11 . 27 . 2018

A top-notch Modernist home in Hamilton, on the eve of its renovation

AUTHOR Dave Leblanc

Jerome Markson may be retired, but his convictions and dedication to the craft of architecture are unwavering. Even when it comes to garage doors.

“The last time I drove past this place, something really bugged me,” the 89-year-old says, “and it’s just a matter of paint: The whole house is neutral, and when I looked at the house, all I saw was the garage door, because it was this glaring white…”

“It’s yellow,” interrupts Mark Clem, who has co-owned Hamilton’s 45 Amelia St. for about two weeks.

“Yellow, bluish, whatever,” Mr. Markson continues, “it should just be painted so it doesn’t look like it’s there. Everybody hear me?” Everyone in the foyer, including Mr. Markson’s wife of 65 years, and the home’s other new co-owner, JoAnne Clem, erupted into laughter at the retired architect’s feigned edict.

Now that the garage door is settled, there are other issues to address regarding what is, perhaps, the most important Modernist residence in Hamilton. It was the poster-boy for gallery show SLEEK: Hamilton’s Modernist Residential Architecture in 2010, it’s featured on the Historical Hamilton website, it has appeared in the Hamilton Spectator multiple times as well as in this publication (by your humble Architourist) and was featured in numerous magazines when new. Built in 1955 for Mr. Markson’s aunt and uncle, George and Jesse Goldblatt, the home today looks as contemporary as it did when a new generation of University of Toronto-educated architects, such as Mr. Markson’s contemporaries Irving Grossman and Uno Prii, began building the “brave new world” of the postwar period.

“The world was starting fresh. It was the middle of the 20th century, you’re not going to build something that takes after something earlier – you might recycle it, like certain people I know,” the amiable Mr. Markson laughs. “We were steeped in doing buildings and spaces that reflected the times.”

“They let me go nuts,” he adds, thinking of his aunt and uncle, who were in their 60s and in the steel business when they handed their young nephew the commission. While perhaps not “nuts,” the home did present itself to the then-conservative street as a joyous, geometric composition of steel beams, brick panels, voids and clerestory windows punctuated by a dead-centre front door flanked by large sidelights.

But despite the recent explosion of interest in Modernist buildings from Prague to Palm Springs and Tacoma to Toronto, times have changed significantly with regard to how people use their homes, so the Clems need to make a few adjustments to Mr. Markson’s masterwork. They are, however, willing to go the extra mile to preserve and perhaps even enhance as many of the original details as possible.

For instance, they’re adamant the cream-coloured terrazzo will stay; they just have to find someone skilled to repair a few cracks (“I haven’t been able to find anybody in Hamilton that does terrazzo,” Mr. Clem laments). The south-facing window-wall that frames views of the tree-filled escarpment will be untouched, of course, since the blurring of the outside-inside barrier is a hallmark of the period. The still-in-good-repair walnut panelling in the L-shaped home will stay, as will the unusual sand-sculpture/wall panel in the master bedroom (which probably depicts Adam and Eve) done by Don Wallace, who would go on to create a sculpture for Expo 67 (now at the University of Manitoba) and another for the Ontario government’s Macdonald Block. Ditto for the amazing copper-coloured glass mosaic tile in the master bath.

What’s not clear is how to handle the kitchen and the front entrance.

Even though the Clems are on their own (their three adult-children live elsewhere), there are Italian family gatherings to consider (Ms. Clem is of Italian heritage), and the galley kitchen is closed off from the rest of the home. Can it be opened up by moving one cabinet over to the far side of the living room? Should a new kitchen island take its place? And, if so, how to make it look like the rest of the kitchen?

While Ms. Clem, a retail buyer by trade, is happy with the current configuration, Mr. Clem, retired from the technology sector, doesn’t like how the front exterior landing at the top of the floating steel staircase is narrow, and that when the front door is opened, a rush of hot or cold air blasts directly into the living room. The solution, he thinks, is to push the staircase a little further into the yard, extend the landing, and then build some sort of vestibule. But how to achieve this while maintaining the home’s original intent? Seamless glass? A new, projecting steel-framed box?

“It would have to be detailed very carefully,” Mr. Markson warns. “It’s got to just fit like it was always there.”

As for the home’s high-fired, imported interior brick, which matches the exterior, Mr. Clem posed a question: “There seems to be two thoughts on this: One says never paint the brick, another says modern paints now can really highlight a brick.”

“Can I say something?” Mr. Markson asks with a twinkle in his eye. “In another 10 years, it’ll be the other way around, so leave the poor thing alone.”

“Narrow ties, wide ties, hold on to your narrow ties they’re coming back,” Mr. Clem agrees via analogy.

In the basement, decisions have been easier, since there was only a sewing room, storage and a large mechanical room under the exposed steel ceiling. Here, the couple is building bedrooms for when the children visit, and a home gym. When they tell Mr. Markson they’ll keep a section of his steel ceiling exposed, he nods in approval.

Mr. Markson has also been able to explain a few of the home’s peculiarities: referring to his own mother and Ms. Goldblatt as “the clean sisters,” he tells the couple that there was no fireplace in the living room because “that makes dirt,” and that the amazingly large walk-in closet, with its banks and banks of drawers and slots and cubbies, was so “nothing was messy.”

Since Ms. Clem admitted that “nothing that we owned works” in the space – which was worthy of a multipage spread in the January, 1963, edition of Ontario Homes & Living magazine – the day wraps with discussions of possible furniture and other decorative items that might be purchased.

Luckily, the story of the Goldblatt residence rebirth won’t end here; in the coming months, watch this space for updates on the Clems’ progress.