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1829 Parker St. in Vancouver.Leah Lang/Leah Lang

The plan had been to restore the dilapidated Edwardian heritage home and rebuild the original 1910 laneway house behind it, which was entombed in ivy.

“It was like Jumanji in there,” owner Heather Clark says.

Ms. Clark and her partner Curt Topal paid a smidgen more than $1.5-million for the property at 1829 Parker St. in Vancouver in early 2019, and they were thrilled – because even in its faded glory, the Heritage-A grade house had long been a standout in the Grandview neighbourhood. People would stop and stare at the tall, rundown relic from the past. They too had noticed it, so when it came up for sale, they jumped on it. They would transform the haunted-looking house into their dream home.

The previous owner of the Blake House had fallen on hard times and every aspect of the formerly grand dame had fallen into disrepair. Windows were boarded up. Water trickled in through a hole in the roof. Pigeons roosted on the top floor. Sheets of plaster had fallen off walls and ceilings. There wasn’t running water. The elderly owner lived on the main floor and a wood-burning stove and some space heaters were his only source of heat. After he moved out, the city condemned the building.

But the main three-storey structure was solid, the original features intact and every wall plumb. The bones were good.

“It was so surprisingly well built from the get-go that although it was a ridiculous amount of work, it was in good shape,” says Ms. Clark, a former restaurateur who runs the food program for a non-profit.

They aren’t newcomers to renovation, so they didn’t enter into the project blindly.

“This isn’t our first rodeo,” she says.

Today, Heather Clark and Curt Topal are paying $12,000 a month in carrying costs.Leah Lang/Leah Lang

Mr. Topal is a contractor who’s restored many heritage houses, but despite his years of experience, they didn’t expect they’d still be working on the house almost three years later, which has put them about 30 per cent over budget. Today they are paying $12,000 a month in carrying costs, Ms. Clark says, and it’s only now nearing completion. They are tapped out.

The couple, who have two children, say they now have no choice but to sell the Blake House and stay in their current home, which is where they’ve been living.

“This is such a spectacular house I don’t want to let it go, but it’s fiscally responsible to stay where we are,” Ms. Clark says, standing inside the empty house.

Behind her, the new kitchen has a large island with a strikingly modern Bocci chandelier. The dining and living rooms have pristine stained glass windows and the original floors have been refinished. The stained fir trim is intact. The mechanics of the house have been brought into the 21st century, and all the walls and ceilings have been replaced. On the exterior, they’ve restored all the curved shingles on the curved walls around the front sleeping porch and all the decorative mouldings and brackets and siding. The six-bedroom house has 3,400 square feet of living space, including a modern 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom basement suite with heated concrete floor. It sits on a standard 33-by-122-foot lot.

Ms. Clark, right, and her husband Mr. Topal, left, sit on the front porch of the house they bought and renovated.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

“I’m very proud of what I did to this house and that it will live on for another 100 years,” Mr. Topal says. “I’m a little disappointed I won’t be able to enjoy it and live in this great neighbourhood, but I’ve got to do what’s best for my family.”

Their biggest beef is with the city. Because the house was designated Heritage-A, they had to spend thousands of dollars on a conservation plan, as well as numerous professional consultants’ reports to renovate the house, all while adhering to strict heritage requirements. They didn’t receive any breaks for saving a historically important house – quite the opposite, Ms. Clark says.

After it was discovered that practically the only thing holding up the laneway house was the ivy, the city ordered it torn down. The couple were disappointed they would not have the chance to renovate. Instead, they were told they could apply to build a new laneway house after they finished the main house. This, Ms. Clark says, resulted in a great deal of back and forth with the city that almost brought her to tears. They’ve been stretched well beyond their limit, she says, financially as well as mentally.

