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HOME OF THE WEEK / GOTHIC-STYLE MANSION IN PORT HOPE Add to ...

What: A restored Gothic landmark in Port Hope with its pedigree carved in stone.

Where: 115 Dorset St. West.

Amenities: A ballroom, library, big family kitchen, three bedrooms, four bathrooms, wraparound veranda, and stone terraces overlooking Lake Ontario and the property's hillside grounds.

Price: $1,395,000

Taxes: $6,399 (2006)

Agent: Sandra Eriksson of Royal LePage ProAlliance Realty in Cobourg.

The property: This Gothic-style mansion perched atop a steep ravine with a panoramic view of Lake Ontario is one of Port Hope's most important heritage homes. Built in 1857 by Thomas Curtis Clarke, a civil engineer who became a renowned railway and bridge builder and helped design the east and west blocks of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, the property is known as "The Cone" for the pine-cone-shaped piece of land on which it sits.

The chain of owners and their contributions to expanding and improving the home are etched into a large boulder by the circular driveway.

Mr. Clarke had come from New England to oversee construction of Port Hope's harbour, and met and married Susan Smith, the grand-daughter of the town's founding father, whose family owned the land.

Although Mr. Clarke returned to the United States, where he pioneered a network of iron railway viaducts, his bones were returned to Port Hope on his death in 1901 and are buried in the local graveyard on Toronto Road.

The couple sold the house in 1868 to Charles Harvey Aston Williams, one of the moneyed class of Americans who bought homes in the area as summer retreats in the late 19th century.

"Yankee" Williams, as people called him, loved giving parties, and added the ballroom as a new wing to the house in 1875. He followed design principles set out in an 1859 book by architect A.J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses, which is still in print and now features a picture of The Cone on its cover.

The next owner, Dr. Zachariah Sowers of Washington, D.C., took over in 1900 and added a sweeping veranda overlooking the lake.

An industrialist, Edward Metcalf Thurber, bought it in 1921. He owned a file-making factory that was a major employer in Port Hope. He brought home massive limestone grindstones from the factory and used them to create pathways and steps on the ravine slope.

In 1968, the home was sold to Ernestine and Arnold Pitt, who made no further improvements and sold it in 1982 to lawyers Miles O'Reilly and Carene Smith, who lived there with their large family until 2003.

When current owners, Richard and Shirley Wilkinson, bought the property, it was in need of major restoration. They embarked on what became a laborious process of consultations with local heritage officials at a cost that soared to more than $1.3-million -- three times more than they'd anticipated.

"We were naive," Mr. Wilkinson recalls ruefully.

The couple had moved to Port Hope to be close to friends and thought that fixing up the mansion would be a good hobby. "It was a much bigger job than we expected; we didn't understand the difference between renovation and restoration," he says.

At first, they thought the mansion's heritage designation only governed what they could do to the outside, specifically the front. But they soon found that everything from the choice of paint colour for the hallway to the grade of stone used to repair the rear foundations would become grist for the mill of monthly heritage meetings.

They faced a stop-work order at one point when a neighbour reported -- erroneously -- that the roof shingles they were ripping down contained asbestos.

For months they lived in the ballroom or the dining room, and cooked on a hot plate while the walls of the house teetered around them.

What perplexed the Wilkinsons was why the heritage officials insisted that the couple restore everything to the way it was -- or was presumed to have been -- when the house was built if something better had been added 50 years later.

"There were parts that were wood, concrete and stone at different times. The [officials']attitude was, 'restore it to exactly to what it was when it was built,' " Mr. Wilkinson says. "But you may not be able to afford that."

Another issue was what to do when improved materials were available but not identical to the originals.

"The windows were the biggest problem," Ms. Wilkinson says. "If we were doing this again, we would never have mentioned them. With the same frames around them they'd never have known."

The couple ended up replicating the original storm windows on close to 80 openings rather than use single thermo-pane windows.

When they were repairing the plaster in the dining room wall they found a doorway had been covered over. They had to resurrect the doorway and change the room's layout.

The irony, Mr. Wilkinson says, is that if the home had been bought by negligent people who let it languish they would have been left alone. "As soon as you change anything you need approval."

The Wilkinsons have replaced rotting roofs, walls and foundations, and replicated the Victorian interiors with authentic colours, mouldings and chandeliers.

Ms. Wilkinson has gone so far as to tint sheer curtains with tea to give them the yellow tinge of age.

Heavy velvet curtains have been deployed as draft excluders in front of doors that couldn't be replaced with tighter-fitting ones. Where odd corners or narrow passages couldn't be changed, mirrors have been used to enhance the space.

The result is beautiful, and it feels historical, but the Wilkinsons know the home may not attract a huge amount of buyer interest. "Not everyone wants to live in Port Hope, and some people want to do [the restoration]themselves," Ms. Wilkinson says.

They face the likelihood of not even recouping their investment in the house, having already listed it unsuccessfully at $1.9-million, then $1.6-million.

"It's difficult to establish the value," Ms. Wilkinson says. "The agent leaves it to the sellers and the sellers want the agent to set it. The last agent was wrapped up in the history of it, not the market, and he overpriced it."

 

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