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 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 rough handling through subdivision and some 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 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 construction in the hood

Since acquiring this sweet old spot, I've focussed on healing wounds and hiding scars by restoring the house and elaborating new 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 they passed through the property mill. This pencilling-in of a past for a setting now much-changed is a bittersweet, if enriching, business, as it sharpens awareness of what might have been avoided had greater restraint been shown. 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 landscape, 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 of land. I still count myself lucky to have discovered 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 from 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 underlying possibilities and devise novel ways to express them.


No romance of possibility outside these identical 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 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 rock outcrops and oak meadows


If this situation had 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 the 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 Savages, 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 occupancy, 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. 



View from the street, winter 2009, understory now taking hold



Known photo documentation of their appearance only begins with a handful of shots taken after the house was first sold in the market, towards the end of Alys Savage's life, to Pat Brown and her husband (these few photos have only recently come to light). Pat recounts that Alys Savage, though then in declining 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 Pat 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 standing in a still pristine landscape. Below is a first sample.

View of the rear of the bungalow, taken from the tennis lawn, courtesy of Pat Brown


This to me is an astonishing picture, showing the bungalow from its original tennis lawn through the meadow fringe that was 'captured' by Savage's placement of the building. For he had only to, in Sedding's phrase, "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 sit 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 had to be pruned back so one could walk more safely under it! Setting the building at ground level means one literally steps out the back door 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. 


Oak grove, white lilacs, reintroduced camas lilies: 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 above).  The dark, shaggy boxwood sitting beside the spirea alas was torn out by a neighbour quite needlessly, early on in my tenure (it's odd when people suddenly turn on garden-worthy plants and simply decide they should be gone, even though they continue to perform and the gardener has no replacement in mind). One day the 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 forced to watch as it slid into oblivion. I apparently have been atoning for this loss over the years by bringing many local boxwoods made from cuttings into the garden, though thus 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 it was built (1913) was also the moment a long constructional boom in Victoria (and right across most 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 right across North America. The following year, however, the boom would fizzle, and with its waning the world would also hurl itself into horrific global warfare. So these occupants

Regular stops and convenient schedule
of a remote private Arcadia on the outskirts of Victoria may suddenly have found themselves a bit stranded out there in the notional garden suburb, which existed more as wishful thinking than as built reality. But in 1913 this speculative suburbia seemed poised to mushroom to life based on convenient downtown access by rail. And the Savage bungalow, along with several others built at the same time, attests that the new Interurban line 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 that it would be another four decades before Victoria again saw such sustained suburban growth. And the snazzy new Interurban line that allowed the Savages to make their romantic choice to live way out in the boonies was shut down in about a

Jitney buses were competing with streetcars
decade, victim of the unexpected rise of cutthroat competition by jitney buses. The inset photo to the left shows the Lake Hill jitney bus, one of more than fifty that sprang up in unregulated competition with the streetcars. So the Saanich Interurban was pretty much a goner from the moment it opened, but no one realized that back then, and it did last long enough to allow the Savages to establish their somewhat 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 sometimes roamed the suburban fringe
the gentle Victoria countryside - in short, inhabiting their own rural paradise, surrounded by a mostly benign wild nature (the occasional cougar excepted). It would have seemed shockingly convenient after all, because the whole array of modern conveniences 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 remained there throughout a lifetime.

That the Savage bungalow was designed as an outlier appears evident, despite the gradual infilling of its surroundings with other homes. The size of its original land holding alone suggests outlier status (large enough to make three lots, plus a leftover piece incorporated into Marigold park in the early nineties). Location and form however also suggest a conscious linkage of city and country. Had such a pretty landscape been closer to town, it would likely have been scooped up by someone wealthy for their more-grand mansion, or perhaps further 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 a 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 the eastern edge of Strawberry Vale, it was a one-of-a-kind undertaking expressing a young arts-and-crafts architect's personal sensibilities. 

