Homes

Rewriting History — The renovation of a former embassy in Rockcliffe

It takes both vision and optimism to discover a rundown mansion and declare without hesitation that it’s The One. Hussain Rahal has both in spades. Driving through Rockcliffe Park on a spring day in 2016, he spotted construction fencing surrounding a stately house that, though once grand, now looked distinctly dilapidated and most definitely abandoned. Hussain drove slowly past, then stopped the car and turned around. He took another long look, then got on the phone to a real estate agent to find out how he could make it his own. 

Hussain and Karine relax with their young daughters in the sitting area between kitchen and dining areas. Photo by Christian Lalonde

The house turned out to be a former embassy, and the government owners were undecided as to whether they would renovate or sell. But Hussain, a doctor and restaurateur, was given permission to photograph and measure inside the house so that he could picture what he might one day have to work with. Armed with that information, he and his wife, Karine, discussed how they would renovate if the house were to become theirs. Hussain waited and dreamed and sketched ideas and waited some more.

The striking exterior facade was retained and restored. Photo by Christian Lalonde

The couple looked through Pinterest for ideas, picturing where the kitchen would be situated, where their two young daughters would play, and how they’d entertain. On countless nights, Hussain sat down with his iPad, revising their ideas. “We’d spent so much time imagining what we’d do that by the time we got a call to say that the house was for sale if we were still interested, we had a very good idea of what we wanted,” he says.

When that call came — a full 18 months after Hussain had first seen the house — the Rahals jumped on it, eager to make up for lost time. Hussain immediately got back in touch with Dylan O’Keefe and Haley Fiorenza. (The design duo behind O’Keefe Fiorenza Design Group had done the initial house measurements for the Rahals and had met with city heritage planners to understand the design guidelines for the historic property.) The designers took a deep breath and got down to work.

The decision to remove the ceiling in the entrance foyer resulted in a spectacular double-height space. Photo by Christian Lalonde

“We knew it had amazing bones and the potential to be stunning, but this was definitely the scariest project we’ve ever gotten onboard with,” says Dylan with a laugh. “We had to wear hazmat suits just to measure it all those months ago!” If it had been any other client, he says, he would have thought twice. “But not only does Hussain have really good instincts, he’s also flexible. I knew when problems came up, he’d see the potential.”

The elegant seating area under the coffered ceiling has views to the kitchen, front door, sunroom, and backyard. Photo by Christian Lalonde

The challenges were many. This modern facelift had two key facets: the striking exterior facade had to be retained and restored, but the interior needed to match the lifestyle of a busy family of four. Heritage had to harmonize with modernism; character had to make peace with a contemporary lifestyle.

A view from the kitchen to the dining area, which includes a piano, a fireplace, and an exposed wine cellar. Photo by Christian Lalonde
The generous kitchen connects to the backyard deck via sliding doors, expanding their entertaining area. Photo by Christian Lalonde

The first step was to remove a 1980s addition to the back of the house, returning it to its original footprint and allowing the Rahals to replace the central portion of the back wall with a spectacular two-storey window. “We took away what was there to make the original structure come back to life,” Dylan explains. Inside, the resulting grand foyer is a glowing double-height focal point, elegant seating arrayed beneath a modern coffered ceiling and an opulent chandelier.

Filled with light, the sunroom is a popular play space. Photo by Christian Lalonde
A rear photo of the exterior shows the sunroom and the two-storey windows. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Hussain project-managed the 10-month renovation, revelling in the opportunity to oversee the transformation on a day-to-day basis. The 100-year-old house had sound proportions, and he, Dylan, and Haley worked within its structural grid, removing some walls but maintaining the framework so that even as some rooms were opened up, those proportions were maintained. The front windows, with their distinctive grill pattern, also stayed true even as the newly conceived rooms behind the facade were transformed. The house was completely gutted but with the firm commitment never to lose sight of what made it beautiful in the first place.

Hussain’s home office features custom bookshelves; modular furniture from Cadieux Interiors makes the family room cozy and comfortable. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Today, the finished house is a testament to Hussain and Karine’s foresight. Regal but never stuffy, the main floor is a dazzling family space with a bright and generous kitchen that looks out over open dining and living areas. That openness creates beautiful spaces for entertaining, be it large family gatherings or office get togethers. In summer, sliding doors off the kitchen allow the communal living areas to spill out onto a covered deck and into a gloriously private backyard surrounded by trees. Upstairs, the bridge overlooking the main floor creates two wings, separating the girls’ bedrooms from Hussain and Karine’s luxurious master bedroom and spa-like ensuite.

Just a few short years ago, this house sat almost forgotten until happenstance led Hussain past its doors. Where most would have seen an overwhelming task, its soon-to-be owner saw promise — a future family home that simply needed a vision to imbue it with new life.

“Seeing what it could be was part of the fun,” says Hussain. “Karine and I saw the interior as an open palette — we imagined the possibilities, and Dylan and Haley guided us through.” The result is a house reborn, a unique family home filled with light and life.