Architecture meets academiaPublished on July 3, 2012

  • Barbara Leckie and Joel Westheimer.

  • A Bertazzoni oven from Universal Appliances offers the perfect hit of colour in the white European kitchen.

  • A natural flow to enjoy a meal and share conversation is felt within the kitchen/family room.

  • The renovated basement bathroom is a chic, well-used space.

  • The third floor offers a calm oasis for work and reflection.

Apartment living in New York City really inspires an appreciation of the value of space. So, when former New Yorkers Barbara Leckie and Joel Westheimer renovated their home in Old Ottawa South, they vowed to make the best use of every precious square foot.

The result is a bright, open and welcoming home that is a perfect reflection of their interests and way of life. As befits two academics, you can barely take a step without encountering a well-stocked bookshelf.

For their first couple of years together, the couple spent time commuting between such far- flung cities as San Francisco and New York. They were finally able to settle in the Canadian capital when they both found employment at Ottawa universities - Barbara is an English professor at Carleton University and Joel is an education professor at the University of Ottawa.

They were thrilled to find a lovely older home for rent in the stately, tree-lined neighbourhood of Old Ottawa South. And when it later came up for sale, they knew it was the perfect place for them to raise their children, Michal, 14 and Ben, 9.

"It was a great house for us in so many ways." says Joel. "But it also needed a few updates to make it really ours."

Just a week before the scheduled renovation, the couple retained local architect Chris Simmons, who inspired their confidence almost instantly. "It only took five minutes of Chris drawing on a napkin for us to know that he understood where we wanted to go with the renovation and what was important to us," Joel explains.

The architect worked closely with Lindsay Nicol of Crossford Construction to help the project evolve moment to moment, dealing with details and changes as they cropped up. With a busy entertaining schedule, creating open-concept rooms was crucial to the couple's lifestyle. On any given day they may have to accommodate a troupe of debating students, actors setting up for a play along with friends enjoying their buoyant hospitality.

First, they tackled the eat-in kitchen and dining room with a primary goal of creating a big, welcoming space. It was enlarged with the addition of more and larger windows to bring in natural light, which highlights updated features such as the curving lines of the entrance and a new rounded white countertop. A fresh, canary-yellow range and playful metal sculpture are whimsical touches by Barbara, who is a keen garage sale hunter. Her amazing finds collectively balance the more traditional white mouldings and leaded glass windows in the home.

The larger counter space has also allowed the family to expand their culinary adventures. Barbara and both kids are avid chefs, while Joel - a true New Yorker - is a take-out aficionado. Michal's latest passion is baking cakes so complicated that they can take weeks to prepare, and her parents get to taste the delicious creations in reward for ignoring the messy trail of icing sugar and flour.

After the kitchen renovation, they moved onto the attic, where an unfinished storage space became a bright, book-filled home office with a gorgeous view of Brown's Inlet. The original plan was to simply make the third floor more accessible for storage, but they are both thrilled with the renovated, Zen-like room, where Barbara likes to spend peaceful time alone and enjoy the early-morning sunshine.

"Ultimately, it became one of the most beautiful and functional parts of the house," says Joel. "Whether I'm working up there alone, meeting with students, having an intimate theatre production or a political meeting, it's at once a utilitarian wonder and a quiet retreat when necessary."

The final project was the basement; work included a new bedroom and beautiful bathroom for the family's numerous out-of-town guests - one of whom is Joel's mother, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famed psychosexual therapist.

Since neither Joel nor Barbara have family living in Ottawa, they often have between two and 12 weekend visitors, and the renovation has made this a much smoother proposition.

"We've always had a lot of guests and that hasn't changed," Barbara says. "But now it is so much easier - the house easily absorbs seemingly endless numbers of people."

Whether it's just the four of them or a wide and varied group, it's clear that Joel and Barbara have finally come home.

"From the porch I can see our kitchen and new dining room and it still amazes me and I can't believe that it is our house," she says. "It looks more like a place that I would like to live in, but never would be lucky enough to have as my own."

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