Trio of advancing gables pointing skywards, echoing the fir forest that rises behind it

It is also noteworthy that the house was inserted so carefully into its picturesque setting, without any obvious levelling to make a building pad nor any excavation of the underlying bedrock. This allows it to appear to 'belong' just where it's built, rising directly from the ground it sits on. Running lengthwise along a crest of glaciated rock, it perches securely on a ledge while sitting parallel to the roadway (this was in sharp contrast to typical subdivision layouts of the day, which tended towards long, narrow, rectilinear lots, gable ends facing road-wards). The Savage bungalow's long walls face east and west for an ideal siting, giving the building lengthy morning and afternoon light. By choosing to build in a bungalow format, Savage chose to emphasize horizontal lines for a statement of modernity. These lines echo those of the ridge and so appear more 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 of the house, a substantial stone foundation wall fills in the hollow between floor plate and ground. When first built, the Savage 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 the one possible in rented flats, 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 had a hunch that Hubert Savage foresaw dual purpose for this house, serving as a 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 feelings 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 a greater intimacy with its surroundings. Not by any means only
Animated by eastern light
rudimentary shelter (as bungalows were often conceived to be 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 built in cooling cupboards. 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 possible in close proximity to wild nature (an idea 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 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 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 throughout the Victoria region. 

Oak meadow slowly thickening, future shrubby understory appearing in embryo

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, closer to the central core and clustered around downtown streetcar stops, would have been more realistic and marketable 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 relative remoteness, the house itself was far too elaborately festooned to ever qualify as market housing (yet not nearly grandiose enough in scale
California-type bungalows were popping up all over
to satisfy the aspirations of local nobs seeking a status symbol for their wealth). All the same, it did pack a great deal of personality into a modest footprint, achieving a singular balance of comfort and simplicity, and with its sense of spaciousness reinforced by a living connection to the out-of-doors. And there it stands to this day, an elaborate yet spatially modest, artful and utterly charming house in what was the country and has since become city: wealth without ostentation one might say, despite its now being surrounded by the very siege-works of everyday 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 first opportunity to occupy beautiful chunks of pristine countryside in the hinterlands of growing cities while still enjoying town-derived income, which gave rise over decades to genteel enclaves of lavish homes in park-like rural settings.
Close-packing entirely eliminates natural 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 in North America as economical cottage and camp dwellings, soon 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 outfitting 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 about 1905 in Los Angeles suburbs like Pasadena and Altadena, and then mostly everywhere else in
Worcester bungalow in rural Piedmont, San Francisco Bay
North America shortly
thereafter. The subdivision bungalow quickly rose to become America's first 'dream home' and until well into the twenties it was built on a vast scale in planned subdivisions. Victoria and its picturesque rural peninsula were home to all three of phases of bungalow use. The Savage bungalow seems to have its feet set somewhere in the middle camp, expressly a country bungalow by locale but still dressed for town sensibilities, but with aspects of its design more rudimentary than would likely have been the case had it been built in town (such as its placement over a low crawl space rather than on a concrete foundation). In a way this house was intended to demonstrate just how simply and easily it all could be done, given modern transport options, cheap land and milled materials.

We can only dimly imagine the initial impact such a horizontal dwelling would have exercised on passers-by (who admittedly may for quite some time have been few, given its rurality). Town buildings of substance were typically more vertical and built closer together in Victorian times. The Savage bungalow, by contrast, dramatically reinforces the geological lines of force on this site with ground-hugging placement and linear drop-siding, balanced by a trio of advancing, skyward-pointing gables set cross-wise along its roof line. Design of this house thus reflects an idiosyncratic synthesis of town and country values that, with no modification of its footprint since the Savages' day, persists intact as a distinctive local landmark. The main discontinuities with its more open and sylvan past are the now-abridged lot and the house's greater encirclement by vegetation, the result of (and my conscious reaction to) the crude facts of subdivision appearing on all sides.

