Monday, August 8, 2016

The Romance Of Possibility

"...note how admirably an old building in the country sits on the ground, how it forms an element of the scenery. Of course garden craft...has something to do with this wedding of building to site: the old designer absorbed the site into his imagination, studied its conformation before he planted his building upon it: he likewise touched up the site to suit the building. And as a result the structure is linked with the site, steeped in its scenery, blended with all the picturesque commonplaces of the land." J. D. Sedding, Art and Handicraft, 1893

House and front garden as they appeared in 1988, immediately after purchase

Sedding's description of a picturesquely placed older building seems to capture the atmosphere of the home I've been fortunate to inhabit since March 1988. Often we choose a house based mostly on feelings about its potential as a nest, with looks and landscaping a remote second. But in this case, I was smitten long before getting near the inside, based on a first glance at the ensemble from the road. To say the place had 'curb appeal' would be understatement. While its grounds turned out to be a remnant of their once rambling extent, the scene still possessed an aura so lively it immediately piqued my interest in stewarding it. I could hardly believe my good fortune at stumbling upon such a captivating refuge, a feeling that only deepened as I explored its equally magical interior. House and site effused charm, despite some rough handling through subdivision and rather insensitive updating. And the site's scenic potential spoke directly to a garden imagination searching for an inspiring venue.  For sure, nothing could alter the fact of visual encroachment by other houses, but I felt confident their presence could be lessened by judiciously applying more landscaping. And the reality is, proximity is the norm in much of suburbia anyway, with other dwellings often coming uncomfortably close. So close in fact that side walls now often come with few windows in order to protect privacy, irrespective of which exposure this sacrifices and how cave-like it makes an interior. It's also common for landscape features to be mutilated in development, perhaps especially on rocky upland sites. But the house on Grange Road was clearly something other than the suburban norm, its manifest charm fetching to this would-be gardener's eye. The photo at top shows the old place as it appeared some twenty-eight years ago now, gracing a natural rise with scattered oaks front and back: a modestly sized but characterful home in a still-dramatic landscape setting. 

Levelled and raised building pad for a new home under way in the hood

Since acquiring this sweet old spot, I've focussed on healing wounds and hiding scars by restoring the house and elaborating garden spaces around it. I have also been interested, as a pastime, in collecting impressions of its long history, to establish a clearer sense of how things sat before passing through the property mill. This penciling-in of a past for a setting much-changed is a bittersweet, if enriching, business, as it sharpens awareness of what might have been avoided with greater restraint. And, as all romantic engagement teaches us, 'what might have been' can be a tormenting place to linger for any length of time. Truth is, infill development is decidedly, often brutally, indifferent to landscapes, a process of economics and geometry foremost - after which a downstream owner finds herself trying to rebuild a genuine sense of place on a fragment. I still count myself lucky to have unearthed a situation with so much inherent vitality, and to have gained the luxury of amplifying an underlying connection between building and site rather than having to conjure one out of thin air. Few suburban gardeners unearth situations where what Sedding termed 'the romance of possibility' is embedded to such a fantastic degree. Many struggle to find a way to spark an illusion of romance long after a forced union has been contrived. All I had to do here was discern the underlying possibilities and devise novel ways to express them.

No 'romance of possibility' outside these newbies

As a medium for interpretation, this old place dates to early in the twentieth century, making it a veritable antique in our throwaway present, a smallish house anomalously surviving in a domestic world of continual change. Heading towards an uncertain future, this old place carries its steadily lengthening history in tow, lodged in its old-growth bones and turn-of-the-century details. It's a past that, with close observation, can be made to tell us how it was made, how it was inhabited and used, and importantly, afford insight into how it came to be placed where it is. 

The Savage bungalow was erected in the summer of 1913, just as a fancy new electric railroad opened access to habitable sites scattered among outlying farms and rural holdings. It was all alone out there at first, with few houses nearby and none visible through its many windows, perched high on its rocky outcrop on the fringe of an open oak meadow. The new house must have stood there quite smartly in splendid isolation, gazing out serenely over forested slopes towards farms dotted with rocky outcrops, with glimpses of distant views (Portage Inlet, the Olympics, and remotely from its front porch on clear winter days, Mount Baker).
Lands dotted with outcrops and oak meadows

If this situation happened to have been minted in Japan, the Savage bungalow would have been considered a shakkei landscape par excellence for all the wild scenery it took in. And when first built, it must have appeared a novel and quite exotic form of building to be placed in such a rural locale.

Today it is a house more glimpsed than proclaimed, having under my hand retreated from the encroaching world behind a deepening vegetative screen. As its steward now for over a quarter century (joined capably by my wife Susan for the past 18 years), I have been orchestrating this gradual transition towards greater visual separation from bordering uses. My goal has been to minimize the impact of adjacent houses so that the garden's residual linkage to wilder surroundings beyond is reinforced - an ongoing work of garden legerdemain, in other words. Most of this has been based on our determining what works on the ground to strengthen connection to the wider surroundings, without benefit of images of how it all had once looked as a whole. For sadly, to my knowledge at least, not a single picture has come to light of the house's occupation by the Savage family, an original tenure lasting over fifty years; no small Kodak prints of them enjoying a garden afternoon, none of house and landscape as they appeared during their first half century. It's as if time had closed up entirely around that first habitation, sealing it off from the prying eyes of the present and leaving only the house in its immediate setting as artifacts to ponder. By the time I landed in the sprawling municipality of Saanich in 1988, the surrounding lands had been trimmed to meet the spatial requirements of an RS-6 lot in a built-out suburban area. Known photo documentation of their appearance prior to this only
View from the street, winter 2009
begins with a handful of shots taken after the house was first sold in the market, near the end of Alys Savage's life, to Patricia Brown and her husband (and these few photos have only recently come to light). She recounts that Alys Savage, though in poor health, nonetheless conducted a rigorous interview of the prospective buyers, to ensure a 'proper' connection to the old place. But apart from stories about Alys's quirkiness in older age, there's been little hard evidence from the earlier days. And so, until the Patricia Brown photos came along, I was left to my own imagination for images of how house and setting once looked. These photos, as you'll see below, lift time's veil considerably, conveying distinct and invaluable impressions of the house in a still pristine landscape. Below is a first sample.

