The Jewel of Kitsilano

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If you love the Arts & Crafts style of some of the older homes in Kitsilano, yesterday’s write-up in the Vancouver Sun chronicling the refurbishment of a heritage home at West 1st and Dunbar is worth a read.

Everybody’s got a favourite house they’d love to see inside. For some, it’s that   cool art deco place sitting all by itself on the West Van waterfront on the way to Lighthouse Park. For others it’s that amazing log house   up the hill at Second and Blanca in Point Grey. Generations of Vancouverites have driven down Southwest Marine Drive trying to sneak a peek at Casa Mia and Rio Vista, the Spanish-style mansions built by the Reifel brothers with the profits from their bootlegging empire.

In Kitsilano, one of the houses everybody loves to check out is an arts and crafts home at First and Dunbar. It’s a gorgeous heritage house, has one of Vancouver’s great gardens, and is next door to one of Vancouver’s biggest trees, a 90-foot-tall beech that has to be seen to be believed.

Recently it went up for sale, with the asking price of $2,785,000. So we went for a tour.

The listing calls the house at 1711 Dunbar “the jewel of Kitsilano,” and for once, it’s no hype. It has been immaculately restored.

The house was built in 1912 by Samuel Hooper, who built three others like it on the street. It was built at the height of Vancouver’s big pre-First World War boom, and Hooper spared no expense. Everything is high quality, and there are built-ins galore.

The porch is granite and it is 10 feet deep, big enough for an outdoor living room. The front of the house has double bay windows up top, along with a large rectangular balcony. But the showpiece is on the northern side, which has an enormous semi-circular bay window on the main floor and a lovely “Juliet balcony” above.

It isn’t a mansion, but all the rooms are big and spacious and brimming with character. Turn left off the front door and you enter a den or library that was originally the smoking room, where the man of the house would do manly things like smoke and drink and talk about guns.

“This was for rifles,” says the current owner, Collin Varner, pointing out a tall, thin built-in glass cabinet.

“You hung the rifles in here and had stuffed animals in the top [in more built-in glass cabinets]. It was a man’s room.”

His wife Wendy laughs: “You like to think that.”

Like every room on the main floor, the den features handsome wood panelling with plate rail. It also has a groovy little nook with a small fireplace where the Varners have installed a reading chair, and a 10-foot-high ceiling.

One of the most striking features in the house is the floor downstairs, which features three distinct styles of inlaid floor: basketweave, herring bone and iron cross. All are fashioned from oak with walnut and maple inlay, and are in marvellous shape: they were covered with carpets for decades before the Varners purchased the house 17 years ago.

The floors did have to be refinished, part of what the Varners joke has been a 17-year restoration process. The house had been converted into a rooming house in 1959, and many of the features covered up. The front porch had been enclosed and turned into a bedroom and kitchen. All told, there were five apartments on the main and second floors.

Many people would have been turned off by the bad renos that had been done over the years, but the Varners could see the house’s potential.

“We bought the house sight unseen,” relates Wendy.

“Two years to the day before [they bought it] we knocked on the door and said ‘If you ever want to sell, give us a call,'” says Collin.

“Two years later, eight o’clock at night, I got a phone call saying ‘It’s going on the market the next day, you have first option.’ So we bought it for full asking price [$500,000]. By midnight we had it.”

“The funny thing is, we had just sold our house and had looked at another place and it fell through,” adds Wendy.

“We were sitting around the table going ‘What are we going to do now?'”

Collin: “The phone rang…”

“And it was these people,” says Wendy. “It was almost like it was meant to be.”

When they did finally get inside their intuition was proved correct. Some stained glass windows had disappeared – a piano window in the den had been filled in with tin foil – but most of the wood had never been painted, and the built-ins were still there.

“It had good bones, you could see that,” says Wendy. “And we just jumped in.”

The good bones included the large living and dining rooms, which are lit in the afternoon from light streaming in from the circular bay window. The bay is so large it has seven windows rather than the usual three, and is big enough for a table and a chair, where the Varners like to sit and watch the world.

“We call it The Nosery,” says Collin. “Because people jog by, and you can have a cup of tea [and watch them].”

The home’s details are impressive. The living room walls are done in mahogany panelling, while the dining room features fir panelling, and there are coffered ceilings throughout. The entrance to the living room is flanked by two built-in leaded glass bookcases, and there is a dazzling built-in sideboard in the dining room with more built-in glass shelves.

Another sideboard in the dining room looks like a built-in, but is actually a German piece from the 1860s or ’70s.

“There’s a story behind that,” says Wendy. “We bought it at auction and measured it with their measuring stick.”

“Their yard stick,” says Collin.

“I flipped it over [a couple of times] and thought ‘Oh, it fits in here perfect.’ Brought it home, went to put it in and it’s two inches too long. I went back up to Maynards and looked at their yard stick – it was an inch and a half short of 36 inches.”

They fit it in by shaving off part of the moulding.

“It does look like a built-in,” says Collin. “There’s not a 16th of an inch between it and the wall.”

The Varners are “light fixtures people,” and have installed the appropriate period arts and crafts chandeliers in all the downstairs rooms. The chandelier and wall sconces in the dining room are original to the home. They also have an incredible collection of art nouveau newel post lights, including Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, blowing a horn.

The kitchen has been modernized with a tile floor with marble inlay, which Collin laid down himself. It’s a bright, airy space, and opens to the outside with a pair of art nouveau doors that were salvaged out of a Shaughnessy mansion.

The couple are serious gardeners – Collin is the head of horticulture at the University of B.C., and has written six books on plants and gardening.

“All the parts of the garden we have sort of in rooms,” Wendy explains.

“There’s a nice little spot to sit [in the corner], it’s very private. There’s another area out here [in front] to sit, there’s a little herb garden out the back. It’s got little spaces where you can go where the sun is shining.”

“The back is our yard with the hedges high,” adds Collin. “The rest of the yard people can kind of look in.”

“A lot of people say they come and look at our garden to see what’s blooming,” says Wendy.

The upstairs bedrooms are all large and bright. The original master bedroom is now the TV room, while another bedroom is an office where Collin writes his books. But there’s something missing: a computer.

“He writes by hand, still,” says Wendy.

“Thousands of pages,” Collin laughs.

Both the office and TV room open up onto the semicircular Juliet balcony, which does indeed feel like something out of Shakespeare’s time. It has a very nice view, although the leaves from that 90-foot beech get in the way during the summer. (Collin says the beech could grow another 50 feet, and there are beech trees in England that live 300 to 400 years.)

The master bathroom has the original shower, which drains right into the hexagonal tiled floor. The bathroom has the original subway tile walls, but they installed a new bathtub, albeit a new antique bathtub. It was so heavy they brought it in by crane.

Oh, and the house has a killer location a block from the water, on a street of restored heritage homes of similar vintage. So why sell? Their daughter has left home and the Varners are downsizing – the house is 3,477 square feet. It will be hard to leave, but they’ve made sacrifices before.

“To get the mortgage on the first house we bought, I sold my Spiderman collection, all my comics,” Collin says.

“We were just barely 20. I had [Spiderman] number one right up to 60. I sold the collection for about $350.”

What would it be worth today?

“Mint, about $40,000.”

Last modified: June 7, 2008

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