Something magical happens when a new family moves into an old house. Walls move and disappear, old paint is sanded away and new aesthetics transform tired spaces. But as Pamela Bowles discovered while working to renew a grand old house on Cooper Street, the idea of family can remain the central inspiration.
Pamela brought her young children to live on Cooper Street some four years ago. Her parents bought it in 2007, and still lived there, but were spending more time at the cottage in Quebec and were planning their retirement. Pamela and the kids took over the top floor of the three-storey red brick house. It was meant to be a mere staging post in their lives, a temporary abode while they looked for somewhere else. What Pamela did not anticipate was the beginning of a design adventure that would change her life significantly.
She started off looking for a house downtown, but as the search proved disappointing and the prices astronomical, she talked to her parents about renovating and sharing the existing house on a long-term basis. Pamela’s parents bought into her vision of turning old into new to serve three generations of the family. They entered into a real estate agreement that allowed Pamela to invest in the property and create a home for her children on the first two floors of the Cooper Street house, while a beautiful third-floor loft apartment remains as a pied à terre for the grandparents.
Pamela started planning and realized that this big red-brick house, a rare survivor on a downtown street, had good bones. The house was built around 1900 and was originally inhabited by Walter Armstrong, his wife Teresa, and their three adolescent sons.
When Walter and Teresa moved into the Cooper Street house it was a very different place. The rooms on the ground floor — living room, dining room, and kitchen, with a hallway and staircase alongside — were small, enclosed, and likely painted and wallpapered in dark colours and patterns.
The challenge was to open up the rooms on the ground floor, with their 12-foot ceilings, and to create a long, pale corridor of light from front to back, at the same time retaining or replicating many of the original features, such as mouldings, baseboards, and windows. As for interior decoration, cool arrangements of white have brightened the rooms, while the textures of woven curtains and cushions, plaited baskets, stamped leather, and fibrous carpets in an array of neutral shades create a contemporary atmosphere.
Pamela has inherited her family’s strong artistic sensibility. From the small oil painting that belonged to her paternal grandparents to a watercolour by her mother that is now in her daughter’s room, the house is a rich gallery of storied artwork. Her grandfather was a lawyer who made furniture in his spare time; his lustrous, hand-made furniture can be spotted on the main floor. Original art that her grandmother collected in Paris hangs on the walls. In the bedroom of Pamela’s daughter stands an antique bed that belonged to a great-grandmother. “My parents slept in that bed, and so did I at one time,” says Pamela.
Instinctively understanding the need for an interplay of people and place in a family home, Pamela has imaginatively repurposed bits of old baseboard as frames for family portraits.
Not everything with the renovation has gone smoothly, and a project meant to absorb five months actually swelled to occupy three years. Work began just as the pandemic struck, and the whole family moved to the lake, where they were able to work remotely. In winter 2021, when the children started going back to in-person learning, the family returned to Centretown and settled into an apartment at Pamela’s sister’s house. “We slept on mattresses on the floor and we all cooked in the tiny kitchen. Fortunately, my family is really easy-going and supportive, so we got along.”
Pamela finally moved into the Cooper Street house in August 2021, while everything was still wrapped in plastic. There, she lived alone for a while, continuing to sleep on a mattress on the floor. “It was work, work, work. I painted. I sanded. I panelled my bedroom. I got the upstairs ready for the children.”
Pamela has wrought mighty changes to the house on Cooper Street, and she has changed as well. She was enthralled by the whole design process and is now pursuing a diploma in interior decorating. She has also made important friends along the way as she explores what some call the “chaos industry.”
Today, the house on Cooper Street graciously shelters three generations of Pamela’s family. Though the design is cool and contemporary, there is something beautifully old-fashioned about what is, after all, a family story.