View of the rear, from the tennis lawn

This one is to me the most astonishing of Patricia's five photos, showing the bungalow from its original tennis lawn through the meadow fringe that was 'captured' by Savage's placement of the building. He had only to, as Sedding put it, "focus the view and frame it", his English landscape instincts prompting a placement that achieves pictorial composition at both front and rear. You can see that the house, from this angle, appears to rest directly on the ground, in contrast to its rather grand elevation on rising ground at the front. The rear roof line is brought so low in fact that at its lowest point, the gable tip actually had to be pruned back so one could walk safely under it! Setting the building on the land means one literally steps out of the back door and directly into a paradise at a meadow's edge. What an opportunity to build creatively this must have seemed to a young arts-and-crafts architect recently arrived from England! From his front verandah, he took in views to woods, fields and ocean reaches, fringed by distant mountains. At the rear, he gained a small grassy terrace that gradually gives way to scattered oaks, for a meadow effect and a compelling sense of partial enclosure. Today a boundary fence stands just on the house side of the rockery wall shown the foreground above, a blunt reminder of its severing into lots. Of interest is that the oaks depicted still stand nearly fifty years on, while a twin of the spirea shown blooming in the foreground still adorns our front walkway.
Oaks, lilacs, renewed meadow effects
And that clump of white lilacs you can just make out at the right edge of Pat's photo still blooms gloriously to this day (see photo left).  The dark, shaggy boxwood beside the spirea alas was torn out by a neighbour quite pointlessly, early on in my tenure (it seems odd that people will suddenly turn on garden-worthy plants and simply decide they should be gone, even though they continue to perform and they have no replacement in mind). One day this boxwood was literally handed me over the fence, its roots so massacred in removal they didn't stand a chance of surviving a transplant in late spring. To this day I regret not having had the presence of mind to take cuttings from it, as it was a beautiful old specimen with a captivating waywardness of form, and I was thus constrained to watch it slide into oblivion. I apparently have been  atoning for its loss over the years by bringing many local boxwoods made from cuttings into the garden, though so far I've found none that match its form.

The Savage bungalow was designed to occupy its hill-crest site without appearing to disturb the founding scene, in the English arts-and-crafts manner. The year of its birth, 1913, was also the moment a long constructional boom in Victoria (and right across much of North America) peaked, so there is a booming optimism about economic prospects behind both choice of locale and design of building. Electric interurban railways were then enabling exurban expansions around cities everywhere. The following year, however, the boom would fizzle, and with its waning the world would also hurl itself into horrific global warfare.
Regular stops and convenient schedule
So these occupants of a remote private Arcadia may suddenly have found themselves feeling a bit  stranded out there in a notional garden suburb, one existing more as wishful thinking than built reality. In 1913 this speculative suburbia seemed poised to mushroom to life based on convenient downtown access via rail. And the Savage bungalow, along with several others built about the same time, attests that the new Interurban did in fact begin distributing residences within walking radius of its regularly spaced stops. But then all of that ground to a sudden halt, as outbound motion abruptly smacked up against an economic slump so severe it would be four decades before Victoria again saw such sustained growth. And the snazzy new Interurban line that allowed the Savages to

Jitney buses competed with streetcars
make their romantic choice to live in 'the tulies' was shut down in about a decade, victim of the unexpected rise of cutthroat competition by jitney buses. The last inset photo shows the Lake Hill jitney bus, one of more than fifty that sprang up in unregulated competition with the streetcars. So the Interurban was pretty much a goner from the day it opened, but no one realized that at the time, and it did last long enough to allow the Savages to establish their rather improbable rural idyll.

Despite the isolation and hardships imposed by a depressed economy (Hubert was apparently forced to work outside his chosen field for a time, as a hand on the CN rail line) I doubt the Savages were much troubled to find themselves living quietly and simply in a scenic spot in
Cougars often roamed the suburban fringe
the gentle Victoria countryside - in short, inhabiting their own little paradise, surrounded by a mostly benign wild nature (the occasional cougar excepted). It would have been shockingly convenient after all, because the whole array of mod cons were ready to hand (eg. piped water, electricity, and telephone) as well as, for a time at least, that initially enabling rail access to the urban core, where Savage's architectural practice was located. In any case, the family obviously enjoyed occupying the locale as they contrived to remain there for their lifetime.

That the Savage bungalow was designed as an outlier appears evident, despite the unavoidable gradual infilling of its surroundings with other homes. The size of its original land holding alone suggests outlier status (large enough for three lots, plus a leftover chunk incorporated into Marigold park in the early nineties). Location and form however also suggest a conscious linkage of city and country. Had this pretty landscape been closer to town, it would likely have been scooped up by someone wealthy for their more grandiose mansion, or perhaps mangled in subdivision by local contractors intent on raiding the property larder. This locale was linked to town yet physically remote from it, thus embodying the original idea of suburbia as safe haven in the countryside. And it was built more rustically than a town building would have been, despite being dressed to appear as one. The first suburban home to be built along this edge of Strawberry Vale, it was a one-of-a-kind undertaking expressing an arts-and-crafts architect's personal sensibilities. 

Trio of advancing gables pointing skywards, echoing a fir forest behind

It is also noteworthy that the house was inserted so carefully into its picturesque setting, without any obvious leveling to make a building pad or any manipulation of the underlying bedrock. This allows it to appear to 'belong' right where it's built, rising directly from the ground. Running lengthwise along a crest of glaciated rock, it perches securely on its ledge while sitting parallel to the road (this in sharp contrast to typical subdivision layouts of the day, which tended towards long, narrow, rectilinear lots, gable ends facing road-wards). Its long walls face east and west in an ideal siting, giving the building lengthy morning and afternoon light. By choosing the bungalow form, Savage opted to emphasize horizontal lines echoing those of the ridge and so appearing in harmony with them.
Deep foundation on the south wall
Building and surroundings immediately became a single fused entity. Where the land dips away at the south end, a substantial stone foundation wall fills the hollow between floor plate and ground. When first built, Savage's bungalow would have offered a striking contrast to the two- and three-storey homes characteristic of the previous era, proclaiming confidently that it was emphatically not a Victorian-era home. Rather, it stood iconically for a new and more progressive era, for a modernity accessible to a middle class looking forward to a more independent life than possible in rented flats in town, and as such it marked a conscious departure from prior housing types in most regards. And, it was manifestly a romantic and most untypical placement for a house, an aura that remains with it to this day.

I've long nursed a hunch that Hubert Savage foresaw dual purpose for his house, serving as family domicile while offering a suggestive example to prospective clients - a sort of demonstration home for those who might thus be persuaded to pay the extra ten percent to deploy an architect's skills on their dream home's behalf. Grange Road in this view would have been intended to showcase just how artfully even a modest floor area might be arranged to optimize sensations of spaciousness and variety. And also, importantly and rather eccentrically, to illustrate the practicality and beauty of picturesque placement, whereby a house is conceived in
Animated by eastern light
a greater intimacy with its surroundings. Not by any means just rudimentary shelter (as bungalows were often conceived in the more benign climate of trend-setting California) but rather a locus for agreeable, even genteel, year-round living, the house came equipped with a bevy of the latest contrivances, including a built-in radio. Yet despite all its modernity, it also kept faith with tradition in its detailing and interior layouts. And Hubert Savage obviously did design this smallish architectural gem for his own family's enjoyment, and quite possibly as a vehicle for his own aspirations to a more wholesome, freer lifestyle achieved in closer proximity to wild nature (something very much 'in the air' in those days).

