One of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s oldest Regency houses is getting a makeover.
The boarded-up red brick house at 240 Centre St. has been sitting vacant since about 1968, says Brian Marshall, an architectural historian, restoration consultant (and weekly Lake Report columnist) who will lead the charge in the restoration. Everyone driving into Old Town on Mississagua Street passes the now-derelict house.
The project will be done by NOTL company Brock Builders and a “variety of specialists.”
"This house, to my knowledge, is the oldest surviving unaltered two-storey cubic form Regency house in the province and possibly in the country,” Marshall said in an interview on the property.
The goal is to restore the period home to as close as possible to its original 1800s glory, he said.
The home was originally built by John Breakenridge in the early 1800s and was once described by The Gleaner newspaper as “the tastiest house in town.” Over time it’s seen many different owners.
“It’s got a long history in town,” Marshall said.
Rescuing this particular piece of NOTL’s heritage is a dream come true for Marshall, but he said he's got his work cut out for him as the house is “pretty much falling down at this point in time.”
Because the house is in such bad shape, having been sitting for so long and vandalized numerous times, the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has agreed to cut him some slack on the mandatory archeological assessment, so he can start as soon as possible on structural repairs.
“All work of this type in Old Town needs to have a full archeological assessment done on the entire property,” Marshall said.
The town is allowing the archeological work to be done on the front half first, "directly around the house, fix the house so it doesn't fall down in the interim. And then as soon as the house is stabilized, do the rest of the archeology on the property.”
One of the big things to be done before major work can start is building the front porch, so there’s safe access to the house.
“We have to do things inside the house, like hazardous materials removal, because there's 200 years worth of lead paints and the asbestos in the house, not to mention installing windows to keep the weather out,” Marshall said.
“So it's got to come out, we've got to have access to it. I'm altogether happy to work with the heritage committee on the back, but I really need the front porch approved. And hopefully the town council will see its way clear to co-operating with us on that one.”
Part of the structural problem, Marshall said, is that the Harrison family, who owned the house from about 1906 to about 1952, damaged the structure when building out a back porch.
Another factor is that the Ure family, who owned the house from 1977 to 2016, filled in the cellar door with Portland cement, which is causing more structural problems.
“Basically what's happened is you got stress lines running through the back and you've got no support under the centre of the back wall. So that's a major project,” Marshall said.
He said the structural work will take about six to eight weeks. Once that’s finished, the windows and doors will go in.
All of the windows will be replaced with custom period replicas, Marshall said.
"We're having accurate historical reproductions made for all the windows and doors on the exterior. Literally what we're doing here is what's known in the business as preservation and restoration.”
The interior, he said, will be more of a rehabilitation, which “makes it more habitable for current day life.”
“It’s got to be done sympathetically and it's got to be done properly,” he said.
“But what you don't want to do is alter the main structure of the house.”
He said the exterior work is expected to be done sometime in November.
The exterior work will cost “the better part of half a million dollars.”
The current owner, Lloyd Kelly, is “a great lover of heritage architecture,” Marshall said.
A lawyer in Texas, "he has been a visitor to Niagara-on-the-Lake for many, many years … and he's always wanted a second home here.”
“Say what you will about Americans, they have a huge respect for their own history. And, unfortunately, here in Canada — not so much maybe in Niagara-on-the-Lake — but nonetheless, generally speaking I can say that we don’t.”
He said Kelly would have liked to begin the restoration in spring, but the COVID pandemic delayed it.
He said the house has been declining since 1968.
“Essentially, nobody has touched the house since 1968. I have pictures of it in '77, and it was a mess then,” Marshall said.
“The last family that owned the house that took care of it were the Roberts, who owned the house from about 1952 to the early 1960s. And after that, it just went downhill.”
He said there’s an “urban myth” about why the house was left to degrade, starting with the Ure family.
“The story goes that during the early days of the restoration, Mrs. Ure got a bunch of inherited furniture from England. They put it in the house and somebody broke into the house, stole the furniture and she responded by saying the house is bad luck and they locked it up. Now, whether that's true or not, I do know the Ures owned five properties in town and most of them were in this kind of shape.”
Expert craftsmen will be doing the work. “You can't work with the masonry on a 200-year-old house unless you are a highly skilled restoration mason. So we are bringing in folks that understand and have a long track record of taking care of this kind of repair and stabilization,” Marshall said.
The windows are going to be made locally, he said, and will be based on one remaining window sash from the original house.
“We're bringing in restoration glass from Europe to glaze the windows so the glazing is consistent with what would have appeared in the 19th century. There is enough left of the trim work and I have pictures from the '50s when the house was still in good shape to reproduce both the trim and doors.”
He said he’s not sure what to expect when the archeological assessment is completed.
“That's one of the reasons why we were so grateful to the town for being flexible in terms of doing this in two phases, because my real fear is that sort of way out there in the backyard something is found, the whole site gets locked down and I can't save the house. So, by doing it in two stages, I can save the house and then pay homage to archeology.”
Referring to all the restorations he’s led over his career, Marshall said, “This particular project I consider to be one of the most significant, certainly in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in this area.”
He said he thinks the project is also a benefit to the town, residents and visitors.
"Since last fall, I have been on site here easily 100 times. And every single time I'm here, somebody comes up to me and says, 'Are you going to fix the old house?' And it's indicative of the folks that live in NOTL and the pride and care they take of the town," he said, noting he hopes council will approve the front porch so the work can really begin.
"I think council reflects (the love of heritage) and represents those people in terms of bringing back a piece of history and benefiting the town in terms of just driving in. We're sitting on Mississauga and Centre (streets) here. If a visitor comes into this town, it's one of the first early houses they pass, and I'm thinking it would have a significant benefit from that perspective as well."