The listing: 157 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Asking Price: $3.25-million
Taxes: $10,037 (2019)
Lot Size: 75 feet by 104 feet
Listing agents: Susan Froese-McHardy, Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. Brokerage and Thomas Elltoft, Niagara-on-the-Lake Realty
A lot of homes have a story, but some have history. First built in 1792, the house at 157 Queen St. in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., was destroyed during the War of 1812 in what we might today call a war crime, before being rebuilt on the same foundation in 1817.
The charming tourist town, home to the theatrical Shaw Festival, was almost wiped off the map before Canada was ever a country. On Dec. 10, 1813, American troops retreating from Fort George – captured that May from the British forces in Upper Canada – forced the 400 residents of the adjoining village of Niagara out of their homes and burned all the structures to the ground.
Local lore, as recorded in Margaret Dunn’s 1995 book Historic Niagara-on-the-Lake, says that owner Mary Rogers saved at least one item from the original house: a Baroque Germanic mantelpiece and family treasure brought to Niagara by Conestoga wagon, which was dragged into the street to save it from the flames. It took pride of place in the rebuilt home’s parlour and survives to this day in the two-storey, five-bedroom, 3,300 square-foot mini-manse now being listed for sale by owners Ashley Howe and Michael Scissons.
“James Rogers informed the public that his large house when it was rebuilt was 'ready to entertain genteel company in handsome style,’ and he added that ‘his liquors were pure and his table supplied with the best the market afforded,’” Ms. Howe reads from Ms. Dunn’s book. The descendants of the Rogers occupied the house until at least the 1990s and it has been an inn and a bed and breakfast at various times.
That’s one reason the front door has a tasteful but prominent “Private Residence” sign. Ms. Howe recalls an instance during her 40th birthday party when a gathering of friends and family – complete with piano player – was crashed by passersby. “All the sudden four people walk in, I don’t know who, they were tourists who thought it was an inn. They just thought they could drop by!”
It’s not hard to imagine why. The house is in the city’s walkable historic “Old Town” core, just down the street from a Starbucks and across the street from a grocery store. Ms. Howe moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake when she was five years old and her mother rented a house in Old Town they shared in the summers with a couple Shaw Festival actors (“I had the best babysitters on the planet,” Ms. Howe said). Her mother remarried, bought a more suburban bungalow in town and getting back to Old Town suddenly involved a car, and even though all her summer jobs as a teenager were downtown it wasn’t the same. “As a teenager it felt very far. That was my gripe. … I used to wish that I lived there. Rich people lived there and we were not rich.”
Her career as a relationship therapist and media personality (she was a frequent expert guest on The Marilyn Denis Show, and was a spokesperson for Match.com) took her to Toronto and eventually New York City. She got married to Mr. Scissons, also a Canadian but from Saskatoon, who has found success as a tech entrepreneur and serial co-founder. His company-creating track record includes a 2013 bankruptcy (Syncapse) and a 2017 sale (Flashstock sold to Shutterstock for $65-million) and he is currently CEO of recruiting firm Careerlist.
Coming home for the holidays to see Ms. Howe’s mother, who still lives in town, Mr. Scissons fell for the same Old Town neighbourhood she grew up admiring. In 2017, the couple bought 157 Queen and undertook a year-long project with local heritage experts to restore it from a bed and breakfast into a single-family home. That first summer they spent three months in town, the next year it was more like three weeks, a month in December in the first year turned into only a few short years this Christmas. New York commitments for their two children started to mean less and less time for Old Town.
“To own a house like this, to have three-day weekends in it … just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “What we thought would feel luxurious and like freedom to have this beautiful house that we can go back to in Canada where we’re from, is starting to feel like a strain or stress because we can’t get to it. Michael has security cameras and he’ll check in on it and I see the dark pictures of the house it’s just sitting there empty and it makes me sad.”
And so, with reluctance and good advice from the relationship expert for anyone contemplating a breakup they are looking to sell: “Whenever something no longer feels amazing, don't do it.”
