Deeply influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Japanese design, Ron Thom was one of the most significant talents to emerge from the postwar Vancouver architecture scene. Thom’s 1968 Fraser residence at 4 Old George Place, Rosedale, co-designed with associate Paul Merrick, exemplifies his fusion of West Coast sensibilities with the Ontario landscape and building traditions.
From Old George Place, the Fraser residence is almost invisible; only the garage and covered walkway are visible behind dense foliage. The house itself wraps around the crest of a heavily wooded ravine, a striking free-form collision of sloping roof planes clad in rough cedar shingles, pinned by massive vertical slabs of reddish-brown brick and penetrated by skylights and slit windows. Inside, Thom pinwheeled three levels around a winding open staircase, softly illuminated by skylights in the ceiling peak. Spaces interlock vertically and horizontally with few right angles, and are demarcated largely by low partitions or changes in floor height. A polygonal-shaped cantilevered deck extends the dining area into the surrounding trees. Walls and ceilings are of brick and waxed cedar boards, the subdued, introverted ambiance countered by natural light from clerestory windows and the floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the ravine. The effect is of a warm, enveloping shelter with an ever-changing play of light throughout the day.
Widely published over the years, the Fraser residence was designated a City of Toronto heritage property in 1991. A comprehensive restoration by Altius Architecture, completed in 2003, reconfigured some interior spaces and added a secluded front garden terrace with reflecting pools, earthen berms and lush native plantings. (Click here for a review by John Bentley Mays of The Globe and Mail.)
A major figure in the development of the West Coast style, Ron Thom initially trained as a concert pianist and then as a painter at the Vancouver School of Art. Entranced by the possibilities of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture, Thom joined the Vancouver firm Sharp and Thompson, Berwick, Pratt in 1949 as an apprentice and quickly demonstrated an almost poetic design ability. His residences of the 1950s and early 60s received great acclaim for their sensitive design and integration into the site, earning him a Massey Silver Medal in 1952 and a pair of Massey Medals in 1964 for his Copp, Forrest and Grinnell houses. He also received a Silver Medal in 1958 for his CKWX Radio studio building and was a key contributor to the firm’s landmark B.C. Electric head office. Seeking broader horizons, Thom moved to Toronto in 1963 upon completion of his celebrated Massey College at the University of Toronto. He subsequently enjoyed further success as the designer of Trent University and Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough, the Shaw Festival Theatre at Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Arts and Social Sciences Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston and numerous West Coast-influenced houses. In Toronto, his major works include the Metro Toronto Zoo, the Prince Hotel, the Atria North office complex and a house for Murray and Barbara Frum. Unfortunately, due to personal and professional troubles, Thom’s career sharply tapered off in the 1980s. He died in 1986.