Tucked away on a residential street in Alta Vista, the Fischer House is almost unnoticeable, and that is the point. Designed by famed Ottawa architect James Strutt, the 1965 bungalow conforms to his modernist ideals of blending into the natural environment with a flat-roofed, low-profile exterior in concrete blocks and wood siding.
As an intact model of mid-century modern architecture, the home was designated a heritage property and a plaque at the front door testifies to its unique status. Together with other classic-modern homes and buildings across the city by progressive architects of the day, the designation protects the era of Modern Canadian Architecture in Ottawa with limitations and strict regulations regarding renovations.
A HIDDEN GEM
While these restrictions deterred some potential buyers when the home came up for sale four years ago, it inspired the new homeowners with an exciting sense of challenge. It was a perfect project for Diane, an experienced realtor and her husband Jeff Allingham, a talented contractor. The duo had already successfully completed two older-home renovations.
“When I showed this house to a client, we had no plans to move after just finishing renovations on our 1930s house in Old Ottawa South. But I walked in here and just loved it,” explains Diane, a Royal Lepage broker. Fortunately, her client wasn’t interested and she went straight home to tell Jeff, the House Guru.
She was hoping I wouldn’t like it, but I did even though it was going to be a lot of work, recalls Jeff, who became aware that in addition to the usual heritage protection of the home’s exterior style and footprint, the restrictions also involved the interior of the ground level.
Yet, this did not deter them. They were still intrigued by the three-bedroom home, on a deep 220-foot lot, hidden behind a double carport that cannot be removed or enclosed.
“We like to keep the character of a house, and as we were both born in the sixties, it was like coming home,” says Diane. “A lot of people refer to the house as the bunker, but I would drive by and often wonder what was behind the front wall. Some local kids have gone by and said it looks like a prison,” adds Jeff with a laugh.
The big surprise inside is an attractive, spacious home with a functional flow that Diane notes is great for entertaining. The open living space wraps around an inner courtyard which is a very private outdoor spot. It’s one of the protected areas of the home and a favoured one that plays a significant role in flooding the home with incredible light.
THE SIXTIES VIBE
The family spent the first four months living through the renovation and restoration process. Amazingly, the half-century old house had been preserved in excellent condition by the one-and-only original owner, but with very few updates. Jeff pulled up two layers of white vinyl on the floors, levelled them and installed light maple wood. He removed a kitchen door, gutted bathrooms and insulated walls, while carefully preserving what had to remain to keep the sixties vibe alive.
The front entry maintains its original, heritage form, with a refinished cedar door that unconventionally opens outward. In the generously-sized kitchen, a mix of old and new blends well with the help of Tanner Vine, whom Diane credits as a great kitchen designer with a very modern approach. He installed all-white cabinetry with a wall of teak panels to harmonize with an original unit of lower wood cabinets. Adding a white quartz counter, the cabinet unit connects the kitchen to the dining area which features retro cedar screens and a row of stunning mahogany windows that were custom made to fit the former architectural style and shape.
The large living room fully embraces mid-century design with its original built-in storage cabinets, bookcase and banquette seating, plus a brick fireplace. The couple happily kept these mandated elements and elected to buy some of the sixties furniture, refinishing the retro coffee table and repairing the vintage sofa.
A big must-do on their list was to bump out the small ensuite in the master bedroom, which has a great view over the newly-landscaped back yard. The redesign improved the bathroom layout and allowed Jeff to install a new double-sized shower. They opted to keep a funky metal fan and added a skylight.
Jeff and Diane agree that renovating a heritage home is not like anything they have done before and they still have work to do. “But, it’s really been a fun project and we enjoy coming home to this house,” say Diane, who loves the home’s light-filled and tranquil spaces