Friday, September 8, 2023

First Impressions



"The good building is not one that hurts the landscape, but one which makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built." Frank Lloyd Wright



March 1988, a week after purchasing the Hubert Savage bungalow


My initial feeling on seeing the house for the first time was relief. A glance up from road-level showed an intact front exterior - no obvious signs of dilapidation, no unsympathetic expansions. Just an elegant verandah with tall stone piers, perched high on folds of rock, beckoning me to take a closer look. Emboldened, I set off to join a gaggle of prospective buyers busy poring over what the ad in Real Estate Victoria called a '1920 character residence.' 


A house ensconced in landscape, rooted with stone to its site

Four weeks of viewing character homes in Victoria had dampened my optimism about finding one that both spoke to me and was rescuable with paint and imagination. Many of the places I'd been through had hosted years of hard living, often with long-neglected maintenance and, frequently, any number of jarring updatings. There were typically issues to do with services that hadn't been upgraded either. Problems in adapting older character homes to new needs often resulted in ungainly additions that clashed with original building lines. Awkwardness in the result seemed a frequent fate of these structures (inset photo, below right). Thoughts like

these closed in as I made my way up the rising front path, past smooth folds of exposed bedrock, towards a flight of stone steps set comfortably into the land's contour, before finally reaching that elegant verandah. I thought it was quite special to travel the entire length of the facade before gaining the front door!

It was then mid-March 1988, still sodden on the island, though not raining that Friday afternoon. I was there attending the premiere showing of what had apparently been architect Hubert Savage's lifetime home. I hadn't heard of him, but was intrigued to see an architect's handiwork applied to his personal circumstance. Scanning the considerable natural realm lying between the verandah and the road below, I noted clumps of yellow daffodils poking through carpets of moss and early spring growth. The house was set well back from the road on rising ground. A modest parking pad – sufficient for one vehicle only – had been inserted into the landscape, with no sign of a garage.


A few months on, truck on the parking pad, drought in charge

I crossed the threshold through an open front door featuring a brass lion's-head knocker on a painted plywood panel (clearly not original) and entered a small foyer with a clothes closet. There was an original wall sconce with two small bulbs, period wallpaper, and elaborate fir wainscotting and plate rails stained matte black (I couldn't quite believe that no one had painted the room white!). Once inside, impressions came in steady succession, sparked by a remarkable complexity of decor. In the kitchen directly ahead, the realtor was offering to guide tours for prospective buyers. To avoid having to share reactions in a group, I ducked left into the living room, and found myself alone. I preferred to stay aloof anyway, so I could form my own impression of existing conditions.


Foyer with stained wood, original wall sconce

The living room immediately made a lasting impression. Spacious for a modest house, exuberantly detailed, evidently still mostly original: fir flooring, beamed ceilings, more stained wood panelling and plate rails, a trio of intact bay windows, fixed panes of leaded glass in an unusual honeycomb pattern, a large fireplace with shelving surrounding it a-symmetrically - there was far more here than the eye could readily absorb. Overall the ensemble felt convincing, as though these features all belonged together. Overwhelmed by sheer abundance, my eyes finally came to rest on a colourful printed frieze band, running along the walls just beneath the ceiling, depicting pastoral scenes from earlier times. I had never seen anything like it anywhere else: the look of original art imparted a magical quality to the entire room, rendering it utterly atmospheric. 


A frieze by Lawson Wood added a lot of atmosphere to the living room


A-symmetric shelves, beamed ceilings, plate rails, matte stained wood


From here I wandered into the dining room, which I also had to myself. Someone had evidently been painting over the darkened wood in a rich cream colour, as there was a ladder and paint tray with brushes. Although not as generously scaled as the living room, it continued the elaborate decor: another large fireplace, more wainscotting and ceiling beams, original wall-mounted light fixtures, incised shelving, plus a built-in window-seat with leaded glass casements that actually opened. 


Original dining room wall sconce


Incised shelving, high wainscot


Leaded glass casements

All this variety was subtly combined in a room of modest proportions, the overall unity marred only by a mock-crystal chandelier that someone believed necessary to complete the scene. I felt a ripple of excitement at how intact the original decor was so far, all the while steeling myself for the excesses of renovatory zeal that almost certainly lay ahead.


