20 Stuart St., Guelph, Ont.
Asking price: $5,150,000
Taxes: $16,604.86 (2023)
Lot size: 0.8 acres
Agents: Adam Stewart and Jimmy Molloy, Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd.
According to local lore in Guelph, Ont., the Reverend Arthur Palmer was known to walk from his front door to the edge of his large property, scramble down the bluff to the Speed River and row his small boat to the other side. From there he’d climb the bank and walk the short distance to his parish at St. George’s Anglican Church.
Rev. Palmer was an Irish immigrant who had established St. George’s, the first Anglican church in town, in 1832 and served as rector until 1874.
As the city grew, Rev. Palmer purchased approximately 23 acres of land across the river.
The house he had built between 1854 and 1856 had exterior walls of ashlar cut stone. He named the estate Tyrcathlen.
The City of Guelph says the original house was likely designed by William Thomas of Toronto or Frederick J. Rastrick of Hamilton, who were both prominent architects in Upper Canada in the 19th century.
According to notes by the Guelph Arts Council, which included the home on its Slopes of the Speed historical walking tour, the reverend later became an archdeacon. He eventually sold the manse to a local druggist and manufacturer named Alexander Petrie and retired to England in 1875.
In 1925, the insurance executive Henry Higinbotham purchased the house, which had become rundown over time, and undertook an extensive overhaul.
Mr. Higinbotham hired architect H. Reginald Coales for the transformation, which included expanding the building. The front entrance, which faced the river during Rev. Palmer’s time, was moved to the opposite side to face Stuart Street.
Mr. Higinbotham tore down some of the outbuildings and built a new coach house, which contained the heating system. Heat was funnelled to the main house through an underground tunnel. That way, if there was a fire or explosion in the furnace room, the main house would be protected from the inferno.
He renamed the estate Ker Cavan.
Following the Higinbotham family’s tenure, retired Brigadier-General Kenneth Torrance purchased the mansion for his summer home in the 1950s.
In 1960, Ker Cavan became a nursing home and rest home, with part of the building serving as the family home of the proprietors.
In the 1980s, a builder purchased the property and subdivided the land for residential development. The house was split in two.
The controversial redevelopment drew the scrutiny of Guelph’s heritage conservationists.
The city moved to designate 20 Stuart St. a heritage property in 1986, noting the building is one of the few surviving examples in Canada of the Tudor type of the Gothic revival style.
In 2008, Guelph resident Peregrine Wood was driving her son to soccer practice when she was diverted by construction. The detour took her past 20 Stuart St. where a “For Sale” sign had just been planted on the lawn.
A few years earlier, Ms. Wood and her husband, Kirk Roberts, had narrowly missed purchasing one-half of the divided house. They both agreed if the other half ever came up for sale, they would buy it.
Ms. Wood called the agent but she insisted that the home wasn’t ready for showings yet.
Ms. Wood and Mr. Roberts enlisted the help of a friend who lived close to the historic house to introduce them to the owners, who were frantically prepping the property before the photographer arrived the following day.
“By midnight the deal was done,” says Ms. Wood.
The house today
The couple moved from a stone house they had restored together at the north end of town to Stuart Street with their two children.
The couple’s son and daughter were entering their teenage years, Ms. Wood says, and the new location allowed them to walk to activities and entertainment in downtown Guelph.
In 2009, the couple began the renovation, which turned out to be far more complex than any project they had undertaken before.
“We ended up firing our general contractor after six weeks,” says Mr. Roberts.
The couple had travelled extensively in Europe and they envisioned a home that retained all of the existing heritage details while juxtaposing the old with the new.
The contractor held the view that all of the elements should look as if they had always been there, Mr. Roberts explains.
With such clashing visions, Ms. Wood took over as general contractor.
The main goal was to remove all of the 1980s-era fixtures, says Mr. Roberts, while restoring everything else.
Plumbing, electrical and heating and cooling systems needed to be updated, and water damage in some areas repaired.
Over the years, the elaborate plaster moulding and ceiling medallions in the principal rooms had cracked, leading to some shoddy repair work.
The 19th-century ears of maize, Tudor roses and classical rosettes are now protected under heritage preservation rules.
Ms. Wood says her husband barred her from entering the library for months while the plaster restorer dug deep into the plaster to find the source of the problem and repair it.
“I don’t think I could have handled the stress,” she says with a laugh.
Some of the other heritage-designated interior details were in remarkably good shape, say the couple, pointing to the wooden staircase in the main hall and the built-in mahogany bookshelf that lines one wall of the library.
Doorways with Gothic arches and the leaded and stained glass windows have also been preserved throughout the house, along with wooden shutters inside the oriel windows.
Rev. Palmer’s wooden porch had long been replaced with a conservatory, say the couple, and that space had in turn become the kitchen.
The window frames were completely shot, Ms. Wood says, so the couple had the three walls of windows replaced.
A dropped ceiling was also removed to expose some wood beams. Ms. Wood brought in workers to sandblast the beams and clean up the surfaces.
“Carpenter ants just started dropping,” she says.
Those beams were hastily hauled away and another even higher ceiling was uncovered.
Once the challenges had been tackled, the couple had a new kitchen installed with built-in appliances, a large island and modern glass-fronted cabinets.
“We wanted to create something that didn’t compete with the architecture,” Ms. Wood says. “It is calm and serene.”
A former parlour in the house is now the dining room.
Upstairs, the primary suite included a 1980s-era ensuite bathroom with carpeting and a huge jacuzzi tub.
“It was very loud and ornate,” says Ms. Wood.
The couple gutted the room and added cool grey floor tiles, a walk-in shower, a floating vanity and a soaker tub hoisted to the second level by crane.
“The bathroom was just an organic process,” says Ms. Wood. “We chose clear and simple and modern in spaces where there weren’t any existing architectural features.”
For their son’s room, the couple exposed the limestone wall and renovated the bathroom.
The third floor, which was originally an attic, became their daughter’s haven, with a bedroom, a bathroom with original tub and a large space for lounging and sleepovers.
The lower level became another place for teenagers to hang out, with media and recreation rooms and a separate entrance. French doors lead to an outdoor terrace.
Just as some interior elements are protected by heritage conservation rules, so are the towering spruce trees that stand in front of the house. The couple also planted Japanese maple, hemlock, ironwood, pagoda dogwood and purple leaf birch trees to create a park-like setting.
“We’ve always considered ourselves custodians,” says Ms. Wood. “This house is so much part of the community.”
The best feature
The main hall contains some of the home’s most significant heritage-designated elements, including a grand staircase in Honduran mahogany and a nine-panel stained glass window depicting the motto of Mr. Higinbotham’s military regiment.