By SIMON LEWSEN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, August 3, 2018
CALGARY -- In the first half of the 20th century, Calgary's Bridgeland neighbourhood, near where the city's two rivers, the Bow and Elbow, connect, was dotted with workmen's shacks. Among these modest structures, one stood out: an opulent one-and-a-half-storey dwelling made of old-growth timber.
It had been commissioned by Bridgeland's resident celebrity, David (Sweeney) Schriner, the all-star NHL left winger who, in the 1940s, helped take the Toronto Maple Leafs to two Stanley Cup championships.
In 2016, Ryan Schmidt, principal of Ryan Schmidt Architecture Studio and a fourth-generation Bridgelander, noticed a for-sale sign outside the Schriner house and bought it for $565,000. It was the first of what would turn out to be a string of impulsive decisions. The second was his choice not to flip the property when, a week after he'd acquired it, a local developer offered him $50,000 above what he'd paid.
By this point, Mr. Schmidt was invested, personally as well as financially.
Throughout 2017 - with the assistance of his wife, Meghan, and his father, Lyle, a retired contractor - he did a step-by-step restoration, returning the property to its former glory and salvaging a piece of Alberta's art deco heritage.
If you're an architect working for a client, you usually proceed linearly. You make plans. You get them approved.
You stick to them. This is Mr. Schmidt's modus operandi, too, at least when he's on commission. When working for himself, however, he prefers an intuitive approach. He makes day-to-day decisions, sometimes drawing plans on drywall that will later be painted over. He is a jazz-music fan - he often buys rare LPs from Europe - which is perhaps unsurprising, since his technique has more in common with improvisational jazz than with the text-based methods of a classical musician.
For the Schriner house, Mr. Schmidt undertook a process you might call restoration through exploration. He keyed into the demands the structure made of him and responded in novel ways. "The building directed the project," he said.
"Renovation is a bit like archeology. You don't always know what you're looking for, but you hope you'll find something good."
The Schriner house is hardly a pure manifestation of the deco moderne style. Few residences are.
The exterior, with its timber framing, has more in common with medieval Germany than Gatsby-era New York. Inside, however, Mr. Schmidt found striking features - plastered archways and panelled doors - that evoke the deco period, an era of rich textures, elongated forms and bold lines.
Mr. Schmidt's first initiative was decontamination. He hired an asbestosabatement team to remove vermiculite from the attic, a cramped space consisting of a playroom, a storage area and a warren of passages. When the internal walls came down, he was able to see the space for what it was: a grand room beneath a 10-foot gable. "My first thought was, 'This is going to be the master suite,' " he said.
Soon, he found himself installing fir floors and excavating the ceiling to expose the collar ties - the thick wooden beams that hold the rafters together.
Downstairs, the kitchen, which had neither dishwasher nor counter plugs, called for a complete overhaul.
Once Mr. Schmidt gutted the space, he discovered there was no insulation. So he cut exploratory holes in the remaining walls and realized they, too, were empty. Clearly, he'd need to reinsulate the entire lower level. To do that, however, he'd have to remove not just
the plaster and lath, but also the elegant fir trim that encased the windows. Once he took that out, he figured, he might as well refinish it. To do anything less would be a missed opportunity.
Decisions led to decisions. Interventions gave way to more interventions.
Within a year, Mr. Schmidt had sunk $300,000 into the property. He'd retiled the kitchen and bathrooms, retrofitted the wall sconces with LED bulbs, rebuilt the fireplace and stripped layers of wax from the floors, which were made of thin oak planks. (Broad pranks are all the rage today, but narrow-plank flooring often holds up better, since it's less susceptible to warping.)
By the time Ron and Catherine Larson, the couple who now own the property, visited in January of this year, the house had been transformed from a fixer-upper to a living museum - a portal to a bygone era in residential design. The Larsons had recently downsized to a condominium, a choice they quickly regretted. They have four adult children, and at their condo, the lack of both dining and parking space was a frequent encumbrance. They wanted a home that would complement their vintage furniture collection: wood tables made by local artisans and a classic Royal System, a modular shelving unit by Danish modernist Poul Cadovius.
To buy the property, the Larsons dipped into their retirement fund. That decision felt reckless, but they reasoned they'd never forgive themselves if they didn't at least bid on such a unique home. Plus, Mr. Schmidt was constructing a second unit on the property, which could generate rental income to offset the mortgage.
"My first thought upon seeing the house was, 'This is lovely, but there's no way we can afford it,' " Mr. Larson recalled. "But, then we put in an offer that night. I knew that if we didn't, I'd wake up in a decade and go, 'Dammit, I really screwed up.' " The Larsons bought both the Schriner house and the secondary building for a combined price of $1.25-million.
In return, they got a small piece of jazz-age Canadiana.
The Prairies have an unsung deco history, most visible in iconic structures such the Barron Building, an 11-storey tower in downtown Calgary. But the tradition also lives on in what's left of the region's interwar vernacular: old grocery stores and gas stations with curved exteriors and strong horizontal lines.
These buildings are nothing special, but they offer a reminder that deco was once embedded in the global design vocabulary. It found its expression everywhere in the Americas, in structures grand and humble, even in a city more famous for cowboy boots and Smithbilt hats.
Had Mr. Schmidt flipped the Schriner house, it might have found another owner committed to a loving restoration. More likely, it would have been demolished, another piece of vernacular architecture deemed too minor to be worth preserving.
Near the back of the house, the name of Sweeney Schriner's children, Norman and Joanne, are carved into the sidewalk. Had the building been bulldozed, this feature, which sits outside the property line, might have survived. The names would have lived on, then, mostly unnoticed, referencing a history that was otherwise lost.
Architect Ryan Schmidt retiled the kitchen and bathrooms, retrofitted the wall sconces with LED bulbs, rebuilt the fireplace and stripped layers of wax from the floors, which were made of thin oak planks.
PHOTOS BY JARED SYCH
After an asbestos-abatement team removed vermiculite from the attic and the internal walls came down, Mr. Schmidt was able to see the space for what it was: a grand room beneath a 10-foot gable. It was part of a process he undertook that could be called restoration through exploration. 'The building directed the project,' he said.
PHOTOS BY JARED SYCH