“This is our life,” says Debbie Willcox. She’s referring to the Herculean effort it took to transform a dilapidated mid-century-modern house into a showcase of light and space and, most importantly, art. From the Murano glass light fixture and Alvar Aalto table in the kitchen to their wide-ranging collection of paintings and sculpture throughout the house, Debbie and her husband, Mark, demonstrate a striking aesthetic sensibility that is also their passion. “The house is the envelope,” explains Mark. “It’s not about any one piece — it’s the compilation of them all that weaves a story.”
That story began with a viewing in February 2014. Debbie and Mark were looking for a place to renovate but immediately agreed that the neglected mid-century house for sale in Rockcliffe needed too much work. The roof and windows leaked, the basement was wet, and the fence was falling down. In short, it hadn’t been maintained for 15 years.
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. “Despite the obvious challenges ahead, the house “just felt so right.”
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. While careful to retain as much of the original atmosphere as possible, the architect helped the Willcoxes see how best to update and improve the design. 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, it made sense to stay on-site. “Somehow we kept our sanity,” says Debbie. “We stayed positive.”
When the roof was finished, work began on the upstairs bathrooms in January. They immediately struggled with condensation — a serious issue. The contractor, two roofing companies, and Erling’s scientific group all struggled to find a solution. In the end, they had to wait for warmer weather to tear out the ceiling, remove the new insulation, and spray-foam the roof deck — something that could have been done when the roof was originally removed. Had they but known. But at least opening up the ceiling made it easier for the electricians, says the ever-optimistic Mark.
The work would continue, bit by bit, for the next two years. 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.”