Crescendos and curves: These, in many ways, were what life was about for the world-renowned mathematics professor James Stewart.
In the fall of 2014, Stewart toured guests through The Integral House, the custom-built home that has since become the most talked-about residence in Canada. He was weak by then and resigned to the fact that the multiple myeloma cancer he’d been battling for over a year was betraying his body, but the 73-year-old was the consummate host. Walking a camera crew through the modernist masterpiece that sits on a ravine in Toronto’s priciest postal code, the mathematician understood one equation only too well: He’d spent a decade creating a dream home he would only enjoy for half that time.
Still, he was upbeat. Asked by a journalist that day why he hadn’t decreed a design with straight lines, instead of the airy, curvaceous scheme conjured by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects (“an accordion of wood and glass” as The Wall Street Journal later called it), Stewart declared, “Calculus is the mathematics of curves. And curves are what make the world go round.”
It was a typically grand pronouncement, but not his last. That would come, not too much later, at a party he threw, about which the lore has only grown in the year since his death.
Calculus is the mathematics of curves. And curves are what make the world go round.” James Stewart
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman, and welcome to my wake,” he told a gathering of loved ones who packed into the main cavity of the house – one which doubled as an A-list concert hall and in which he had previously played host to the likes of Philip Glass and David Bowie. One last concert. One last bash.
The professor – whose fortune came from writing the definitive calculus textbook, translated into 27 languages – threw some of Toronto’s most talked-about parties, putting to bed any ho-hum illusions about mathematicians. And yet, there was a spot of Howard Hughes-esque introvert about him, too – solo, even when surrounded by throngs. Let’s not forget that he lived alone in the grand house, all five stories, from the treetops down, in 1,670 square metres, give or take.
Whether an introverted extrovert, or extroverted introvert, Stewart certainly became ever more celebrated when he passed away. The manse had much to do with it. Dubbed “one of the most important private houses in North America” by Glenn Lowry, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it was put on the market for $22.9 million earlier this year. Articles about it appeared everywhere from Architectural Digest to London’s Daily Mail. Prospective buyers were rumoured to include Canadian rapper Drake and Elton John, whose husband, David Furnish, hails from Toronto. An event held to kick off the sale felt less like an open house and more like a movie premiere.
But the mastermind behind the residence remains lost in an incense of mystique, just out of reach. Among his accomplishments, Stewart was one of the architects of the Pride movement in his hometown of Hamilton, galvanizing the first march there in the 1970s.
As the obits piled up, the common denominator was the two subjects that forever vied for his interest: math and music. Though a professional-level violinist (he played with the Hamilton Philharmonic), the former eventually won out.
“I finally decided it would be better to be a mathematician whose hobby is music than a musician whose hobby is mathematics,” the Stanford graduate once put it.
He had a fresh, approachable way of teaching calculus, which helped his students pierce its complex veneer – as it did for millions of others. His books, lined up like ducks in his home office, tell the story: They are the standard textbooks used in universities worldwide, some in their eighth edition. It’s those books that built the house, which will – in an inspired case of paying it forward – benefit so many others.
Stewart’s final act was a bull’s eye: The educator and inspirer instructed his executors to take the proceeds of The Integral House sale and scatter them among organizations he’d supported while alive, including the Canadian Opera Company and the Glenn Gould School. It was one final, remarkable gift from one remarkable, albeit elusive, man.