Homes

“When things went wrong, we turned them into opportunities” — Centretown row house and a new phase of life come with challenges

When Holly Wagg and her seven-year-old daughter Addison bought their Centretown row house in June 2017, Holly was planning only a small renovation, just enough to let some light from the front to the back of the house, which was built in 1892. She moved into the house in August and moved out again in October when it became clear that if she intended to do the job properly, it would require more than a simple reno.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Holly and her wife, Julia, who died of leukemia in April 2017, had lived in Overbrook for many years. They liked their house, they liked their street, but it had no children living on it. “It was mostly older people,” explains Holly. “Julia and I were kind of stuck. While we wanted to, we couldn’t seem to make the move.”

The day after Julia’s funeral in April, Holly went to a memorial party for people involved with the Ten Oaks Project, a camp for LGBTQ kids and their families, which Julia had co-founded. The party was on Elm Street. “It immediately felt like home,” she says. “It’s a great neighbourhood, there’s lots of foot traffic and lots of queer families in the ’hood.” And then a listing came up.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Holly made the leap. “When I make a decision, it’s usually done pretty fast,” she says. “And part of this decision was influenced by the realization that it was me on my own, raising Addison.”

The new house offered a clean slate. It’s not that Holly and Addison have forgotten Julia in any way, as they frequently refer to her in conversation — it’s simply that this house offered them a way to move forward and into the next stage of their lives.

Holly chose to work with designer Emma Doucet, founder of Grassroots Design. “Her style is quirky, organic, and glam,” says Holly. Her instructions to Doucet were to take down the interior ground-floor walls of the house where necessary to let light into the back of the house. But the house had other plans. “You go in with a plan,” says Doucet, “but then when a house demolishes itself, you have to adapt.”

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

When the team started to open walls, they found they couldn’t do so without moving a bathroom. The only place to fit the bathroom was under the stairs, so then they had to move the stairs, and that’s to say nothing of the HVAC. Once they decided to hide the HVAC in the ceiling, it became apparent that the ceiling at the front of the house would not be the same height as that at the back of the house. That was a problem.

“When things went wrong, we turned them into opportunities,” says Doucet. To solve the problem of ceiling height, Doucet found a very large barn beam and inset it into the ceiling between the two spaces. It adds a lovely rustic element and looks original to the house. “I’m a fan of infusing natural wood into a space,” says Doucet. “It relaxes the eye when you look at it. It should add points of interest but not take over.” She also used grey-toned barnboards to create a vent hood over the stove.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

In the kitchen, the pair chose Ikea cabinets but went custom with the doors, working with Bench Dog cabinets in Vanier to achieve the bold final result. With the addition of brass handles and dark, luscious walnut countertops made by Bizier, near Wakefield, the room has a sophisticated, natural feel. That feeling is echoed in the adjacent family room, where Doucet used old slate tiles around the fireplace and to camouflage the television, which sinks into the deep grey colour. More natural tones appear in the cloakroom area at the front of the house, where Doucet designed a bench and coat-hanging space with wood herringbone walls.

Holly and Doucet used pops of pattern throughout the house with bold wallpaper and colourful heavy linen curtains. For the tiny powder room relocated under the stairs, the pair chose a deep teal blue paper with gold palm trees and crescent moons. Complemented by a shell light fixture, gold taps, and a small triangle live-edge sink shelf, the result is a whimsical gem of a room. On the staircase wall, they used a soft feather-pattern paper; a mountain scene in the laundry cupboard came from the same British company. “It was super fun to choose wallpapers with Holly because she has eclectic taste and likes fun surprises,” says Doucet.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Upstairs, the focus was on improving the flow of the rooms. With two bathrooms back to back and a choppy floor plan, it was, according to Holly, “very 1980s.” So she settled on one luxury bathroom for her, Addison, and any occasional guests to share. But Doucet insisted that it must be a four-piece with tub and shower to maintain resale value of the home. After much wrangling to fit it all in, “this is now our favourite room in the house,” says Holly. And Addison agrees, leaping into the empty deep soaker bath to show off her new custom-made wooden iPad shelf. “I love watching movies in the bath,” she says with a grin.

In the master bathroom, the pair once again combined natural textures with contemporary style. An offset sink set into a dark console with a grey marble countertop provides ample counter space, while a Moroccan etched hanging light casts soft shadows over the ceiling. Hexagonal patterned tiles provide plenty of interest on the heated floor.

Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

“Every piece in this house has a story,” says Holly, and the tiles are a case in point. Holly had seen the tile design on Pinterest in 2012. When her chance came to use it, she told Doucet what she wanted. But the tiles were available only in Sweden at a king’s ransom and with huge delay. At the point of giving up, Doucet’s team found them in the United States  at a far more reasonable price. Still, the complications of getting them over the border, to say nothing of the fact that they were incredibly complicated to lay, means that Holly appreciates them all the more every day.

This is a house layered with meaningful pieces. A gallery wall of pictures speaks to Holly’s love of photography. “It really became home when the pictures went up,” she says. “I love my camera and hope to get back to it, as every picture has a story.” A custom bookshelf made from thick wooden shelves and industrial piping groans with books and treasures. But Holly’s most precious possession is her kitchen table — a refurbished Mexican door, chunky and with the patina of age, it was the first piece of furniture Holly and Julia bought together.

Holly Wagg and her seven-year-old daughter Addison. Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen
Holly Wagg and her seven-year-old daughter Addison. Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen

Clearly, Holly has an eye for design. She reads design blogs, loves photography, and admits to a weakness for carpets. She also understands how important feeling comfortable in one’s space can be. “Space is really important to me,” she says. “I’ve realized over the years that if I feel good in a space, I’m much more quick, effective, efficient, and happy.”

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