The house today
The house is basically a white two-storey Georgian rectangle on a corner lot complete with white picket fence. Originally clapboard, now with stucco, over 200 years the house has had a couple additions onto the back, including a garage. The restoration included a new cedar shake roof and all-new copper eaves and gutters, the windows have storm protections but are all built with the original construction methods as per heritage requirements.
The entryway is a centre-hall with staircase to the second floor dead ahead, with a living room on the left and a dining room on the right. It’s not clear if the floors here are original, but the wide-plank pine is definitely ancient and required specialist care to restore its original finish. Both of these front rooms span the length of the front of the house and have wide decorative archways inset in the walls; The living room has the relic of the war mantel (behind it is a more modest den that connects to the rear hallway).
Off the dining room is the kitchen, renovated in a French bistro style inspired by the gas range and stove Ms. Howe spotted in a New York Williams and Sonoma (its brass fixtures make it look vintage, but it’s all new). Above it is a custom-made hood strapped with brass, and the room is all white marble, tile and cabinets with brass hardware and fixtures. “I like gold as opposed to silver,” Ms. Howe said. On the wall is another set of stoves, the fridge and a vast squarish seating island fills the centre of the room.
The rear hall has a small hidden servery that connects to the front hall, a practical addition for a set of spaces built for entertaining. There’s a small powder room off the rear hall, but next to it is the door connecting the main-floor bedroom (part of an addition) to the house. Ms. Howe had hoped her mother would move into this space (no such luck, mom’s an independent sort) so what is now the guestroom has a solid wall of built-in closet and dresser drawers and a four-piece ensuite washroom done in black and white tile with brass fittings dominated by a large gold-framed mirror. “A lot of our bathrooms are inspired by New York places,” Ms. Howe said. “For seven years that’s all we’ve seen: Upper West Side, pre-war buildings that have contemporary fixtures and old details like marble and subway tiles.”
Upstairs there are four more bedrooms, along with three-piece, four-piece and five piece bathrooms (fixtures upstairs are mostly silver, despite Ms. Howe’s affinity for gold). The small landing at the top of the steps splits in two directions. The rear-hallway connects the back bedrooms to a shared children’s bathroom with shower-bath, skylight, double vanity and a pink-patterned wallpaper with a repeating motif of some sort of hipster bear with glasses, waxed moustache and a bowtie. To the right is a studio that with connecting door to make it the larger of these rear bedrooms with its own closet (this room also connects separately to the stair-landing). The other bedroom is teeny tiny and has no closet.
The smaller of the two front bedrooms has its own fireplace and a three-piece ensuite with walk-in shower and herringbone marble tile floors. The master suite is dominated by a huge four-poster bed, but has a walk-in closet and a four-piece bath with walk-in shower (the glass doors framed in antique brass, giving it an Art Deco feeling) and separate deep-soaker tub.
The local market
The house is essentially used as an extremely high-end getaway and party house for her Canadian friends and family, Ms. Howe hosts 40-odd people for Christmas in Mr. Rogers rebuilt house. But even in the short time they’ve owned it, Niagara-on-the-Lake has seen dramatic price increases.
As has been reported previously in The Globe and Mail, CREA data shows the Niagara region has seen the typical home price increase 86 per cent in the past five years, faster than Toronto’s 58 per cent appreciation in the same time. The area includes towns such as Welland and Fort Erie, so the average home is still in the $431,000 range (half of Toronto’s $800,000-plus figure) but the search for affordability has driven more and more families and property investors to communities like Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Ms. Howe purchased the place for less than $1.5-million in 2017 and after a spare-no-expense refit are asking $3.25-million in 2020. “Something about restorations, you can’t put crap in. We always felt pride in owning something that’s a part of history,” Ms. Howe said. “We wanted things that matched the importance, that were unique and original because the house is. The house really deserved it.”
Old Town is clearly the upper end of the luxury market in the town of 17,000 people, but then again there aren’t a lot of heritage homes in Ontario with Upper West Side-inspired finishes that are veterans of the War of 1812.
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