BY LEANNE MCKEACHIE | PHOTOS BY JOSHUA LAWRENCE
A 104-year-old character home had been through so many owners and uses, its original beauty was almost hidden. But a new homeowner and a passionate design team brought its beauty back to life.
When Tom and Ann McLean purchased a character home in Victoria in 1993, they knew it was in dire need of TLC. But they could see without a doubt the potential in the rundown house that had been built with great attention to detail for $7,000 in 1907 by designer/builder David Herbert Bale as his residence and as a showcase for his work.
The home had certainly been a passion for Bale — and more than a century later, it became a passion for the man who would steward its renovation. From the very beginning, Tom McLean set out to explore every nook and cranny of the house and its history. A captivating storyteller, Tom drew our design team into the home’s rich past and it soon began to take on a personality.
Through the years, according to Tom, the home had been a private residence, a dance studio, a guest house, a rest home for elderly women, and it also functioned as various commercial offices. All of these shifts in use meant a lot of the home’s original character had been lost. Thankfully, the McLeans wanted to respect and honour this resilient home. In 2000, they embarked on a multi-year renovation of the “Grand Old Lady,” as Tom lovingly refers to the house.
As our design team dug deeper and learned more about the home, it soon became clear a design concept with a restorative yet rejuvenating theme was necessary. As we dove into Tom and Ann’s requirements and desires for the project, we all came to realize that we would need to expand the scope of work, which initially had been to install a shower in an existing bathroom. Instead, we agreed what was truly needed was to give the home the facelift it so badly needed.
History Meets Contemporary
Designers often joke that the most expensive words a client can utter are “While you’re here …” but in the case of this home, the expanded scope felt right. The owners decided to proceed with a full kitchen and bath reno and a refresh of the floor and wall surfaces.
In considering an expanded scope, Ann and Tom asked very good questions, including, “Will this change cause increased value to the property and to the client personally?” and “Does that value warrant the cost to make the changes?” Without hesitation, their answer was always yes.
And so the top floor of the home was to be transformed into a luxury rental suite, while the main floor would remain commercial offices.
Tom and Ann remained skillfully involved and invested throughout the project to ensure the “bones of the structure” were reinforced and updated, including mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems. This attention to the inner workings of the house ensured it would not only look the part but also act the part — suitable to be inhabited by future tenants with modern lifestyles.
What caught my eye as a designer were many of the period details of the home — the stained-glass windows, staircase railings, vintage tub and pedestal sink, tile, hardwood floors and the original brick chimney. These formed the foundation from which the new design emerged. Most of the detailing referenced the Arts and Crafts movement but had a definitive Victorian influence. As always, I aimed to strike a fine balance between honouring the period stylings while modernizing the home’s functions and livability.
Beginning with the Bathroom
We started by determining what had to happen to restore the existing bathroom fixtures. The cast-iron clawfoot tub, for example, came to the home from the Empress Hotel about 80 years ago. Its vintage made it impossible for us to retrofit modern plumbing fittings, plus the tub had to have its drillings patched prior to being entirely re-enamelled. Next, the tub’s claw feet had to be replated in brass, and new holes were drilled to accommodate the modern drain system.
Similarly, the pedestal sink (also from the Empress) was underwhelming in its current condition — it was much too short for modern needs and the finish was worn.
To resolve the height issue, our contractor, Robert Giesbrecht of RG Enterprises, built a platform to mimic the stepped detail on the existing base. The platform was adhered to the bottom of the pedestal base, and the entire fixture along with the platform was re-enameled. The result was a properly proportioned sink that looked both vintage and new.
The bathroom’s original floor tile was badly worn so we replaced it with a new look-alike floor of octagon and dot tile, which is a white octagonal tile accented by smaller black squares.
The Smallest Details
There were other issues to be solved. The stained-glass window in the bathroom was an untouched original, but it was visually overpowered by bright red walls that desperately needed to be repainted in a neutral for the glass to become a feature of the room. To achieve this, I selected Shoji White by Sherwin Williams. The lighter, refreshing backdrop allowed the stained glass to stand out as it deserved.
Now, it was only fitting that the new light fixtures and custom mirror frame incorporated a fine-lined black detailing similar to the leaded detailing in the window. Brass fixtures and accents were also a must-have due to the vintage of the space and golden colour in the stained glass.
The next challenge was the walk-in shower. How could we finish it to give it that classic look while modernizing its function and keeping it from visually overpowering the space? This was the perfect application for Neolith in Calacatta from Stone Age Marble & Granite. Neolith is a human-made product and the Calacatta pattern imitates true Calacatta marble (a classic look). Because of its solid surface properties, Neolith is less porous and less brittle than real marble. The product’s innate strength allowed us to clad the shower and pony walls with the thinnest six-millimetre product.
Some of the vintage doorknobs were fully functional but needed a good cleaning. Others, like the bathroom doorknob, were beyond repair. In a situation like this, I usually suggest replacing them all or finding a different knob that complements the existing hardware. However, in a moment of happy coincidence, I came upon an Emtek doorknob with a back plate at Victoria Speciality Hardware. It was almost a replica of the existing hardware. Considering all the unexpected scenarios that can occur during a renovation, small moments like these can inspire a designer to perform a happy dance in the middle of a store.
Focus on Livability
There were specific requirements to be considered and inspiring character to be found at every turn, yet the process we went through is ubiquitous in any design project. Creating space that accommodates the way you want to live in a home should always be the number-one priority when considering a renovation. Some of the functional issues we resolved in this bathroom renovation were:
• Lack of toiletry storage > We camouflaged a recessed medicine cabinet in the wall adjacent to the pedestal sink.
• Limited counter space > The pedestal sink rim is generous, but for extra space I added an accessory side table that can be pulled out or tucked beside the sink, and included a glass shelf above the sink.
• Exposed washer/dryer > We built out the walls of a small closet to accommodate the depth of the stacking washer/dryer and camouflaged it with a door that blended with the other millwork.
• No linen storage > We borrowed a small amount
of space from the hallway to create some recessed millwork. The design included mixed-use open-and-closed storage and a pullout countertop as a perching spot for an iron or small laundry basket.
• No shower > We created a curbless walk-in shower, with a tiled linear drain cover. A pony wall with frameless glass was designed to hide the toilet but maintain openness. The Neolith wall cladding requires minimal maintenance and is easy to clean.
• Inefficient heating > We installed a heated tile floor to keep the floor dry and warm underfoot.
Rethinking the Kitchen
The redesign of the home’s kitchen also threw many challenges our way. Perhaps the most complex task involved combining the functions of a main entranceway, eating area, working kitchen, pantry storage and main thoroughfare into one small space less than 200 square feet in size.
This kitchen — small yet mighty — features a coat closet that integrates into the built-in pantry cabinetry, an exposed and restored original brick chimney and a sunny eating nook complete with a space-saving built-in banquette.
We maximized cabinet storage but used open shelving to maintain the open concept. The finishing that followed provided the character and brought the space to life.
ready for a new generation
As I sit here and think back on this home, I know it was indeed a very special project,
not only because of the home’s heritage, but because its new owners felt such passion for
the home that being part of its renovation was a pleasure.
Along with our work on the bathroom and kitchen, the exterior was restored with such attention to detail that it was the recipient of both Hallmark Heritage Society and Heritage BC awards.
This was truly a house with a story to tell, and now, having been through a century of revolving ownership and changing needs, its beauty is restored and the Grand Old Lady will be home to a new generation of stories.