The story begins in January 2014, when Debbie and Mark Willcox began looking for a place to renovate. They immediately agreed that the neglected mid-century house for sale in Rockcliffe needed too much work. And yet, within hours of that initial visit, they found themselves on the phone with their real estate agent, asking follow-up questions. Sometimes the heart rules the head. “Buying a place like this was certainly based on emotion,” says Mark. “We knew the type of house we were looking for — this one checked off all the boxes.” Despite the obvious challenges ahead, the house “just felt so right.”
At the time, the couple were living in a three-storey Westboro townhouse. Their son and daughter were launched on their careers, and it was time for a change — a change that included fewer stairs and bedrooms and more living space. The Rockcliffe house boasts 1,200 square feet on the main level and 800 on the second, with three bedrooms and a large west-facing balcony overlooking their treed corner lot. But though the size was ideal, it was the home’s distinctiveness that truly captivated the Willcoxes. “The uniqueness of this house drew us in — the unusual entranceway, the screened-in porch, and the courtyard. The courtyard was huge for us,” says Debbie. Within 48 hours, they’d made the decision to buy — a decision that still surprises them.
The Willcoxes are experienced and enthusiastic renovators who share a devotion to good design and workmanship (their first reno came early in their 37-year marriage in their native Regina). But this house was an unprecedented undertaking. Though there was never any question of tearing down the 1961 structure — they appreciated its design and potential too much to let that happen — it essentially had to be rebuilt. “The only thing we kept the same was the brick on the fireplace,” says Mark, noting that they respected the original design of the house, restoring or updating the design wherever possible.
While researching their new acquisition ahead of construction, they would learn much about its pedigree. The original and only owner was Gordon Robertson, long-time clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to the Cabinet (1963–75) and chancellor of Carleton University (1980–90). Their house was designed by Toronto architect James A. Murray, a man celebrated for his modernist leanings and the founding editor of Canadian Architect. “Finding this out was just icing on the cake,” says Mark.
The Willcoxes began by hiring their long-time architect friend Erling Falck, who had designed their cottage at Big Cedar Lake. When Erling made the first of many trips up from Marblehead, Massachusetts, he took one look and told the couple in no uncertain terms that it would take three years to renovate their new property. “We said, ‘No way!’ ” recalls Mark, “but he proved to be right.” They credit their friend for having an influence on every detail of the renovation, walking them through it and realizing its potential. “Our real story is in taking a great house and making it even better,” explains Mark. “We have Erling to thank for that.”
The renovation began more prosaically in the fall of 2014 with the nuts-and-bolts repairs and renovations — the roof, siding, and windows were replaced, and the entire envelope was spray-foamed. The team discovered asbestos-insulated pipes so hired a hazmat team to rip down walls to remove it. The house was officially a mess, but the Willcoxes remained in the fray, cozy in their makeshift basement bedroom. And though living through a reno isn’t usually recommended, with Mark working long hours on the house — on top of his job as an executive-level civil servant — it made sense to stay on-site. “Somehow we kept our sanity,” says Debbie. “We stayed positive.”
The work would continue, bit by bit, for the next two years. “This was a job that was over-the-top for us in terms of workload, timeframes, and decisions that had to get made. But we were on the same page all the way through. It was really a good feeling,” says Mark. And when major difficulties arose, as they invariably do with an older house, Erling was instrumental in keeping their spirits up. “He would never say something was unsolvable. He’d say, ‘We’ll get this figured out.’ You need people like that!”
With work on the main floor and upstairs now done, Mark, who retired in June 2016, is planning to begin renovating the basement. In the meantime, the couple is already enjoying the bounty of their labour. As they relax in the library overlooking the newly replanted courtyard, Debbie and Mark can finally revel in their art-filled, sun-filled retreat. As they survey their domain, Mark talks about the design influences that inspired them, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and, closer to home, the New Zealand residence in Rockcliffe. “We’re not purists when it comes to mid-century modern, says Mark, “but we like it.”