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


Where the house once declared its presence to all and sundry, today it peeks out more modestly through a vegetative buffer. To me, this partial revelation from the road only enhances feelings of mystery and interest as one approaches on foot. The entry pathway takes you along the entire facade of the building, before accessing a switch back to a grandly projected front verandah. The following
piece of this narrative sketches the site's scenic transition from being

A building now more glimpsed than declared
wide open to a setting now more enclosed, 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 original building, some visual distancing became necessary and I felt, if  done adroitly, 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 sporting 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 too there is Pat Brown's clutch of precious photos affording glimpses into how things were before they were subdivided into lots. What's truly remarkable is that Pat herself had the chance to experience the place 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 old acreage. This must have been somewhat 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 modest abodes. I am so happy she departed the scene before the original landscape was deconstructed, because it would have been miserable to watch its beauty being handled 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 is confirmed by her pictures.

Emerging oaks and a smattering of understory plants hint at meadow effects

The photo above was taken in 1988, the year I happened upon the scene. It would be fair to say I didn't know the details or 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 above is in high summer, hence the straw-coloured grass baked into early dormancy by the sustained drought that's typical of southern Vancouver Island. I recall being shocked by the extreme aridity of my newly acquired upland parcel, having formed initial impressions of the place in still-moist spring, with first daffodils, then lilies and finally lunaria poking up through moist green carpets of moss. 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, in some as early as April (or lately, in March), always inevitably transforming greenery to brownery in full-on drought, and shrinking the moist masses of moss to rinds. So despite having passed several summers prior to 1988 here on the south island, my impression of Victoria's climate still tilted towards its wet-season manifestation (lush, like the classic English landscape). And haling from humid Ontario with its ample summer rains, one is not given to understanding the idea of wet-dry climates, full stop. I did however find some relief from the sun's glaring exposure on my upland slope in the ongoing greenery of the many small and large oaks on site
Lilies, lilacs, lunaria: later spring greenery
(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 fishermen). For a decade or so, this meant that oak leaves appeared blotchy and gnawed-at by mid-summer, which greatly reinforced the impression of drought holding sway. The house appears in the photo just as it came to me in March, with a faded blue-and-white colour scheme, brown asphalt shingles, and here and there a failing gutter or missing downspout. I recall feeling thrilled to discover that two original exterior lamps, illuminating front porch
Recycled original lamps now grace shed

and back wall, remained in place (all there was of night lighting for all the years until my tenure - the locale was too sparsely inhabited back then to have street lamps). Also note there's just enough space for my pickup on the compact parking pad that's been chiselled out of the rock terrace when the subdivision got done. I recall thinking it was a minor miracle that the intrusion of parking should actually be so minimal (having grown up in Ontario) but I couldn't help trying to imagine 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 an access drive, a garage would have chewed further into the glaciated rock outcrops that give this site the feel of natural terracing, plus it would have introduced a competing (typically unaesthetic) structure at the front of the house. There is is also the modern tendency to creep the garage, typically now double-doored, as close to the house as possible, if not outright making it part of the building facade. The retaining wall behind my pickup implies the modest scale of cut and fill required here to enable off-road parking, something I guessed was probably required by the subdivision bylaw. Also lucky in my view was the compact size of the driveway

Panhandle drive eliminates context between houses
providing access to the panhandled lot behind the main house - more akin to a narrow rural laneway than a typical modern driveway treatment. Panhandling of lots to permit extra dwellings 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 treatment (at least here in Saanich - firetruck access requirements I gather). Miraculously, this one had escaped a process that often obliterates landscape features, should any happen to persist.


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

I recall thinking early on that while it was tragic that the original landscape ever had to be carved up into lots, the job could in fact have been much worse. And that's simply because it left enough of the original landscape intact as frontage and back yard to preserve the scenic quality of a house-in-a-setting. Just enough context remained out back to galvanize a semblance of the original oak-meadow effect (aided and abetted by the retention of fir forest cover beyond the panhandle lot as Marigold Park). The feeling of oneness with surroundings was definitely shaved rather thin on the side yard setbacks courtesy of the new lot lines, especially to the north where Saanich had allowed an (to me at least) inadequate separation 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 taking visitors along the whole facade, a switchback delivers access to the front door

Yet despite my curiosity about how the place initially looked, I remain grateful for never having known it prior to subdivision. I didn't have to watch while it was turned into rectangles. I didn't have to endure the blasting out of rocky outcrops to make the panhandle road or insert the new 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 happened along when I did, well after the deeds were done, because that enabled me to be smitten by my first views of the property, and so to feel its residual pull from the curb upon arrival. Had I known it beforehand, I may have felt disappointed.

