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West Vancouver home steeped in history hits a market that seeks opportunity

The former Vancouver home of engineer Fred Taylor, who was integral to the construction of the Lions Gate Bridge, is going on the market.

Leslie Krohman

Fred Taylor never got the credit he deserves for the role he played in the development of West Vancouver and the Lions Gate Bridge.

Victoria-born Alfred James Towle Taylor, president of British Pacific Properties, spent years obsessively pushing for the construction of the bridge and even took his campaign all the way to the prime minister’s office. Until the bridge opened in 1938, West Vancouver was remote cottage country across the First Narrows, accessed only by boat. Mr. Taylor, an enterprising engineer, knew the bridge was essential in opening up the area’s development potential, and he used his extensive overseas connections to acquire funding from Britain’s Guinness family to get it done.

A few years before the bridge, his company purchased the newly built and now iconic Marine Building for less than $1-million. The Depression had begun, the Art Deco building had gone over budget and its owners had filed for bankruptcy. Mr. Taylor saw it as “the ideal flagship for the British Pacific ventures in Vancouver, with the First Narrows and the North Shore mountain slopes highly visible from its harbour-side windows,” heritage consultant Don Luxton wrote in the book he co-authored, Lions Gate.

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Mr. Taylor’s street namesake, Taylor Way, is a major thoroughfare in West Vancouver. The only other reminder of the prominent role he played there is his house, which is going on the market now that the owner of 30 years has decided it’s time to move on.

Kew House sits at the end of a long, winding driveway.

Leslie Krohman

You have to cruise down a long curving driveway at 5324 Marine Dr. before the handsome house comes into view – a Mediterranean villa style home designed by Scottish architect William Bow, that overlooks a terraced garden and endless ocean. Framing the house’s entrance are a pair of lion sculptures, early mock-ups of the famous lions that now stand at the gateway to the Lions Gate Bridge. These smaller versions were a gift to Mr. Taylor from the lions’ sculptor, Charles Malega.

Kew House, built in 1937, has a panoramic view of Howe Sound, situated across from Passage Island. And although it no longer stands on the 26 or so acres it once did, it is surrounded by rock and trees, and feels intensely private. The property has been subdivided down to 1.6 acres, but the heritage aspect of the house itself has largely remained intact.

It has had a few influential owners throughout the years, including a member of the Weston family, philanthropist and theatre supporter Kay Meek, and developer Ken Bream, an executive with Cadillac Fairview who oversaw Toronto’s Eaton Centre and Vancouver’s Canada Place and Pacific Centre.

Mr. Bream moved with wife, Leslie, from Toronto in the early 1980s, and they purchased the Kew House in 1987, for $1.050-million. When he died in 1998, Leslie decided to stay on in the house. She embarked on a three-year restoration and upgrade on the house, which is how she met Bela Krohman, a residential builder who worked with her on the $2.3-million renovation (that amount includes the furnishings and art work).

The current owners spent $2.3-million renovating the home.

Leslie Krohman

They got married in the house and Mr. Krohman’s children lived there as teenagers. Now, like a lot of boomers who’ve lived in a house for decades, they want to move on.

“We are 65 years old and decisions have to be made,” Mr. Krohman says . “Could we live here for the rest of our lives? Very happily. The idea of leaving the peace, the privacy, the view, the history, is a difficult thing to do, but if that move isn’t made now, the next move is likely to have somebody looking after you.”

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Adds Ms. Krohman: “I don’t want to be here when I’m 70 or 75. Because we are still physically active enough and psychologically willing to embrace change, so, [let’s see] wherever that takes us.

“We don’t know where we are going to go, if it does sell,” she adds. “We have no idea.”

As they go around the house pointing out every detail, it’s clear the house has been a major undertaking for the couple. They tore out the few bad renovations that had been done and enhanced the house’s original design. Luckily, most of the woodwork was intact, including the hand-adzed Sitka spruce ceiling beams that came from Haida Gwaii, arched doorways and teak windows. They added more arched doorways, restored any missing herringbone oak flooring, imported marble, onyx and limestone and added a huge teak picture window in the living room. They commissioned artists to hand-paint and apply gold leaf to the ceilings, restored the built-in cabinets to a higher standard, added silk to the dining room walls, replaced several of the coal-burning fireplaces with energy efficient ones, had giant, ornate mirrors carved and custom furniture made for each room. Any original details, such as the single-paned windows, slate terrace and white oak and cedar banister, were preserved. There isn’t a trace of cheap medium-density fibreboard – prevalent in the expensive new houses – anywhere in the 5,200- square-foot space.

The owners tore out the few bad renovations that had been done previously and enhanced the house’s original design.

Leslie Krohman

“We tried to keep it a human scale and very intimate, so as two people we can sit here and feel very comfortable in this big space,” Ms. Krohman says .

The house would have been considered state of the art in 1937, with air conditioning, loudspeakers for music and towel warmers in the bathrooms. The dumbwaiter, used to lift meals from the kitchen to the upstairs breakfast room back in Mr. Taylor’s day, was removed. The breakfast room became a study. There is a small, teak-panelled elevator if the grand staircase is too much.

