WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘It’s like we’re floating above the town,’ I hear myself say as Renate and I settle into a couple of outdoor loungers positioned under a large wooden pergola on the third-storey terrace, ‘completely above the fray.’ From our perch in the sky I can see much of Elora – laid out below us like some sort of playful tableau. To my right, along West Mill Street, tourists lollygag in groups of twos and threes, flowing in and out of boutiques and cafés and restaurants. To my left, down East Mill Street, kids jog on their way to Bissell Park for a game of ‘capture the flag’. Straight ahead, just past the restaurants across the street on East Mill (La Fontana, The Cellar, Shepherd’s Pub), swans congregate on the Grand River – no more than a hundred metres from the famed ‘tooth of time’ rock formation where the river rushes past the Elora Hotel Mill & Spa.
While I remain transfixed by the spectacle below, Renate lifts a gin and tonic to her lips, takes a sip, and remarks with a smile: ‘It sure is a wonderful place to call home.’ Elora, yes. And, more specifically, this impressive three- storey compound that Renate and her partner John have settled into.
It’s a warm Tuesday evening, late May, and I’m in Elora with a singular mission in mind: to spend the night at Renate’s place. Not squished between her and John in their airy apartment, mind you, which takes up the entire second floor of this most unique edifice, and half of the third, and spills onto expansive terraces across both levels. Instead, my bed for the night will be in the building’s luxurious third-storey Airbnb – a bright and spacious one-bedroom unit that rivals anything Elora’s got on offer. I’m staying here to experience how this unique multi-storey complex functions, and to hear how Renate and John operate in (and around) it. Because besides housing the couple’s aforementioned two- storey apartment and third-storey Airbnb, it’s also home to Renate’s business, Karger, which takes up the building’s entire ground floor. The place is where Renate and John live, work, and play. A self-contained oasis.
There’s a good chance you know the place. In fact, if you’ve ever visited Elora you’ve probably marveled at it. Located just a couple doors down East Mill off Elora’s main drag, Metcalfe Street, it’s hard to miss. With its lovely combination of white stucco walls, Ipe wood trim, glimmering glass railing systems, and a head-turning second-storey greenhouse, the modern and angular building presents itself as though it might be as much at home in Sedona, Arizona or Moab, Utah as it is in the picturesque village of Elora. But it definitely wasn’t always this impressive.
‘When I bought the building back in 2012,’ Renate tells me while we watch the sun set over the river and behind the treeline past the Mill, ‘this place was known as Elora’s ugly duckling.’ She continues: ‘I had outgrown my rental studio in The Mews [a quaint collection of shops and cafés off West Mill] and was looking for something larger – a place where I could expand my growing business. I needed more space to be able to showcase the jewelry, sculpture, furniture, and other items I curated and offered up.’ When the former brownstone garage-turned-restaurant (after restaurant after restaurant) came up for a sale – for a price that would make today’s prospective buyers’ jaws drop – Renate jumped at it.
‘I was actually on vacation when the building was listed,’ she recalls, ‘and only learned about it when my employee Elizabeth told me she’d seen the for sale sign out front.’ At the time, Renate didn’t have the funds she needed to buy the place and no bank would finance the purchase. Her solution? ‘I convinced my mom to fast track my inheritance as a down payment on the property,’ she tells me. ‘I was actually still on vacation when I closed the deal,’ Renate notes with a contagious laugh, recalling her high-risk antic. ‘The place was a disaster when I took possession,’ she remembers. ‘Liquidators had stripped everything of value from it and left the rest a total mess.’ Speakers ripped out of the ceiling. Garbage all over the place. Rotten steaks in the freezer. No hydro. And all hers.
Over the next while Renate’s good friend Barry Williamson worked to gut and renovate the structure, while local artists paraded large cartoon pieces that had been crafted for the outside of Renate’s Mews studio by Elora artist (and Riverfest Elora founder) Marilyn Koop to her new building, to be displayed outside – just in time for opening day. ‘It was actually a pretty cheesy storefront,’ Renate recalls with a chuckle, ‘but it was mine and we were open for business.’ Over the next few years, Karger Gallery (which is what it was called then) grew and Renate worked on beautifying her ‘ugly duckling’ – including resurfacing the façade in white stucco (a fix that resulted in Renate’s receiving a township award in 2016). And then disaster struck – when the old building’s roof, untouched for decades, gave its last gasp and began to leak profusely.