Rosemary Cross, daughter of Savage's friend and sometime-partner Percy Leonard James, often visited the house while growing up. She relayed to me that the place rapidly became a social hub for arts-and-crafts types from around the region - other architects like the James brothers, for example - and that there were many gatherings and tea-parties held there, often spilling out into the extensive grounds at back. This active social life in a rural setting, aided and abetted by the grass tennis court set out in the lower back garden (today occupied rather prosaically by a no-step rancher) would have quietly helped extend the reach and influence of its architect back in town.
Nestled into a framed view
Certainly it would have illustrated how a bungalow might be designed to reflect regional arts and crafts motifs, how an eye for scenic composition could make a house seem to grow directly from its rocky upland site - and so to feel, paradoxically, that while expressly modern in conception, it had somehow always been right there. The building incorporates then-popular regional preferences (loose Tudor detailing, for example) and is clearly being interpreted for a Victoria (and perhaps a somewhat expat-English) sensibility. But also, following a new and rather bohemian fashion that was becoming a fad among adventurous folk in England around that time, it illustrates just how easily city folk could inhabit a pretty knoll in the countryside by deploying an economical type of building. This sort of domestic dispersal into wilder nature was made doable via the cornucopia of domestic contrivances and transport systems based on the sudden and near-universal availability of electricity in the Victoria region. 

Oak meadow thickening slowly, future shrubby understory just appearing now

History tells us, however, that this house would not become trend-setting, that whatever it stood for as a mode of dwelling would not 'catch on' in the wider housing marketplace across the region. Houses in more closely packed subdivisions, nearer the central core and clustered around streetcar stops, would have been more marketable and appeared more realistic choices to new home buyers. After all, moving so far out of town for habitation could easily have seemed oddly complicating rather than liberating to townies. Instead, the Savage house would continue as it began, a unique interpretation of the bungalow themes of its day - themes that would be more popularly interpreted in the California and Craftsman idioms popping up on the nearer edges of town in more densely settled suburbs. Its economics and, even more, its distance from downtown were likely against it ever spawning more of its kind. And however cheap the land it sat on may have been by dint of its relative remoteness, the house itself was far too elaborately festooned to ever qualify as market housing (yet not nearly
Cal-bungs were popping up all over
grandiose enough in scale to satisfy the aspirations of nobs seeking a status symbol for their wealth). It did however pack a great deal of personality into its modest footprint, achieving a singular balance of comfort and simplicity, and with a sense of spaciousness reinforced by its living connection to the out-of-doors. And there it stands to this day, an elaborate yet spatially modest, arty and utterly charming house in the country: wealth without ostentation one might say, despite its now being surrounded by the very siege-works of suburbia it was, implicitly or explicitly, designed to counter.

As a form of scenic placement, the Savage bungalow was part of a broader phenomenon launched by the advent of commuter railroads, beginning around 1840 in the USA. Dependable rail service created the opportunity to occupy beautiful pieces of pristine countryside in the hinterlands of growing cities while enjoying town income, giving rise over decades to genteel enclaves of lavish homes in park-like settings.
Close-packing entirely eliminates context
This went on right across North America in what historian John Stilgoe calls 'the borderlands', if much more intensively in the rapidly urbanizing and industrializing USA, where such development occurred everywhere from the Adirondacks to the reaches of the San Francisco Bay (see inset below). Bungalows, built first as economical cottage and camp dwellings, later came to be designed more elaborately as country and weekend homes that could be plunked down in scenic locales. Advocates of this more picturesque use marketed ideas about how to outfit them with town-like infrastructures in order to deliver greater creature comfort. That second, still-rural phase of bungalow use coexisted with their sudden appearance as market housing in suburbs (their ultimate and most generalized form) beginning around 1905 in Los Angeles suburbs like Pasadena and
Worcester bungalow in rural Piedmont, San Fran

Altadena, and then practically everywhere else in North America shortly afterwards. The subdivision bungalow quickly became America's first 'dream home' and until well into the twenties was built on a vast scale in planned subdivisions. Victoria and its picturesque rural peninsula were home to all three distinct forms of bungalow use. The Savage bungalow seems to have its feet set somewhere in the middle camp, expressly a country bungalow by locale that was dressed for townies, but with aspects of its design more rudimentary than if it had been built in town (such as being placed over a low crawl space rather than on concrete foundations). In a way it was intended to demonstrate just how simply and easily it all could be done.

We can only dimly imagine the initial impact such a horizontal dwelling occupying its own ridge would have exercised on passers-by (who admittedly may at first have been few, given its rurality). Town buildings of substance were often more vertical and built close together throughout the Victorian era. The Savage bungalow dramatically reinforces the geological lines of force on this site with its ground-hugging placement and linear drop siding, then balances it all with a trio of advancing, skyward-pointing gables set cross-wise on its long roof form. Design of this house reflects an idiosyncratic synthesis of town and country values that, with no modification of its footprint since the Savages' day, persists still as a distinctive local landmark. The main discontinuities with its more open, sylvan past are the now-abridged lot and the house's greater encirclement with vegetation, the result of (and conscious reaction to) the crude facts of subdivision popping up on all sides.

Spring 2014, recently repainted house and flourishing vegetative buffer, south side

Where the house once declared its presence openly to all and sundry, today it peeks out more modestly through a vegetative screen. To me, this partial revelation from the road only enhances feelings of mystery and interest as one approaches it on foot. The entry pathway walks you along the entire facade of the building, before accessing a switch back to a grandly projected front
verandah. The next piece of this narrative sketches the site's scenic
Building now more glimpsed than declared
transition from a wide open to a more enclosed setting, a journey that was triggered prior to my arrival by the physical acts of subdivision. Once there were land uses on all four sides of the old building, some visual distancing became necessary and I felt, if done adroitly, it could be restorative. After all, bungalows in their first manifestations in colonial India were regularly built in their own gardened settings, compounds of flowering plants that might be fenced off to establish a distinctive context for the building. A garden set loosely and rustically among oaks and native shrubs thus seemed an appropriate motif and compromise for a site with a remnant woodsy context.

