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Real Estate Charles Pachter brings Canadiana to Ontario’s cottage country

Artist Charles Pachter inside one of his properties in Orillia, Ont.

Keith Lem/Charles Pachter

Great artists see potential where others don’t. Charles Pachter, for one, has a knack for turning Canadiana camp into pop masterpieces (think Queen Elizabeth riding a moose in vibrant colours à la David Hockney or Andy Warhol). His work is often humorous, but the reception has been seriously impressive. Mr. Pachter has shown at prestigious galleries (the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection) and earned both honorary doctorates (four and counting) and high honors such as the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario.

Beyond iconography, Mr. Pachter also has a keen eye for undervalued real estate. In the 1970s, he helped spark the revitalization of Toronto’s now ultratrendy Queen West area when he bought 20 run-down buildings and turned them into artists’ studios, apartments and a restaurant called Gracie’s. Although he lost all the buildings when interest rates soared to more 20 per cent in the early eighties, his prescience is undeniable: he originally paid $100,000 each for structures that are now valued for many millions of dollars.

In the ensuing decades, Mr. Pachter reinvested in Toronto – he has a beautiful home near Chinatown and has plans to build a new gallery for his work in the laneway out back. He has also been accumulating properties in another growing market: Orillia, an hour and a half north of the city. It’s a quaint, lake-side city on the edge of cottage country. It’s also in an area where the median non-waterfront real estate has increased by more than 50 per cent in value since Mr. Pachter bought in five years ago, according to the Lakelands Association of Realtors.

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Mr. Pachter’s connection to Orillia is long-standing. As a child, his parents used to rent cottages nearby. As an adult, he first owned a farm outside of town (“in my thirties I bought [and] read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” he says, “and I decided I had to have 100 acres”). He later owned a cottage on neighbouring Lake Simcoe, but decided to give it up in 2014. “I was the single older gay guy serving drinks to my straight couple friends sitting on the deck all summer,” he says. “Then they would leave and I would be alone.”

Around that time, he was driving around Orillia, making a pit stop at Goodwill (“a temple for artists,” he says) and picking up some butter tarts at his favourite bakery, Wilkie’s (“they’re the best butter tarts in Canada,” he says), when he saw a for sale sign on a derelict auto garage.

Mr. Pachter converted a derelict auto garage into a gallery space dubbed MOFO.

Charles Pachter/Charles Pachter

“It was a dump,” Mr. Pachter says. “It had been for sale for two years, sitting in a field full of weeds with the “For Sale” sign blowing in the wind. The owner was asking over 200 [thousand] for it. I put in an offer and I ended up getting it for 100 [thousand].”

The structure was crumbling. But it was spacious, so had lots of room to create art. And it was closer to town, so not as lonely. It helped that Mr. Pachter opened the space as a gallery for locals. He dubbed it the MOFO – which stands for Moose Factory of Orillia, referring to the imagery common in his work, not the slang-y put down. “I didn’t realize MOFO meant something else until a little old lady told me so well after I moved in,” Mr. Pachter says. The move even helped Mr. Pachter meet his future husband.

Mr. Pachter's MOFO, before and after the renovation and expansion.

Charles Pachter/Charles Pachter

After investing $300,000 to refurbish the building – including new living quarters (a kitchen and a bedroom) in a loft overlooking the garage – local resident Keith Lem decided to stop by on his way to a nearby bike repair shop to check out the architecture. Mr. Lem heard a sneeze inside and instinctively called out “bless you.”

“And the rest is history,” Mr. Pachter says. “We got married here last August.”

Along with a gallery, MOFO includes a living space in a loft overlooking the garage.

Charles Pachter/Charles Pachter

By the time of the wedding, though, Mr. Pachter’s Orillia properties had grown significantly. When the vacant lot next door came on the market, he bought it and, in collaboration with Hamilton-architect Joel Tanner, built a new, two-storey house to have more room than the compact garage (clean-lined and modern, the white-walled space has an airy, California vibe).

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He expanded again with a new, nearby investment property (also designed by Tanner) then started his most ambitious project when the falling down, five-unit rental building at the back of the MOFO was put up for sale in 2016. “The owners were asking 260 [thousand] for the house,” Mr. Pachter says. “And I got it for 185 [thousand].”

Before and after a million-dollar renovation of the property behind MOFO.

Charles Pachter/Charles Pachter

The place was in worse shape than the original auto shop, including piles of chicken heads scattered in the baron backyard (eerie remnants of former tenants who butchered their own dinner meat). A million dollars’ worth of renovations later, though, and any trace of dereliction has been erased. A capacious foyer is lined with colourful canvases and many pieces of furniture that Mr. Pachter found at Goodwill (including some lovely Art Deco finds from the 1930s); a second-storey, canopy-topped terrace is large-enough to fit both a string band playing for a mix-and-mingle cocktail party. It faces an outdoor movie screen and overlooks a leafy, landscaped garden.

Charles Pachter/Charles Pachter

Mr. Pachter's most ambitious property has a canopy-topped terrace, above, which overlooks a leafy courtyard that features a movie screen, below.

Charles Pachter/Charles Pachter

Mr. Pachter isn’t sure yet what the structure will be used for long term (it’s separated into two apartments, but he’s not keen to take on the stress of rental tenants, especially in his backyard). But at Mr. Pachter and Mr. Lem’s wedding last year, Molly Johnson sang from the terrace to more than 250 guests, including fashion journalist Jeanne Beker, author Margaret Atwood (a lifelong friend and member of the wedding party) and Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

The structure has also helped garner Mr. Pachter awards. Earlier in 2019, the Orillia District Chamber of Commerce honoured him for his efforts to rebuild the downtown community, which was once a manufacturing hub that went into decline as manufacturing moved offshore. More recently, Lakehead University gave him his forth honorary doctorate, in part because of his ongoing contributions to community revitalization.

And there might be more to come. A self-described real estate junky, Mr. Pachter loves driving around in his white minivan, taking note of for sale signs. “There’s a lot of interesting things happening here,” Mr. Pachter says. One only needs to look to the see the potential.

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