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Edison’s Cafe and Inn, 46/48 Ontario St., Stratford, Ont.

Asking Price: $1.5-million

Taxes: $11,000 (2022)

Lot Size: 2,700 square feet


The backstory

Bruce Whitaker likes to tell his guests at Edison’s Inn that creativity is in the air. That’s because the historic two-storey building in downtown Stratford, Ont., once had a very famous resident. Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the first commercially viable electric light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera, lived there as a young man in 1863. He was 16 years old and working as a telegrapher for the Grand Trunk Railway – a career that didn’t pan out.

The young Edison had devised a system meant to alert him when a train was on the track, allowing him to nap or focus on his inventions while on the job, but when it failed one night, two trains nearly collided. He headed for Michigan rather than be fired, but it’s rumoured that he created a mousetrap while living at the 46/48 Ontario St. building, then part of the Albion hotel, to deal with the mice keeping him up at night. Unfortunately he didn’t patent his mousetrap, but he is credited for 1,093 other U.S. patented inventions.

When Mr. Whitaker, who previously worked in technology and international finance, bought the 1845-built structure in 2016 with visions of running a small inn, the building was in serious disrepair. The second-floor room, where Thomas Edison likely worked on his inventions, had remained untouched for more than 60 years and was accessible only by a tiny ladder. On first seeing the building, his life partner Shawn Atlee asked if it was too late to get out of the deal. The massive eight-month cleanup and renovation would prove challenging and expensive.

When the hired architect had no idea of how to create the second entrance/exit required for each of the three hotel rooms, Mr. Whitaker opened his oldest son’s high-school geometry textbook to the section on rise and run related to stairs.

“The only solution was to take out the second floor by cutting out the joists and building a new floor two feet lower. Which meant the windows were too high, so we made them larger,” says Mr. Whitaker. “Not only was the building restored, but also Edison’s story in Stratford and most importantly, my son’s faith in math.”

The inn today

  • The Music Room, with Justin Bieber art.Igor Yu/Igor Yu

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Nestled between Stratford’s bustling Ontario Street at the front and historic York Street bordering the Avon River at the back, the building is surrounded by a variety of shops and popular restaurants – and is within walking distance to the Stratford Festival theatre, Avon Theatre and new $72-million Tom Patterson theatre. Thomas Edison is celebrated in each of the three unique and distinctly themed hotel rooms, with original artwork featuring his timeline, inventions and quotes. Even the layers of century-old wallpaper are preserved in a section of wall on display.

“I wanted to inspire innovation in every guest who stayed with us,” says Mr. Whitaker. “Hopefully, they would leave excited to tackle something new.”

The Edison Room, the one young Edison occupied on the second floor, has a tree outside its window sheltering it from the busy street below. Also on the second floor, The Music Suite was again inspired by Thomas Edison, who was totally deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, yet still invented the phonograph. The room boasts a spectacular view of the river and an 8- by 10-foot wall art piece of another famous former Stratford resident, Justin Bieber, created in acrylic and mixed media by Stratford artist Amparo Villalobos.

“Some people come specifically and stay there because of Justin Bieber – typically teenagers with a parent,” says Mr. Whitaker. “But what’s great is that the tourists have returned this year, including the Americans. We’re pretty well fully booked. The person who buys it can continue to be successful, adding their own creative touches, or following in the steps of Edison, reinvent the building entirely.”

The third room is The Cafe Suite since it shares the main floor with Edison’s Cafe Bar. There’s also a bakery on the lower level, Kandy Cakes, offering designer pastries and cakes. Both businesses are on monthly leases.

The Cafe Suite features a separate entrance on York Street so it’s quite private and perfect for visiting celebrities. Guests have included renowned singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie and literary giants Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Ann-Marie MacDonald.

Guests also appreciate that there are no lineups. When Mr. Whitaker was travelling the world for business, he hated having to line up at a hotel only to give all the same information he had already provided in his reservation.

“Everything is automated so guests can go straight to their room and relax and when they check out, they can just leave,” says Mr. Whitaker. “But sometimes socializing is a key part. Especially after the pandemic, some people want to be connected. Then I’ll reach out to them to help with their luggage or we’ll have a cocktail together, so it becomes more of a relationship.”

While Mr. Whitaker has grown to love the inn, and continues to run the Perth County Inn located on the same block, he has aspirations for yet another renovation project.

“I’ve come to the realization that my passion comes from building, less so from operating,” says Mr. Whitaker. “As a creative person, I want to bring new vitality to buildings that also contribute to our community.”

The best feature

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Igor Yu/Igor Yu

“One of the best features is that we live two blocks away, so if there’s a time we want a break from our children and one of the rooms isn’t rented, then we sneak away,” says Mr. Whitaker. “Everybody has a favourite room, but I like The Cafe Suite. There are two sofas to chill out on, a great river view and you can smell coffee because the cafe is right next door. You can sit on one of those sofas and just watch the world go by.”

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