I documented in pictures what the place was like when I took possession in 1988 and began tending its landscape, showing the front yard oaks already beginning to pencil their grainy presence into the scene's character. And now there is also Patricia Brown's clutch of precious photos affording glimpses into how things were before they were chopped up into lots. What's truly remarkable is that Patricia herself had the chance to experience the place at a time when the subdivision was approved on paper but not yet carried out on the land - making her years there a happy, final idyll for the original place. This must have been rather like inhabiting a rural dreamland, a woodsy private Arcadia with scenic views orchestrated from every window - a self-sufficient island enclave in a slowly advancing sea of shrinking lots and more modest abodes. I am so happy she departed the scene before the original landscape was taken apart, because it would have been miserable to watch while its beauty was handled so peremptorily after knowing it pristine. By her own account, it was an entirely romantic setting, one impossible not to be charmed by, which I think you'll see is confirmed by her pictures.

Emerging oak and sprinkled understory already hint at a meadow effect

The photo above is taken in 1988, the year I happened upon the scene. It would be fair to say I didn't know the details or any implications of what I'd jumped into, but had simply allowed my imagination to choose a unique combination of setting and house.  The scene depicted here is in high summer, hence the straw-coloured grass baked into dormancy by the sustained drought typical of southern Vancouver Island. I recall being shocked by the extreme aridity of this upland parcel, having had initial impressions of the place set in still-moist spring, with first daffodils, then lilies and finally lunaria poking up through moist green carpets. This is typical of long-blooming spring on our wet west coast. But it all disappears abruptly in summer, some years as late as June, some as early as April, but always inevitably turning greenery to brownery in full-on drought, shrinking the moist masses of moss to mere rinds. So despite having passed several summers here on the south island, my unexamined impression of Victoria still tilted towards this wet-season manifestation (lush, like the classic English landscape). And haling from humid Ontario, one is not given to understanding wet-dry climates, full stop. I did however find some relief from the sun's glaring exposure on my upland slope in the
Lilies, lilacs, lunaria: later spring greenery
ongoing greenery of the many small and large oaks on site (about two dozen of them, six at least quite large), though they too would soon be assailed by the jumping gall wasp (an invasive offshore insect brought in by fishing-tourists). For a decade or so they would appear blotchy and gnawed-at by mid-summer, greatly reinforcing impressions of drought holding sway. The house appears in this photo just as it came to me in March, with its fading blue-and-white colour scheme, brown asphalt shingles, and here and there a failing gutter or missing downspout. I recall feeling
Recycled original lamps on shed

thrilled to discover that two original exterior lamps, illuminating the front porch and back doorstep, remained in place (all there would have been of night lighting for many early years, because the locale was too little inhabited for street lamps). Also note there's just enough space for my pickup on the compact parking pad that's been chiseled out of the rock terrace relatively recently. I recall thinking it was a minor miracle that the intrusion of parking should actually be so minimal, and I couldn't help wondering how the landscape there might have appeared prior to its creation.

I also felt it was really fortunate no one had built a garage, which I recognize discloses a certain eccentricity on my part. For along with its access drive, a garage would have chewed much further into the glaciated rock outcrops that give the site its feeling of natural terracing, and likely would have introduced a competing structure in front of the house. And, there is the modern tendency to creep the garage, typically double, as close to the house as possible, if not outright making it into part of the building's facade. The retaining wall behind the pickup implies the modest scale of cut and fill required to enable off-road parking, something I guessed was required by the subdivision bylaw.
Panhandle drive eliminates context between houses
Also lucky in my view was the compact size of the driveway giving access to the panhandled lot behind the main house, more like a narrow rural laneway than a modern driveway treatment. Panhandling of lots to permit an extra dwelling to be built, a not-infrequent move where the original parcels were sized to allow for ground disposal of sewage, often generates a massive driveway here in Saanich (firetruck access requirements, I gather). Miraculously, this one had escaped a process that can obliterate landscape features, if any happen to persist.

Summer before the drought wins out, showing a tangle of flowers and greenery

I recall thinking early on that while it was tragic the original landscape ever had to be carved up, the job could in fact have been far worse. And that's because it left enough of the original landscape intact as frontage to preserve the scenic quality of house-and-setting as a unity. And just enough context remained at the back to galvanize some semblance of the original oak-meadow effect (aided and abetted by the retention of forest cover beyond the panhandle as part of Marigold Park). The feeling of oneness with surroundings was definitely shaved rather thin on the sides courtesy of the new lot lines, especially to the north where Saanich had allowed an inadequate setback to bring the neighbouring house closer than either owner might wish. Fortunately, a high, solid fence separates the two dwellings, and the Savage bungalow has no significant north-facing windows. 

After walking visitors along the entire facade, a switchback accesses the front door

Yet despite my curiosity about how the place first looked, I remain grateful for not knowing it prior to subdivision. I didn't have to watch it being turned into rectangles. I didn't have to endure the blasting out of rocky outcrops to make the panhandle road or insert the parking pad. I'm sure that would have seemed a crude violation of so naturally picturesque a scene. So in that sense, it's fortunate I came along when I did, well after the deeds were done, because that allowed me to be smitten by my first views of the property,
so to feel its residual pull from the curb upon arrival. As a newcomer to the scene, and a would-be gardener, I could approach those remnants as givens, and simply marvel at their persistence and muse about possibilities of rescue and affirmation. I was in any case habituated to landscape violations from days growing up in high-growth Ontario. To my eye, much more was intact with building and site than was gone, and certainly enough remained to keep a strong continuity with the past alive. It was simply awaiting some touches of garden magic to be enabled to feel more whole again. I could feel the romance of possibility beckoning me.

Of course there's an element of trompe l'oeil at work here, because today a suburban grid, with its angular and arbitrary lot lines, is superimposed on what was formerly a continuous landscape. The original house and lot are sorely abridged, abruptly so at back where open oak meadows ran all the way to high fir forest without interruption. And yet, as I've said, with the original magic of site and building as fused entities intact, a possibility afforded
Savage's Hall cottage,also fused with its site
more by chance than by conscious choice. By now there could just as easily have have been two-storey houses overlooking the back garden. Or, the house itself might have been raised or another storey added on top, as there was nothing to prevent that happening back then (the house was not designated as heritage until 1993, so its exterior was not in any way 'protected'). The house itself might have been demolished and replaced by some massive stucco temple (it's astounding just how much house can be built on an RS-6 lot in Saanich). The remaining meadow oaks at back could could have been felled, as there were no controls on any of that in the day. Or, the entire frontage

