Jane Jacobs' place

Architect Terry Montgomery talks about his famous home on Albany Avenue

What might it be like for a painter to live in Picasso’s old house, or for a writer to hunker down at Hemingway’s old home by the sea?

For an idea, one might ask Terry Montgomery.

For some time Montgomery, an architect who designs everything from bridges to hospitals, had pondered the idea of moving to the Annex to be closer to work and his children. But no house seemed to click well enough to entice him and his wife to leave their comfortable home in the Beach. Until, that is, he heard about one particular house on the market — that of the late urban theorist, Jane Jacobs.

“I’d never met her, actually,” Montgomery says. “But I’d heard her speak and I had read her books, so that kind of got our curiosity up.”

An icon, Jacobs’ ideas about how to make cities liveable have been lauded by thinkers around the world, but especially in her adopted home of Toronto, where in the 1970s she helped defeat the Spadina Expressway plan that would have uprooted the Annex. After her death in April 2006, Jacobs’ son decided to sell the house. When Montgomery saw the listing, he bought it.

“It was still furnished with all her furniture when we looked at it. There was a jigsaw puzzle on the table and her study was all there. That certainly made it attractive to us, so we ended up buying it.”

Now, although the move has brought Montgomery mere minutes from his office, he likes to work at home when he has the chance.

“I often think that if I have to write something I tend to write it here rather than at the office, because I think her writing skill might permeate the house a bit,” he says with a laugh.

Whether or not he’s aided by her spirit, Montgomery is certainly aided by Jacobs’ ideas at his firm, Montgomery Sisam, as he works on projects such as a new bicentennial bridge to Fort York and the athletes village for the upcoming Pan Am Games. Although his own interest in buildings began as a child growing up in Lawrence Park, he says his thinking shifted when he encountered Jacobs’ ideas.

“I always thought about architecture as the buildings themselves,” he says. “Where Jane flipped it around for me was (in her) thinking about the space between buildings being almost as important — maybe more important — than the buildings themselves.”

But attracted as he was to the idea of the house’s legacy, Montgomery didn’t buy it to turn it into a museum.

“It needed a lot of work … It hadn’t had any work done on it since (Jacobs) had moved in. That was 1970.”

Some of Montgomery’s changes include the subtraction of a back staircase and the addition of new floors, lighting and washrooms. Jacobs’ former study is now a bedroom and the kitchen has been reconfigured as well.

“It was a tricky house to renovate because, on the one side, I wanted to be kind of fresh and modern, but I also had a lot of appreciation for this period of Edwardian houses,” Montgomery says of the nearly century-old home. “The geography of the house is very much the same as it was.”

The outside remains almost unchanged as well, and some of the main features, such as the central staircase and distinctive stain glass windows, are also intact.

“I think she would have approved of the fact we renovated the house, but certainly didn’t change it from the outside,” he says.

It’s a good thing too, as the house sometimes serves as a backdrop for the occasional photo op.

“There’s a group of people that come up from some American university every year and have their picture taken on the porch,” Montgomery says.

There’s also the annual Jane’s Walk, a series of local tours inspired by Jacobs and designed to get people acquainted with the urban spaces that surround them. One of the walks stops at the house.

But Montgomery doesn’t mind the visitors. In fact, he welcomes the neighbourhood’s pedestrian traffic, even if it does occasionally stop at his front porch.

“I’ve never lived in a neighbourhood where someone walks by almost every minute … it’s really nice,” he says.

With a large number of students, seniors and families on the street, he says it’s also the most diverse street he’s ever lived on.

“It’s ideal and it’s what Jane always espoused — mixed income, mixed use … for a healthy neighbourhood.

“There’s quite a group of people who knew each other before we came and who knew Jane as well. People seem to have potluck suppers and things. Somehow we seemed to fit into that same group, which has been quite nice for us.”

With the neighbourhood still calling to mind so much of what Jacobs stood for, Montgomery says he sometimes feels she hasn’t left.

“Sometimes I sense (her) spirit is here. The thing is she was a really independent thinker, you know. And you don’t come across really independent thinkers that much. She probably left that spirit here, I’d say.”

About this article:

By: Joshua Freeman
Posted: Jan 25 2011 4:22 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto