Curb Appeal: Inspiration From Beautiful Old Buildings

If you want to become a good designer, it’s important to train your eye. Spend time looking, looking, looking at the world around you, at design, at anything and everything. Inspiration will begin to soak in and you will find yourself recognizing certain motifs, patterns and eras. It’s the way you come to understand composition, scale and balance. By looking carefully and frequently, your eye is literally trained over time.

I like to take special note of beautiful old buildings to train my eye. The great architects and builders of the past were able to create the most magical environments — ones that have so many lessons to teach. Here’s a good example, with photos I took on a walk just this month.

This house is called Parkwood and you can find it in Oshawa, Ontario. It was built by Col. Sam McLaughlin, founder of the Canadian arm of General Motors. Mr. McLaughlin was behind the creation of many landmark buildings in the area and was a great lover of arts and design. He hired the architectural firm Darling & Pearson, who also designed the Royal Ontario Museum, parts of the University of Toronto, and the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

The house was built between 1915 and 1917 (with later additions) in the Beaux-Arts style that focuses on rationality, classicism and symmetry. Style-wise, I love the vert de gris colour of the roof tiles and the black punctuation of the shutters against the grey stone.

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

Though the house is very grand, the front door is diminutive and welcoming. I think it’s interesting that the architects paid attention to human scale and didn’t make the door massive. And the slick black paint on the door is a classic House & Home trick, isn’t it? We can’t take all the credit!

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

Along the side of the house there are lovely terraced gardens with stone steps and balustrades. I believe this room at the side was a later addition — I like that it feels like part of the garden. Constructing a yard with various levels and borders creates interest and a sense of destination. This principle works on yards big and small.

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This smaller garden structure is a great spot to escape the rain or set up an intimate dinner party, don’t you think? Notice the shape of the opening — it’s like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and many other triumphal arches from classical times. Just another shape to train your eye to. You often see attic windows in older houses with this shape.

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

This garden door makes me weak in the knees. It’s so mysterious and romantic! And I love the dark shutters — they remind me of what Lynda and the team used in the orangery of this year’s Princess Margaret Lottery Showhome. And those wild trailing vines!

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

During the Art Deco period, the McLaughlin’s commissioned sprawling formal gardens with clean-lined details that felt very modern and cutting edge at the time. This part of the estate reminds me of The Great Gatsby, and since I hear Baz Luhrmann is remaking the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively (or Amanda Seyfried or Carey Mulligan…), maybe they’ll use these gardens as a location!

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

This is a shot of the drained water feature in the Deco gardens. I just love that turquoise colour in old-fashioned pools!

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

The gardens are full of stonework, from granite walls to carved marble urns like these. Nice inspiration for your garden at home.

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

These sunken gardens are a favourite wedding ceremony spot. You can see more levels here in this garden, plus a nice thick hedge and carpet of grass with stone paths. This might work in a home garden, too, with an urn as a focal point and the lawn broken up with paths — why not?

Photo Blog Finding Inspiration Federal Michael Penney

Finally there is a little gardener’s cottage that I love almost as much as the main house! I’d move in, wouldn’t you? And there you go, some of the same colours and finishes from the mansion have been successfully applied to a house with a smaller scale. The shutters and roof colour, hedges and vines all give this house a romantic, handsome style that all comes from the grand example of Parkwood. All the more reason to take a stroll for inspiration.

For more of my favourite grand houses, read my blog post from Maine.

Photo credits:
1-10. Michael Penney

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