Who Lives Here? The house with the purple door

By Shaun Markey – 

The year was 2011 and Alison Francis made the emotional decision to sell her home at 475 Athlone Ave., a home where she had lived for 40 years. 

The Francis home was modest, under 1,200 square feet with three bedrooms (two of them quite small) and only one bathroom. It was built in 1941. Still, the lot was 50 by 100 feet and Athlone is a quiet, desirable street with a cul de sac at the south end where it meets Clare Park. 

Not surprisingly, there was considerable interest in the home. The offers came in quickly. There were four of them: Two from developers who likely wanted to tear the little stucco house down and two from private individuals. One of those offers came from Vanessa Gale and her partner Owen Lumley. 

At the time, Vanessa and Owen lived in a semi on Winston Avenue but found it too small for their family, which included children Maeve and Charlie, now 13 and 11. Vanessa was also expecting their third child, Rose, now 8. It was time, they decided, for a move to larger quarters. And while the Athlone building was undersized, the large lot meant they could expand the house to accommodate their growing family. 

475 Athlone Ave. is a happy home. Pictured here are Vanessa, Rose, Maeve, Owen, and Charlie. Olive is the family dog. Photos by Andrea Tomkins

It so happened that Vanessa and Owen had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Francis prior to a scheduled open house. They moved quickly to submit their offer. The fact they planned to keep the house and not demolish it weighed in their favour. Their offer was accepted even though one of the other offers was higher.

The family moved in. Over the next year, Owen created a plan for a two-storey rear addition that would add a new kitchen and dining area across the back of the house, with two more bedrooms and two new bathrooms on the second floor. They retained contractor Richard Dickie who looked after all the dealings with city hall and in due time built an addition that was functional, comfortable and nicely in keeping with the original stucco home. “We stayed as long as possible during the renovation,” remembers Vanessa. “But it came to a point when we had to leave. The whole family stayed in Richard’s basement for six weeks.” Owen added, “That gave him added incentive to get it finished!”

When the family moved back into 475 Athlone Ave., it had the new kitchen and a larger dining area. A wood stove was added to a corner in the living room. The original kitchen became a general-purpose area with a computer, pantry, and a large storage area with laundry facilities and a powder room nearby. Happily, they were able to keep the original windows on the north side of the house on the first floor. Much of the woodwork and trim was retained as well. The downstairs flooring is a mix of hardwood and in the new addition, cork. Upstairs there are now four bedrooms and two bathrooms. 

Their original plans had called for a new porch on the front of the house, which would also wrap around the south side. A good portion of the side porch, an area of about 16 by 20 feet was to be screened. “We had planned on the porch but we were going to do it later. My mum said ‘just do it.’” So they did. Building the porch meant relocating the laneway to other side of the house and building a new garage at the end of it.

Vanessa’s mother was also the inspiration for the purple front door on the Athlone house. “The door is purple because I grew up with a purple door,” explains Vanessa. “My mum had one on her house in the Cabbagetown area of Toronto. When she passed away, I decided to make our door purple.” Vanessa’s inheritance from her mother ultimately enabled the couple to build the porch sooner rather than later. 

In the summer, the porch is a great spot for family dinners. In the winter, it’s an equally good location for airing hockey gear. And in this family there’s a lot of hockey gear! All five play hockey on a regular basis.

When he’s not playing hockey, Owen works for Acacia Communications Inc., a leading telecommunications firm in Kanata. He is originally from Ancaster, Ontario and went to McMaster where he earned his degree in engineering physics. Vanessa, currently a stay-at-home mum, holds a BSc from Dalhousie and a masters’ in earth sciences (mineralogy) from the University of British Columbia (UBC). She also found time to attend cooking school and work in the restaurant and food industry.

The couple originally met while playing Ultimate Frisbee here in Ottawa. Later, Vanessa decided to move to Vancouver to attend UBC. That decision made, she posed a short question to Owen. “I’m going to Vancouver. Do you want to come?” His answer was shorter: “Yes.”

After three years in Vancouver, the couple opted to make Ottawa their long-term home and moved back. Today, their children attend schools in Westboro. In addition to hockey, they enjoy their neighbours, Clare Park and their four-year-old Great Pyrenees mountain dog, Olive. There are no plans to move. 

[Click photos to enlarge.]

In a neighbourhood as popular as Westboro, older homes on 50-foot lots are vulnerable. The underlying value of the property almost dictates that single homes will be demolished to make way for much larger semi-detached doubles and singles which more often than not dwarf those around them. But once in a long while, the occasional older house on a 50-foot lot is saved. Perhaps not always in original form, but largely so. 

Though she knew she had to leave 475 Athlone, Alison Francis did her best to place the house in the hands of a young couple she thought would treat it with the respect it deserved. She could not have found better custodians than Vanessa Gale and Owen Lumley. 

The young couple preserved 475 Athlone, not because it was historically important or an architectural gem, but because they knew it could be altered to meet their needs. They also knew the home was important to Ms. Francis. And now, it is important to them, too, which is the way things should be sometimes. 

The KT “Who lives here” series takes a closer look at some unique homes and the people who live there. Which Kitchissippi-area homes are you most curious about? It could be an old home, a new one, a big one, or a small one. Email a street address and a photo to editor@kitchissippi.com and we’ll do the rest. To read other stories in this series, click here.

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

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