In the TV room is a pretty, small stained-glass window of a flute player that they believe was installed by the Weston family.

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“You are inheriting more than a house,” Mr. Krohman says. “I feel you get to be part of something bigger than the four walls, and the more you live in it, the more you appreciate that you are a caretaker of a place in time, and someone else was a caretaker before you.”

A teak-panelled elevator is available in case the grand staircase is too difficult for a guest.

Leslie Krohman

They haven’t yet listed the house on the Multiple Listing Service, but they’ve hired a realtor. The price isn’t confirmed, but they’re thinking in the $15-million range. It’s a tricky market to gauge. Their neighbour on the less desirable side of the street – the non-water side – recently built a 38,000-sq.-ft. house that looks like a concrete-cast Italian villa with a cruise ship inspired interior. That house is listed for $20,880,000, according to the online listings.

Sales in the detached house market, especially in the high-end neighbourhoods, have gone soft in the past year. The couple had tried listing in 2012, for $8-million, but the market had gone soft then, as well. When it started to climb, they decided to hang onto it, according to the realtor’s publicist.

The current slowdown is likely due to several factors, including the new foreign buyer tax, which has increased to 20 per cent, and an increased effort by Beijing to limit foreign exchange purchases, instituted last year. West Vancouver has the second highest percentage of single-detached houses owned by foreign nationals in the Vancouver region, according to analysis of Statistics Canada data by Andy Yan.

In March there were 150 detached houses listed in West Vancouver for more than $5-million. Of those, only three sold. The market for detached houses is a buyer’s market, with six in 100 homes selling, according to SnapStats. The number of sales for detached houses is less than half what it was the same time last year.

And the current market for high-priced homes isn’t looking for a house steeped in history. Finding the right buyer will be a challenge.

“This is a difficult house to sell,” Mr. Krohman says .

The house is not legally protected, and it’s not on the heritage register, because Ms. Krohman worried that a designation would limit what she could do with it.

Leslie Krohman

“Because not everybody loves the heritage aspect,” Ms. Krohman says. “They don’t want this kind of house. They want to blow it away and build a big 15,000-sq.-ft. house.

“The first people to come along on any listing, in any offering, are people are looking to get something out of the place. In this case, in West Vancouver, it’s the land. I see this everywhere, the lots for the old houses come up, and people go, ’What can we make of it? We can put two homes on the lot, at a cost of $9-million to produce, plus the [lot] to buy. In a period of a year and a half, people can net out $5-million, $6-million, $7-million. So they are not looking for a home. They are looking for an opportunity.”

The house is not legally protected, and it’s not on the heritage register, because Ms. Krohman worried that a designation would limit what she could do with the house. However, it could be saved if the lot is subdivided and the district considers the house a “primary resource,” which means there are options.

District of West Vancouver planning staff have contacted the Krohmans’ agent and discussed potential development incentives in exchange for retention and protection of the house, according to a district spokesperson. The Rush House on 12th Street, built in 1923, was saved as part of a Heritage Revitalization Agreement that saw it relocated on the lot so that infill cottages could be added. A similar plan would be the ideal outcome for Kew House, in a market that wants to maximize its profit margins.

The Krohmans hope they find a buyer who appreciates the craftsmanship and the history, who won’t toss the lion sculptures and beams from Haida Gwaii into the landfill.

They know too that a young family very likely won’t be able to afford the house. Mr. Krohman’s own kids have had to move away for work, to Fort McMurray, Alta., and Australia.

Ms. Krohman understands her good fortune in living for so long in Kew House, which belonged to a time, not just culturally, but generationally.

“We try to reflect back on when we were younger and what could we have afforded,” she says. “I grew up in Toronto. It was never an issue as to whether we could find a place to rent or if I could even afford a place to rent, because it was always there. In terms of buying a house, I can’t even think back to what the values of the homes would have been when I was 25 or 30.”

Foreign buyers zero in on West Van, Endowment Lands

West Vancouver has a large proportion of foreign-owned detached houses in the region, but the University Endowment Lands takes top spot, with 8.2 per cent of detached homes owned by foreign owners.

A foreign owner, or non-resident, is defined as a person whose principal residence is outside of Canada, regardless of citizenship.

In West Vancouver, the percentage of foreign-owned houses is 6.5 per cent, followed by Lions Bay at 5.5 per cent, Vancouver at 5.2 per cent and Richmond at 4.9 per cent. The average for the region is 3.2 per cent. Coquitlam, Surrey, North Vancouver, Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, New Westminster, Maple Ridge, Delta, Langley and Pitt Meadows all have fewer than the average percentage of foreign-owned detached houses. Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, analyzed data provided by Statistics Canada.

Foreign buyers are particularly interested in new houses, with a focus on West Vancouver. Of new houses built between 2011 and 2015 in the municipality, non-residents owned 11 per cent. Region wide, 8 per cent of new houses in that period were foreign owned. New house construction by foreign owners has tapered off slightly from 2016 to 2017, going down to 10 per cent of all new houses in West Vancouver.

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