“The Winter Vault” and Art Deco

Clarendon“It was past midnight by the time they reached Toronto. Clarendon Avenue was treelined,empty. The leaves of the maples gathered in the warm wind. Jean pushed open the wrought-iron door of an old stone apartment building, pendulous glass lanterns glowing in the entranceway.

-Step outside,said Jean,holding the door open for Avery to enter.

Inside,the foyer ceiling glowed with stars.

– This is where my mother and father lived when they were first married,said Jean. The painter J.E.H. MacDonald designed everything – the symbols of the zodiac,the patterns on the beams- and a young man named Carl Schaefer, climbed the ladder and painted them.”

An excerpt from “The Winter Vault” by Anne Michaels. The book was on the short-list for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The author also wrote “Fugitive Pieces”.

I read this book a few years ago for a book club discussion.The book was well received for its beautifully written story and descriptive detail.

A good friend of mine knows how much I love architecture and history so she introduced me to her brother who happens to know a lot about Toronto’s history. He met us on a chilly fall day and gave us a very informative and fascinating tour of city architecture. One building in particular –  the highlight of the tour, was this building on Clarendon Avenue.

The scene in the book literally came to life for me that afternoon ; it was like walking into the novel itself. When we read fiction, the writer’s words are descriptive on the page and each reader has their own visual interpretation of those words – that’s what makes the connection between writer and reader so intimate and anonymous.

The foyer, as described in the book, was painted by Canadian Artist, Carl F. Schaefer in September and October of 1928.  J.E.H. MacDonald designed the ceiling and was also a renowned Canadian artist ;  a leading member of the  Group of Seven. The owner and builder of the Clarendon building was Henry Falk, an American who had an appreciation for the arts and so he specifically hired the top Canadian artists at the time for his buildings. The colour and design of the ceiling took on an Art Deco style of the twenties, and the paint included gold leaf in the mixture. Also, a technique used for the first for its time; the ceiling was textured, poured concrete.

Carl F. Schaefer – http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=4902

J.E.H. MacDonald – http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=3428

The Winter Vault

© 2013 Ann Ivy Male


  1. That is amazing, and how fortunate you could see all that beauty!
    How did you put all that together: book, and Raymond, and the house?

  2. Having just finished “The Winter Vault” I was searching out the facts behind this wonderful work of fiction. What a delight to find your site and have this ceiling revealed. Not a bit as I imagined but makes more sense now. Many thanks. Maureen

    1. Hi Maureen, I love the detail in the book, Anne Michaels writes beautiful stories, and I was so thrilled when the opportunity presented itself to have a look at the actual ceiling – it truly is stunning. Thanks for visiting.

  3. Thanks for your gorgeous photos! My parents lived in the building for 25-years, and I had an apartment there for nearly 10-years. It was a wonderful community to be a part of and as colourful as the lobby ceiling.

  4. Hi Lili, thanks so much for your feedback – when I visited the building years ago I secretly wished that I too lived there – you and your parents were very fortunate to have been surrounded by such history and beauty. I hope you get a chance to read The Winter Vault – it’s excellent.

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