Heritage sandwiched by behemoths
could have been blasted off to create a 'proper' access drive, or to widen the road, or to provide space for the multi-car garages epitomizing modernity. So many bad things can happen when unrecognized heritage runs through the property mill, and this is not infrequent when an original holding is subdivided by the next generation.  The process of subdividing land results in suburban lots typically emerging as small parcels lacking in definite character. If there's any character at all, it's in the house itself, not its surroundings. Landscape character is added afterwards, if ever. Victoria's topographical variety means there are more exceptions to the rule here, but the suburban norm remains a flat and featureless lot, as shown in the adjacent picture of a house from the same era as the Savage's. Consider this contemporary description of garden-making in such anodyne settings: "Urban lots lack space. They are typically
Flat, featureless, typical of many suburbs
narrow, flat rectangles without privacy...What space is available is typically featureless, boring and even uninviting". That's a landscape designer's perspective on the challenge to be faced in making a garden around such homes! The physical act of subdivision often involves stripping and grading the land, flattening it to simplify the building-out of large tracts. The Savage bungalow, by contrast, was placed in a scenic landscape and made to feel nestled there. I've already noted how this bungalow sits just above the land along the back, and is actually touching ground in the north-west corner. This reflects arts-and-crafts thinking about building design and placement - the landscape was there before human habitation, and the designer's job is to fit the building respectfully into its surroundings, rather than simply superimposing a geometry on the setting. This is not at all how the average tract house is placed and even on its
No discernible landscape in modernia
truncated lot the Savage bungalow stands out from them to this day. Its placement emphasizes pictorial quality, something rarely seen in a home in the city. The resulting composition's character and peculiar charm depend upon this sympathy, so the real miracle is that the house-in-its-own-setting feeling wasn't compromised in the usual way by subsequent development.

Prior to seeing Patricia Brown's revealing photos, I got a first intimation of how the old place once appeared from an unexpected source, which is reproduced below. This artifact affords no more than a hazy window to peer through, but it does give us a peep at the entire frontage at a time when all was yet pristine.

This is a photocopy of what I gather was a hand-made Xmas card, drawn by Joy Savage at some point while growing up there (you can just make out her signature at bottom right in the white band). The 'To all in your house, from all in our house' was apparently commonly used on such cards in those days. This was sent me by Albert Barth, Joy's husband, as part of a package of information that included the precious gift of copies of the original floor plans signed by her father, Hubert Savage.  I love the fact this piece shows us the frontal landscape so far back in time (I'm guessing it may have been the thirties). Here we can see how the land falls away in folds to where the road runs, or alternately, see how the land rose up from the road in informal benches to the house-crescendo above. 

Asphalt walkway as it appeared at the outset

This bungalow certainly does sit proudly on its own rise, its gabled
angularity softened by the smooth folds of glaciated bedrock for an effect of natural terracing. It's not clear exactly how the house was originally accessed from the road, as no front path is evident in the drawing. But Patricia Brown assures me it was always as it is today, running up informally from the left, but with fewer steps back then. This sloping pathway and sequence of steps walks people along the building's facade before accessing stone stairs that finally lead to the front door. Elaborate in its layout, this must have been a conscious choice on the architect's part, a way perhaps of further extending architecture into the landscape and knitting the two into a common fabric. The indirectness does make for a surprising entry and certainly imparts a sense of expectation to visitors. It is also decidedly rural in nature, breaking all the rules about designing direct pathways to front doors that are applied in town.

Something that jumps out of Joy's picture to my eye, in contrast to the emerging oak and understory landscape it hosted when I appeared on the scene, is the now-startling view of grounds pretty much bereft of oak trees. By 1988, oaks were well-along in establishing themselves across the frontage, often rather stunted in their thin, rocky pockets of soil, but with a few more mature specimens towards the northern edge. I was initially skeptical of the etching's lack of treed presence, but now accept that the site was probably only slowly generating oak meadow at the time. Initially I wondered if original oak cover may have been logged off when the house was built, but I've never located an oak stump to confirm this idea. There were however two prominent stumps at the back of the house where a couple of largish oaks once stood, perhaps too close to the building and giving a bit too much shade. I removed those tough grey stumps at one point in order to clear the grass terrace of a coarse note in plain view from the kitchen. But the fact that the front of the building remained quite open to the road in the 1970s was confirmed by Patricia Brown, and the next of her photos illustrates that fact.  On looking carefully at it however, one discerns even then a slow infiltration of oak meadow landscape to the left, along with the beginnings of its native shrubby understory (all of which I retained and built upon). And, the photo is framed through branches of what was becoming a substantial fir tree, now long-gone. One can also see that the entry path indeed ran from the left, running across and up the slope without, at this point in time, any steps. How lovely that approach is, how naturally it runs with the land form.

Early integration of house, landforms, vegetation

In the photo above, the house sports a fading cream-and-brown colour scheme, likely its second colour iteration at least. The southern exposure takes a toll on any paint job here, and one can gauge the sun's force from the canvas awning above the trio of living room windows. The roof appears to be clad in duroid shingles, added over the original cedar shingle roof. There were three layers of roofing on it by the time I came along. An aluminum storm window has been added over the main living room window (it was still striking its discordant note when I arrived and was one of the first removals I made, along with a regrettable plastic chandelier in the dining room).
Dilapidated shed found upon arrival
At one time the house had both wooden storm windows and summer screens, several of which I found rotting away in a heap at the back of a leaky shed that someone had apparently dragged into the back garden. To the left edge towards the top corner, you can just make out a fence of some kind. Patricia Brown recounts that Alys Savage had gates on both north and south sides, to gain privacy and enclosure in the back garden. With subdivision and adjacency, such separations became much more necessary.

Tennis court and edge shrubberies set informally into the oak meadow.

Above is another of Patricia's photos, this one also a treasure. It's the sole known picture of the tennis court and lower garden behind the Savage bungalow. There may be others, but next to nothing by way of photographs has surfaced in my time here. The grass court appears in the foreground, and there is a rockery edge around two sides of the lawn, with steps up and through an arbour and gate leading to the back garden, where I believe vegetables may have been grown. The feeling overall is that of a serene glade, here shown in late spring or early summer. Snow-in-summer, which survives here still in several patches, blooms in drifts along the loose rockery edge.
Tennis court gate recycled
There's also a wisteria bush that's glimpsed past the oak on the right. It persisted right up until several years ago, when it too was inexplicably ripped out. It would have been magical to come upon this natural sunk-lawn, lying just beyond the layer of rock outcrop anchoring the level back garden. Patricia Brown speaks lyrically of life within that scenic enclave, and with particular enthusiasm for a venerable oak (just visible at right, extant) that hosted the wisteria's spring blooms. My first neighbour at back, Jean Redding, one day handed me the gate visible in the inset photo above. She said she found it discarded on site when they moved into their newly built rancher, and thought it may have come from the old garden. Patricia's photo confirms that it was in fact the gate within the old arbour. I took pleasure in having Vern Krahn remake and recycle it as part of the new garden, thereby conserving another piece of the old one.

