Zebrano Life Style Solutions


Globe and Mail Update
Updated Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2009 10:05PM EDT
The Globe and Mail

Frank Richmond remembers the time his father, architect Edward Isaac Richmond, heard about a unique house party where guests were handed sledgehammers with their drinks and encouraged to take a few swipes at whatever struck their fancy. It was an old house, and the architect who'd purchased it was having it bulldozed the next day in order to build something new.

"My father was so upset by this because he viewed a home as almost a holy place," Mr. Richmond says. "When you demolish a building, there had to be a degree of respect."

Ed Richmond would have liked Wendy Davis and her husband Peter. Owners of Manley house, which the architect designed in 1954, the couple often begin their parties by serving drinks at the wet bar he created for the residence near Cedarvale Park.

Sure, the bar's aging Arborite has been replaced by a new maple top, the carpet in the room is a nice new sisal and, with the removal of a wall, there now is a much larger space, but so what? Across the room, above the wall of original windows, the same cove lights warm the ceiling even though the special bulbs are becoming hard to find, and, in the original fireplace, a stylish new gas insert flicks its calescent tongue.

Throughout this almost 4,000-square-foot home, subtle renovations blend seamlessly with Mr. Richmond's work. Case in point: a king-size kitchen now fills an area that once contained the original tiny kitchen, various small hallways, a laundry room and a small bathroom, but it speaks the same architectural language.

"Kitchens have evolved a lot," laughs Ms. Davis, "but we thought a lot about making sure that it didn't look like this new thing [was just] stuck in with what was there."

A new front door greets visitors, but Ed Richmond wouldn't do a double take if he were to knock on it. In fact, the neighbourhood around Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue retains many of its modernist homes, since, as Ms. Davis puts it, the area is still "under the radar" of monster-home builders.

The architect's own striking 1948 home, which he occupied until just before his death in 1982 at age 73 (and where son Frank lived until 1998), is right where he left it at 37 Burton Rd. And while it may have been a shocker to frill-obsessed, WASPy, postwar Toronto, his practice flourished. "That home got replicated in hundreds of different kinds of iterations [post-1948 and] for the next 15-odd years," his son confirms.

Perhaps that's because the 1931 University of Toronto graduate, one of the first Jewish architects in Toronto — if not the very first, his son suggests — had many Jewish clients eager to eliminate painful reminders of the old world, even architectural ones.

In a career that lasted a half-century, Ed Richmond worked on the old Mount Sinai hospital on Yorkville Avenue (a part of its façade is currently undergoing restoration and will be incorporated into a condo) during a short-lived partnership with Ben Kaminker in the early thirties. By the seventies, he was designing high-rise towers, including Palace Pier 1 on the Etobicoke waterfront.

In 1997, Ms. Davis discovered his old neighbourhood while on an errand, and "hit the brakes" when she saw the Manley home for sale. Mr. Manley, she'd learn from the home's second owners, was a builder who had worked with Mr. Richmond, and he spared no expense in constructing his own modernist masterpiece.

That Ms. Davis's modern furniture collection would engage Mr. Richmond's architecture was a given — what wasn't was finding contractors who understood the home's clean lines. (Remember, this was years before the mid-century modern craze hit.) In fact, there were so many snags during that first year, Ms. Davis was inspired to create Zebrano, a company that identifies a person's individual style and then manages everything from interior design and personal travel to household management.

"By the time we did the big reno on the house, it was all Zebrano," says Wendy's husband, a retired investment banker and co-owner of the company.

Cool gallery-white walls, a massive master bedroom (where there had been two average-sized ones) and the kitchen show the 21st-century Zebrano touch. Brick walls that slip past window frames to be welcomed inside, flagstone that spills from foyer to living room, an exquisitely proportioned staircase and a foyer bathroom clad in deliciously smooth Vitrolite tile are the warm touches that flowed from Mr. Richmond's drafting pen. It's a house that has benefited from a great deal of thought, both in the early 1950s and the early 2000s.

"Everything has been tricky," Ms. Davis says about the renovation. "You have to be patient and think it through and wait until you get the right person [to do the work]."

Peter adds: "It's been a long-term project, this house. Every decision we've made we've been really sure that it's the right one; if the two of us can't agree, it's probably not the right call yet."

The best call they've made, however, was to never mix alcohol with sledgehammers.

Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Wednesdays during Toronto at Noon and Sunday mornings.