The Art of Architecture

Words by Michelle Heslop. Photos by Bruce Wilkin.

For forty years, designer Bruce Wilkin had his eye on this landmark residence designed by Samuel Maclure, a well-known Canadian architect also known for designing Hatley Park in 1908 and working with the Butchart family on renovating their home, now a national historic site at Butchart Gardens. Wilkin knew the owner, Pamela Ellis, and had talked to her about one day restoring this architectural gem that sits on an acre and a quarter of lush gardens. Having lived in multiple Maclure homes, he was certain of the quality craftsmanship he could expect and knew if anything had gone gravely wrong over the years, it could be fixed.

When the time had finally come to step inside the 1916 Italian Renaissance-style home, Wilkin was surprised at the state of neglect and how decrepit it had become. The original Maclure quality, with its prominent Palladian window over a grand porte cochère was still evident, but after a clumsy 1950’s renovation, the home was in need of a complete restoration. Many of the walls were covered with grasscloth and original plasterwork was covered in wood paneling. Most of the light fixtures had been removed and the beautiful Maclure staircase had been replaced with Hollywood regency-style metal scrollwork.


“It takes deep knowledge and skill to carry out a true restoration,” says Wilkin, who adds that their vision was to stay consistent with the original architectural intent while acknowledging their modern lifestyle. He and his partner, Ann Hillyer, preserved the home’s architectural significance while reconfiguring the layout and uncovering and replicating the original Maclure heritage.

Upon entering, the house has a slow reveal. The mahogany stairs lead you from the lower foyer to an upper foyer. Only the invited get past this area and into the grand main rooms. There isn’t a surface the couple didn’t touch, and after underestimating the condition of the home, Wilkin and Hillyer, spent the next two years with a millworker restoring the exquisite classical architecture. They also undertook extensive restoration to the exterior of the house including the porte cochère, the balusters, paint, roof, gutters, and exterior millwork.


Reconfiguring the layout to make modern sense, he envisioned creating a sort of enfilade, reminiscent of European classical architecture, with widened archways to delineate rooms that would allow natural light to cascade through the home. Except for the bathrooms, a pared-down minimal palette alongside ornate detailing pushes design boundaries to create a unique fusion of modernism in classical armour. Matte white walls with semi-gloss trim mimic the palette of a modern gallery, allowing the homeowner’s fine art collection to become the focus.

Two parallel ceiling beams were enhanced with cross beams in the great room to create a classical coffered ceiling with exquisite shadow lines. An intentional gap between the cornice mouldings creates a visual illusion where the ceiling seems to float on the walls which Wilkin explains is “a Maclure trick” he has used over the years.


A disconnect between the kitchen and dining room required eliminating doors, and opening walls — but not before removing the mahogany core from the doors and repurposing it to construct tiles for the restored butler’s pantry. Remodeled by Niche Kitchens, Wilkin’s company with his son, Misha Wilkin, the kitchen was inspired by the butler’s pantry with classic face frame millwork, multi-pane glass cabinet fronts, granite countertops, and vintage light fixtures.

Modern appliances like the 48″ Miele fridge and 36″ Miele range and steam oven provide modern convenience. Their vision for the pantry was to create a bar area that has proven to triage beautifully with the kitchen and dining room.


The Pompeian-style tile work done by Peter Ciceri is spectacular. The lower and upper foyers and the powder room are all tiled in an intricate inlay pattern. Wilkin and Hillyer sourced an eclectic mix of vintage and antique light fixtures including chandeliers from an old theatre, and fixtures from both Waterglass Studios and even a local seventies apartment building. Not stopping there, they integrated modern fixtures by Moooi, Flos, and Artemide.


“The back of the home opens up to an expansive landscape which is such a treat in South Oak Bay,” states Wilkin. Hillyer restored the garden to its original glory and transformed it into an urban sanctuary for the couple. The towering oak and atlas cedar trees were carefully pruned while bin loads of invasive species were removed to reveal rock outcroppings, rock gardens, a pond, and even a totem pole.

Bruce now works for his son Misha’s company, The BWD group. “Every project is better with careful design,” says Misha, who explains that the magic of restoration is to recreate the details of an era while reconfiguring the layout for a modern lifestyle. “Bruce and Ann have created a livable space where their fine art collection can adorn the gallery-white walls while my small children can visit and feel right at home. This is why I’m the biggest fan of my dad’s work; he creates timeless spaces that aren’t just distinctive, they’re livable.”

The art of architecture is alive and well at “Blair Gowie,” the Scottish moniker given to the house that was originally commissioned for Harry and Jennie Ross, daughter of Robert and Jenny Butchart of Butchart Gardens. Wilkin and Hillyer looked back over one hundred years in order to move forward. In a strong dialogue with the past, they embodied Maclure’s architectural essence to restore this home where time- honoured classicism meets a contemporary context.