But as a newcomer to the scene, and a would-be gardener, I could approach the 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 my days growing up in high-growth Ontario. To my eye, much more was intact with building and site than was removed, and certainly enough remained to keep a strong continuity with the past alive. The whole setting was simply awaiting some touches of garden magic to enable it 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, arbitrary lot lines, is superimposed on what was formerly a remnant of a continuous landscape. The original house and lot are sorely abridged now, 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 conscious choosing. 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 simply 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 tree-cutting back then. Or, the entire frontage could have been blasted out

Heritage sandwiched by behemoths
to create a 'proper' access drive, or to widen the road, or to provide space for the multi-car garages that epitomize modernity. So many bad things can happen when unprotected 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 of land lacking in definite character. If there's any character at all, it's in the house itself, but not in its surroundings. Landscape character is added after the fact, 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 picture below of a house of the same era as the Savage bungalow. Consider this contemporary description of garden-making in such anodyne settings: "Urban lots lack space. They are typically narrow, flat rectangles without privacy...What space is available is typically featureless, boring and
Flat, featureless, typical of many suburbs
even uninviting". That's a contemporary landscape designer's description of the challenge faced when creating a garden around such homes! The physical act of subdivision often involves stripping and grading the land, flattening it to simplify the build-out of larger tracts. The Savage bungalow, by contrast, was placed in a scenic landscape and made through technique to feel nestled-in there. I've already noted how this bungalow sits just above the land along the back, actually touching the 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 truncated lot, the Savage bungalow stands out from
No discernible landscape here in modernia
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 Pat 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 reveal a peep at the entire frontage in a time when all was yet pristine.


This is a photocopy of what I gather was a hand-made Christmas card, drawn by Joy Savage at some point while growing up on Grange Road (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 back in those days. This photocopy 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 Joy's father, Hubert Savage, Architect.  I love the fact that this piece shows the fronting landscape so far back in time (I'm guessing the card may have been rendered in the 1930s). We can see how the land falls away in folds to where the road runs, or alternately, how the land rose up from the road in informal benches to reach the house-crescendo on the ridge. 


The original asphalt walkway as it appeared back in the year of purchase


This bungalow certainly sits proudly on its own rise, its gabled
angularity softened by the smooth folds of glaciated bedrock that have the effect of natural terracing. It's not clear exactly how the house was originally accessed from the road, as no front path is evident from Joy's card. But Pat Brown assures me it was always just as it is today, running up informally from the left, but with fewer steps and more natural slope originally. The sloping pathway takes visitors along the building's facade before accessing the stone steps and switchback path that leads ultimately to the verandah and front door. Elaborate as a layout, this path placement must have been a conscious choice on the architect's part, a way perhaps of further extending his building into the landscape and knitting the two into an ensemble. The indirectness does confer an element of surprise on the entry, imparting a sense of expectation among visitors. It is also decidedly rural in nature, breaking modern rules about designing direct sidewalks from garages to front doors, which became the norm in town.

