Calculating

Yours for $23M: A House of Outstanding Mathematical Beauty

A coveted architectural jewel, Toronto’s Integral House—the brainchild of math prof James Stewart—is going up for sale. Which very rich person will buy it?

05.01.15 9:15 AM ET

Inside the most talked-about house in Canada—an edifice that’s been described as “an accordion of wood and glass”—a robust young man stops a party in its tracks with his blast of “Nessum Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot.

Standing guard, in a room as crescendo-ing as the aria, is a toothy flock of real estate agents direct from a production of Glengarry Glenn Ross.

Courtesy Philip Castleton

There are a few hundred people circling, and if the whole affair seems like an “open house” in cultural-drag, than it gee-whizz might just be: The pad just went on the market a few hours ago for a cool $28 million (Cdn), which is roughly $23 million (US).

The modernist manse—dubbed “one of the most important private houses built in North America” by Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—is as famous today, perhaps, as its now-dead master, James Stewart.

It is house as autobiography, a catalogue of dreams commissioned and milked. The short long story: an eccentric math professor, one who’d made his fortune writing calculus books, of all things, and is a classical violinist to boot, decides to build a dream home that doubles as a concert hall.

The project, christened Integral House, and hugging a sloping ravine in Toronto’s cushiest postal code, is based on curves—his math-mind meeting his aesthetic bias. It’s completed it in 2009: five whole stories, from the treetops down. 18,000 square feet, give or take. 

An instant architectural hurrah, it also succeeds as a cathedral of love and music, drawing greats such as Philip Glass to perform, and boldface à la Iman and David Bowie. But, then, tragedy. Stewart is diagnosed not too many years later with multiple myeloma, and is given a year to live.

There is one last party, though, one held a few days before he fades, in which he appears in a red brocade jacket. While introducing the musical repertoire, he prefaces, “Good evening, ladies and gentleman: welcome to my wake.” He died on December 3, 2014.

Tonight, at a shindig orchestrated by Realtors, all and any eulogizing is meshed with scuttlebutt about the sale.

Over empanadas and other appetizers, there are suggestions that David Thomson, aka the 3rd Baron Thomson of Fleet, who is Canada’s richest man (the world’s 22nd-richest) may want to buy it, and keep its integrity. Incidentally, the billionaire happens to live next door.

In another quarter of the party, there’s conjecture about the house being shown to Elton John and his husband, David Furnish, who is from Toronto. (A request for comment from the couple went unreturned, but it seems to me that this particular house seems a little on the austere side for Mr. Rocket Man.)

The gauzy irony hanging over the party is that “James never, ever thought about resale”—this according to architect Brigette Shim, of Shim Sutcliffe, the firm that conjured the house.

“He never contemplated downsizing, or moving,” she went on, as we stood in the mathematician’s downstairs office, where most of his standard textbooks were written, and where they line up on a shelf, dozens of them, in multiple languages, and in umpteenth editions, including his seminal Single Variable Essential Calculus: Early Transcendentals.

Pointed out, also, is one particular tome which features a photo of the famous Bilbao Museum, in Spain. He did that for Frank Gehry, who was a friend, and with whom he’d shared a wonder of curves.

Gehry, who’d been written about everywhere, was apparently only too tickled to see his work embraced in a math textbook.

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Asked to elaborate on some of the glamour of the house, Shim talks about “a certain cadence, and a certain rhythm.”

Additionally, “you can look laterally, and you’re into landscape in both directions”—unique because “nobody can ever build in this location again,” because of strict ravine protection bylaws in Canada’s largest city.

Chiming in is filmmaker Joseph Clement, who’s making a documentary about Stewart—one he commenced before Stewart died. Speaking to the “attention to detail” of Integral House, Clement likes to refer it as the Canadian equivalent of Villa Savoye, the famed villa in Poissy, France, designed by Le Corbusier in the 1930s.

For the design-philes scouting out the house, including the editor-in-chief of Canadian House & Home magazine, Suzanne Dimma, there is one standout feature: “the pool with fully descending 35 ft window wall.” Dimma tinkers with Instagram filters, as she takes in the sight.

There is, in this crowd, also another interesting refrain: The house, built to Stewart’s exact specifications, is almost “an aesthetic unto itself,” a uniqueness that might make it a tricky sale. As Toronto Life put it the next day: “Stewart built a home for a super-wealthy person with toweringly high standards, but small appetites, a rare but paradoxical personality type.”

The hunt is on, though. And when a buyer is found, Stewart’s generosity promises to live on other ways. Unlike many philanthropists who seek posterity by putting their names on a building, the millionaire mathematician left instructions with his executors to give away most of the proceeds of the house’s sale to a medley of arts organizations, including the Canadian Opera Company, and the Glenn Gould School.

It’s the legacy that curves begot—Stewart’s first and last love. “How boring is that?” he once said when asked why he didn’t just have his house designed with straight lines. Calculus, he beamed, “is the mathematics of curves. And curves are what make the world go ’round.”