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heritage homes

Yosef Wosk is many things. He is a philanthropist, scholar, educator, rabbi, and successor to the Wosk furniture and real-estate dynasty. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, and owner of one of Vancouver's most important heritage mansions, in the heart of Shaughnessy.

Mr. Wosk is, also, it turns out, a Star Wars nerd.

In the centre of a table in his solarium stands a life-size replica of Yoda. He bought it in Las Vegas, from George Lucas's collection of original promotional pieces. It's an unlikely match with the Arts & Crafts-era oak that covers most of the walls and floors, the wide, carved fireplaces that bring to mind Citizen Kane's mansion, and the stained-glass patterns of roses and family crests.

But there is nothing conventional about Mr. Wosk - or the 1913 mansion that was, in its time, the most expensive house in Vancouver.

"I like the integrity of heritage, I like the authenticity, I like the age - It's embraceable, both ways," says Mr. Wosk, while giving a recent tour of the house. "It's an encounter more at the soul level … there's character in every corner. And it is also an investment in time and funds," he adds, preferring not to disclose how much he's spent so far.

The 10,000-square-foot house with eight fireplaces was designed by architects James C. Mackenzie and A. Scott Kerr, who created a composite of English and American Arts and Crafts, Georgian and Gothic styles. It was built by American lumber baron Frank Buckley, who had access to the best lumber. The building permit alone was $30,000. To put that in perspective, consider that the average Shaughnessy mansion at the time cost between $15,000 and $18,000 to build, says Vancouver historian John Atkin, who has been documenting the Wosk restoration since it began.

"The house is eclectic enough that it does need an owner like Yosef, who's such an eclectic person because his range of interests is so broad," says Mr. Atkin. "There are so many people who would not get the house."

Mr. Wosk, 61, is the son of philanthropist and Order of Canada recipient Morris Wosk, who came to Vancouver with his brother from Russia in 1929. They founded furniture and appliance store Wosk's Ltd., and built a real-estate dynasty that enabled them to provide funding for charities and educational projects.

In 1939, a decade after the Wosks arrived in Canada, Mr. Buckley moved out of what became known as Iowa House. The house then went through various uses, including a rooming house, a nursing home for Icelanders and a rest home run by nuns in the 1970s. When Mr. Wosk moved in, the previous owners handed him about 50 different keys for all the rooms.

Mr. Wosk and his family used to live in another house on the street. He had his agent approach the owners of Iowa House, even though it wasn't for sale. It turned out they were interested in selling it, and after a year of back-and-forth negotiations, a deal was struck.

His decision to restore the mansion goes against a trend to tear down the old Shaughnessy mansions. Mr. Atkin estimates that about 30 or 40 per cent of Shaughnessy mansions have been demolished since the seventies.

"If the economy keeps going and Shaughnessy remains popular, you will continue to lose impressive houses," says Mr. Atkin. "That's why someone like Yosef, who gets a house and wants to save it and make it his own, is important."

The Wosks have lived among the "organized chaos" the entire time, even enduring last winter without any heat. Before the upgrades, his heating bill was $1,200 a month.

But the biggest changes reflect Mr. Wosk's love of art and whimsy.

Off a small library upstairs, Mr. Wosk leads the way to a secret crawl space under the roofline of the house. The steeply inclined walls have been painted indigo and purple. On hands and knees, he points to little ceramic buildings grouped on the floor. It is Mr. Wosk's Christmas village. He had one in his former house, too.

He has other, more elaborate plans. Downstairs, in the basement level, Mr. Wosk is planning a grotto spa with stalactites, stalagmites, waterfall, fibre-optic lights and sound system.

"And we have a beautiful Tibetan door that's 8 by 5 feet or so, and we're building a steel brace for it. That will be the entrance."

Outside, he is renovating a 30-year-old pool that is shaped like a moat around the front yard, a replica of the pool from Hearst Mansion in San Simeon, Calif. Once renovated, the pool will have Matisse's famous Icarus design, deep blue with yellow starbursts.

He is planning to install in the pool house and throughout the garden four 15-foot-high, 15th-century Venetian pink granite window frames that he imported from California. An expert who knew how to re-assemble them also had to fly from California to spend two days putting them back together.

Mr. Wosk, a keen traveller, doesn't want to divulge the exact number of the collection he started at age 16, but evidence of it is everywhere. The living room would look like a scene out of that reality-TV show for hoarders, if you didn't know that there was a renovation going on. There are mint condition 1950s-era Coca-Cola stools, wooden lions, vinyl records, a large carousel horse, oil paintings, harp, neon lights, rare edition books, art books and antique furniture. There are paintings and prints too numerous to hang, by Picasso, Andy Warhol, Leonard Cohen.

But he is learning how to edit.

"Coco Chanel said, 'Dress to the nines, then remove one thing and then it's perfect,'" says Mr. Wosk.

In a study befitting a scholar, the walls are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves designed by heritage architect Robert Lemon. The upper shelves are accessible by a rolling ladder on a brass track. It took eight months just to find the ladder, which came from New York.

The only evidence of the Buckley family is the rose motif in the stained glass and the light fixture over the porte-cochère, a reference to Mr. Buckley's wife, Rose. Vancouver heritage specialists at Architectural Antiques have been working with Mr. Wosk in finding original light fixtures since so many of them were lost over the years. He's also been working with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation to unearth details, such as exterior paint colours. He is hoping that once finished, it will be eligible for a rare A classification on the city's heritage registry.

Mr. Wosk doesn't worry that all his work might be undone by future owners.

"As the city grows up and we destroy, there's also a counterbalance to that, of wanting to preserve the wisdom of the elders - and the homes serve that function also," says Mr. Wosk. "So I'm not overly concerned that the work we put in will be taken apart.

"As difficult as it is for me to understand, I've come to appreciate most people don't like heritage in terms of style and upkeep.

"I'm not obsessive about heritage, but it certainly provides roots - warm roots."

Special to The Globe and Mail