Something that jumps out of Joy's rendering, in contrast to the emerging oak and understory landscape in place when I appeared, is the now-startling view of the grounds as pretty much bereft of oaks. By 1988, oaks were well-along in establishing themselves across the front of the property, mostly rather stunted in thin, rocky pockets of soil, but with a few more mature specimens towards the north edge of the lot. I was initially skeptical of this lack of oak meadow but today accept that the site was probably only slowly generating oak meadow at the time. Initially I wondered if the original oak cover was logged off when the house was built, but I've never actually located oak stumps that would confirm this idea. There were on the other hand a couple of prominent stumps out back, where a pair of largish oaks evidently once stood - but perhaps too close to the building and giving a bit too much shade? I removed these tough grey stumps early on in my tenure, in order to clear the lawn of a coarse note in plain view from the kitchen. But the fact the front of the building remained quite open to the road as late as the 1970s was confirmed by Pat Brown, and the next of her wonderful photos illustrates that fact. On looking carefully at it, one discerns even then a slow infiltration of oak meadow landscape to the left of the house. You can also see that Pat's photo is framed through the branches of what was en route to being a substantial fir tree, at road level, now long-gone. One can also see that the entry path indeed ran in from the left, across and up the slope without, at this point, any discernible steps. How lovely that approach is, how naturally it runs with the land form!


Early integration of house, landforms, vegetation and natural contour

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 forceful presence from the canvas awning above the trio of living room windows and the curtains inside. The roof appears to be clad in duroid shingles, added over the original cedar shingle roof. There were three layers of roofing by the time I came along. An aluminum storm window has been added over the main living room window (it was still striking a discordant note when I arrived and was one of the first removals I made, along with a truly 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 from elsewhere into the back garden. To the left edge towards the top corner, you can just make out a fence of some kind. Pat Brown recounts that Alys Savage had gates on both the north and south sides of the house, to develop a sense of privacy and enclosure for the rear garden. With subdivision and adjacency, such separations become much more necessary.

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

Above is another of Pat's photos, this one also a treasure. It's the sole known picture of the original grass tennis court (probably the septic field for the house) and the garden edge behind the Savage bungalow. There may be others, but next to nothing by way of photographs has surfaced during 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. There's also a wisteria bush that's visible just past the oak

Tennis court gate recycled
on the right. It persisted right up until several years ago, when it too was summarily 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. Pat Brown speaks lyrically of life within that scenic enclave, and with particular enthusiasm for a particularly venerable oak (just visible at right) that hosted some of the wisteria's spring blooms. My first neighbour at back, Jean Redding, one day handed me the gate just 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. Pat'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 the two stumps, foundation plantings running amok, oak fringe


Another Pat Brown photo (above) from the early seventies shows the house and back garden as an ensemble. There's no visible presence of neighbouring buildings yet, young oaks (to the right) create a loose sense of enclosure, and some sort of shrub (holly perhaps) serves inappropriately 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 widespread until about 1930) so the house came with this built-in cooling device. Compare this photo with how the ensemble appeared after the neighbourhood had been built out on the grid, as in the photo below from summer 1989.

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

Taken from a somewhat similar angle much later, this photo reveals the stark reality of suburban development - a blank white stucco wall replaces what had once been treed edge. The Garry Oaks have disappeared, displaced or dwarfed by aggressive young firs (an aggressively advancing species in this neighbourhood). An apple tree that appeared recently planted in the Pat Brown photo has now taken adult shape. The holly has disappeared, which is a positive step as it was not a plant to have growing against a building. Here I have just begun rebuilding and extending planting beds from the scattered stone remains I discovered on site, mostly with hardy Mediterranean herbs inspired by the plantings at Murray Cook's herb farm near Sooke (long gone now). The iris were there upon arrival, and remain there 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.


By 2011, the back garden is becoming more screened to the outside and enclosed within


