Who Lives Here: A place in history

By Shaun Markey –

I can personally attest to the fact that Greg Milanovich is a gracious, flexible and welcoming host. Few people, if any, would respond as kindly when the reporter, me, accidentally shows up three hours early to do an interview about Greg’s residence, a stunning example of “prairie school” architecture at 166 Huron Ave. N.

And yet, despite being caught in his pajamas and robe, Greg waived off my apologies and also my offer to come back at the original time. Within a minute, he had me seated in one of the twin living rooms at the front of the home while he beat a hasty and understandable retreat upstairs for a change of clothes.

I have been in period homes from the same era as 166 Huron, which was designed and built in 1915 by Ottawa’s Francis Sullivan, an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright. The client was E. P. Connors, the City’s tax assessor at the time and young Sullivan was all of 33-years-old when he took on the task.

No other house I can recall has made such an interesting and impressive statement. From the moment one approaches the entrance, a set of slightly narrow twin doors, protected and flanked by sturdy red brick columns, it is clear that this is an interesting if not important residential structure.

Wright’s prairie style was a successful attempt to cast off earlier architectural norms of the Victorian era. Fancy embellishments and details were left behind in favour of strong horizontal lines, low or flat roofs, wide eaves and vertical columns.

Before he returned and before Lori Gordon, a retired cardiac nurse and Greg’s partner, joined me for our conversation, I had a few moments to enjoy my surroundings. The living rooms, centre hall and dining room all have their original and finely crafted woodwork. Stained dark and mellowed with time, the dark oak fireplace on my left had impressive barley twist columns and a carved decorative centerpiece on the mantel. The plate rails in the three rooms are all original, as are just about all of the doors. Two entrances in particular, the door on the opposite side of the entrance and the “pocket” doors to the dining room have beautiful and colourful art glass panels, which are also original.

Greg has owned the home since 1987 when he took it over from his brother-in-law, Enzo Morelli, an architect, who two years earlier bought the house after an impromptu conversation with the previous owner. At the time, Greg was busy working in the financial administration field for government and later as a consultant. He and Lori are now enjoying retirement together.

During a tour of the downstairs, Greg pointed out that the original cooking kitchen had been in the basement. Food was then sent upstairs to a smaller kitchen for final preparation before the plates were brought through a butler’s pantry to the dining room. A button on the floor in the dining room could be rung by who ever was sitting at the head of the table to signal that the diners were ready for the next course. 

The downstairs kitchen is long gone and a nicely equipped one-bedroom apartment is now in its place.

Greg and Lori had a completely new kitchen installed on the first floor which, though modern in all facets, blends nicely with the rest of the house, including the hardwood floors and the dark oak cornice atop the cabinets and above the large kitchen window.

The former butler’s pantry now functions as an area for preparing beverages and they borrowed space from that area to accommodate the kitchen refrigerator and a two-piece washroom.

A sunroom off the kitchen is the perfect spot to sit and enjoy a morning coffee. Stairs lead down to a comfortable patio beside the two bay garage.

Upstairs, there are four bedrooms, a main bath on the second floor and two bedrooms on the third floor. All those bedrooms, Greg surmises, might have been the reason the Huron house did duty as a “rooming house” in the 1960’s. With multiple tenants on all three floors, it is surprising that the original woodwork and the art glass panels in the interior doors survived intact.

Greg notes he has been meticulous about making sure the dwelling’s exterior details are consistent with the home’s heritage designation. All the stucco is original, as are almost all of the windows. One on the second floor was lost to a small fire many years ago.  Greg also worked tirelessly removing excess paint from many of the window frames.

The roof has both shingled sections and flat areas roofed with membrane material. Greg recalls the amazement of the roofing team during replacement of the shingles a few years ago. “When the old shingles were removed, they couldn’t believe the thickness of the roof boards under them,” he says. “Over one and a half inches thick; they said all ten of them could jump on them at once and nothing would happen.”

Sitting in the living room on a beautiful morning, I asked Greg and Lori what it was like to live in the Huron home. Lori was quick to offer her opinion. “Living here, you feel the house has a soul. You feel proud to live here.”  She also added a caveat. “It’s going to be hard to go anywhere else from this home.” Greg’s comments were in line with Lori’s. “When you step into this house you immediately feel the history and the tradition of the place,” he says.

Lori likens the feeling the house stirs in her to other important buildings. “It’s like walking into a beautiful church,” she said.

Over their tenure, Lori and Greg had the fireplaces updated, added ductless air-conditioning units, and a high-efficiency water boiler which moves hot water through the original cast iron heating elements in each room. “The system still works very well,” says Greg during our tour.

Lori quips that they are not the only ones who love 166 Huron. Over the years the Sullivan masterpiece has been the subject of numerous articles, a university thesis and a documentary television production in 1989. Passersby often stop to admire the house. “I’ve come down many times in the morning to find people on the front porch taking photos of the heritage plaque,” Lori adds.

While there is much joy and satisfaction in living in the home, Lori and Greg acknowledge that there are responsibilities that come with it.  “As the owners, you have a responsibility to be a good custodian of the house,” says Lori. “You have to be committed to it.”

Thirty-one years have passed since Greg first took ownership of the house and both he and Lori have noted the passage of time. They both have reached an age where they’re thinking of their next home; a place that will accommodate a change in lifestyle, more travel, different experiences.

After the interview, I stop to take one quick photo of this remarkable house that was once the vision of a young architect draftsman who designed it and the bureaucrat who paid $7,640 to have it built. And now I’m looking at the photo. It seems only fitting that Greg Milanovich is there, just to the left on the steps of the house he has lovingly cared for these past 31 years. I like to think that Francis Sullivan is standing on his right.

This feature is brought to you in part by Engel & Völkers Ottawa Central, Brokerage.

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