You wouldn’t think twice to see it in Stratford-upon-Avon – but Donlea-upon-Eglinton?
Long after the Lea family left England to give their name to our neighbourhood, long after the bungalows went the way of the buffalo, one Leaside home still stands out for its distinctive flavour.
With dark wooden crossbeams over white stucco walls, leaded windows, and a roof you might mistake for thatch, 1 Donlea Dr. is a reincarnation of an English cottage.
“We are continually surprised when we describe where we are,” says Jim Harris, who has lived there for five years with his spouse, Lee-Anne McAlear.
“People know this house.”
The former leader of the Green Party of Canada, and a municipal politician before that, Harris found himself in a home with political heritage. Local lore maintains it was built by a former mayor around 1940, back when Leaside had more countryside than commuters.
“I think it was a summer house – because it had no insulation,” says McAlear. “It was just like a sieve.”
Of course, their first order of business upon buying the home was to put it on better terms with the environment.
They put in modern insulation where before there had been only bags of sawdust. This improved the home’s energy efficiency fivefold, says Harris: blower test results jumped from 13/100 to 65/100.
Outside, the roof that lends so much to the home’s character also gives it a green advantage. It can last more than half a century. It’s made of hand-cut cedar shakes, one-inch thick wooden slats that are stacked up to five deep.
Water run-off from the roof is collected in three large barrels.
“We catch 140 gallons of water which doesn’t end up in the city sewer system,” says Harris.
It gets re-used in the garden, which is perhaps the home’s most stunning feature.
Planted in the English style – naturally – its flowers and herbs run all the way around the inside of the hedge. It’s designed to have something in bloom at every time of year.
A quiet bench and statuettes sit next to the pond, shaded by one of four fruit trees. Two years ago they bore 700 pounds of apples and crab apples.
And in the centre of the yard, there’s the vegetable garden.
“You’ve heard of the 100-mile diet?” asks Harris, referencing the bible of locally-sourced foods and their environmental virtues. “We call this the 10-foot diet.”
He hands this reporter a crunchy snow pea to sample. There’s also garlic, tomatoes, golden raspberries, basil, three kinds of beans, beets and kale.
Nearby, a black cat sits, ears perked, eyes fixed on the mouse watching it from the top of the chimney. They’re as still as sculptures – because, of course, sculptures they are.
To the most observant passerby, they have long supplied a second nickname to the English Cottage: the Cat and Mouse House.
It has two addresses – the other on Eglinton Ave. – two mailmen and two mailboxes. There are 15 rooms, five bathrooms, 3,200 square feet and, throughout, the sound of laughing children: The basement is home to a daycare.
Years earlier, it hosted Toronto’s first centre for the Bahà’i faith, McAlear says. The previous owners took advantage of the basement’s garden entrance to fulfil a need of their religious community.
“They felt they were caretakers” of a special place, she says.
It’s a feeling she and Harris share.
Inside, there’s still more to discover.
There’s the Baroque Bathroom, earning the nickname with swan-shaped faucets, a china basin and carved, gilded frames around the mirror and privacy screen.
Nearby, you’re transported to a ship’s hull: a TV nook with round windows peeking out and old lifejacket racks overhead. A wrought-iron spiral staircase, very Harry Potter-esque, takes you to a cozy room in the converted attic.
“It’s a home with a constant surprise,” says McAlear.