Leaded glass in fixed panes and casements, set into roofed bays

Next in the sequence of rooms came the kitchen, where I encountered other prospective buyers. It seemed open and roomy, with three large west-facing windows. A striking room structurally, it ultimately disappointed due to some unimaginative renovations imposed on it: a tier of bulky cupboards occupied the end wall, with a counter of cupboards opposite it faced in unfinished wood (placed vertically, for a modern touch) and a faded brown counter top. There were also avocado green and harvest-gold appliances (fad colours from the

70s that didn't age well - inset, right) detracting from the appeal of what was otherwise a spacious country kitchen. The overall shape of the room was intact, as were its patterned ceilings, windows, recessed shelves and much original trim. Afternoon light streamed in through the windows, diminishing the tasteless modern decor to insignificance. I noted that the windows looked directly into a sheltered garden with mature oaks, centring the building. 


Inset shelves with a Tudor arch, kitchen


My thoughts were interrupted by a couple excitedly imagining how easily the windows I'd just been admiring could be torn out to accommodate a sliding glass door that would open onto a deck. Apparently they hadn't noticed that the kitchen sits virtually at ground level, nor that there was an elaborate patterned patio just beyond the existing glazed rear door. I kept my thoughts to myself, moving on to other parts of the house.



The elaborate patio pattern from the kitchen

Venturing into a diminutive central hallway, perhaps 50 square feet in all, I counted seven distinct doorways opening off it! Three of these accessed bedrooms, one the washroom, another the attic, one facilitated movement to and from the kitchen, while the final one turned out to be a shallow cupboard with shelves the depth of the wall. The central corridor was outfitted in grey shag wall-to-wall carpet - clearly the worse for wear - that continued into the bedrooms.

Tiny central corridor with seven door openings

At the end of this hallway lay the master bedroom. It sported a twin of the trio of windows and leaded glass I had noted in the living room, also set in a projecting bay. I tried the pair of sash windows to see if they still worked, which they did. The windows overlooked mature oak trees fringed by blue sky – a real forest, it seemed. Obscuring the top of these windows was a heavy wooden valence

with a pull cord, intended to hold the curtains used to drape the windows (I longed to see it gone so the full beauty of those substantial window frames was revealed). The master bedroom faced east, so would receive morning light during the winter months. In the far distance I could just make out the tip of what turned out to be Christmas Hill. The room's overall decor felt in need of a refresh, but here it was truly a matter of paint and elbow grease. The walls were papered in a large floral pattern (hydrangeas and an unknown flower) that was likeable. Finding myself alone once more, I discretely lifted a loose corner of the wall-to-wall carpet to confirm the presence of intact fir flooring underneath.


Just off this bedroom, through a framed opening, lay a curious little room that turned out to be an elaborate walk-in closet, replete with him-and-her built-in cedar cupboards with a dresser between. The room was painted a discordant blue, but still I found it charming! A step up from the bedroom's level (a novel idea) it came well-appointed with small diamond-paned leaded-glass casements that actually opened (inset photo, right). This room also connected through to another bedroom on the west side, entered via a second framed doorway. Something about the design of the walk-in closet suggested it may have been a later addition to the original house; its presence certainly reinforced the cottage-like feeling of the bedrooms. 

The adjoining bedroom, less generous than the main, was nonetheless still a decent size. Similarly intact, it sloped diagonally towards the far corner. Clearly something had caused the building to settle that way. Initial feelings of alarm at potential structural flaws subsided as I realized that there were no visible cracks in the floor, walls or ceiling. Whatever had caused the subsidence obviously happened long ago, and things had not deteriorated further. Abstractly, the floor's lack of level recalled the charm of antique Tudor buildings that have wandered structurally but remain sound after centuries of use. I resumed thinking positively about the room, focusing on its assets. Among these were windows on two walls, one a generously proportioned sash window facing west with great views to oaks, another of diamond-paned leaded glass capping a pretty incised shelf. Once again, I was impressed by the ensemble of features. 


Fixed leaded glass capping an incised shelf


From here I re-entered the central hallway, briefly poking my head through the open door to the attic, an unfinished space accessed via a steep staircase. I could hear people going over it with the realtor, so I opted to move on to the bathroom, which had just been vacated by other buyers. I checked any rising enthusiasm in anticipation of this room possibly being a scene of considerable error and excess. This turned out to be wise, as the updating couldn't have been more nightmarish. A small room, perhaps five by ten (standard for its era) the entire setup said do-it-yourself, with fixtures, fittings and overall decor from some budget home centre. It was lamentably bad: nondescript vinyl roll-tile flooring, straight-backed prairie-motel-type shower tub with no shower (unfathomable), cultured marble vanity (concrete, surfaced with glossy plastic) fibreboard cupboards under, unpainted cork-board ceiling tiles, plus a toilet too small to be comfortable for anyone with real legs. The piece de resistance, however, was a vaguely art-nouveau-style wallpaper featuring a repeating image of a woman lounging dreamily while smoking, vinyl-coated. This made for a truly hideous jumble. "Oh my!" said a deeply shocked woman's voice from somewhere behind me, catching sight of the wallpaper.