Back garden with oak stumps, foundation plantings, fringed with oaks

Another Patricia Brown photo (above) from the early seventies shows how the house and back garden appeared as an ensemble. There's no visible presence of neighbouring buildings yet, young oaks (to the right) create a sense of loose enclosure, and some sort of shrub (holly perhaps) serves as a foundation planting by the rear door. Also visible are the two oak stumps protruding abruptly from the lawn, and two former vent openings beside the back door indicating a cooling cupboard's presence within (refrigerators weren't invented until about 1918, so the house came with several of these built-in cooling devices). Compare this photo with how the ensemble appeared after the neighbourhood was infilled, as in the photo below from summer 1989.

Second summer, view now of the rancher next door, planting beds being rebuilt

Taken from a somewhat similar angle, this photo reveals the stark reality of suburban development - a blank white stucco wall replaces what had once been treed forest edge. The young Garry oaks are gone, young fir trees (right) now displacing their presence (fir are an aggressively advancing species on this site). An apple tree that appears to have been recently planted in the previous photo has now taken form. The holly has disappeared, which is a positive step as it was an inappropriate foundation plant. Here I have just begun rebuilding and extending planting beds from the scattered stone remains I discovered, mostly using hardy mediterranean herbs inspired by plantings at Murray Cook's herb farm near Sooke (long gone now). The iris were there upon arrival, and remain in expanded plantings to this day. The next shot illustrates our garden response to the blunt facts of subdivision, which has been to try and screen them partially from direct view.

Circa 2011, the back garden is now becoming more screened and enclosed

Here we see the scene twenty-odd years on and the changes are palpable. Gone are the asphalt shingles, a roughly incised cat-door, the decorative shutters (which weren't sized to fit their window openings), the aluminum sliders, the rising fir trees, the foundation plantings, and most importantly, the baleful impact of a vista comprised of a blank white stucco wall. Newly, the empty pond is now a planting bed fronted by a curving line of boxwood, the raised patio terrace is repaved in stone with its steps rebuilt and expanded, and importantly the rockery bed behind the patio terrace has been enlarged and its plantings are now filling in, screening the garden from the adjacent home's presence. Also, exterior Tudor-style lanterns have been added as garden lighting, while the colour scheme has swung to yellows and black in indirect reference to things Tudor. The back garden is now becoming a more private space, less open to its immediate surroundings, more an enclave divided loosely into garden rooms off a small central lawn. The bones of the old garden, which lay in disrepair and were bafflingly discontinuous, have now been elaborated into fuller expression as a network of beds. I have tried to make design choices that are compatible with the leads left from the past, respecting them as much as possible while lending each my own interpretation. Much has changed in the overall scheme, but to my eye at least, it's compatible with and integrated into earlier surroundings. Removal of the surging young firs have allowed a Garry oak that was losing the competition to flourish and become a mainstay of the back garden. I have always given the oaks pride of place and stopped firs - an advancing species in our changing climate - from setting up shop, which they do very quickly if you aren't careful. All the garden changes give the ensemble a structure that wasn't necessary prior to subdivision. But some form of enclosure becomes a necessity with infill - both to achieve the potential for quiet enjoyment and to build up the edge scenery from inside the bungalow, so the vistas from within aren't so dominated by views of other dwellings. It's not possible to remove these views entirely, but they can certainly be softened and diminished to a great extent.

Photo from the tennis lawn again showing the open oak grove

Of all the photos Patricia shared, I find this one and the related photo at the outset absolutely the most nostalgic to contemplate. They reveal the harmony and complicity that once existed between house and oak meadow. It's a natural world that's only lightly gardened,  one tweaked tastefully for human enjoyment but not at the meadow's expense. Sadly, this view and this world no longer exist. When the tennis lawn was subdivided and a house erected there, it vanished, leaving only vestiges like the oak and the boxwood. Sometime after it all went down, a couple of owners on, I happened upon the scene, determined to undertake a rescue and to re-knit the remains. Fortunately the house was intact (if neglected) and surrounded still by enough land to stimulate a gardener's imagination, on a site that most would find daunting. And there would certainly be major challenges to address on the road to returning it to something like a private Arcadia, as the next photo reveals.

Back yard: how I found it and the point where my garden-making began

This shows the southwest corner of the back garden pretty much as I found it. I've begun building some rockery walls to define new planting beds, but the garden has clearly been neglected and shows a derelict compost bin and a fir stump overtaken by ivy (as were the neighbouring oaks behind them). You can't help seeing the arbitrary lines of the subdivision process traced literally on the land by the cement block wall supporting the fence. A precise right angle at the corner of the lot is marked with frank clarity, likely a surveyed resolution of a dispute between neighbours over where a drive and parking pad for the new panhandle had been placed. Happily, I missed that bit of fun! Excavating the ground that first summer, by way of starting to heal the raw mess left behind, I unearthed asphalt paving running beneath the cement blocks, indicating where the neighbour's parking pad had been built in trespass onto the remaining Savage property. The not-yet-grey fence suggested a relatively recent resolution of this dispute, as did the abandoned construction debris. Fixing that area up so the coarse edge of construction was replaced with continuous garden became a primary design task. The next photo indicates how that piece of the garden was looking in spring 2016.

Looking towards the southwest corner, spring 2016

It turns out I was a good fit for the challenge of making a garden that would feel consistent with house and placement. When I found the bungalow on Grange, I was seeking a character house on a lot with garden possibilities. I couldn't have told you then what a bungalow was, didn't know much about the arts-and-crafts era, and definitely had never heard of Hubert Savage. But I was as smitten by the site as by the house sitting so comfortably upon it, so I knew at first sight that I wanted to explore gardening the ensemble. I immediately sensed the potential to elaborate landscaping (as difficult as the site was) and believed that this setting would continue to stimulate my imagination for a very long time (as it still does). I saw the challenge of reinforcing complicity between house and setting as the rarest of opportunities in a world of mainly bland residences set on mostly featureless grounds. I also felt the call to heal wounds inflicted on landscape by the process of turning it into building lots. That's a quirk of my personality that was well-suited to the mission. This site certainly came with many challenges, in the form of vexing proximities and bluntly intrusive infrastructure - yet, I had never encountered a house and setting combination on a single suburban lot with greater potential for expressive landscape gardening. It was, as it were, love at first sighting.

