Apply almost any test and this housing project comes up unique. The 1888 red brick church and school that dominates the northwest corner of College and Palmerston Streets is well on the way to becoming four of the most stunning luxury freehold homes in the City of Toronto.
Developer Matthew Kosoy is taking this College Street landmark, restoring its exterior to its late Victorian grandeur and then converting the church and the adjoining three-story school to the rear into a quartet of stunning custom-designed homes.
The one fronting College Street will measure in at 10,000 square feet and incorporate the existing tower and huge round window (a Baptist tribute to the cathedrals of Europe) into its living space. The next one moving north will be 8,000 square feet on three levels with its top floor dedicated to the owner's 3,000 bottles of vintage wines, looked down on by the soaring rafters of the original vaulted roof.
The two homes at the far north end will be similar - each measuring in at about 5,500 square feet on three levels. But like their companions to the south, they too will feature soaring 13- and 14-foot ceilings, and windows as big as conventional doors.
The existing parking lot immediately to the west will become walled private gardens for the homes. The one fronting College Street will boast a solarium right along the property line, a mini-Crystal Palace in which to catch the winter sun at breakfast and tend exotic plants year-round.
While the three homes in the southern section have buyers, the fourth is up for sale. Mr. Kosoy does not venture a price tag.
What he is selling is a renovated shell, gutted and ready for whoever buys to bring in his or her designer to complete the project.
There is yet another truly unique aspect to the project, however. While it will break even financially, it is unlikely to be a money maker. Nor will the three existing buyers see much of a profit on their investment for years to come.
Making money is not what these homes are about, says the buyer of the 8,000-square-foot unit (he does not want to be named). What they represent is a vision of how men nearing the end of highly successful and hugely rewarding careers have decided they want to live.
It is also about their strong belief that their completed homes will help accelerate an inner city neighbourhood already in transition and lift it back to a period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Palmerston from Harbord Street to College was one of the city's most sought after addresses by the upper middle class.
So, how did this all start? What compels men who have devoted decades to making money from real estate to do a 180-degree turnabout and start spending it with little hope of any gain in the foreseeable future?
It starts in September, 2007, when Mr. Kosoy decided to buy the property. He is a young man who grew up surrounded by real estate wheeler-dealers. His father was a huge force in Toronto's commercial market in the 1970s and in partnership with his brother bought and sold properties - often within days - and for impressively large profits.
Mr. Kosoy's uncle built a fortune with shopping centres in Canada and the U.S. and now runs an investment fund.
"I saw the church and my first idea was to build a small parking garage on the existing lot and convert the church itself into condos," Mr. Kosoy says. "It had been done with success just a few blocks from here and, at that time it seemed the best use.
"But then my dad said that if I was going to do a conversion I should talk with Joe Brennan first and see what he said. Joe took one look and said nope, what you want to do is create four ultra luxury homes - homes like Toronto has never seen before."
In many ways Mr. Brennan's idea greatly simplified Mr. Kosoy's task. Mr. Brennan would take on the job of restoring the exterior to its 1888 glory, including replacing fire-damaged brick, badly weathered windows, a time-worn roof and all the architectural features that more than a century had gnawed away.
He would also gut the interior, divide the space, get all the 21st century mechanicals in place and present buyers with a ready palette on which to exercise their own design flair.
Then Mr. Brennan went one step further; he bought the home fronting College Street. His plan is to live there and operate his business J.F. Brennan Design/Build Inc., from his home.
So why four unique private homes instead of a couple dozen small condos?
"Luxury homes is what I do," says Mr. Brennan as if the answer should be immediately obvious. And why buy the College Street home? "What drew me was the space; I love space; I love high ceilings, large generous rooms.
"I immediately saw the potential. What I wanted to do was create four unique spaces that reflect the taste of the owners."
Drawings for the two largest homes are now nearly complete and each is indeed unique.
Mr. Brennan has this time embraced the less is more philosophy. He says he drew his inspiration from monasteries in Europe - simple, clean lines that accentuate the huge size of rooms and soaring ceilings. His dining room, for example, will measure 15 feet by 32 feet. His office 30 feet wide with a 48-foot ceiling - the original College Street tower - and be lit by that huge window.
The adjacent home's interiors are being designed by Fenwick Bonnell of Powell & Bonnell. He has done almost all of the owner's previous homes. The theme here is drawn from French chateaux and spans their entire history from the 13th to 19th centuries. Not surprising really because the owner has lived for the past eight years in Paris in a remarkable apartment near the Luxembourg Gardens.
"I have spent much of my life living in five-star hotels so there is a lot of what I love about them incorporated as well," the owner says.
"It is essentially a three-bedroom house," Mr. Bonnell says. "But a three-bedroom house that includes almost everything you could ever want - a master bedroom that is 18 by 32 feet and an adjoining walk-in closet that measures 15 by 22 feet, a gym, nanny's quarters, 14-foot ceilings and full-height fireplaces in almost every room. We are going to have to search Europe for those."
Granted a wine cellar on the third floor was a challenge, Mr. Bonnell says. "But that is what he wanted. He wanted a showpiece."
But showpiece with a difference.
"In [the]past I always bought as an investment," Mr. Brennan says. "Not this time. The church is where I plan to live for a very long time and I think the other owners feel the same way."
First, however, he will move into a condo high above 130 Bloor Street West, a project he has recently completed called 155 Cumberland. When the church is finished he will sell that suite and shift digs once again.
"Besides that I love the idea of being able to help reinvent the neighbourhood, to bring it back to the days of its past glory. It is the way cities should be moving, back to neighbourhoods," Mr. Brennan says.