Sometimes freshly married couples, closely tailed by their wedding photographers, would sneak on to the grounds of 90 Rocmary Place to snap a few pictures in front of the hulking marble statues, which were imported from Europe. There were also the drive-bys, where passengers would gawk from car windows at the brass-flecked wrought iron gate and the 24,000-square-foot house that was set behind it. When the palatial Versailles-inspired mansion in the tony development of Vaughan Wood Estates – sometimes called the Bridle Path of the North – was listed for sale, it wasn't just those in the neighbourhood who took notice, but anyone curious about just how lavish a house with $17.8-million price tag on it could be.
It's the most expensive house that's ever been put on the market in Vaughan – and a style of abode on the brink of extinction. In the past eight years, since the introduction of the Places to Grow Act, a provincial strategy for growth management, municipalities across the province have amended their official plans to encourage compact urban form, transit-oriented neighbourhoods and more density. That means the end of cul-de-sacs lined with sprawling five-car-garage houses: more common in Vaughan than in most other parts of the GTA.
Paradoxically, these dying days of the mansion neighbourhoods coincides with a boom in their construction. Many subdivisions whose plans were approved before the Places to Grow Act came into effect in 2005 are only being built now.
"Trying to get those large estate home subdivisions approved is really difficult because we're trying to intensify more and more. Wherever they're existing, they're a hot commodity," said Marilyn Iafrate, the city councillor for Ward 1, where many such developments have been built.
Subdivisions dotted with large, detached homes have always existed here; they're a fixture of the 905 region. But this latest generation of the so-called "monster home" takes the style to a more extreme level. Many start at about 5,000 square feet and some, such as the one on Rocmary Place, are much larger. The average size of a new detached house in Ontario, meanwhile, is 2,050 square feet, according to the Canadian Home Builders' Association.
This shift is taking hold of cities across the region and pushing luxe estate development farther out to the smaller towns on the outer limits of the GTA, such as in Caledon, Gormley and King City.
Most of these subdivisions are in north Vaughan, including the village of Kleinburg, which are covered by wide expanses of farmland. Other parts of the city, including Concord and Maple, are decidedly more middle-class: mid-sized detached houses and town-home developments.
Photos of the flamboyant home at 90 Rocmary went viral last fall, inspiring a gallery in the British tabloid the Daily Mail and inviting comparisons to the infamous "Versailles House" in Windermere, Fla. – the largest and most expensive house in the United States – which was the backdrop of the documentary The Queen of Versailles.
The homeowner at 90 Rocmary, a European-Canadian entrepreneur who asked to remain anonymous, said the decor was inspired by her and her husband's annual trips Paris. The house boasts 12 bathrooms, six bedrooms, an expansive pool and a Ferrari room. Nearly every surface of the master ensuite is done up to the luxe extreme with gold-plated faucets shaped like swans in mid-flight, an ornate chandelier over the whirlpool and floors made of gleaming marble. On the wall of the master bedroom is an enormous oil painting of the homeowners on the day they married in period costumes to match their Louis XIV-themed wedding.
Last fall, sales agents Ora Sibilia and Michelle Schipper with Harvey Kalles Real Estate gave tours of the palatial residence to a handful of couples, many of whom are recent or prospective immigrants.
"They've all been foreign buyers: Chinese, Persian and one Russian couple," said Ms. Sibilia.
The house is being sold furnished and with its very specific aesthetic and hefty price tag, hasn't yet found new owners.
"It's not for everybody, we do understand that," the homeowner said.
John MacKenzie, Vaughan's commissioner of planning, said the mansion subdivisions such as Vaughan Wood Estates are a relic of "planning policies of the nineties."
Churchill Estates, the 15-house development near King Vaughan Road and Keele Street by Vaughan-based developer Greenpark, sold out in late 2012, said Marino Farano, a broker for Homelife/Metropark Realty, who handled sales of homes in the subdivision. The homes are massive: many boast large first- and second-floor decks and generous frontage, much larger than the modest semis or detached homes Greenpark typically builds. The developer has another project, Kleinburg Heights, in the works, to be built on the former Kleinburg Golf Course. The homes will be up to nearly 8,000 square feet and start at almost $2-million.
These communities are surrounded by farmland and that, says Ms. Iafrate, is one of the biggest attractions for Vaughan residents who have made enough money to afford a luxury living in Toronto but have chosen Vaughan instead. Since the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act was introduced in 2001 and the Greenbelt Act in 2005 (both to protect agricultural and ecologically significant land from development), the rural setting surrounding the homes now will be preserved.
Most of the people moving into these massive estates are fourth- or fifth-time home buyers who are upgrading from smaller homes in Vaughan, says Chris Saccoccia, vice-president of SkyHomes Corp., a developer headquartered in Vaughan.
The homeowner at 90 Rocmary said she has lived in Vaughan since 1999 and upgraded to several homes since then. They stayed in Vaughan because they saw it as a growing city and liked that it "caters to Europeans" (Italian and Russian are the largest minority languages in Vaughan, according to the 2011 census).
Today, progressive planning trumps all else: rather than focusing on selling some of those large tracts of undeveloped land in north Vaughan, the city is now prioritizing intensification projects at Highway 7 and Jane Street, Centre Street and Yonge and Steeles, Mr. MacKenzie said.
This shift isn't just happening because of city policy, he said. It's coming from builders, too.
"Nobody's even asking for it now. If a developer had that much land, they would probably want to chop them up into smaller lots and then try to build those big homes," Mr. MacKenzie said.
What frustrates Mr. Saccoccia is there are hundreds of acres of undeveloped land in Kleinburg – the city just won't allow the traditional style of development to continue on it.
"All the land prices going up is pretty much being artificially controlled by the government," he said. "They're putting a freeze on the land to create this scarcity. It's really cause they want the higher density."
90 Rocmary by the numbers
Square feet: 24,000
Candles in the foyer's 24K chandelier: 129
Seats at the dining table: 18
Water jets on the marble fountain at the front of the house: 9
Garage door openers (for the five-door, eight-car garage – there's also a separate Ferrari room): 5
Floors serviced by the elevator: 3
Life-sized wax butler standing guard outside the wine cellar: 1