“Basically the city is asking you to take on this massive project … they expect the homeowner to assume all the responsibility, and all of the financial burden and do it to their specifications, and we have no help. Their heritage grants are nonsense because financing at this cost – over $2-million – is thousands of dollars a month. So even if I have to go through a huge amount of red tape and bureaucracy and a huge amount of time, they won’t facilitate any ease.”

She says it took almost a year to get permits, not including the first year it took to make city inquiries and come up with plans. In order to stop the water pouring through the roof, they went ahead and did repairs first, and that resulted in a stop-work order, according to Ms. Clark. Each time they made a small change, the city wanted new plans, which cost hundreds of dollars to print. And because of supply-chain problems, construction costs escalated during COVID.

They will soon list the Blake House for $2.99-million, before they start losing money.

Their realtor, Dwayne Launt, said he expects the house to go for more than $3-million.

“Usually it’s some naive person who gets in over their head and they pay, like, $1.5-million. But they are experienced,” Mr. Launt says of his clients. “They went in with open eyes. But the city holding it up, and it sitting there for so long, was the issue. And the whole coach house thing is a real drag.”

Ms. Clark and Mr. Topal will soon list the Blake House for $2.99-million.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

In 1909, Grandview was a prestige enclave until Shaughnessy Heights came along and the wealthy people moved there for the bigger lots. Whitfield Walker Stuart was owner of a False Creek lumber company and developer of houses at the time. He paid $3,500 to have the house built. The following year, he sold the house to William and Laura Blake. Archived documents show the Blakes added the 1½-storey laneway house in 1910, and they rented it to tenants, later using it as a home for their son and his family.

The Mills family bought the big house in 1953, but members of the Blake family, as well as boarders, continued to live in the house and in the laneway. A replica of the Blake House was built at 364 W. 10th Ave. also in 1909, and is also a Heritage-A building.

After his mother died in 1992, Daniel Mills continued to live at the house until 2018, when he was forced to leave because of safety issues.

Liz Scully and Leonard Terhoch live across the street and they met Mr. Mills in the 1990s. Mr. Mills, who had sustained a head injury as a child, had a strong attachment to the house and had big dreams of fixing it up, Ms. Scully says. Mr. Mills would sometimes shower at their house, or use their phone. Mr. Terhoch would shop for him, and get him to appointments. Mr. Mills would leave a shopping list in Mr. Terhoch’s mail slot, and other notes for help.

Because he didn’t have a phone, they worked out a system whereby Mr. Mills would leave the front room light on if he needed something. When the light failed to come on for several days, and he didn’t answer the door, Mr. Terhoch called 911. The fire department found Mr. Mills on his couch, unable to move. The public guardian and trustee of B.C. took over his estate and neighbours helped him find a spot in a nearby care home. Mr. Mills died in late 2019, and the neighbours gathered to celebrate his life and ensure his body was properly interred, unlike his mother, who was buried in a common burial plot.

“He didn’t fall through the cracks because people were watching out for him – there really was a neighbourhood net for him,” Ms. Scully says.

She describes Mr. Mills as a kind man who considered the house “his world,” and although he was poor, he had his principles. He always paid his taxes, he picked up litter on the streets, he mended his own clothes and he was dapper. He’d have marvelled at how his home was brought back to its original glory.

Ms. Scully says she’s mystified as to why the city was so unhelpful in the saving of the Blake House. She wonders if the fact they were preserving a single-family home instead of gutting it for duplexes played a part in the difficulty that Ms. Clark and Mr. Topal have had.

“I’m pro-density, and we need housing for a variety of people at a variety of levels of cost, but what these guys went through was ridiculous. The city made it impossible.

“Watching those guys bleed money month after month while it was sitting on hold, and Curt was trying to restore it properly, it was punitive.

“City hall has a lot of work to do as far as helping the city densify in a way that also maintains some integrity to neighbourhoods, because we can’t get rid of all these beautiful houses.”

The house at 1829 Parker St. sold on Nov. 16 for $3,501,000. There were five offers, all over the asking price.

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