It was a short but meaningful journey, only a few steps around the block but into a whole new domestic world.
This is Charlotte Gray and George Anderson’s third house on the same block in New Edinburgh. The couple began in a modest house on MacKay Street; three sons later, they built a home on the adjoining lot. Then, after 40 years on MacKay raising their family and solidifying extremely successful careers, they longed for something smaller and simpler than 4,500 square feet and five bedrooms.
“We didn’t want rooms we weren’t using,” says Charlotte. They both loved the welcoming vibe and comfort of the family home, with its vibrant wallpaper and lively colours. “We didn’t want to throw it all away and start fresh.” They also longed to stay in the neighbourhood they knew so well.
Their son, Nick Anderson, inadvertently presented a solution. He’s a builder — the owner of Leada Developments — and was planning a project on nearby Crichton Street. He showed his dad the plans and George was instantly inspired. “I thought, we could do everything we wanted on that property,” says George.
George and Nick began collaborating. Charlotte maintains that she was a “passenger” on the journey. George wanted the open concept of contemporary builds, but not the monochromatic scheme that seems to inevitably follow. They also wanted a smaller space with only two bedrooms, although they needed two studies. George, an expert on federalism, is a retired deputy minister who has headed a nongovernmental organization and worked as an international consultant. Charlotte is a journalist and award-winning biographer and historian with 11 books including, most recently, Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise.
George began searching for a house design and found what he wanted in a Chicago house that offered a contemporary take on the traditional red-brick townhouse. It had three levels, but the bottom floor was partially above grade and flooded with light. It seemed like a good fit for them — and the neighbourhood.
The Crichton Street property is part of the New Edinburgh Heritage Conservation District, so the addition of a storey was permitted but the new build had to fit on footprint of the previous structures. The design passed through consultations in the local community and city hall.
“The trickiest issue was the floor plan,” says George. They were on their fourth layout when a friend with knee issues cautioned them to think about their future mobility needs. They decided to get a pneumatic elevator installed and the floor plan was adjusted yet again.
“Nick did a great job at handling some tricky clients,” says Charlotte with a wry smile.
The two small houses on the lot were demolished in 2018; construction began in spring of 2019 and they moved in the early fall of 2020. “We built in the middle of Covid. It provided the entertainment,” says George.
Another big part of the journey was the downsizing. Their new house is about 2,000 square feet smaller than their previous abode. Forty boxes of books, as well as bulky furniture, were purged. Charlotte sent her archives to McMaster University. They did keep some antiques, including a magnificent serpentine bureau; a few functional favourites, such as bedside tables; and George’s mid-century modern collection, which includes stylish Hans Wegner chairs. They also kept their eclectic art collection, paintings, and ceramics. Unlike many new builds, this home is not styled with aesthetically pleasing, yet impersonal, objects. It is a home with style, built around the mementoes of their life and travel, and their love of books and art.
To help create their distinctive interior design, they engaged Kayla Pongrac, a founding partner of design firm Iron and Ivory. Initially, the emphasis was on a clean modern look, but that soon evolved. George and Charlotte like the comfortable feel of British houses with reading and sitting spaces. Added to this was George’s love of wallcoverings.
“At first we didn’t know how to handle it,” says Pongrac, who studied architecture at Carleton University and at the Institute for Advanced
Architecture of Catalonia in Spain. But after visiting the client’s long-time home on MacKay, she understood the design would be more layered than most modern designs. It would be a place to showcase art amidst rich textiles and wallcoverings, classic elements such as wainscotting, and punches of colour.
“It speaks to all their travelling and writing and imagination. They have amazing ideas and are fun to work with. They took me out of my comfort zone,” says Pongrac, who guided the interior layout of the house.
To make the relatively small space appear larger, the main-level oak flooring was laid on an angle and built-ins were included in almost every room: cabinets, bookshelves, bureaus, and desks meticulously designed and built by Alex Alexandrov of Exotic Wood. “He’s a wonderful perfectionist,” says George.
To improve the view from the back of the house and create privacy, they built a rooftop garden on their garage, where George has planted flowers and small shrubs. It’s only accessible by ladder, but George climbs up there to tend to the plants; he also maintains gardens at the side and front of the house.
These design decisions were par for the course, but the decorating scheme took Pongrac by surprise, especially the bold use of wallpaper and colour.
“We just don’t do beige,” says Charlotte. Instead, they wanted multiple hues of paint, textiles, and, most dramatically, wallpaper. And lots of it.
“There are a lot of colours in a small space, plus textile patterns. That’s what makes it unique and eye-catching,” says Pongrac. Getting the right fit wasn’t always easy; nearly 50 samples of wallpaper were ordered. Pongrac was dazzled by George’s knowledge.
“He pushed for more and more adventurous choices. The use of wallpaper is something I’m not used to. The process was challenging and fun. He has inspired us.” Pongrac ended up sourcing some of the final choices.
Among many wallpaper patterns, the home features Josef Frank’s Swedish modern wallcovering and heritage English designs. Some wallpaper came from Hamilton Weston, a company that makes reproductions of Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian heritage wallpaper. “They take heritage patterns and reproduce them in a modern way, essentially restoring them to their opulence.” Bold contemporary Marimekko wallpaper can be seen in the downstairs corridor.
For the fabrics, George put his knowledge of textiles to good use. The living room drapes, for example, are made of Jim Thompson silk, which George purchased in Bangkok, and the bedroom linens are by Paris-based Yves Delorme.
Many of the rooms are daring and dramatic in their ample use of textiles and patterns, and yet they are very comfortable, made cozy with plush furnishings and careful colour choices. The house has a modern sensibility, says Pongrac, with a mix of styles: English heritage, Chicago townhouse, and Canadian modernism. In short, it is both welcoming and visually arresting.
Asked to pick their favourite feature, both George and Charlotte emphasize the incredible natural light. George also likes the fact that they use all the space, while Charlotte loves the “manageability” of the house and its situation on a busy street corner.
“It’s more urban and more exposed,” says Charlotte. “I like listening to the children as they wait for the school bus. I feel part of the community. I came from England for three years to live with George. Now I’ve lived on this block for 40 years.”