View through a window across the patio towards the former tennis lawn, 2013

Three objectives have guided my approach to tending and modifying this landscape: the need to heal or mask the wounds inflicted by land division; the desire to separate the edges to a greater degree from adjacent uses made near lot boundaries (including and especially the now-busier road along the frontage); and my personal desire to make a garden with a balance between native species and gardened plantings, one expressive of interaction and complicity. My goal is to blend the gardened components into the native landscape and geology of the site - so that things feel as though they belong where they are and, like the house, somehow just grew out of the situation. Call it, as Sedding did, a garden that's been conceived and contrived in a state of 'betweenity': not old, not new, but both; not all art, nor merely wild, but each and both in a convincing blend of formal and informal that feels like a unified whole. This exercise in garden-making has gone through many phases and continues to evolve as I head towards seventy years of age, as it should if one is still learning the craft and is still stimulated by a venue. In a future post, I'll chronicle how my notion of a garden contrived as 'betweenity' has evolved over my nearly three decades of inhabiting the magical Savage bungalow and its immediate environs.

Still life: barrel burner (left), rampant ivy, dilapidated shed and happy new owner

Still life: old meadow oaks, original white lilacs, camas lillies, and new garden shed

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Homage to the craftsman

"He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."

St. Francis

Jawing with Vern Krahn across a gate he'd remade and just installed

Recently a dear friend of Victoria's heritage community passed away, alas far too soon. He was Vern Krahn, master carpenter, joiner and cabinet maker - an ally of all those who want older buildings to persist with fidelity to their past, an unsung hero of heritage for the many contributions of his creative hands. He worked on a lot of old Victoria during his productive lifetime, reviving things that were neglected and repairing what was damaged. He was beyond good with wood: a 360-degree craftsman who could reliably fashion anything to exact proportions, then fit it seamlessly into a pre-existing scheme. Vern was a true artisan carpenter, an invaluable anachronism who remained modest about his own talents and achievements.

We had the good fortune to have Vern execute projects, big and small, at our house over a period of fifteen years. Like most vintage residences on the west coast, the Savage bungalow is made largely of wood, and wooden buildings have bits that wear unevenly, inside and out. Heavy use means door panels may get broken, new owners may make unfortunate choices of decor and maul original features, sections of exterior board deteriorate in our long wet winters. All buildings that survive also require periodic updating as services change, and those modifications may be done well or crudely. And of course, bathrooms and kitchens get remodeled and they too may be mangled in the process. All of which means there is a great deal of work for capable hands in restoring and replacing wooden components in older homes. Such were Vern Krahn's.

Vern's first door at the Savage house, open in the corner

We first turned to Vern to design and build a replacement for a solid wood door connecting our kitchen to a small utility room. I got his name from friends in the heritage community, and it turned out he lived just a block away from our house, so we were in fact neighbours. We asked him to replace a door whose panels had been cracked in several places and that had warped as well. The idea was to fashion a new door that would be true to the past (stiles, rails and panels identical to the original) but adapted for contemporary wants, so glazed in the upper half. We opted to modify the original design so as to lessen the door's walling effect when closed, feeling a glazed portion would keep a sense of visual connection to the next room while still admitting light when not open. This new door would also become the critical first step in an eventual full kitchen makeover. We really wanted to maintain continuity with the original decor while adjusting the door's effect on space, which is where a craftsman with Vern's skills came in.  

This door retains the past while accommodating new elements

It takes an array of carpentry skills to be able to manufacture a solid door from scratch. Vern fashioned and installed a beautiful one of clear fir, replicating the dimensions of the original door exactly. Over a decade on, that door still fits like a glove and closes with reassuring solidity. The quality of the finished work and the exchange of ideas around its design left us very confident of Vern's ability to do more work on the house. We realized immediately what a privilege it was to have his attention focused on our home's needs. The real challenge would turn out to be getting access to his time for projects, because Vern was always and understandably in great demand. And, he preferred to work solo in a field where there is often a crew, so he could give it his undivided attention.

The replacement mirror and once-damaged frame Vern repaired above the fireplace

The next job we asked him to tackle was repair of some mistakes someone had made in the living room, when a broken mirror integral to a built-in above the fireplace had been replaced with mis-sized glass crudely skived into the existing frame. This had left the room's central feature looking damaged and abused. Vern executed one of his trademark seamless repairs, replacing the glass with a beveled mirror of proper thickness, and mending the damaged lower rail of the frame so flawlessly that one sees no signs of intervention (the earlier replacement glass had been held in place with plastic clips, a classy touch; Vern's painstaking repair employed a thin wood molding to hold the pane in place unobtrusively). As part of healing the built-in, Vern also adapted a couple of book-sized shelves to hold music CDs, with similar deftness. This precision of work and delicacy of touch Vern would characterize as 'museum-quality restoration,' a little joke he enjoyed from a time he'd been employed making precise exhibits for the provincial museum. 'Museum quality' became code for work done with utmost attention to details. He understood that we wanted it, and he capably delivered it.

View to the garden from the corridor room that Vern would repair and rebuild for us

After several rounds of finicky smaller restorations, we asked Vern to tackle the far larger job of repairing and restoring a small but important room off our kitchen. It had suffered indignities over the years and appeared neglected. On plan, it shows as a 'summer tea room', which both let onto the back garden and at the far end housed a small utility cluster sprouting around the original electrical inlet. Little bigger than a wide corridor in scale (below), and with a barrel-vaulted ceiling that allowed its designer to just tuck it in under an extension of the main roof form, this modest space began life partially open to the elements (screened, like a summer sleeping porch) before at some point being enclosed with windows. In the nineties, I'd had some crummy aluminum windows replaced with leaded casements that flanked a tiny picture window. While a distinct gain aesthetically, it only served to make it even more obvious that that rest of the room badly needed attention. It bore ugly scars where the utility room wall had been summarily ripped out in order to inch bulky appliances closer to the services.

End wall rebuilt, new door installed, lino down, built-in yet to appear

The original end wall had come with a door to access a closet-sized space that sequestered the utilities from view. All that remained now were jagged ends of a wall ripped out, framing timbers exposed, the door long gone. This shabby situation left the room feeling neglected, leaving a growing octopus of electrical wiring fanning out from an upgraded electrical panel in full view, alongside a water heater sitting directly on an unfinished floor. For a long time this situation stymied me, to a certain extent out of fear of what might happen without a discerning craftsman to help resolve the design choices and carry out the repair with surgical precision. All those hesitations evaporated once Vern appeared on the scene.

