258 MacNab St. N. Hamilton
Asking Price: $1,798,000
Taxes: $8,273 (2020)
Lot Size: 46- by 122-feet
Agent: Colette Cooper, Broker, Royal LePage State Realty
The back story
The Victorian terrace on MacNab St. North in downtown Hamilton is a local landmark, not least because it doesn’t look like anything else in the city. That’s thanks to the design by noted local architect James Balfour. The six-unit row built in 1880 blends the wooden bays of Italianate row houses popular in San Francisco (that city’s famous Painted Ladies) with features of Victorian Gothic designs (steep, ornate gables and bargeboard). The craftsmanship of the woodwork and brickwork has stood the test of time.
“We always liked that terrace, we’d walk by it and admire it,” said Tom Baker, who owns 258 MacNab, which sits at the centre of the row. “When it showed up with a for sale sign [in 1989], it sounds romantic and silly, but we just loved the place from the first time we’d seen it.”
A city of Hamilton heritage report says the terrace house was first owned by the family of Henry Larkin, a barrister and developer who also commissioned Balfour to build a nearby Renaissance Revival office block now known as Treble Hall. In 1942, the six row houses in the Larkin terrace were subdivided between five owners with the two homes in the centre of the block that connect above the carriage gateway combined into one home.
For Mr. Baker, who saw potential in the stately old home, the only complication was that it wasn’t an ordinary Victorian residence. The houses had been joined together, with the upper two floors converted to a rooming house. A dozen long-time lodgers shared one kitchen.
“We were kind of tortured about it; it hadn’t been kept up to the same level it should have been.
People said ‘Why don’t you just buy a regular house?’” said Mr. Baker, a veterinarian who specializes in disease control in livestock and poultry. “It was a pretty challenged area at the time. We had a lot of real estate agents in our family who felt it was not where ‘respectable’ people should be living.”
And indeed, at first they didn’t live there, running the building as a rooming house with a property manager living in a main floor apartment for the first dozen years. But all along they had been upgrading the building, and in 2003 began to change the units over when longer-term residents vacated, adding more bathrooms to rooms. Now, of the 10 ‘guest rooms’, seven have bathrooms. In 2006, they added a two-storey addition on to the back of the house and moved in themselves.
“It was an interesting neighbourhood even then; a lot of old families had lived there and raised their children. You still had a lot of poor people and marginalized people,” Mr. Baker said. “James Street was pretty quiet back then too – it was certainly not the arts and culture scene we see now.”
As Mr. Baker referenced, things have changed in the last 20 years. There’s a GO train station a block north of the building, and Hamilton’s downtown has seen a renaissance, though dampened now by the pandemic. “I’m impressed by the number of young kids growing up in the downtown. We’re seeing a lot of professional families with kids and a dog,” he said.
The House Today
The house itself is huge: more than 6,000 square feet with two currently occupied ground floor apartments and a half-dozen lodgers upstairs on medium-term stays. Mr. Baker has changed the demographic of guests to professionals and postgraduate students who visit McMaster University or the city’s hospitals. He admits he’d like to see someone carry on the business, maybe with more attention to a short-stay model. “If you’re younger and have the energy, there’s not much else available in downtown Hamilton [in terms of hotels],” he said.
The current floor plan has the entrance to the guest rooms on the left side of the carriage gate (which hides a pass-through to rear courtyard that has space for six cars but has also been partially landscaped for outdoor entertainment). Just inside is a set of stairs that takes you upstairs to the guest rooms, and down a short hall is the door to a separate ground-level apartment that encompasses the original Victorian living room and dining room, with a kitchen and full bathroom with one bedroom at the back with a separate entrance to the rear.
On the second floor there are five guest rooms, the two facing the front are the largest, 17- by 8-feet with their own ensuite bathrooms. A third room with its own bath sits in the rear corner, next to it is the common kitchen and a laundry closet. There are two smaller rooms with no ensuite, and a shared bathroom at the end of the hall.
On the third floor are five more guest rooms, again the two units facing the street are the largest, and the two in the rear corners are a little smaller. Only one room on this level doesn’t have it’s own bathroom.
The owner’s suite is back downstairs on the right side of the carriage gate. There’s a stairwell here as well that goes up to the guest rooms, but on the right is a doorway to a space that was once a living room and is now more like a lobby of sorts. Just through it is the old dining room, now used by Mr. Baker as an office to conduct tenant business. A door in the rear of this room can be closed off to separate it from the kitchen, remodelled in 2006 with a breakfast bar. There’s also a powder room and the entrance to the rear courtyard. Just beyond this is the two-storey addition and a rear sunroom on the back of the house.
A stairwell here at the back goes upstairs to the primary bedroom suite, which has its own laundry. The bedroom sits under a vaulted ceiling with skylights, facing a rear wall of windows that looks toward James. Street. The bathroom evokes Victorian elegance with a claw-footed soaker tub and subway tile walls, but also has a large separated shower with glass enclosure.
Who’s in the market?
“We’ve had different types of buyers,” said Colette Cooper, the listing agent. “Some see it strictly as an investment where they continue running it as a guest house. We’re also getting multi-generational families interested; I’ve had one showing where the mother wants to buy it as a business, and her daughter will be the property manager. I’ve got a group of friends – [about eight] retired artists – they want to all live together, they can’t each afford to buy a place for themselves certainly not in Toronto.”
The price is steep for someone planning to convert it to a single or even multi-family home, but then so too are all the prices in Hamilton these days.
“This is the highest market I’ve ever seen, the only thing that came closer was in 2017 … it’s unbelievable what I’m seeing,” said Ms. Cooper. “A lot of the Hamilton first-time buyers are priced right out, and they are looking to Brantford, Cayuga and Caledonia; and now those markets are on fire.” The issue in Hamilton, as it is everywhere, is a lack of available inventory.
“It’s almost like a catch-22: I have a number of people who want to sell, but they don’t want to sell until they purchase, and that’s the issue. I’m showing 20 houses to a buyer before they finally get something,” Ms. Cooper said.
Mr. Baker and his wife are staying in the downtown, in a smaller house they purchased a few years ago. They are ready to retire and not have to fix so many toilets, but they are keen to have a front-row seat to see what comes next in the steel city.
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