‘I still remember John and me taking a bottle of wine up onto the roof one evening, with the intention of patching the leaks,’ Renate tells me. ‘We ended up enjoying the wine, marvelling at the view, and wondering aloud whether it might make sense to sell our home in Fergus and build a whole new place for ourselves on top of the business.’ Never one to shy away from daunting tasks, Renate (with John) committed to the move and began what would be a two-year rebuild of Karger that’s resulted in the fantastic compound where I find myself sharing space with Renate – and now John, who’s just arrived back home from a dog walk with their wonderful companion and shop dog, Winston.
‘The job was certainly an ambitious one,’ John tells me, citing Guelph-based structural engineering consultants Tacoma Engineers, and Guelph-based builders Centrix Building Group as central collaborators on the project. ‘The whole building has been designed and built with self-sufficiency and sustainability in mind,’ John emphasizes. ‘From the greenhouse where we can theoretically grow our own food to hook-ups for solar to in-floor heating to strategically-placed windows and terrace overhangs that work with sun and shade to warm and cool, we could live here without leaving for quite some time.’ Above the fray.
Their capacity to stay put, to shelter in place, so to speak, is especially true since John – who toils in the tech world – works mainly from home and Renate’s thriving business, Karger, is on the first floor of the building. Ah yes, Karger. Renate’s brainchild – a business that began in The Mews as a studio where Renate sold local art beside her own original pieces and has morphed into a full- blown lifestyle boutique where a die-hard following seeks out an eclectically-curated collection of beautiful products for beautiful homes. Scandinavian-inspired furniture. Internationally-sourced home accessories. Elegant coffee tables and massive dining tables. Clothing made with natural fibers by independent fashion designers. Funky jewelry. And, of course, original artwork. ‘Most of the items in the store,’ Renate tells me, ‘have been crafted either by artisans or small batch manufacturers.’ I liken the space and everything in it, with affection, to an expression of Renate’s frenetically- creative mind – a sort of abstract art in and of itself. Wildly composed. Somehow perfectly balanced. And spilling over with texture, colour, and energy.
I ask Renate what it’s like to live so close to work. ‘It certainly saves on the commute’, she laughs, ‘so that’s convenient.’ Renate pauses before continuing: ‘It can also be tough to separate work from home. If my staff needs me, for instance, I’m only a stairway away. And when regulars pop by the shop it’s hard not to come downstairs for a chat. I’m like a yo-yo sometimes,’ Renate continues, ‘always running up and down from the apartment to the business for some reason or another.’ She takes another moment, gazes down at her empty glass, swirls the ice around, and adds: ‘I really wouldn’t change anything, though.’
Indeed, this really is a wonderful place to call home.
For the next few hours, as dusk becomes nighttime, Renate and John and I continue to enjoy drinks (and charcuterie, which had been waiting for me – along with Elora Brewing Co tall cans – as a welcome treat
in my Airbnb). We explore different seating areas around the building’s terraces: beneath the pergola, beside the greenhouse (which Renate still dreams of using to grow herbs for local restaurants), around a gas firepit, next to the sliding doors leading into Renate and John’s open concept kitchen. Every vantage point is surrounded by lush planters and each gathering place offers new views of the village below – and new angles of this wonderful compound. ‘During past Riverfests,’ Renate tells me as we sit on the terrace next to the kitchen, ‘we’ve hosted live music shows on this terrace for close friends.’ I imagine festival goers, on their way to Bissell Park, catching these tunes in the air. I plan to listen for them myself over festival weekend this August.
Some time past midnight the three of us bid adieu and I mosey across the terrace to my Airbnb for sleep. As I unlock the door and venture inside, soft gusts of wind from the ceiling fan fall across my face. I look around the place and note its wonderful furnishings – all sourced (much like Renate and John’s apartment) from Karger below. The perfect business model, really, having each floor of this compound feeding (and feeding into) the next. And the perfect home, too. And place of work. And back drop for play.