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.