Knock-off wallpaper after a Mucha original, for effect

Editing out the chaos of these compounding errors, I looked for some positives. One was the original full-size, west-facing window, trim boards intact, sitting mid-wall over the motel-shower-tub with no shower. Admitting oodles of natural light, it connected to a meadow scene featuring mature oaks fringed with tall firs. I had caught a version of this scene through the window in the second bedroom, and prior to that, through the kitchen windows. This brought home the realization that on the west side, the house was ensconced in a natural meadow in a mature woodland. You could just make out another dwelling beyond the perimeter, but it was set low enough in the landscape that the eyes were naturally drawn to the fenced edge. I couldn't help thinking that in spite of all the manifest errors in this bathroom, the tub (were it not straight-backed) was actually well-placed to capture views for a bather.

The neighbouring house built on the original grass tennis court


"The house you see through the window is built on what used to be a grass tennis court here, before the land was subdivided." The voice was that of the realtor, who had edged into the bog in a quest to be helpful. "The land behind that house is part of Marigold Park, so it will never be developed." I thought she seemed genuine enough but as I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, I didn't respond to her prompts.



The third bedroom with two windows and two doors


Across from the bog a third bedroom awaited inspection. Basically a generous square in shape, with a couple of ample windows facing the verandah, the room was light and airy with interesting scenic views. There was some hideous wallpaper in a forgettable pattern covering the walls, again vinyl-coated. A second doorway opened off this bedroom into the entry vestibule, which caused me to realize that every room in the house (except for the bog) came with more than one doorway. As a result, there was none of the boxy feeling that's common when smallish rooms have only one door. Also, every room, again apart from the bathroom, had multiple windows, often on different walls, usually with real views. The light inside the house was thus exceptional, reinforcing my confidence that real creativity had been exercised in its design.



Great light and views through many windows


I wanted to be sure I saw every part of the house, as by this point I was seriously intrigued. I made my way to a long corridor-type room just off the kitchen, tucked in under a lifted extension of the main roof line. It wasn't immediately obvious how it was originally intended to function, but it connected a north-facing glazed door that accessed the back garden to a utility area at the south-west end of the house. It came with a barrel-vaulted ceiling (the likes of which I had never seen anywhere) in order to fit under the roof extension. This meant it was a foot or so lower than the other rooms, which appeared to be about eight feet high. My eyes came to rest on a bulky washer and dryer set - basically the oversized cubes associated with modern capacious basements - occupying the corridor's length and width substantially. In order to creep these behemoths closer to the electrical panel (I surmised) someone had deconstructed what had once been a walled utility closet. This change had not been well conceived and there had been little effort to tidy up the damage afterwards. Scattered bits were simply left dangling, excavated channels remained open. Overall the room's setup seemed unclear, suggesting a need for serious re-imagining: from a trio of cheap aluminum windows facing the back garden, to the badly worn floor tile calling out for replacement, to the ripped out utility-closet wall with the dangling bits, to the bare sub-floor exposed in the utility area (abandoned plumbing holes open to the crawlspace, a recipe for rodents) – the entire thing seemed to have been treated like an afterthought. I wasn't sure what to make of the room, but a few of its elements – like its gracefully curved ceiling, the light pouring in from the garden, and the unusual glazed rear door – had distinct charm despite the current disorganized state of affairs. Like the house itself, the room radiated potential. 


Eighteen years on we had the utility closet restored by Vern Krahn


Next, I wandered out through the rear door to have a closer look at the exterior. The paint job was old and faded, though still fairly intact. I didn't love the blue and white combination but felt I could live with it for the time being. There were some missing downspouts and a section of ancient wood guttering was detaching from its fascia.  An ugly cat door had been crudely inserted into the wall beside the back door. The crawlspace opening lacked a door and it appeared too small to admit someone my size. The roof was evidently old too, thick with roofed-over layers of asphalt shingle. 



Overgrown foundation plants, ample windows, original terracing


Plus there was a dilapidated shed plunked down in the rear garden, with a tilting seat. Many things obviously needed immediate attention, but as I toted up the pluses and minuses, I was not put off by the building's current condition. My overall impression remained strongly positive. There were many assets on offer, beginning with the floor plan's distinctive originality. This was decidedly not a one-size-fits-all type of house, more a one-of-a-kind house that was in fact unique. Evidently it had fallen on hard times recently, so there was a lot of deferred maintenance to be faced immediately. But the structure itself was obviously well-made, with really great bones and a certain design-quirkiness that I responded strongly to. I could feel the potential for renewed greatness. In short, I was optimistic enough about possibilities that I minimized the challenges involved in getting there.



