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A Toronto couple ditches the big city for laid-back Port Hope

The Port Hope, Ont. home of Carl Swanston and Sarah Cashman, an 1858 Regency Villa style house they will slowly restore.

James Ireland/James Ireland

It didn't take long for Carl Swanston and Sarah Cashman to realize what they were getting themselves into in Port Hope, Ont.

The Toronto-based couple had just struck a deal to buy a handsome red brick house perched high on a hill overlooking the town centre when Mr. Swanston paid his first visit to Heritage Port Hope.

That's when he found out that only two houses in the historic town have been designated as worthy of heritage protection on the interior as well as exterior. The mansion at the corner of King and Dorset streets – circa 1858 in Regency Villa style – is one of them.

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"We thought, let's just forfeit our deposit and walk away," said Mr. Swanston of the couple's initial panicked reaction.

But their trepidation quickly dissipated as the couple learned that the elements worthy of conservation – the graceful oak staircase, panelled doors and marble fireplace mantels – are the details they admired most at Helm House, as the mansion is known.

On a recent Saturday, Mr. Swanston conferred with Heritage Port Hope chairman Rick Brooks while carpenters and cabinet makers measured walls and inspected woodwork.

"We're in line with the heritage people and what they want us to do," said Mr. Swanston as Mr. Brooks jotted down notes on his clipboard.

"They just want you to be smart about it," added Ms. Cashman.

At the same time, the couple learned that the hard-charging habits formed by life in Toronto – Mr. Swanston is in the news department at CBC while Ms. Cashman has a career in communications – required adjustment to the morés of this genteel porttown on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

And then they reminded themselves that that's one of the reasons they decided to move there in the first place.

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"Right off the bat, I had to change my approach," said Mr. Swanston, who first fired off an impatient email to the heritage officials. After that "I suggested meeting them in person. And then it was fine."

The couple is having little trouble easing into this more civilized pace. Already they have met welcoming neighbours and folks in the town. In downtown Toronto, where they've lived for 10 years, they know few of their neighbours.

Still, Mr. Swanston wondered if his friends would think him insane. They are giving up a house Mr. Swanston calls "the perfect urban dwelling," on fashionable Beaconsfield Avenue, just a short stroll north of the Drake Hotel.

But while their Queen Street West neighbourhood has been transformed into a fashionable area, as parents of a four-year-old, they often stay in.

The thought of seeking a calmer existence began to percolate in Mr. Swanston's mind as he walked home from work past trendy bars and restaurants that the couple rarely visited. He enjoyed the walk but he was less keen on seeing neighbours pack up their vans with bicycles and kids to head off to calmer trails for a bike ride.

"What's wrong with this picture – that you can't bike on the street as a kid," he said.

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The couple began searching online for a community on a GO Train line so that they could commute to their jobs in Toronto. They wanted a French language school for their daughter, Neala. And they were looking for a house with stunning architecture.

"That was the formula," said Mr. Swanston. "But the formula didn't work anywhere."

After ruling out Georgetown, Stouffville and Newmarket, they found Port Hope, which seemed to have an abundance of lovely houses for sale. It offers VIA Rail service to Toronto. The school is not entirely French language but it does offer French immersion.

In early January, they set off for a tour of houses they saw listed for sale online. They were surprised that every house they saw was so large and impressive; only later did they realize that the more modest houses were less than $500,000. Mr. Swanston says he was so used to Toronto prices he didn't enter anything less than half a million into the search parameters.

When they visited King Street, they learned that it was once lined with the mansions of the prominent and the powerful. From that height, industrialists of the 19th century could survey the town, the Ganaraska River and the ships arriving at port.

The couple learned that the first owner of number 61 was the lumber dealer and businessman Robert Charles Smith, who was descended from United Empire Loyalists. Then John Henry Helm took over and his descendants held onto the property until 1968. The same family had owned it since.

The house, set on one acre of land, has six bedrooms and a wrap-around porch. A steep wooden ladder in the attic leads to the widow's walk, with views out to Lake Ontario.

The carriage house held special appeal for Ms. Cashman, who grew up in England.

"That was the selling point for the whole house for me," she said. "It just reminded me of houses there. You drive up and there's a lovely big coach house."

Still, with 4,400 square feet in the main house and another 1,500 in the carriage house, the restoration project seemed daunting.

"The first time we saw it, we completely dismissed it. It was so overwhelming," said Mr. Swanston.

They also wondered about the scare a few years back about uranium contamination in the area. But their research put them at ease. Soil clean-up in the area has been extensive and Health Canada has said that fears about increased sickness from the low level radiation were baseless.

The family's explorations of the downtown persuaded them that there was plenty of life, with good restaurants and pubs, bakeries, antiques shops, the theatre and a marina.

"The community feels right. I see myself living here," says Ms. Cashman.

Along the way, the couple met a knowledgeable local who surmised that the house with an asking price of more than $800,000 could probably be had for $650,000. They decided to put in an offer and eventually negotiated a price of $653,000.

And it turned out, none of their friends questioned their sanity. They are hoping that more people from Toronto will make the move so that the town remains busy and VIA might even add more trains.

"We're banking on it," says Mr. Swanston. "We're banking that this formula of ours will become more popular."

They figure their strategy of buying a substantial property and improving it is sound because they will keep their investment in real estate at roughly the same level. They received multiple offers on their Toronto house and sold it for just under $900,000. They plan to funnel the difference into renovations.

The house is large enough to accommodate a live-in nanny who can look after their daughter before and after school.

And the couple was very happy to learn that the community offers camps and activities during school breaks – without the lengthy waiting lists or jostling for spots that Toronto parents know so well.

"That was a revelation to me," said Mr. Swanston. "The community is taking care of your child when she's not in school."

With lots of work to accomplish before moving day, the family hopes to move in by the middle of May.

On the main floor, the walls will be painted in heritage colours and newly-built cabinets and countertops will replace a 1970s-era kitchen installed by the previous owner.

Upstairs, the pine floor, made of wide planks, will be sanded. A small bedroom will become an ensuite bathroom for the master bedroom. Throughout, period details such as windows and doors will be retained.

The pink tiles and carpets of a previous facelift will be stripped out of the spacious main bathroom. They hope that the antique pedestal sink and bathtub, which were made in Port Hope, can be refurbished.

As the work continues, Mr. Swanston called to report a discovery: The builder has torn out the acoustic ceiling tiles and drywall installed in a previous owner's long-ago attempt at modernizing.

The demolition exposed the elaborate plaster mouldings of a Victorian-era craftsman.

"I feel like the house is thanking us," Mr. Swanston said.

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