This article was first published in the Interiors 2015 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
The staircase – a steel structure with floating oak treads – makes a bold statement as visitors enter the house and climb toward the luminous upper floor. In more than five decades, no one has ever tripped on them, says Fred. Photo by Marc Fowler
In the age of the speculative house designed for a buyer yet unknown, it’s rare to meet people who have lived in the same home for 50 years. Fred and Elizabeth Lipsett still reside in the abundantly windowed cedar-clad box they commissioned in 1958 and moved into in 1959. To this day, they continue to open their doors to friends and neighbours and, with some helpers, to tend the garden in summer, the leaves in fall, and the snow in winter. Exuding practical elegance in every way — size, scale, materials, layout — the Lipsett House stands as an exemplar of mid-century modernist residential architecture in Ottawa. Flat roofed and devoid of the accoutrements of particular styles, the house possesses a sort of timeless quietude, deferring to the trees and grounds that surround it.
This is a family home that has served only one family: the one that thought of it and built it. The Lipsetts have made a few discreet alterations to the original house in the years since it was built, including turning a screened porch into a three-season room, adding a deck along the back in 1970, and building a small addition beneath the house four years later. They also replaced a fireplace (that smoked) with a two-sided bookcase to hold a collection of fine pottery and baskets from around the world.
When they hired architect Paul Schoeler (1929–2013) to design their house, Fred and Elizabeth brought together complementary sensibilities. Fred was from Vancouver, Elizabeth, from Johannesburg, South Africa. They had met in London, where Fred was completing his PhD in physics at the Imperial College and Elizabeth was visiting the places she had studied while completing her fine arts degree, hitchhiking through England and the continent. They went to concerts together and, with a group of friends, watched Queen Elizabeth’s coronation procession on a crowded London street. After Fred returned to Canada, he wrote to Elizabeth (who had returned to South Africa), asking her to marry him and move to Canada. He greeted her boat, a cargo ship, when it arrived in New York from Cape Town. They married in 1957 and moved into an apartment in Sandy Hill. Soon after that, they purchased a lot in Rothwell Heights, not far from the National Research Council on Blair Road, where Fred worked.
Elizabeth had been initiated into modernist architecture in Johannesburg by her friend, architect and architectural photographer Wim Swann. When the time came to build her family home, she sought out an architect engaged in the modernist idiom and versed in designing for the Canadian climate. Elizabeth was told about a young architect named Paul Schoeler, a McGill graduate who had fought in World War II, by another of his clients, Mr. Torontow, who ran a modern furniture store located in what used to be known as the Hardy Arcade. Fred was receptive to modernism, and when they began meetings with the architect, he was easily brought to Schoeler’s vision. The young architect was still establishing his practice when the Lipsetts met him. “He got very busy after that,” explains Elizabeth. The firm of Schoeler and Heaton would go on to produce numerous modernist houses and some of Ottawa’s institutional landmarks, including the elliptical Public Service Alliance building at the corner of Metcalfe and Gilmour and the boldly experimental Charlebois High School (now St. Patrick’s High School) in Alta Vista.
The two-storey house has the living floor on the upper level, which means that, in effect, it must be entered twice. Schoeler solved this problem masterfully by creating two contrasting entrances. At grade, one arrives at a foyer with a terra cotta tile floor, commanded by a staircase to the living floor. This space has an earthy quality, and its linear proportions set the circulation pattern for that floor. The staircase — a steel structure with floating oak treads — rises toward the luminous upper floor and a second entry realm. The ground level is a service floor for the house above, containing a guest bedroom, a workshop, a room originally labelled “recreation” that became Elizabeth’s pottery studio, and a utility room. Fred, a physicist, music lover, and violist, claimed space down there for his drafting board, computers, and equipment to record his favourite BBC programs.
Elizabeth had been initiated into modernist architecture in Johannesburg by her friend, architect and architectural photographer Wim Swann. When she and Fred designed and furnished their own home, they did so with a discerning eye, choosing furnishings that have stood the test of time. Photo by Marc Fowler
The upper foyer has the great advantage of being entirely dry since the business of taking off coats and boots occurs below. It is fitted with a wall of shallow closets stacked directly above the deep coat closets of the ground-level foyer. These cabinets store ironing board and linens, Fred’s audio tapes, Elizabeth’s photography equipment and travel slides and, at one time, children’s toys. But beyond its usefulness for storage, this hinge space (and the railing around the stair opening — a “marvellous” drying rack for sheets and tablecloths) performs a crucial role in the house plan. On Schoeler’s drawings, it is labelled “kitchen — utility — play,” and it connects three different realms of the house: the living room, the private sleeping wing, and the laundry and kitchen area.
The floor finishes — wood in the living room and dining area and colourful cork linoleum elsewhere (a vivid blue for the kitchen and foyer, a light terra cotta in the bedrooms) — reiterate the simple and clear architectural idea contained in the plans, which is that the entire house is a sort of journey to the living room overlooking the hill. Every other space is designed to play a supporting role for the heart of the house.
Schoeler was aware that the escarpment backing the Lipsetts’ lot might overpower the house and decided that the living room — the entire living floor, in fact — needed to be raised. “This was his best idea,” recalls Fred. The resulting living room gains a profound relationship with the hill that rises beyond its wall of windows. It is a room of moving beauty. With proportions that strike a balance between generosity and intimacy, the room functions well for either small or large gatherings. Fred recalls with special fondness the room’s use for casual concerts with his chamber musician friends.
While the house is devoid of ostentation, it is nonetheless superbly well built. The original building specifications for the house noted: “all workmanship to be first class, incorporating best recognized practice.” Clean and deliberate detailing, such as floor-to-ceiling mahogany doors and narrow pine baseboards, provide the interior with a refined and serene appearance. In the living room, slender window frames fitted with streamlined hardware seem to recede, making the outside environment feel all the more present inside the house. And this is quite important, because the interior of the Lipsett House cannot be accurately described except as a dialogue of house and landscape, interior and exterior.
This pretty tableau hints at the two key motifs so apparent throughout this house – the owners’ love of mid-century modern design and furnishings and their appreciation for fine arts and crafts. Photo by Marc Fowler
Schoeler conceived every room of the house with precision, fitting each one with closets and windows that were both generous in size and positioned with clear intention as to how the room would be used and what views could be enjoyed. Yet it is fair to say that the Lipsett House challenges the very meaning of “house interior” by not really making the interiors a strong focus. The house is much more concerned with establishing connections and weaving relationships with community and landscape than it is with finishes in and of themselves. Significantly, parts of the house remain unfinished, such as some rooms in the lower level. The material palette also plays on unfinished-ness: unpainted cedar, exposed cinderblock, and cement panels remain in the “finished” house. Schoeler’s pared-down idea about materials gives his houses a compelling and unencumbered immediacy.
The couple credits the integration of the house and its landscape with making owning a cottage unnecessary. They talk about how much they have enjoyed living in their house. “We have wonderful neighbours,” they always add. And the fact that the Lipsetts have never felt the need to do wide-ranging renovations is a testament to the quality of the architecture. This is also to the benefit of architectural heritage and building memory: today the Lipsett House is a showcase of exemplary detailing, building techniques, and products dating from the late 1950s. With its thoughtful dimensions, considered layout, and excellent craftsmanship, this house is remarkable, and yet, unlike many of the houses now being built, it seems to disappear on its lot. Though it has changed very little since it was built, it has been many different houses through the years — and always the right house for its occupants. In this sense, the Lipsett House is much more than a house. It is a statement of architecture’s potential for making a life complete.