What to do with a large, old estate?

6 Replies

I had originally posted this in a thread belonging to Ashley Harris, but to avoid dragging her thread off-topic, I've moved it here.

Yesterday, I walked one of the oldest private estate houses in the Maritimes  (built c1850) which is still in-tact and still owned by the original family.  William Parks (1800 - 1870) was a local merchant, ship owner, co-owner of the local gas-light utility, and founder of two textile mills which operated from the the 1860s through to ~1974 (though the family lost control of the mills in the early 1900s).

The house - exterior

The 1/2 - 3/4 acre garden surrounding the house is overgrown, but there are some amazing old plants hidden amongst the chaos - I found a rhododendron with a 30' spread, whose trunk was 8" in diameter - quite a specimen this far north.  There were also a very old chestnut and a butternut  standing by the carriage house.

There is an ~5' x 10' section of stone in the east gable which needs repointed and a couple of loose stones moved back into place.  There is also evidence of moisture along the soffit line here which is likely coming from the near by chimney.

The house - interior

Structurally the place was amazingly as straight and true as when it was built. The trompe l'oeil wall treatment on both stories of the great hall is still in very good shape despite a handful of small cracks in the plaster.  The grand hall still had most of its gas light fixtures which had been converted to electric.

The original kitchen on the back of the house and the servants quarters above have been converted into an 2-bedroom apartment (I would guess back in the 40s based upon the age of the appliances - there's a 1930s/40s electric range which is in like-new condition).

Similarly, the gardener's quarters in the walk-out basement has been turned into a 1-bedroom apartment - probably in the 1950s. 

The main house has seen the anteroom and library/smoking room (on the right-hand side of the main entrance) turned into two bedrooms - with a washroom and laundry closet added between them. Judging by the grab bars and other paraphernalia, this likely happened when the last lady of the house grew to frail to navigate the grand staircase to the master suite on the second floor.

The second floor has the master suite (~800 - 1000 ft^2) on the left-hand side of the house and two smaller bedrooms (each about 400 ft^2) on the right-hand side. The original dressing rooms off each bedroom were converted into bathrooms as far back as the 1930s/40s/ - so each bedroom has its own bathroom.

The original "bathroom" - with its copper bathtub - sites through a door off a landing on the grand stairwell and is actually in the servants wing of the building over the kitchen.

Much of the bedroom furniture, and some of the other original furniture is still present in the house (either still in its room of use or stored in the third-floor attic or in the carriage house. There are some gems of antiques here.

Above the attic is a Belvedere which gives a panoramic of the city - at the time the house was built the owner would have been able to observe both the dockyard and, later, his cotton mill from here.

There is also a 2-story plus walk-out basement carriage house (800 ft^2 / floor) on the property which could be turned into a triplex - once you cleared all of the old tack and antique furniture out of it.

It was like a trip back in time - the grandeur of the place was impressive.

The house - future?

The house is on the edge of Mount Pleasant, which is still in the tony part of town 160 years later.   The house and (some/most of) its contents can be had for an amazing price - but what would you do with it? 

Any effort to modernize and make {somewhat} energy efficient would involve disrupting / destroying a portion of the woodwork, mouldings and trompe l'oeil.

Likewise, transforming the main house into {4} apartments or condominiums would necessitate a similar or greater sacrifice to meed modern fire codes; to add kitchens to the individual units, and to insulate and install separate HVAC for each unit.  Surprisingly when the house was (re)wired in the 1950s, fuse panels were put into each quadrant of each floor of the main house (essentially each room) and the rooms were wired to the local panel rather than trying to pull wiring back to the mechanical room in the basement.

The last remaining descendants, who themselves are getting on - live quite some distance away, and have been maintaining the house since their parents have passed away {I'm told the property has/had its own trust fund}, but now want to be rid of the burden.

I could turn it into six nice apartments - but unless I destroyed the character of the building in the process, the current operating costs {10K/year to heat) would make it un-viable.

You could keep it as an expansive single family home (~6500 ft^2), but the existing layout is not geared for modern living - a 20' wide grand stairway w/ 16' ceilings just isn't in demand these days.  One could keep the external historic charm, but modernize the internal layout.

It would be a shame to see it sit empty - but this time, unloved - for another decade, but I do not readily see a profitable way to save it.

@Will Barnard - this is more in your wheel house ... any ideas?

I'm no expert by any means but the first thing that jumps out at me is to check any/all regulations in the area regarding historic properties. That may limit what you can do quite a bit.

Restoring historic structures in a specific niche and some people love it (not sure why). If you have it under contract, start to market the property and find a buyer for it. Someone might take it off your hands as is. 

If your set with keeping the property and improving it, I would dump the character and upgrade to apartments. There is a reason for modern housing codes.... safety.

Originally posted by @Jim Viens :

I'm no expert by any means but the first thing that jumps out at me is to check any/all regulations in the area regarding historic properties. That may limit what you can do quite a bit.


I should have mentioned that.  While this house is both in the national and provincial registries of heritage places, it is not designated as a protected historic property by the city (surprisingly).   This may have to do with the economic and political influence of many of the other neighbours in Mount Pleasant or the fact that it is not in the historic uptown area (the location of the house is in what use to be a separate community called Portland) - which is also why it was spared in the great fire of 1877.

One is free to renovated this house as you see fit - which is why my agent brought it to me.

Our stock is typically an older, unloved building, either purposely built as multi-units or previously converted - but occasionally we will convert or re-arrange the division of a previous conversion.  As such, we usually buy hard luck cases which have long ago shed their original glamour and have no hesitation or remorse about gutting and re-designing the interior.   

In this instance, this building has been maintained and loved by the family for over a century and is at the turning point where it wall now start to fall into neglected disrepair.  I would like to come-up with a profitable solution which would allow the Parks estate to continue more-or-less in-tact.


If we were to purchase this building, we would change the layout; insulate the building envelope and modernize the buildings services and amenities.   It's what we do ... we have no tract record in historical restorations or adding energy efficiency and returning/restoring the original finishes.

I live in an affluent suburb in the greater Los Angeles area where infill building is going crazy (I'm listening to construction as I post).

Most all of this activity is driven by supply and demand economics here. Across the street a new multi-million dollar home is being built on a lot due to incredible views and the neighborhood. I never expected the parcel to built on or the numbers to make sense. They do now. 

In beach towns little crappy shacks go for well over a million. In Beverly Hills and adjacent, old estate homes are getting sliced and diced by lot splits, demolition and much bigger homes being built. All because of the demand. 

As for an estate with a grand history, here they are rare. Sadly, most locals don't value history unless it's their own. 

As for a gem like your Canadian estate, I wonder if a story could be told around the building's history and only key elements retained (a facad only, for example). Personally, I would spend time thinking about my end user (tenant?) and who I'd want to attract. 

Senior living? 

@Rick H.
There is a nationally renown {retired} architect in the City whose specialty is restoration and preservation of Second Empire and Victorian buildings. We are reaching out to him to explore just what you mention - retaining the exterior facade and incorporating enough to the interior - particularly the trompe l'oeil - to pay respect to the history of the building.

Senior living is an avenue we are exploring, but might be cost prohibitive if an elevator need be incorporated.

We dismissed B&B - the property would be fitting, but they are in abundance already and some of the older, more established ones are struggling these days.

If it wasn't for the fact we have real winters here and 6500 ft^2 of this age costs ~10-12K to heat - we could experiment with less risk.

The purchasing of this property will undoubtedly be the least costly aspect of a deal.

beautiful architecture - I have seen so many in europe - but there is no rentable way to keep their aristocratic beauty in tact!

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