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A $12.8M penthouse, full of potential, but still no buyer

It's been almost seven years since the two-level suite at the top of MuseumHouse, located on Bloor Street a few steps west of Avenue Road, appeared on the local condominium market.

At one point, Toronto investor Sheldon Esbin and his development partners on the MuseumHouse project tried to sweeten the penthouse deal by throwing in a life-sized Rodin sculpture. No deal.

Then, in 2010, Sol Wassermuhl, the 19-storey building's architect, commissioned three interior design firms – Powell & Bonnell, Munge Leung and Patty Xenos – to come up with schemes to help prospective buyers imagine what the 5,700-square-foot apartment could look like when fully outfitted. (The sketches were described in these pages by Carolyn Ireland.) Still, no buyer materialized.

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These days, Mr. Esbin and Mr. Wassermuhl are at it again, looking for a customer ready to pay the asking price of $12.8-million and well-heeled enough to spend more millions on floors, ceilings, walls, appliances and furnishings.

But there's a difference this time around.

In previous years, the developers had nothing more substantial than drawings and renderings to show interested parties.

Now, however, MuseumHouse is almost ready for the homeowners to start moving in. (Mr. Esbin and Mr. Wassermuhl, incidentally, will be among the first.)

One can walk around the penthouse at last, that is, and get a vivid, real-world idea of what it would be like to call this place home. Which I did, a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by the architect.

Calling it home would mean living somewhere that is almost entirely kitted-out according to the owner's tastes in matters of spatial flow, finishes, appointments.

The apartment, at present, is a gaunt expanse of glass and concrete, its rooms and utility outlets only roughed in. A timid soul might be put off by the rawness of the space. But for people with imagination, or with the ability to hire imagination, the suite might be the large, empty canvas they've been looking for.

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Calling it home would also mean enjoying some of the best big-city, big-sky views available anywhere in Toronto.

Looking south through the tall glass walls of the living room or from the south-facing terrace, the eye is carried out over the roof of the Royal Ontario Museum, and across the leafy, low-rise cityscape of the University of Toronto's St. George campus and of the residential neighbourhoods beyond.

The altitude of the living room, at the 18th floor, is just right, Mr. Wassermuhl pointed out. Seen from much higher, the city's textured surface would flatten out like a map.

Much lower, and the viewer would find himself down among the facades of the museum and the Royal Conservatory.

This attractive prospect will probably remain as wide and tower-free as it is today – unless, that is, the museum drops, as it has threatened to do, a tall condo building on the site of the mothballed McLaughlin Planetarium, or unless skyscrapers go up on College Street.

Neither event is likely to happen in the near term, however, so the fine southerly views from MuseumHouse can reasonably be expected to last a long time.

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Like the lower level, the upper storey of the penthouse opens toward the south, and both face north, with glass-walled vistas over the mix of old high-rises and single-family Victorian homes that make up the Annex. (The two levels are connected by a floating, curving staircase and by an elevator.)

The east wall of the apartment is also glass, though the view in this direction will soon be blocked by architect Rosario Varacalli's Exhibit, an unusual, twisting 32-storey condo tower that is now under construction.

In contrast to this tall, eccentric next-door neighbour, Mr. Wassermuhl's MuseumHouse – on the outside, anyway – is a plain and undistinguished modernist box.

But while it contributes nothing to the contemporary conversation about tower style, the building has certain assets that will surely be taken into account by anyone thinking of living there. (Prices of available units start at around $1.6-million.)

One, of course, is the address, which will appeal to some.

It's at the heart of Toronto's staid, establishment culture – the Royal Ontario Museum and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, with the Art Gallery of Ontario not far away – and very near the staid, establishment shops of Yorkville and Bloor Street West. (The cutting edge lies elsewhere in the city.)

Another asset is the relative intimacy of MuseumHouse.

There are only 27 suites in the whole building, the lobby is small, the entrance is so understated a passerby might miss it. (I did, the first time I went looking for it.)

But to return to the topic of the penthouse: It will be interesting to see if it finds a buyer after all these years.

The suite certainly has the potential – the views and especially the spatial generosity – to become one of Toronto`s great apartment homes.

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John More


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