The Joan Rivers house
This home’s nickname came from all its previous facelifts. But the latest, by Christopher Simmonds Architect, is the fairest of them all
There’s a home tucked away in Rothwell Heights where the terrain is more reminiscent of the country than the city. The area is carpeted with mature trees and narrow, winding streets that travel across hills that have seemingly grown out of nowhere. The architecture here is diverse, yet this newly renovated home is so well situated that — despite its distinctive appearance — it looks as though it belongs.
The owners are a professional couple with two young children. In the summer of 2009, they were looking for a home to accommodate their growing family when they spotted this one. It had a light blue cedar exterior they didn’t like, but the scenic location — close to downtown, work, and family — forced them to take a second look. They fell in love once they caught a glimpse of the inside, the mature gardens and the swimming pool. So they bought. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until winter rolled around that they discovered some unforeseen issues.
Originally built in 1969, it had had several owners and additions.
“Apparently all the houses in the neighbourhood have names,” laughs the owner. “This house is called the Joan Rivers house because it’s had so many facelifts.” It was all these nips and tucks that created many of the problems.
“The additions were framed independently,” explains Rick Shean, lead architect at Christopher Simmonds. “There were a lot of different framing systems coming in, and not much insulation in the house whatsoever.”
Shean calls it “insulation fail.” The mudroom, which initially held so much promise for this busy family, was so poorly insulated that it practically doubled as a walk-in freezer.
“I remember coming in one day and there was a chocolate bar on the floor and it was frozen solid,” says Shean.
The owners (who can laugh about it now) confess to being naïve homebuyers.
“We didn’t even think about why there were so many baseboard heaters around the house.”
The breaking point came the day they found themselves on the couch, watching television in their winter jackets.
It was finally time to unify the design and give the place an overhaul, inside and out. The original goal was to solve the heating issues and address the exterior. Farewell blue cedar! There was also a problem with the front entrance. Few people seemed to recognize where it was, and visitors often walked into the mudroom thinking it was the front door.
“They wanted it to be more welcoming so we wrapped the landscaping around it, added a landscape wall, a canopy, and a nice big walkway into the house,” says Shean.
Outside, a combination of light and dark masonry and wooden elements give the exterior a modern, yet earthy design that connects the building to the natural landscape. Inside, the style is contemporary, yet still retains a lot of warmth. Natural light streams through many well-placed windows and the use of walnut flooring throughout most of the main living space is a pleasing contrast to clean white walls.
The beauty here is in the simplicity.
Airy floating stairs add to the new openness. As with the rest of the interior, the main staircase has no fussy details — it’s a simple handrail with sheets of glass instead of balusters. A second set of stairs on the other side of the house is also airy, thanks to metal on the risers.
The fireplace, a key feature in the living room, was updated to match the new interior. The floors flow into it, creating a seamless look.
The kitchen, built by LTR Industries, is bright and sophisticated.
It’s the ideal layout for a young family; a highly functional area that is easy to keep tidy. A hidden walk-in-pantry, a small washroom and a coffee centre are tucked around the corner.
The owners’ “must haves” included an island that seated eight and lots of hidden storage. The microwave, fridge, warming oven and dishwasher are all tucked smartly away behind panels.
The cabinetry has a sycamore veneer, a decision that had unforeseen challenges. It all had to be cut from the same tree, otherwise the grain wouldn’t line up. What’s more, getting the stain right required multiple attempts.
The mudroom, which was completely non-functional, is now one of the family’s favourite spaces and has become a room the kids really love. They’ve even found their daughter curled up with a book there. There’s plenty of room, lots of storage and radiant floor heating helps mittens dry in a few hours.
Shean says his favourite aspect of the renovation is the kitchen/mudroom and dining area, as this is where the most dramatic changes took place.
“It was a series of small spaces that just didn’t work before. We unified those and saw that they all came together and that it’s connected to the rear yard… that’s my favourite.”