Globe Real Estate
The Perfect House

JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
19 September 2003
The Globe and Mail


 

When millionaire financier and amateur painter James Arthur Gairdner went to his eternal reward in 1971, he left a surprise behind for his family and neighbours on Oakville's ultra-exclusive Lake Ontario shoreline.

Mr. Gairdner had determined to make his earthly home, called Gairloch — a house and studio, and 4.6 hectares of lakeshore property — a gift to the Town of Oakville. According to his instructions, the picturesque mansion from the 1920s was to become an art gallery dedicated to showing “works of art by contemporary artists.” The gardens and lawns were to be redone as a public park.

Local homeowners were horrified. Rumours of an impending collapse of real estate values flew through drawing rooms up and down Old Oakville. People got organized. A local paper spoke out against letting just anybody in, on the grounds that “Joe Ordinary” would probably never “feel comfortable using the Gairdner property as a public property.”

The town government, as things turned out, decided to abide by Mr. Gairdner's last wishes. For almost 30 years, Gairloch has welcomed strollers to visit its flower beds and its sweep of waterfront. The house became a gallery. Today, it's among Canada's best-known regional showcases for contemporary art.

But that's not the end of the story. Though neither Mr. Gairdner nor the town intended such an outcome, opening Gairloch to the public gave us all an interesting recollection of the good life, as imagined by the wealthy Toronto Edwardians who transformed the Oakville lakeshore from farmland into one of Canada's most prestigious addresses.

Gairloch was born in 1922, when Toronto construction executive William McKendrick built the house that, considerably revised, stands today on a low rise beside Lake Ontario. With a townhome in Rosedale and a cottage out on the Toronto islands already in his real estate portfolio, Mr. McKendrick intended the Oakville property to be his country seat, so he sized and designed it accordingly. (No architect, it seems, had a hand in the project.) The result is a storybook fantasia on Tudor themes, though very modest in scale and aspect, and seated without ceremony on its lakeshore site.

Unlike many other mansions in this district of Oakville, Mr. McKendrick's building neither pushes itself in the faces of passersby nor falls on its knees and throws open its arms, cottage-style, toward Lake Ontario.

The styling, inside and out, celebrates the intimacy of family life and friendly conversation, protection from the battering winds, the safe and sure. Overhanging eaves and strong horizontals on the façade help create this sense of enclosure and protection. Inside, the open flow of space between rooms on the public floor is stopped and anchored firmly by a living room fireplace. This house is chiefly about its hearth and what happens there, the interior architecture seems to tell us — not its stunning situation by the lake, and certainly not what outsiders think. Only in the west-facing sunroom, and in the second-floor bedroom of the owner, are we encouraged to gaze at the waves on the rocks below, the expanse of water, the lights and smokestacks of distant Hamilton.

I understand that Mr. McKendrick simply copied over his Rosedale residence to Oakville. If true, this fact makes the smallness of the private rooms at Gairloch less odd. Toronto has never believed in large bedrooms. We downright dislike large bathrooms. Perhaps Dr. Freud could tell us the reasons.

But it's probably not necessary to call in a psychoanalyst to get an explanation for the doll-house feel of the Oakville building. To Mr. McKendrick's mind, I believe, his structure was a subordinate element in a overall, harmonized unity of horticulture and architecture, blossoms and buildings. For the designer to think of his house in this way was hardly original — if he ever really thought about it at all, which I doubt. He was after a result, which we can still imagine today: a gloriously chromatic English garden, all peaceful mauves and blues, lush whites and pale tints, with a big, snug cottage in the midst of it all, and tea and scones at the ready.

William McKendrick was a passionate gardener, in both Toronto and Oakville. I do not know whether he realized his difficult dream of summoning up a Sussex garden from Ontario dirt between 1922 and 1957, the year of his death. James Arthur Gairdner, who bought the property in 1960, appears to have had other plans for the grounds — something on the more stingy, less abounding side of the gardening galaxy. Be all that as it may, the house today seems bereft and faintly forlorn among its too-Modern lawns and scanty, unimaginative flower plantings. Gairloch's 30 years in public hands have advanced it very little toward the Ultimate Edwardian Garden it so much wants to be.

 

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