All painted up now, Vern's second door with translucent glass

We agreed he would undertake an adaptive restoration, based on remaking the missing wall where it had been and fashioning a new door similar to the kitchen door, thereby recreating a true utility closet to contain the business end of the home. We determined there was just enough room to squeak in a European washer-dryer set, stacked in one corner of the closet, if we relocated the hot water tank to the corner diagonally opposite it. Vern liked the idea of putting the room's decor back to how it had been while modifying it just enough to accommodate a compact version of modern conveniences. Together we worked out the details of each facet of the restoration, beginning with a new door with translucent glass to admit light while masking the utilities. You can see from the picture above just how well Vern brought that piece of it off - we were and remain mightily pleased with it.

Facing north towards the old cooling closet and the original rear door that Vern repaired

It took some time from commissioning this project to actually getting Vern on site. But that delay in starting was how it had to be, because he was always in demand and insisted on giving every job his best attentions. Somehow he managed to find time for us in that busy schedule and once on site was totally seized of the project and saw the job right the way through. The wall he made consistent with the original finishing of the room, using identical vertical bead boarding so the repair would be invisible. Once that wall and door appeared, the sense of wounds healing was tangible. 

Cooling closet adapted to cabinet use with lovely doors

We also had to adapt and evolve an awkward set of corner cupboards that had been poorly contrived from an original California cooler (a built-in device used to store food in the days before refrigeration, utilizing screened vents to the exterior to capture an airflow). These cupboards were (to be kind) poorly thought out, the base awkwardly accessed via a lid rather than through doors, the upper bank too shallow for much goods storage, the top out of keeping with the base. Vern deepened the upper tier of these built-in cupboards without damage to the ceiling, rendering it more useful and in better balance with the bottom half, and then sealed the lid on the base and opened its facade to accept cupboard doors. Next he fashioned two sets of cupboard doors, employing a light bead board (a tongue-and-groove board) for the panels, which in turn harmonized with the wall treatment. I think these doors are an especially good example of Vern's artistry: unpretentious, light but solid and finely rendered, with a graceful bevel along the inside rails and styles that takes them subtly off rectilinear. I managed to track down some authentic Craftsman hardware for the handles, to reinforce the period feeling of the room. I think you'll agree he did a fantastic job - this was the cabinet-maker at the top of his form, investing creativity in even the most humble work.

Vern fashioned a lovely trio of drawers to utilize the base of the built-in bench

We aspired not just to restore this space, but also to increase its utility and appeal as a room and lessen the feeling of it being a passage-way. That led us to the idea of installing a built-in bench seat under the bank of windows letting onto the back garden. The main roof swoops low at this point, pulling the windows down with it, so a wide view of the garden can only be obtained from a sitting position. We felt that a window seat would open up a cozy intimacy with the garden. At the same time, we wanted the seat to be functional for other purposes, so settled on gaining storage by having deep drawers built into its base (bungalows often provided these multi-use spaces). Vern fashioned us a lovely built-in seat from clear Douglas fir, with clear fir bead board for the drawer fronts. Together we developed a corner detail to supply a bit more
storage space while giving a secure surface on which to set a mug or a book. Vern carried his cupboard door design over into the drawer fronts, reinforcing the overall sense of harmony pervading the room. The drawers were installed with more Craftsman-style hardware, again for period feeling. To our eye, the furnished window seat fits the room perfectly, offering a wonderfully intimate view to the garden room outside. Vern did all the work in that room, from repairing the original back door to making a compatible ceiling for the utility closet to installing the new linoleum. He did a topnotch job and the room has worn-in delightfully.

A window seat makes the room more intimate and inviting

The latest, and trickiest, of the big jobs Vern did for our house came about rather unexpectedly. It happened that the exterior had been comprehensively repaired in the late nineties, before Vern came on the scene. Or at least, we thought it had been. The work done was good quality but it turned out that some hidden rot had been missed at the time. That became evident one day when I chanced to notice
that the soffits under the gable ends across the facade of the house were sagging ominously. After a hundred years of exposure to dampness with little venting, their time was up. And so a new need for heritage carpentry of a high order opened up suddenly. Getting this repair done right was something the building's overall look depended upon, so the stakes were high as we headed towards its centennial year. I knew we needed Vern for this job, but again the challenge would be the long queue for his attention. Luckily for us and for the house, he liked working on our place, so was quite willing to entertain a job that would be very difficult to access and execute. He was no spring chicken at this point and this wasn't anything that could be easily done from a ladder - it needed scaffolding, to create a working platform and have equipment and materials to hand. And this scaffolding would have to be moved along a facade that advances and retreats, on ground that in places falls away sharply. 

Anyway, it took about a year for Vern to be able to fit this work in, but then in the summer of 2012, he arrived on site, set up a working platform on some scaffolding, and began tackling the complex job of repair. It happened that I took lots of photographs over the course of this challenging piece of repair work, which Vern did to the most exacting standards. I've selected a few of these pictures to show him at work in his element, rescuing an important piece of local history and endowing it with fresh life. I think the pictures capture the craftsman at work.

Carefully cutting out the rotten bits

Replacing them seamlessly with new components

Removing no more wood than absolutely necessary

Fashioning replacements up on the platform

Scaffolding erected in an awkward location

Putting it back together, blending old with new

Careful attention to the details, locus of both God and devil

Re-truing posts after inserting a shingle under them

Ready for the electrician now and then the painter to finish up the job

Vern passed away on January 6, 2016, and with that passing a talented craftsman who looked after a lot of Victoria's wooden heritage departed our community. As his obituary notes, he "was a man of immense depth and integrity" and "his many fine works remain as testament to his craftsmanship". It's in that vein that I've tried to document the fine stewardship he gave our 1913 house, in recognition of the skill and discernment he brought to every piece of work he did. This is a rarity in our times, yet essential if we want to keep our landmarks alive. Vern possessed the bedrock skill of the traditional craftsman: the ability to generously invest himself in his work, putting care, attention to detail, and a lifetime knowledge of craft into everything he did, big or small, high falutin' or work-a-day. I had the great boon of knowing him for fifteen years, both as a client and a friend, and the chance to share many probing conversations. The regret I feel so deeply today is that he didn't have longer to express his craft, and that we as a community didn't find the way to transfer some of his insight to up and coming heritage carpenters. Like many I'm sure, I do feel grateful I had the opportunity to know him and the chance to work with him in preserving some heritage. And I feel fortunate to be able see and enjoy his work all around me, every day.

Refinished now, showing no signs of intervention whatsoever.

A service honouring Vern's life will be held on Saturday February 6th from 2 - 4:30 pm at First Memorial, 4725 Falaise Drive.

If you are interested in more about the challenges of restoring heritage buildings and the calling that is heritage carpentry, see my Sourcing Craft Skills For Heritage Preservation (