Dilapidated shed, missing downspouts, rampant ivy, cat door

Back inside, I waited for the realtor to be done with the thinning crowd, returning for another look at the living room with the magical frieze. By this point I was certain I wanted to own the characterful Savage house. So once the realtor was free, I took her aside and asked to meet somewhere so I could make an offer. She suggested a nearby restaurant, The Brass Duck, at Tillicum Mall. Over coffee, I said I was prepared to offer the full asking price, subject to inspection by a qualified building consultant (I also stipulated that the current owner stop all repainting of the dark-stained woodwork, in case their plan included redoing the living room). Financing wasn't going to be an issue, as I had a job and some savings, so was confident of qualifying for a mortgage. The realtor wrote up the offer, which was accepted later that evening. Seasoned building inspector Patrick Cutts (by then no spring chicken) crawled around under the building a few days later and his report declared the basic construction sound. It noted the subsidence I'd seen in the second bedroom, attributing it to a huge fir root whose parent tree had been removed long ago. He found no other substantive issues, apart from a leaking hot water tank in need of replacement. Once I removed the condition of inspection, the sale completed. In March 1988, I bought a heritage house designed by a local architect for his own family's use. I couldn't have been more pleased!



Post-purchase: ramshackle shed, barrel burner, ivy, happy new owner

Before visiting Grange Road I toured many other heritage homes, typically emerging dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs: buildings were rarely oriented to optimize light and often came with insufficient windows. Typically there were few genuine views available through those windows. Buildings also tended to be placed on smallish lots, gable ends facing the road, in order to maximize property yields. Inside, remodelling exercises frequently came at the expense of original character, rendering the house less period-specific, more generic, and less unique. Many houses were dark inside, a combination of too few windows and the use of dark wood trim. In others the woodwork had been painted (often white) in an effort to lighten things up. Most houses did not have even the beginnings of a garden environment. Often they were sited on lots lacking intrinsic character (not that you couldn't have done something with them, rather that it would all have to be invented). Happily, none of these structural limitations applied to the house at 3862 Grange Road – in fact, the situation was exactly the reverse. My inner gardener was as intrigued by an environment I knew intuitively I would never exhaust as my inner designer was by the building's manifest architectural complexity. The lot came with natural contour and mature trees, and it hadn't been mauled in development, so had unique potential for gardening. The building was (to my eye at least) spectacular, resonant with light and views, possessed of genuine aesthetic character. I felt there was unlimited scope for renewal and further development here, and I became convinced while looking it over that I should try to secure it. Yes there had been mistakes, some quite serious. But no, I wasn't put off by them, as setting them right was simply the price of admission.

Postscript, September 2023


"Yet impermanence makes house calls wherever we happen to be urges us to take nothing for granted, and savour what we can, while we can." Pico Iyer, August 26th, 2023

I drafted the notes above shortly after purchasing the Savage bungalow in March 1988. I had an inkling my initial reactions to the place were somehow significant, although I didn't really know why at the time. The notes I made sat in a folder from then until quite recently, when I chanced upon them and realized they offered a fresh perspective on the house. They were a bit incomplete as written, but captured the way the choice to purchase unfolded - so I decided to touch them up and am reproducing them now as part of Century Bungalow

It so happens that thirty five and a half years after purchasing the Savage bungalow on Grange Road, I find myself having recently sold this gem of a house to other people. Hopefully they will be as discerning and respectful in their handling of it as Susan and I have tried to be! We are now frantically downsizing our household for an imminent move, preparing to inhabit a condo-townhouse that comes without garden responsibilities. And that's just as well, because I'm getting to an age where the will may want to tackle the long list of chores, but the body is starting to have serious doubts. I think that all of us reach this point sooner or later in life. However, I remain deeply grateful for the entire experience of living in and managing this significant piece of local heritage. Above all, for the opportunity it gave me to create a compatible garden around it, on a site with unlimited potential.

Making a new garden, year one
I was lucky to see this garden evolve through many phases of growth and development, marking parallel changes in my own thinking and values. An aspiring gardener couldn't have hoped for a better, more complex opportunity. I am deeply grateful too for the broad range of experiences Grange Road afforded me – from restoring and renewing a remarkable heritage asset (with the help of some highly skilled craftsmen) to fully remaking that poor benighted bathroom, to designing a unique garden shed to be an eye-catcher from the house, to restoring the botched corridor room to its full potential, to learning how to work with stone and to make steps, paths and even a garden patio. You have always been entirely special (as I said at the time of my first visit in 1988, one of a kind) 3862 Grange Road - and I will always be enamoured of you. Thank you so much!


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