Disher House Showcased with 13 Iconic Residences in HGTV’s Doc

Great bones, exquisite historical detailing – even a secret room. A 105-year-old Arts and Crafts estate in Vancouver’s First Shaughnessy neighbourhood was lovingly restored over eleven years. It’s fetured in HGTV’s documentary, Great Canadian Homes hosted by Tommy Smythe

By Laura Goldstein

It was love at first site for Murray and Val Nunns. The Calgary businessman, former geologist and self -proclaimed “serial restorer,” Nunns saw the Disher House online when the couple were on holiday in Maui in 2006. He immediately put an offer in, then flew to Vancouver to inspect the 1912 granite Arts and Crafts heritage home named after the family who lived there for fifty-six years (1916-1972.) Nunns, a combination ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and historian, researched the house built by a local financier, J.B. Johnson in a new CPR development known as Shaughnessy Heights, that attracted wealthy scions of the booming railroad industry. But what really excited him was the provenance of the house: the only one built in Vancouver by Paul Phipps, who trained under renowned British Arts and Crafts architect and landscape designer, Sir Edwin Lutyens from 1901 – 1904. (It also didn’t hurt that Phipps was the brother-in-law of wealthy New York businessman and politician, Waldorf Astor,) adding to the historical cache.

“The bones were great,” enthuses Nunns, “with incredible oak paneling throughout, 7 fireplaces, original stained glass, a beautiful garden and the amazing decorative plaster rosettes on the ceiling in the living room, (thought to be created by Charles Marega who sculpted the lions at the Lions Gate Bridge,) all in pristine condition. Really, what needed to be done was make it livable for the 21st Century –    we didn’t want it to look like a museum because we actually lived here and that’s what the Arts and Crafts movement was all about.”

The Disher House is showcased in an hour-long doc, Great Canadian Homes, commemorating Canada’s 150th through our national legacy of rich architecture and design. Produced by Heart Hat Entertainment for HGTV, their team researched dozens of homes coast to coast, before whittling down to a final 13 iconic private residences. With a mandate to chronologically showcase the grand, the eccentric and eclectic from Confederation in 1867 to the present, exuberant HGTV personality and architecture buff, Tommy Smythe travelled across the country, giving viewers a rare open house experience.

“That plaster rosette ceiling is just breathtaking,” reminisces Smythe by phone from Toronto when I ask what most surprised him about the Disher House.

“You know, what stands out to me are all the personal stories from owners like Murray Nunns and their respect for heritage. The Disher House is such a magnificent example of detailed hand-made craftsmanship that began with the Arts and Crafts movement rebelling against industrialization in England. That included bringing details of exterior gardens and nature inside through carvings and sculpture,” Smythe says. I just love how there is a huge return to this way of thinking instead of mass-produced. I think young people today really appreciate the importance of design and handmade craft when, for example, they go to buy furniture.”

The Nunns made a few surprising discoveries when their team of carpenters and plumbers began work. “Of the 17 pillars in the basement, seven had rotted and we had to remove asbestos from heating pipes to do structural restorations,” Nunns explains. “That’s when we discovered a hidden dumbwaiter that went up three floors. A servants’ bell board (think Downton Abbey,) that we’ve kept, was found in some rubble. We discovered a spring-loaded hidden panel that when pushed, opened a secret room under the main staircase. We used it to store our valuables,” laughs Nunns. “And of course, inside the walls were lots of newspapers dated 1913, common in heritage homes, but no stashes of money.”

Although the vast kitchen by Paradigm Kitchen Design was installed with modern appliances, its design was based on that of Charles Rennie MacIntosh right down to the ornate hardware. He was a Scottish architect and watercolourist in the early 1900s that insisted on streamlined fluidity in cabinet design and they are still custom manufactured in Britain.

The Nunns are world travellers and have been collecting antiques for over twenty-five years. Beautiful original period pendant lighting and jewel hued Tiffany lamps mix flawlessly with original Arts and Crafts furniture and contemporary pieces in each room. Although William Morris wallpapers are also having a resurgence, the Nunns chose to keep wall palettes neutral with occasional pops of red picked up in moldings and plush carpets.

On the upper level is an exquisite mauve wisteria-themed original stained glass picture window that echoes the meandering wisteria in the geometric wrap-around garden. “Planted many years ago, it’s now 125-feet long with a 4-inch stock that looks like it’s out of a scene from Harry Potter,” jokes Nunns.

The Disher House recently sold to a new owner and the Nunns are well underway on their fourth Arts and Crafts restoration, this time a Samual Maclure home in Victoria. I asked Murray Nunns if they had ever experienced any ghostly presence in the Disher House during the years that they lived there. “’Well Val says she thinks any spirits should feel happy living in the home.’” “I say we’ve put in an awful lot of work to make those ghosts happy!”

Watch Great Canadian Homes on HGTV