362 Bay St. S., Hamilton
Asking price: $3.6-million
Taxes: $17,730.00 (2011)
Agents: Brad Douglas (Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd.) and Michael O'Sullivan (Royal LePage Burloak Real Estate Services)
THE BACK STORY
Drivers who wind their way to the top of Hamilton Mountain via Bay Street South need to keep their eyes on the road when it suddenly curves steeply to the left - but it's easy to be distracted by the Normandy chateau sitting off to the right.
The landmark property has long intrigued passers-by who meander through this neighbourhood of heritage houses and tree-lined streets near Aberdeen Avenue and James Mountain Road. People who peer beyond the wrought iron gates are able to catch a glimpse of a stone house surrounded by expansive lawns and forested slopes.
"We've got just under four acres right in the city," says owner John Ryan.
Mr. Ryan and his wife Leila purchased the four-acre property in the 1970s partly for its position: Walk down the hill towards Lake Ontario and you're soon in downtown Hamilton; walk up and you're atop the Niagara Escarpment.
They also admired the engineering and craftmanship of the house, which was built in the 1930s by an heiress and her husband who had ventured to France and wanted to replicate a chateau they had seen during their travels through the Normandy countryside.
The homeowner inherited her fortune from her brother, who was a chemical engineer. He invented no-knock gasoline, sold the patent, to an oil giant, and died soon after collecting his wealth. The year was 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression.
"They had the unlimited income to do all of that at that time," says Mr. Ryan.
The heiress and her husband went to great lengths to fulfill their vision: The roof tiles and the craftsmen who installed them were brought over from Wales; wood carvers and stone masons made a special trip from England.
"The engineering is beyond reason," says Mr. Ryan.
But the property at 362 Bay St. South has a much longer history than that of the current house. The original mansion was used as a summer residence by Lieutenant-Governors of Ontario during the 1800s, according to Mr. Ryan.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the property was put up for sale. The buyers were educators who established Highfield as a preparatory school for boys.
A severe fire broke out in 1918 and the damage to the building effectively ended the boarding program. In 1933 that structure was replaced by the current house.
Meanwhile, Hillfield-Strathallan, the successor school to Highfield, is located just up the hill.
THE HOUSE TODAY
Ms. Ryan is a teacher and researcher at McMaster University's School of Nursing. Mr. Ryan is a businessman and resort developer who stopped commuting to Toronto and set up an office in his Hamilton house about the same time he got his first Blackberry.
Now when he stops work he walks out to a putting green on the lawn. The groomed areas give way to a well-treed incline that rises to the top of the mountain and another leafy expanse that slopes down.
"We keep this area and the area up the hill natural," he says as he points out the heirloom peonies in the perennial beds surrounding the house.
Inside, visitors arrive to a grand foyer with a beamed ceiling, stained glass windows, intricate floor tiles and a curving staircase.
"This is a great party area," says the owner. "No matter where it is in the home, people end up here drinking."
Inside, the dining room retains a traditional feel with leaded glass windows and panelled walls and a formal dining table. A decorator transformed the formal living room into a more modern family room for lounging in the 1970s.
The large room offers lots of space for entertaining and a grand piano at one end.
The kitchen was renovated soon after the Ryans and their three children moved in. It provides a breakfast area and space for caterers to do their work.
"We had to take apart about four rooms," says Mr. Ryan of the conversion from a servants' kitchen to one suited to contemporary living.
At the rear of the house, an old-fashioned screened porch overlooks the ravine.
Upstairs, four large bedrooms on the second floor served the family members. The Ryans' daughter had her bedroom in the upper part of the turret. Her bedroom also included an ensuite bathroom and a Juliet balcony.
"You look out of the turret window and you get a view of the garden," says Mr. Ryan.
The third floor and the rear of the second floor were the servants' quarters.
The Ryans have hosted many events - including their daughter's wedding - on the grounds.
"We had several hundred people on the lawn and it was fabulous."
Hamilton Golf and Country Club, where Mr. Ryan is a member, is an approximately 12-minute drive.
"It's one of the great golf courses in Canada."
Mr. Ryan says Hamilton has been a wonderful city in which to raise a family. It has also changed over the years as heavy industry has given way to new businesses. McMaster University Medical Centre has been a landmark since 1972 but today the city's expertise has expanded to a network of six hospitals and a cancer centre known as Hamilton Health Sciences.
"This is a high-tech, high-innovation city now."
Mr. Ryan also points to the city's arts community.
"This is not just a suburb," he says. "You've got a full, active city. This is just a great city to live in. It's a very dynamic arts scene."
Real estate agent Brad Douglas of Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. points out that such an expanse of land surrounded by urbanity can't be found in Toronto or anywhere else he can think of.
"Where else are you going to find a Normandy castle set on four acres in the heart of the city?"
THE BEST FEATURE
Mr. Ryan set up his ground-floor office in the lower half of the turret as his own executive retreat. His desk, in the former library, sits just in front of the wood-burning fireplace and within easy reach of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
He points to the tranquil gardens outside his window. His chipping area for golf is nearby.
Mr. Ryan leans back into his chair as he surveys his collection of books and the vista over green lawns.
"Conrad Black, eat your heart out."