June 6, 2012

Saltspring Home Defined by Schubart Touch

Striking features define unique home


Renowned San Francisco Bay architect Henry Schubart had been dead for years when Martin and Eileen discovered his work and fell in love with it. That didn’t stop them from resurrecting one of his classic home designs and rebuilding it. It all started when the Alberta couple first retired to the coast 12 years ago. They intended to settle in Victoria, but a few outings to Saltspring Island changed their minds. Then fate took a hand.

First they found an ideal building site near Ganges in a 530-acre residential community called Maracaibo. Wanting to create something distinctive on the superb south-facing site, they chose to rent for the first year to get a feeling for the land, check out local designers and plan a home that would meld into the site’s rocky bluffs and spectacular arbutus stands.

By happy accident, they fell in love with the house they rented. And by another stroke of good fortune, located island designer Robert Barnard, who had not only worked with that home’s original architect, but inherited his plans. Barnard dug out the drawings first made by Schubart almost three decades ago, and turned them 180 degrees to create a mirror image of the handsome home, that now faces south, not north.

Schubart, an architect and planner who had trained first in Paris and then with American legend Frank Lloyd Wright, settled on Saltspring in the late 1960s with his family. (He didn’t want any of his five sons drafted into the Vietnam War.) “Hank was an amazing guy and we just clicked,” recalled Barnard, who met him in 1982 while working as a journeyman carpenter.

The architect soon invited Barnard into his practice as a draftsman and then a designer. They worked together on about 100 projects. “You can’t see most of them unless you are in a boat because they are at the end of very long driveways,” said Barnard, who eventually took over the firm. Schubart became its consulting architect and, when he died of a heart attack in 1998, he bequeathed his plans to Barnard.

An engineer during the Second World War, Schubart designed homes, schools, churches and exhibitions for the New York World’s Fair in 1939. He was also famous for developing the master plan and buildings for the Dominican University of California. Besides conceiving about 250 homes on Saltspring, he designed Ganges fire hall, the Reginald Hill strata in Fulford (on the harbour’s east side) and the original development proposal for Channel Ridge.

The architect was known for his rough-cedar timbers, cantilevered decks, generous overhangs and sinuous buildings that had a habit of disappearing into their surroundings. These and a wealth of other striking elements appealed to Martin and Eileen (who asked that their last name not be used). As a result, their home moulds to the shore like a languid sea otter and is almost invisible until you walk to the cliff edge. In one spot, the roof leans into a granite outcrop, creating a sheltered niche where deer curl up at dusk to watch the owners showering.

“This is where we get our daily entertainment,” joked Eileen, standing in the living room and pointing to a ferry steaming out of Long Harbour. “It is not exactly a Schubart house,” explained Martin, noting Barnard had to extensively adapt the design. “But it is very, very similar.” “This part drove the builders crazy,” he said, pointing up to all the different angle changes in the overhang supports.

“A lot of work went into the interior beams too because the architect called for [exposed] circular cuts. You would not believe how hard it is to get blade marks because people use band saws today instead of circular saws.” The effect is dramatic: It looks as if trees are striding through the house and between each is an inviting window seat. The original plans called for similar “trees” in the kitchen too, but the owners chose to omit them.

Another striking element is a ceiling shelf or canopy that wraps around the living rooms above the windows. The owners call it the “catwalk” because their two felines use it to traverse the rooms, like mini-athletes in a Cirque du Soleil show. Barnard said working with Schubart was an extraordinary experience.

“He was very intuitive. I guess that’s the way we all get as we get older. He was unafraid of doing things off the cuff, of taking risks. Quite often he would develop a floor plan and then say: ‘Okay, how are we going to put a roof on this?’ “Many of his projects were amazing,” he said, adding a new book about the architect was just released, called Houses Made of Wood and Light: Life & Architecture of Hank Schubart.

Eileen and Martin’s house was a challenge to build because the site and orientation were different from the original, but they were willing to make compromises, Barnard said. He stressed that he would not have contemplated doing a repeat of the house had the original owners not already sold theirs. “We needed to do a complete redesign of the bedroom wing. The owners also wanted a lower floor and a more permanent roof, so we used concrete tile instead of cedar shakes.”

But in other aspects the house is much the same, Barnard said. Maracaibo is a residential community set on a peninsula of private parkland on Saltspring Island’s Long Harbour. It comprises 85 lots, ranging from half- to five acres in size. Cottages or year-round residences have been built on 68 of the lots.

Victoria Times Colonist

Comments are closed.