Tech millionaire steps in to save historic Friedman House
Mid-century modern home in University Endowment Lands had been targeted for demolition
It's a rare event when a historically important house on Vancouver's west side is saved from the bulldozer, but this past week, it happened.
In response to a recent Globe story, an Ottawa buyer has purchased the mid-century modern Friedman House at 4916 Chancellor Blvd., and intends to live in it. Cody Fauser, 37 and wife Maria Urbina-Fauser, 38, have a seven-year-old son, Simón, with another child on the way. They bought the house without setting foot in it.
"We're kind of obsessed with the whole mid-century modern thing," says Mr. Fauser, on the phone with his wife from their home in Ottawa. They found out about the Friedman house when a friend posted the Globe story to their Facebook page.
"We were sitting at home, saying, 'One day we will build our dream modern house.' And then this popped up, and in the most incredible neighbourhood."
The couple had been considering a move to Vancouver and were in the market for a house of the 1950s vintage. Swiss architect Fred Lasserre, who was head of the University of B.C.'s architecture program, designed the house for Dr. Sydney Friedman and his wife Constance Livingstone Friedman, in 1953. Landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who will collect a Governor General's medal for her work this fall, designed the landscape. It was her first project when she moved to Vancouver from Philadelphia. Ms. Oberlander still lives in the area and will continue to work on the grounds, which had been neglected since Dr. Friedman died one year ago. His wife had died in 2011. The Friedmans, both doctors, were the earliest staff members of UBC's faculty of medicine.
"All the people that have been involved in the history of the house, these are amazing people. It was really inspiring," says Ms. Urbina-Fauser.
Adds her husband: "You can feel all of that history within a house, compared to some newly constructed property." All that history and the people who cared so much about it – it will be a great place to raise our kids."
The couple had lived in Vancouver previously, and they know the city well, but the real estate market has changed since they last lived here. And unlike Ottawa, houses in Vancouver routinely sell with multiple bids. Ms. Urbina-Fauser says she had heard from a friend that perfectly solid character houses are being demolished daily in Vancouver.
Mr. Fauser was an early employee and shareholder in Ottawa-based high-tech firm Shopify, which made him a wealthy man when the company went public last year. He served as the company's chief technology officer for eight years.
"It was really successful. But that responsibility and hyper growth takes its toll on you mentally, so I stepped away in January," he says.
Ms. Urbina-Fauser spent 10 years with Canada's International Development Research Centre. They are both taking a break from their careers, although Mr. Fauser says he wouldn't rule out getting involved in Vancouver's tech community in some capacity.
They plan to continue living in Ottawa for a year before making the slow transition to Vancouver, so their son can complete another school year. In the next year, they will hire an architect to do some needed updates to the house. But they have no plans to make any major changes to either garden or house, other than adding a swing set.
The house, listed at $3.998-million, is small compared to the new houses being built in the area. The house is 2,225 square feet and sits on a triangular corner property that is 11,500 sq. ft.
However, the Little Australia neighbourhood that is part of the University Endowment Lands does not allow massive home construction, says listing agent Evan Ho. Because of that limitation, some offshore buyers were turned off, he says. He received eight offers and of those, three were from offshore buyers who likely would have demolished the house, he says. He would have received more, but this particular neighbourhood in the University Endowment Lands area, governed by the province, has restrictions on house size, which helps protect the houses from monster development.
"[Floor space ratio] is a lot less than in Dunbar or elsewhere on the west side, so you can build a bigger house outside of the Endowment Lands," says Mr. Ho. "The Asian market tends to like to build a monster home, but the UEL has restricted the size and the above-grade [height] that you can build. The general rule is that you can't go really high or exceed 2,650 sq. ft.
"It's kind of nice that they're trying to preserve the look of the neighbourhood."
Still, the house sold for more than $1-million over asking, and the winning bid was not the highest. One offer, from an offshore buyer, was six figures higher than the Fauser offer, says Mr. Ho, who declined to give the exact amount. That buyer, he believes, would have likely torn the house down.
"A lot of times buyers from overseas will say they don't intend to tear down, but they do," says Mr. Ho. "I think everyone wanted this particular buyer to have the property. They weren't necessarily the highest price, but from my point of view, it was for a good cause."
Mr. Ho, an admirer of the house and its rich history, reduced his commission in order to help make the sale happen.
The purchase is considered by all parties involved as a win-win scenario in what could easily have gone the usual way of lost history and wastefulness of a solidly constructed and tastefully designed house. Dr. Friedman had set up a foundation to oversee his estate, and the foundation members were reluctant to sell his beloved house but they didn't see any other option. They are long-time friends of Dr. Friedman's, and they are mostly retired academics that are not in the business of property management. Dr. Friedman had, for a time, believed the house could be used as a residence for visiting academics.
Foundation treasurer Robin Hanvelt, a long-time friend of Dr. Friedman's, says they were going to put a condition on the sale that if it were to be demolished, they would have first right of refusal to move the house to another location. Nickel Bros. House Moving general sales manager Rick Picard had also contacted Mr. Ho with an offer to relocate the house to an interested party on Vancouver Island.
As it turns out, the house will be lived in and the proceeds of the house will go towards UBC scholarships set up in Dr. Friedman's name. Mr. Hanvelt says Dr. Friedman would be thrilled with the outcome, which is the epitome of a win-win situation.
"Not in my wildest imagination did I think we'd be here," he said, laughing. "[The board] toasted Sydney yesterday. This was a big one to get off the plate. Everybody has said how happy he would be.
All the people that have been involved in the history of the house, these are amazing people. It was really inspiringBuyer Maria Urbina-Fauser
"The things that mattered for me were a short closing, a good deposit – otherwise people can walk away – and a believable, genuine interest in preserving the house.
"There are real non-monetary values here. And we achieved all our objectives."
Mr. Fauser says he sees his family living at the house for "the long haul."
Adds Ms. Urbina-Fauser: "It's hard to plan for the future, obviously. But having a neighbourhood and a school where you know the kids and the parents, and you do soccer on Saturdays, I'm hoping we can find that there. I'm pretty sure we will."
Andrew Geddes Photography
Ms. Oberlander, who turns 95 in June, spoke with the buyers before they purchased the house, and she submitted a letter of support along with their offer. She says she couldn't sleep the night before their offer was accepted.
"Isn't it wonderful?" she said, adding that she's already begun work on restoring the garden. "I have to work this week to get the irrigation going, because we are going to go through another dry spell."