In the photo above we see the scene twenty-odd years on, and the changes are palpable. Gone are the asphalt shingles, the roughly incised cat-door, the decorative shutters (which were not sized to fit the window frames), the cheap aluminum sliders, the aggressive firs, the foundation plantings, and most importantly, the baleful impact of a vista comprised of a blank stucco wall. Newly, the empty pond is now a planting bed fronted by a curving boxwood line, the patio terrace is repaved in stone and 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 becoming a more private space, less open to its immediate surroundings, more an enclave divided loosely into garden rooms articulated around a small central lawn. The bones of the old garden, which were in disrepair and at times bafflingly discontinuous, have now been elaborated into fuller expression as a network of beds at the edges of garden rooms. I have tried to make design choices that are compatible with the leads left by the past, respecting them as much as possible, while lending each my own interpretation as a gardener. Much has changed in the overall scheme, but to my eye at least, it's compatible with and integrated into the earlier surroundings. Removal of the surging young firs have allowed a Garry oak that was losing the competition to flourish anew and become a mainstay of the back garden. I have always given 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 steadfast. All the garden changes give the ensemble a structure that wasn't a necessity prior to subdivision. But some form of enclosure becomes necessary with infill - both to achieve the potential for peaceful enjoyment and to build up the edge scenery from inside the bungalow, so the vistas from within aren't dominated by views to other dwellings. It's not possible to remove these views entirely, but they can certainly be softened and diminished to some extent.

Photo from the tennis lawn again showing the open oak grove

Of all the photos Pat Brown shared, I find this one and the related photo at the outset of this essay absolutely nostalgic to contemplate. They reveal the harmony and the complicity that once existed between house and oak meadow. It's a natural world that's only been lightly gardened, tweaked tastefully in order to optimize 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 all this went down, and a couple of owners on, I happened upon the scene, determined to undertake a rescue and to reknit the remains into an ensemble. Fortunately the house was intact (if somewhat neglected) and surrounded by enough land to stimulate my garden imagination, on a site that many would have found 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 attests.

The back garden: how I found it and the point where my garden-making began

The photo above shows the southwest corner of the back garden pretty much as I found it. I'd begun building rockery walls to define new edges for planting beds, but the garden has obviously been long-neglected (note the derelict compost bin and the fir stump overtaken by ivy). You can't help but see the arbitrary lines of the subdivision process traced literally on the land by the cement-block wall supporting the new fence. A precise right angle at the corner of the lot is marked with frank clarity, likely a surveyor's resolution of a dispute between neighbours over where the turn and parking pad for the new panhandle lot had been placed. Happily, I managed to miss that piece of the fun! Excavating the ground during my first summer, by way of healing the raw mess I'd inherited, I discovered asphalt paving running under the cement blocks supporting the new fence, indicating that the neighbour's parking pad had been built somewhat in trespass on the remaining Savage property. The not-yet-grey fence suggested a relatively recent resolution of this dispute, as did the abandoned construction debris I had to clear out. Fixing that area up so the coarse edge of construction was replaced with continuous garden edge became a primary design focus. The next photo indicates how that piece of the garden was looking by spring 2016.

Looking towards the southwest corner of the renewed garden in spring 2016

It turns out I was a good fit for the challenge of making a garden that felt consistent with the house and its 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 on it, so I knew at first sight that I wanted to explore the opportunity of gardening the ensemble. I immediately sensed the potential to elaborate the landscaping (as difficult as the site is) and believed that this setting would continue to stimulate my garden imagination for a very long time. I saw the challenge of reinforcing the 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 unyielding process of transforming 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 especially - yet, I had never encountered a house and setting combination on a single suburban lot with a true potential for expressive landscape gardening. It was, as it were, love at first sight.


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-much-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 overall goal is to blend the gardened components with the native landscape and geology of the site, so that things feel as though they belong where placed and, like the house, somehow magically just grew out of the situation. Call it, as Sedding did in Garden-craft, Old and New, a garden contrived as a state of 'betweenity': not old, not new, but both; not all art, nor simply wild nature, but each and both in a convincing blend of formal and informal that ultimately feels a unified whole. My essay in garden-making has gone through many phases and continues to evolve as I head now towards seventy years of age, as it should if one is still learning the craft and still stimulated by a venue. In a future post, I'll perhaps 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

The phrase employed as a title to this piece - 'the romance of possibility' - was coined by John Dando Sedding in his 1896 book entitled Garden-craft Old and New, on page 15. Sedding was a British arts-and-crafts architect who specialized in restoring old churches. Sedding's book is available online (free) as a Project Gutenberg eBook.