Great Spaces: A notorious Riverdale raccoon house is transformed after standing derelict for decades
In close-knit Riverdale, no two houses have garnered as much gossip as the side-by-side Victorians on Langley Avenue that were owned by Walter Schimming. Schimming, for the uninitiated, was an octogenarian recluse who lived, Grey Gardens–like, in one of the houses and left the other vacant and decaying for decades until his death in 2006.
In 2008, the houses went on the market together, with an asking price of $1.15 million. When James Faw, owner of a software company, and Michael Schwarz, owner of the restaurants Hair of the Dog and Fire on the Eastside, first saw them, they looked like the set of a horror film: each was divided into a maze of rooming units, a fallen tree had crushed one roof, and raccoon carcasses littered the interiors. At the time, Faw and Schwarz had a two-year-old daughter, Hannah, and were expecting twins by surrogate. Most parents would run screaming from such a huge project, but Faw and Schwarz knew that in one of the city’s most family-friendly neighbourhoods, this was a steal. So they bought the places—one as a rental property, the other as their future home.
Schwarz orchestrated the overhauls, which took just over a year (the twins, Alexander and Samantha, arrived mid-reno, pushing the process back a few months). They designed their home as a kind of mash-up of gallery and playroom. To showcase their collection of Toronto-made art, the couple turned the kitchen and living room into one grand space, painted the walls white and eliminated fussy mouldings. But Faw and Schwarz didn’t want the room—which has become a hub for the neighbourhood’s kids—to feel too austere, so they chose furniture that doubles as toy storage and added playful, graphic hits like the big EAT sign. They also installed massive windows that look out onto the backyard and the kids’ new tree house—which might be the best place on Langley Avenue to spot a raccoon these days.
Most of the framed cutlery came from an antique market in Paris, though the set second from the bottom is a family treasure of sorts. It belonged to Schwarz’s grandmother, who was forced to leave Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II as part of a mass deportation of Germans. The flatware was one of the few household items she took with her.
Schwarz hand-cut the EAT sign from old pine boards as a Christmas gift to Faw.
The drawers were originally in the civil engineering department at U of T. The couple got them at Filter on Jarvis and created a trompe l’oeil pantry (the drawer fronts are mounted on cupboard doors).
Restaurant designer Jouke Van Sloten gave Faw and Schwarz this Jacobean-style throne. It used to be in his home, a former schoolhouse in Shelburne, Ontario.
The bench/toy box is from IKEA, but they customized it with leather cushions and feet made out of shot glasses—a shout-out to Schwarz’s restaurants.
The staircase is the only structural feature to survive the reno, though the spindles (which used to be alternating primary colours) had to be stripped and repainted.
The couple bought the painting by Toronto artist Brian Rideout at the annual outdoor art show in Nathan Phillips Square.
They got the vintage trunk for a steal (just $25) at a Riverdale street sale. It holds the kids’ art supplies.
The plaster St. Bartholomew statue that welcomes visitors at the front door is from a now-defunct Queen East antique store. (His arm doubles as a hook for their Portuguese water dog Delilah’s leash.)
Schwarz built the base of the dining table himself, then selected mahogany slabs from a lumberyard in Kitchener for the top.
The couple bought a high-res image of vintage cutlery online at istockphoto.com and had it blown up, printed on vinyl and applied to the cupboard.
The plastic chairs, replicas of the iconic ’60s Panton chairs, are from Morba. They have matching booster seats for family dinners.
Schwarz kept the hardware from the old house and framed it in a shadow box as a Christmas gift to Faw last year. Faw explains, “Michael and I don’t want the house to be too modern; we want objects with some history and soul.”