In St. Catharines - A revealing modernism

Posted May 6th, 2020 in Niagara Architecture

How’s this for bookends? 

Completed in 1960, the Lapierre residence in St. Catharines, Ont., won a coveted silver Massey Medal in 1961.

Almost a half-century later, in May, 2010, the home wins again, this time an Ontario Association of Architects Landmark Award.

Someone ought to write a book to park between those two architectural bookends. Until such time, here’s the short version of how this remarkable 3,000-square-foot laminated timber masterpiece came about: In the late 1950s, Dr. and Mrs. Armand Lapierre asked St. Catharines architect James E. Secord (1918-79) to design a home for them on Wood-Dale Drive near the bottom of the Niagara escarpment. While the Lapierres asked for a conservative, three-storey house, the strong-willed Mr. Secord (related to Laura Secord) made a case for a daring modernist design to take advantage of the topographically challenging wooded lot. Saul Herzog, Mr. Secord’s employee and collaborator, remembers that, to his credit, there weren’t “any real changes as the design progressed” and that the Lapierres “liked what we did. ”What’s not to like? Touring the bold post-and-beam pavilion last week with St. Catharines architects Harald Ensslen and Greg Redden, one is struck by how it reads like a textbook of mid-century modern motifs. Accessed by a footbridge over a tiny stream, the wraparound balcony “floats” the home over the lot, and the carport, a satellite building, would float away if not for its pathway tether. Inside, clerestories float the ceiling. A rich panelled pony wall separating the foyer from the living area allows light to spill down, while beams above slip silently past submissive glass walls and anchor to exterior posts. Opaque walls, too, float away from baseboards and trim as a result of a half-inch gap that reveals their edges: “The whole notion of architecture in those days was the reveals,” Mr. Ensslen says. “Materials didn’t meet.” Watching over this kinetic, architectural poetry is a huge, sentry-like, plastered-metal fireplace. 

It’s a sublime composition with a quiet dignity that’s not been lost on the five successive sets of owners since the Lapierres, which may explain why portions of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls have not been covered up, or why awkward additions aren’t popping out like architectural pimples. Current owners Erik and Dale Peacock first fell in love with the house 15 years ago while catering private parties for one of those sets of owners (Mr. Peacock is chef/owner of the acclaimed Wellington Court restaurant) and, armed with that memory, were quick to purchase when it hit the market in September, 2009.

In fact, the very few and minor changes the Peacocks have done to the interior – which include the removal of a half-wall between the dining and living areas and the elimination of a den beside the kitchen to create a large chef-worthy workspace – have been painstakingly planned out: “It’s always going to be the Lapierre home,” says Mr. Peacock as he stands behind his massive stainless steel countertop delicately carving thin slices of gravlax. “We really respect the house and its property … but there are a few things that you just need.” Watching from a stool, Mr. Redden adds: “Part of the adaptability of the floor plan to meet contemporary requirements speaks to the flexibility of the original design.”

 It was the need to speak to a new generation of architects that prompted Mr. Ensslen and Michael Zuberec of Macdonald Zuberec Ensslen Architects Inc., along with Ian Elmes of Quartek Group, to nominate the Lapierre house for the OAA Landmark Awar this year. Mr. Secord was an “unusually talented designer,” Mr. Herzog writes in an e-mail, and he studied landscape architecture and urban planning at Harvard under Bauhaus legend Walter Gropius (Philip Johnson was a classmate and friend). He later completed his architecture degree at the University of Toronto. Mentioning the Secord-Herzog competition-winning design for Red Deer City Hall in Alberta, the 79-year-old Mr. Zuberec remarks: “It was a very talented office.” From the vantage point of the Lapierre wraparound balcony, Mr. Ensslen waxes nostalgic while snapping a few pictures: “I want to be an architect when I come here, this is why I went to architecture school.” 

The home’s so important that it’s going to be the “flagship” of a gallery show planned for this fall that will highlight the region’s postwar buildings, says Mr. Redden, chairman of the Niagara Society of Architects. 

 It’s about time. In Niagara as elsewhere, mid-century modern architecture is at its most vulnerable right now, since it’s old enough for expensive systems to fail but young enough that it’s not considered a valuable heritage resource. New owners who respect the intentions of original designers of these 50- to 60-year-old spaces, such as the Peacocks, are a rare breed; to create more like them, outreach through gallery shows or house tours will be necessary. 

Only then will the spaces between bookends be filled with books about a farm-boy-turned-visionary architect who called our famous War of 1812 heroine a distant relative: “He was a very interesting person,” Mr. Zuberec says. “It’s a pity his demise was so early.” 

Dave LeBlanc, author - Globe and Mail, published on Thursday, Jun. 17, 2010 

Harald Ensslen, photo credit


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