Reno’d Rosedale mansion shows Oberman’s deft touch

After 2006, when the massive job of refurbishing, modernizing and outfitting their 17,500-square-foot Georgian house in Rosedale was behind them, Toronto developer Paul Oberman and marketing executive Eve Lewis, his wife, used to talk about their next step. The six small children who had moved into the nine-bedroom home with them in 1995 were growing up, after all, so the couple naturally found themselves thinking of the time when they would be rattling around inside a house that had become too big.

But the new home they were imagining, Ms. Lewis told me, would be nothing like the circa-1930 Colonial Revival mansion they had rescued from neglect and that Mr. Oberman had restored. Nor would it be anything like the several architecturally and culturally significant old properties the developer rejuvenated over the years. Instead, one option for the house they dreamed about was sleekly modern from stem to stern. If executed with the same generosity of spirit and exacting attention to detail that Mr. Oberman lavished on the Georgian, this new dwelling might have become a stirring Toronto example of residential modernism.

We`ll never know, of course, because Paul Oberman’s very active professional and public life ended last year in an airplane crash. So it is that the large four-level Rosedale family home (currently on the market for $13,800,000), not the modernist villa he and Ms. Lewis could have built some day, stands as Mr. Oberman’s final testament to his zest for architecture and his ideas about living well in a big city.

As I learned during a tour of the place last week, Mr. Oberman was content to put down roots in a very tight spot that’s almost completely plugged by architectural fabric. The little space that the house didn’t fill is now occupied by a four-car garage and an attractive garden in front, and a ravine-edge swimming pool at the rear. (Much of Rosedale is like this. American visitors have been known to marvel at the sight of large houses on too-small lots in Toronto’s poshest neighbourhoods, but many people here are comfortable with this arrangement.)

Mr. Oberman also seems not to have minded the quite modest, retiring demeanour of the street-side façade – another typical Rosedale feature occasionally remarked on by people who think a big, costly house should brag about itself.

But viewed at close range, especially from the terrace off the music room, the exterior shows the excellent stuff of which it’s made. There is the expert brickwork in walls and at corners and around windows, the lovely classical cornices that crown the walls – additions by Mr. Oberman – and other sharply focused details that we would expect to discover in any important 20th-century domestic building cast in the Georgian revival style.

This refinement is carried through into the interior of the structure. On the main floor, one encounters a stately procession of spacious, well-proportioned public rooms decorated with expanses of dark, elaborately carved wood panelling, flourishes of plaster moulding and other romantic touches – the kinds of things that graced many a baronial Rosedale home put up, like this one, during the Edwardian and interwar heyday of Toronto’s old Anglo-Scottish elite.

The architects of the house, from the local firm of George Moorhouse & King, designed for this upmarket clientele, and apparently did this dwelling, 80 years ago, for a member of it who wanted something eminently respectable and old-school, but who wasn’t fussy about stylistic purity. Instead of being laid out according to the strict symmetry admired by the 18th-century Georgians, for example, the main-floor interior is cheerfully irregular. The plaster and wood decorations in the principal rooms, similarly, owe more to Beaux-Arts exuberance than to the restrained temper favoured by the Georgians.

In his overhaul and furnishing of this eclectic house – a project undertaken in collaboration with Heintzman Sanborn, a Toronto architecture and interior design studio – Mr. Oberman carefully restored the opulent decoration and high-style finishes, as well as the handsome oak floors. The library, with its array of very good Art Deco furniture, is one of the best period recreations I’ve seen in any Toronto house.

As for the original plan, he spared the general sense of it, while changing the programs of certain rooms. During the renovation, for instance, the mahogany-panelled dining room was converted into an office, and the former pantry became the barrel-vaulted dining room. Some new windows were punched into the brick wall, and finished to look as though they had been there forever.

When Mr. Oberman and Ms. Lewis bought the place, it was the perfect house for aficionados of Toronto’s deluxe dwellings from yesteryear. The elderly property badly needed practical renovation. Even more urgently, it needed love, admiration and care – all of which, heaped up and running over, the couple happily gave to it. I hope the next owners will appreciate what has been done here, and maintain this accomplishment intact far into the future.

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