Globe Real Estate
The Perfect House
JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
10 October 2003
The Globe and Mail
While Oakville's heyday as an exclusive summer resort for wealthy Torontonians is long past, and only the richest people can afford more than a small patch of land in the town, a vogue for the Important Country House mightily persists here.
You find evidence of this taste everywhere in Oakville's posh districts, and even in the classic suburban sprawl north of the Queen Elizabeth Way.
It's in the ample, showy, often spot-lit elevations forcefully facing forward, like an operatic soprano in the footlights just after the curtain goes up.
It's in the architectural styling, which has been pastiched from historical sources as various as Victorian, Georgian, Chateau, English Edwardian and Frank Lloyd Wright and the Magic Kingdom — almost any kind of historical fashion, in fact, except Twentieth-Century Modern.
“The problem with Modern houses,” says leading Oakville architect Gren Weis, “is that they did not spell success. People want more pretension, more pomp. You can't make a business in Modern architecture.”
I don't know exactly what each house has in common with the rest (other than its anti-Modernism), but you instantly know one when you see it. I'm in favour of calling this expensive house-type the Oakville Special, at least until architectural historians give it a more precise name.
Because the Oakville Special follows (by definition) no venerable style or traditional overall programme — formal or informal, palatial or domestic, and so forth — creating one is an invitation to whimsy and variety by both architect and client.
As we are reminded by the Peter and Andrea Mickus house, in south-east Oakville, it's a privilege than can have mixed results for the residents.
Designed by Mr. Weis for a family with small children (now four of them, aged 2 through 11), the house was tailored to meet very specific expectations.
“I wanted to build old,” Mrs. Mickus told me. “I wanted the house to have the essence and feel of a French chateau. I wanted to do a palazzo and Versailles at the same time. I wanted the Spanish Steps, a Romeo and Juliet balcony, a Beauty and the Beast balustrade, a Four Seasons bathroom.” And the Mickuses firmly required a design that would serve two distinct programmes: formal meetings, dinners and entertainments, and the active everyday life of a family with very busy little kids.
While maintaining a certain country-house aspect, the 6,550-square-foot Oakville Special that Mr. Weis provided tilts toward the formal, the public and imposing. The façade looks out with stolid symmetry at Lakeshore Road from its tight lot. The main entrance to the house has been strongly marked by columns, porch, a down-swoop of roof, and a loop of driveway.
The back of the house carries through the promise made on the more public side, with a strictly squared-off garden array of balustrades, terrace, steps and three pools (swimming, hot and wading). The sense of “oldness” Mrs. Mickus wanted is reinforced throughout the house by robust, well-proportioned mouldings in most rooms, and by handsome bronze fixtures ranging in use from drawer pulls to a chimney pot.
Between the ceremonial entry and its front suite of receiving rooms, and the even more staid back garden, Mr. Weis inserted the zone in which the family actually eats, plays and relaxes. As things have turned out, it's also where Mr. and Mrs. Mickus and their children have discovered they really want to live. The family likes to do big dinners for themselves and their families — she's Italian — but not the sort of toney entertaining they envisioned before the house went up. Their retreat into the middle of the structure has left the formal areas of the house forlorn and forsaken.
Not that the arrangement wouldn't suit somebody. An ambitious executive or socially prominent retired couple, let's say, could probably make good use of the receiving hall, men's smoking room, parlour and state dining room. A social dragon could do glittering cocktail parties and impressive fundraisers that would make the papers. But that's not the Mickus family. They really built a house for people other than themselves.
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