Modernist home gets a 21st century update

by Trevor Boddy / The Globe and Mail Published February 2008

A thorough revamp of a 1956 home holds true to its heritage while re-energizing a beautiful space

‘Every time it snows,” says Bruce Stuart, “I put on Mike Oldfield’s recording of Tubular Bells, then watch the snowflakes drift down into the glass courtyard.” The theme from The Exorcist may be a fitting musical accompaniment to watching flakes dart and dance, but the house pride of Mr. Stuart and wife Marg is the tune that truly resonates here.

We are gazing at the 16-foot-square, glassed-in, snow-collecting courtyard at the centre of their modernist, Palm Springs-style house, designed by Vancouver architect R.R. McKee in 1956 for Stanley Waroway, owner of a beauty supplies company.

Mr. Stuart, a management consultant, and his wife, an interior designer, have restored the Endowment Lands home and added an extension. With its flavour of the 1960s desert retreats of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., the Stuart home stands in stark contrast to a woodsy West Coast-style house next door, designed by Ron Thom.


The original 1956 rendering made by R.R. McKee.  Architect Nick Milkovich’s U-shaped addition to the home is where the car port used to be. The plan of this squared-out house on a large lot with spectacular view could hardly be simpler: A square doughnut of living spaces and bedrooms around a central courtyard.

While the Stuart home’s window proportions and eave-height run of slatted sun-screens are carefully worked out, the plan of this squared-out house on a large lot with spectacular view could hardly be simpler: A square doughnut of living spaces and bedrooms around the central courtyard, the perimeter panorama wall overlooking Burrard Inlet set in continuous glass.

From the get-go, this was a house for light-worshippers, but the daily stream of photons proved too much for the previous owners. “They had three layers of heavy drapes,” recalls Ms. Stuart, “so the first thing we did was get rid of all of them.”

The Stuarts and their two sons moved from a Kerrisdale Victorian ex-farmhouse to this mid-century modern home in 2002. The Modern Movement in architecture wanted to break down previous conventions — even family life itself — in its tradition-questioning cult of the new. For the Stuarts, the open plan and visual connection between rooms meant adjusting to more noise and less privacy.

“At first it was like living in a glass yurt,” says Mr. Stuart, at ease in his luminous living room, “but we all adjusted, then came to love it.” Some things were harder to accept, such as running his globe-girdling consulting business from the only office space available — a windowless basement.

As the couple began planning their renovation/extension, Ms. Stuart drew upon her training at the University of Manitoba, where an interior design classmate was the now-famous Patricia Patkau. The two pursued their studies in the Russell Building, architect Jim Donahue’s superb academic pavilion inspired by Mies van der Rohe. At the centre of the Russell Building is an intimately scaled courtyard, ringed with floor-to-ceiling glass like the Waroway house.

“I guess working day and night as a design student in a modernist building with a courtyard prepared me — I instantly liked the McKee design,” Ms. Stuart says.

In carrying out their home’s extension, the Stuarts’ first commitment was an enlightened one: they engaged neighbour and noted landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander. She meticulously saved and replanted shrubs and small trees elsewhere on site, set the fieldstone pavers, laid out a small formal garden, and helped set the location for the planned addition. As architect for the new wing, Ms. Oberlander suggested a fellow frequent Arthur Erickson collaborator, Nick Milkovich.

He extended the breezeway roof toward the street, placing a new guest room at the end. This wing forms one side of the U-shaped addition, the other side given over in part to one of the children’s bedrooms, but most of its length devoted to a large home office.


On one side of the new reflecting pool is a large home office and the two children’s bedrooms, while opposite next to the sunscreen is the guest room.

Between the arms of the new wings is a large reflecting pool, marked out on one side with thin columns that bear angled aluminum solar slats to temper light from above. This mirrors Mr. McKee’s original sunscreen idea, updated and shifted in texture and materials.

Mr. Milkovich’s only design gaffe, to my mind, is at the end of the reflecting pool, where water from two over-large basins cascades to the formal pool. These basins are scaled for an office or academic building, not a house, and are not well-integrated into Ms. Oberlander’s landscape design.

But the cladding material, window forms and roof/floor heights of Mr. Milkovich’s addition are otherwise respectful, almost reverential, to Mr. McKee’s 1956 design.This is the best restoration of a modernist house in British Columbia since 2000, when Doug Field revealed his hands-on restoration of Mr. Erickson’s Filberg House in Comox.

The Stuarts were moved to invite media attention to their home after reading about the December demolition of Mr. Erickson’s Graham House in West Vancouver. “In Vancouver, we have so little architectural heritage, so it’s a shame when we don’t hang on to what we have,” Mr. Stuart says. Maybe the Stuarts inspired renovation will spark the desire in other homeowners to conserve and extend modernist homes, rather than throw them away.

It all starts with reflection and observation, as Marg Stuart did 40 years ago, sitting in a university courtyard with her sketchbook on her lap, gazing at a single tree made more profound by being framed with bold architecture.