A little Frank Lloyd Wright in Rockcliffe

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

The entranceway of the Finnish Ambassador’s residence is immediately inviting and leads directly into a casual living room with 18-foot ceilings.

Although their house wasn’t built to be their official residence, the feeling that they are home in Finland permeates the atmosphere for Ambassador Charles Murto and his wife, Ritva. They are completely comfortable in the California redwood house overlooking McKay Lake in Rockcliffe, a house actually built in 1953, but as modern-looking today as it was 60 years ago.
Abundant trees may have grown big enough to obscure the original view, but the Frank Lloyd Wright-style residence is still as impressive and elegant as if the great architect had built it himself.
For the diplomatic couple, the sunlight that pours into the house from its many large windows to warm the slate floors, along with the wood finishes and brick walls, speak of a casual style extremely close to that of their homeland.
“We love it,” says the ambassador to Canada.
“It is natural and the proportions are beautiful,” adds his wife. “It’s a home, not a ceremonial house.”

The residence has an essential Finnish fixture: A sauna in the basement.

A student of Frank Lloyd Wright, architect William More designed the house for his brother, Francis, and his wife, in the “Usonian” style, a smaller version of Wright’s famous Midwest mansions. These types of houses were created to be affordable, with open plans, soaring angled ceilings and generous windows.
The Finnish government acquired the residence in 1975, and since then, has made two major changes to the original design. The first was an addition, to make it more suitable for entertaining, and in 2001, the government added three bedrooms and an office.
The entranceway is immediately welcoming, with slate floors warmed by radiant heating and a skylight to brighten up the wood-panelled walls. The foyer leads directly into the 18-foot-wide living room decorated simply with white sofas and a colourful area rug, all highlighted by a stunning stone hearth, another centrepiece of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes. The hearth was seen by Wright to be the focal point of the house and designed to enclose spaces with a natural palette of stone and wood.

Ambassador Charles Murto and his wife, Ritva.

A high-sloped wooden ceiling rises two-and-a-half feet from the northwest side to the sunny southeast façade where a wall of glass-panelled doors opens onto the slate-floored balcony. Modernistic Finnish art complements the style of the room. Soft creams and oranges round out the colour palette. Among the paintings are lovely watercolours by Finnish painter and graphic artist Inari Krohn.
The bright dining room, with redwood beams on the ceiling and limestone and redwood planks on the wall, is separated from the living room by a wood screen partition. The modern Finnish dining room table, with strips of glass down the middle, was made especially for the residence. The room seems warm and simple, enhanced by the light from floor-to-ceiling windows. The windows are covered with modern wooden blinds instead of heavy drapes.

The dining room, with redwood beams on the ceiling and limestone and redwood planks on the wall, features a modern Finnish table.

When guests come for dinner, they can expect to dine on Finnish specialties. But Ms Murto laughs as she adds that other Scandinavian countries also take credit for many of the same dishes as the Finns. To ensure the food at the residence reflects the country of origin, their Canadian cook went to Finland and learned the techniques for cooking dishes such as salmon soup and pastries filled with wild mushrooms and berries. Cured fish and fish roe as well as crayfish, wild duck, elk and reindeer are also Finnish favourites.

Finnish furniture and art are prominently displayed in the home.

Finnish-Canadian architect Harry Ala-Kantti added a large reception area to the house by removing the interior walls of a second-storey bedroom wing, creating a generous space with another large stone fireplace that fits in so well, it seems part of the original design. It is decorated with the same colours as the living room and is home to a piano, which has been the centrepiece for many concerts — both classical and jazz — in recent years. During the construction, a third level was added for a private family area.
“We didn’t need to bring anything,” says Ms Murto. “The house doesn’t need anything.
But everyone has a favourite spot and on the ambassador’s list is the slate-covered, wraparound terrace surrounding the lake side of the house.
And of course, there is the sauna, located in the basement along with a guest bedroom and a plaque in Finnish and Swedish. Finland is a bilingual country — more than five per cent of its citizens speak Swedish. Every Finnish embassy comes with a sauna, for the comfort of the ambassador and his family.
The reindeer may be hard to come by, but for the well-travelled diplomatic couple, home is definitely where the heart is, even in Ottawa.

Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.

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