Demolition by neglect can still happen in a Heritage Conservation District.
As good as HCDs are, they’re not powerful enough to force homeowners into brickwork maintenance, decorative woodwork restoration or the application of a lick of paint to a tired front porch. In other words, there are as many leaky roofs and basements, as many paint-peelers and non-mowed lawns in HCDs as anywhere else.
Give it a decade or two, and this deferred maintenance can turn into a demolition.
For many years, the residents of the small Harbord Village Heritage Conservation District – which runs along Brunswick Avenue from College to Ulster streets and Willcocks Street west of Spadina Avenue – watched as the once-proud shoulders of 61 Brunswick Ave. drooped, peeled, cracked, crumbled and rotted. Many feared it was too far gone to be saved. Worse, the home had a proud history that might also be lost: The big 1895 Queen Ann “Bay-n-Gable” had been home to Rabbi Solomon Langner of Kensington’s The Kiever Shul (synagogue) from 1929 until his death in 1973; a weather-beaten brass plaque beside the front door still whispered this fact to passersby as recently as 2010.
Abandoned for years, there wasn’t much the Harbord Village residents could do short of asking the city to ensure the empty home was safe (which they’d done even before the HCD was established in 2004). Since the HCD guidelines specified that demolitions were to be considered only “in exceptional circumstances such as a structural instability or dereliction and judged by an expert heritage consultant to be beyond restoration,” the situation was one of wait-and-see: Would the home’s eventual new owner restore it or make a case for demolition?
In early 2010, they got their answer.
After completing the restoration of a smaller home just north of the HCD’s boundaries at 139 Brunswick Ave., contractor Alberto Merelles, 34, learned that No. 61 was on the market. He convinced his sister, Pilar, to purchase it so that his company, A Custom Restorations, could begin work on it immediately.
“Many of us were worried with what might now happen to this still beautiful but seriously dilapidated house,” recalls resident Richard Longley in an e-mail. And since serious interior work began before exterior work, that worry only grew, despite assurances by Mr. Merelles that his intentions were honourable.
Eventually, residents watched in awe as Mr. Merelles disassembled the home’s entire front façade, brick-by-brick, and lovingly put it back together. Where bricks were cracked in half or otherwise damaged beyond repair – and that was in a great many places – replacements of similar age and colour were trucked in (one reason is colour, but modern bricks are also larger). He performed the same miracle on the side and rear elevations, too, even though HCDs don’t require that commitment to originality since they’re hidden from view. On the rear elevation, bricks had been damaged due to an old addition that had fallen over. On the third floor, he added small-but-sturdy metal balconies to bedrooms and decorative woodwork to match the front façade; again, these were not necessary to the HCD, only to the conscience of this diligent restorer.
Up front, decorative woodwork got the star treatment. Corbels with sunbursts and swirls were either restored or replaced; spindles on the sleeping porch were so rotted, Mr. Merelles brought a sample to Ashley Wood Turning in Scarborough and had a new set made. The sleeping porch door, too, is an exact replica made by Dundas Wood Windows and Specialties, including the window with individual beveled glass lites (rather than a single pane with an overlay ‘grid’ to simulate lites). All other windows are of the same quality.
Above the sleeping porch, a slate roof with decorative elements replaced the old asphalt shingles; while expensive, a look across the street at non-renovated homes with original slate roofs suggests that this one, too, will outlast this century.
Like a silk scarf over a tuxedo, copper eavestroughs and downspouts complete the look, and, finally, the home was painted using Benjamin Moore’s historical colour palette.
Inside, it’s all Cadillac as well: The home was gutted and super-insulated with spray foam; all joists were reinforced and all flooring was replaced, some of it radiant heated. A central vacuum was installed, as were fireplaces and six bathrooms.
“These older homes truly are a lot of work,” says the soft-spoken contractor.
In essence, Mr. Merelles, a relatively fresh-on-the-scene young contractor who worked in the concrete formwork industry only a half-dozen years ago, has built a brand new heritage home –mostly by himself – of the highest calibre.
“The debt owed by Brunswick Avenue and Harbord Village to Alberto Merelles is incalculable,” writes Mr. Longley, adding that the neighbourhood is “extremely grateful” and “hope he is able to enjoy living in 61 Brunswick Ave. and that he will continue to do similar work elsewhere in Harbord Village.”
While Mr. Merelles will surely go on to do other work in the area based on this incredible success, neither he nor his sister will be living there: The house is being put up for sale at the end of September.