The listing: 176 Balmoral Ave., Toronto
Asking Price: $6.228-million
Taxes: $10,540 (2018)
Lot Size: 50 feet by 135.83 feet
Agents: Vivien Sharon, Sotheby’s International Realty Canada
The back story
Dr. Domenic Belcastro, a dental surgeon in Toronto, has been thinking a lot about the legacy he will leave behind when future generations appraise the house he substantially rebuilt at an address that has some intriguing links to art history in the city.
Realtor Vivien Sharon believes the house was built for Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris, and while The Globe couldn’t independently confirm that, according to City of Toronto archival records Mr. Harris – then 26 and just beginning to establish himself as a painter and artist – did live at 176 Balmoral Ave., along with his first wife, as early as 1911 and until about 1913.
While he was living on Balmoral Avenue, Mr. Harris exhibited his art for the first time and he painted and sketched urban scenes, several of which were published in a 1911 issue of MacLean’s Magazine as part of an article about Toronto and its urban rivals called Some Cities I Know. A pencil sketch of Bloor and Yonge, near his first studio, appeared in that article and is republished here courtesy of The University Club of Toronto. Another from that private collection and from same time period when he lived on Balmoral is from Roxborough and Yonge streets, a short walk from Balmoral.
But if you’re looking to walk the same halls Mr. Harris walked, or even see the same house he came home to, you’re out of luck. “The whole front and side is totally different, you wouldn’t recognize the home from before and after,” said Dr. Belcastro, who purchased the home in 2014 with an eye to modernize and live in the neighbourhood. It was just the latest of several construction projects he has undertaken over the years, but it would be the most frustrating, complex and hard-fought renovation yet and it would fundamentally erase many of the features that existed before.
“The house that existed here, almost looked like it didn’t fit: this home was a little wider, squattier,” Dr. Belcastro said. “I went around around, I drove through Rosedale, I just took a lot of pictures and I said here’s what I like, here’s what will work.”
The result is a completely new structure, it’s tall, almost every brick has changed, much of the internal structure has been replaced, even the original stain-glass windows – which are being offered to buyers – sit stacked in the garage, uninstalled. If Ms. Sharon is correct, and Lawren Harris built this house to his taste, Dr. Belcastro has replaced most of it with his own.
“You know what I think they are going to write in 100 years? This is gonna sound really sort of pompous on my end; Lawren Harris was a renowned artist who built his concept of what looks good here and some dentist 100 years later decided, ‘Nah, I’m gonna tweak that and change it a little bit.’ We’ll let history decide what they like better,” Dr. Belcastro said.
The house today
Dr. Belcastro never ended up living in 176 Balmoral Ave., indeed it was only recently finally finished (it still has that new-renovation smell). He said the first problem was that a two-storey rear addition had to be torn down because it wasn’t structurally sound. Digging out the basement caused even more cost and delays, and then when he applied to make the house taller, the neighbourhood rose up against him at the local planning committees and even the Ontario Municipal Board appeals body. While he prevailed in his plans, the delays cost him time and money and as the project dragged into its second year his plans changed from fix and move in to finish and flip.
The result is a thoroughly contemporary home inside and Dr. Belcastro gives full credit to Eneri Taul Architects and Harrison Fae Interior Designs for the finished product.
"It was important for me to not destroy everything,” he said. “The whole house as you can imagine is different, but there’s a lot of stuff that has been maintained. The way the rooms are, they haven't really changed … it’s the same layout. The front door is off-centre, all of that was original design.”
The reconfigured space has six bathrooms, 4 bedrooms (plus a potential nanny suite in the basement), and while some of the living spaces are defined, others have more flexible possible uses.
The house also has a lot of modern technology: built-in speakers connected to a Sonos system, a front door and security system from Ring and all the lights in the house can be controlled from apps on your phone.
The front entryway is grand with polished marble floor (over an electric heating pad) with panelled walls and the ceilings on the main level are now 10 feet tall (upper floor nine feet, basement eight). To the right is a sitting room described as the library, once the dining room. To the left is a narrow living room with gas fireplace. Everything on this floor, in fact much of the house, has a palette of white, gray, or black with some natural woods thrown in for flooring and shelving.
At the end of the hall (past a cloak room and powder room) is a new addition which is an open living room/kitchen space. On the left wall is a vast black marble fireplace with a big flat-screen TV above it, mirrored by another slab of marble above the stove on the right wall. An extended white-quartz island and seating area separates the kitchen from the couches, and a wall of windows and glass doors on the rear wall bring light in and connect the rear deck to the inside living space.
In the basement under this kitchen is a vast home-theatre space, down the hall is a glassed-in workout room (with rubber floor), which connects to a three-piece bath and a sauna. The aforementioned fifth bedroom/nanny suite is here too alongside storage and utility spaces.
On a landing between the first and second floor are two small rooms with laundry facilities. The upper level has two contenders for master suite: the bedroom at the front of the house is slightly smaller, but has a walk-in closet and three-piece ensuite; the master on the rear of the house has a gas fireplace, a five-piece bathroom and a more dramatic walk-in closet. There are two other bedrooms on the floor and a shared five-piece bathroom in the hall.
The money pit
“It’s eaten up almost five years of my life, a ton of money, I had a budget and it’s just gone … I don’t feel good about it,” Dr. Belcastro said. “It was like a Money Pit, like the movie, I was just pouring money and I don’t see anything happening.” Despite all that, if he doesn’t get his price he said he’s prepared to move in and keep the place for himself.
The price is high, recent sales in the area are between $2-million and $4-million, but Ms. Sharon argues that there are houses that will sell for more than $7-million, too, with the right buyer. The dentist and the realtor speak wistfully of attracting the interest of an art history buff, perhaps even comedian and actor Steve Martin, who has curated Group of Seven exhibitions in Toronto in the past.
But what would Mr. Harris have thought about the new house at his old address?
Nancy Lang, artist, researcher and producer on White Pine Pictures documentaries about the Group of Seven – including Painted Land: In search of the Group of Seven and Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris – made the connection between Harris’s Balmoral years and those early pencil sketches of urban landscape, which sometimes got him tagged as a “socialist painter of unpleasant scenes.” And while she admits he was a keen builder, she also notes that the Maclean’s article written by arts reporter Augustus Bridle wasn’t so sentimental about heritage structures. In the article, Bridle admires Montreal as it “rips out her time-worn architecture in true Chicago style and goes in for the most modern buildings,” and Toronto he claims “is beginning to be impatient of her old-style downtown area which a big fire did much to revolutionize.”
Dr. Belcastro’s Balmoral neighbours, he said, accused him of “destroying a piece of history.” One hopes Mr. Harris, or Mr. Bridle at least, might approve of a little razing for revolution.
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