New Year, More Bookshelves

We live in a big, oldish (1910-1912) Edwardian Classic home in Toronto’s Junction area. Like many homes of its era, the house was built with generous brick bays on the first and second floors, offset from the central front gable in order to accommodate an interior plan defined by a side hall and staircase opening upon wide, comfortable rooms..

Here is a picture of our house, taken in about 1917 on the occasion of what looks like a wedding.

I love this picture because it captures the generosity of the house, especially its wide, double-story verandah wide enough to hang festive bunting from and sturdy enough to accommodate an extended family for a special occasion.

Fast-forward a century or so, and here’s a picture of the house taken shortly after dawn on Christmas morning.

Obviously, a few things have changed. Long gone is the elegant fascia board at the gable, and the graceful curve of the veranda. At some point, likely in the 1950s, they were replaced with an atrocious boarded contraption meant to look modern, which clashed terribly with the rather traditional brick and bays. Nearly a decade ago we rebuilt the front porch post-and-beam style, and, a few years later, the second story balcony, restoring consistency to the front of the house although not quite resurrecting its Edwardian flair.

Inside, the house has changed quite greatly from its original configuration. Like many homes of this size, our house was divided into apartments during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Even earlier it had, we have been told, housed several generations of at least one extended family. In 1982 (I know this from a cache of receipts for building materials we found under the veranda!) a previous owner made structural changes to the interior that profoundly and in my view unnecessarily altered the flow and function of the rooms. These changes make me grit my teeth even to inventory.

Edwardian Classics were typically built with a long side hall and staircase, with the kitchen behind them, and a front room and dining room running the full length of the house, connected by an open archway or wide pocket doors. On the second floor there are typically three, sometimes four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small room often used as a sewing room at the top of the stairs. On the third floor are ordinarily two attic bedrooms. Commonly added on to the rear of these homes, likely a few years after they were built, are two-story frame structures serving a variety of purposes–storage rooms, sleeping porches, pantries, washrooms–with the upper level typically a fully-windowed sunroom. [The old sunroom in our house is now my office.]

The biggest change made to our house during that perplexing 1982 renovation was a basement stairwell hacked through the middle of the house, right into the archway that had once linked the front parlour and dining room. This atrocity had a functional purpose: to make the then-newly finished basement legally accessible to be used as bedroom space for a ground floor apartment. But it had several deleterious effects. First, an existing external basement access at the back of the house (houses of this era often had a set of exterior stairs to the basement, possibly so coal could be delivered) was closed off and built over. Second, a perfectly serviceable existing interior basement stairwell was, completely ridiculously, closed off to the ground floor (it remains accessible from the outside via a side door that is not original to the house). Third, the house’s natural front-to-back airflow was disrupted by all this boxing up and cutting off. And finally, the new basement stairwell, while functional, created a large boxed-in void in the middle of the ground floor. Functional for apartments, but architecturally terrible.

As our family and its needs have expanded–one child, one elderly person requiring full-time care, two work-at-home offices, space for a small business and an art studio–we’ve stopped renting out space and come to occupy the entire house. But the problem of the awful basement staircase persisted … until a few days ago, when I was (after 18 years spent wondering about it) motivated to take a crowbar to a curiously sloped stretch of drywall lining the basement stairs.

Behind that stretch of drywall was … nothing! Nothing at all but space, cobwebs, a 1975 penny, and a skittering of decades-old mouse droppings.

A perfect space, it seemed to me, for shelving that might, at the very least, humanize the scale of the basement stairwell.

In the garage we have a stack of beautiful old boards, milled from huge trees a century ago, and over the Christmas holiday we built in a set of shelving the full length of the basement stairwell. Here it is upon completion (I’ve since added more art and have plans to paint when hardware stores open again).

I love how the shelving adds functionality and a sense of proportion to the basement staircase.

I should add that this was not our first bookcases-in-underused-spaces project of the year: in November, I built a set of bookcases into a space behind the knee wall under the eaves on the third floor. Here it is in all its glory.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *