulation.  Although harmless and nontoxic, the actual R value of Perlite is under 3, which hardly qualifies for insulation today. We then proceeded to remove almost thirty garbage bags full of this substance from the garage ceiling and the basement.  An additional inconvenience when working in the house was that cell phone reception was almost nil – signal was blocked by the heavy masonry walls.  The advantage of living in a masonry house is that the house feels strong, solid and very quiet, especially in this case where the masonry extends to the top of the second story.  It is almost impossible to duplicate this type of construction today unless one cares to spend over a million dollars just to build the structures of the house.  This house is curiously not a listed heritage building.  Lucky for us and Rosedale, my client is an art and history buff.  If the property had not been bought by my client, it would probably have been torn down by a developer and a pair of contemporary suburban homes would have appeared on the very wide and beautiful lot.  Rosedale is loved for its old stone houses and its proximity to the lush green ravines.  It is inconceivable that Rosedale can remain to be what it is when its stone houses are replaced by suburban-style luxury homes.

Related Section : Construction Management

Related Section : New Build & Rebuild