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Inside Vancouver’s Barber House, an ode to the decadence of 1930s architecture

real estate

The wallflower house

It's pretty, with lots of hidden joys, but passed over for more brazen competitors

The Barber House at 3846 West 10th Ave. in Vancouver.

The Barber House is an ode to the decadence of 1930s architecture, with goat skin covered cabinets, aluminum leaf on the powder room walls, and extensive use of striped African mahogany called avodire.

The 1936 art moderne home, designed by architect Ross Lort for civil engineer Horace Barber, is one of the few of its style to be given an A classification on the heritage register. It's also an incredibly solid house, built out of two-storey steel beams every four feet, walls a foot deep, and an exterior clad in concrete. The structure is streamlined in the classic style of the late art deco period, with a red balcony and red staircase at the back that climbs up to a rooftop patio with panoramic city views.

Attention has been given to every surface. Inside the plush living room, one wall is a wave of scallop shapes, and the original ceiling is stepped. One end of the room is a den encased in avodire millwork. Downstairs, there is a rare and highly collectible Philippe Starck stainless steel sink and pedestal from the 1980s.

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"I don't think there's another house in Vancouver made out of concrete from that period," says homeowner Robert Lemon, architect and former senior heritage planner for the city.

"City hall is the same art moderne design, also built in 1936. But the typical house that was being built along West 10th Avenue at the time, are all these bungalows, an English cottage type of thing. This was the oddball."

The 1936 art moderne home was designed by architect Ross Lort for civil engineer Horace Barber.

Mr. Lemon purchased the house in 1988, with his late partner Bob Ledingham, an internationally recognized, multi-award winning interior designer. At the time, it had been divided into two suites. The two did a major sensitive renovation of the house, keeping all original details, such as the light fixtures, and adding exotic materials that would have been used in the art moderne period.

Because the house sat on two 33-foot lots, they applied to the city to build a separate house to the rear. After a complicated process, they received permission in 1990 to build a 2,300 sq. ft. house, which Mr. Lemon designed. They applied to make the two houses legal strata properties, and they sold off the new house. It was one of the first properties in a single-family neighbourhood to be strata-titled, a pioneer. The move to subdivide never took off, but the city recently announced it would look at strata-titling of infill houses as a possible incentive to save what's left of the city's character houses. There's little to indicate it will work, however, since buyers of west side properties routinely build far bigger houses than the originals. Mr. Lemon's house is only 2,400 sq. ft., and because of the addition of the strata house, a new buyer wouldn't be allowed to build bigger. But the house feels big for Mr. Lemon since Mr. Ledingham died, four years ago.

"It's time to move on," he says.

And so, he purchased a condo in Yaletown and placed his beloved home on the market four months ago, for $3.8 million. And Mr. Lemon would consider including some of the furniture that was custom made for the house, such as the Ledingham-designed dining room table.

But Mr. Lemon isn't interested in selling to just anybody. He wants a buyer that will understand and value the house's legacy. He's rejected three parties who showed interest so far, including two offshore buyers and a local buyer.

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The exterior of the A-list house may be protected, but the interior is not. Potential buyers have wanted to make the usual modifications, such as adding an elevator or ditching all the original single-paned windows for double glazed ones, which he argues are over-rated in terms of efficiency and less durable. The house's original single-paned windows are intact, while any double-glazed ones have had to be replaced several times over the years. For many buyers, the opulent details of the house are not an obvious selling feature.

The house was renovated in 1990, but its design is in no way dated.

"People compare it to a brand new house down the street, with the exact same square footage, and it has four bedrooms, brand new – and there's nothing the least bit interesting about the interior," says Mr. Lemon. "But this house is being compared to that only because it's the same size. There is no value placed on the quality of materials, the design, and the history."

And while Mr. Lemon and Mr. Ledingham renovated the house in 1990, the house's design is in no way dated. The kitchen, with cabinets covered in dark grey automotive lacquer, granite counters and Corian backsplash, could have been a recent reno. Many of the 1,200 people who walked through the house on last year's Heritage House Tour assumed it had just been renovated, he says.

However, the 2,400 sq. ft. house has only two bedrooms and a den, both located on the lower floor, with the living area, dining room and kitchen upstairs. The configuration and number of bedrooms makes it more suitable to a couple than a family, which limits the market for the house.

But its biggest chalenge is simply facing a market where square footage is prized above quality of materials and design, says Mr. Lemon. He says if he can't find a suitable buyer, he'll rent it out.

"It's about finding the right person who appreciates the value and the history and materials – and the legacy, too."

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The 2,400 sq. ft. house has only two bedrooms and a den, both located on the lower floor.

His agent, Gregg Baker, says a typical new spec house, made out of inferior materials, in the same neighbourhood easily sells for close to the same amount.

"To get a new generic build on a 33-foot lot in Point Grey on a busy street, builder basic, is $3.5-million," he says. "There's a large audience that wants four bedrooms, five baths. [The houses] are not objectionable, but they're nothing extraordinary."

Several admiring looky-loos have toured the Barber House, because of its iconic status. But finding a buyer, he says, will probably take time.

"It's one that is going to take a while," says Mr. Baker. "Bob and Robert spared no expense. Many people [viewing the house] have that understanding as far as the cost associated with it. They know those materials are extraordinarily expensive, and they are carried throughout the house. They wouldn't necessarily buy it themselves, but they are intrigued. They understand it.

"I don't know of any other house in the city similar to this – the detail, the history, the finishings. It's so artful. It's an adult home.

"But with some people, they don't really see that because they are looking for size, and more yard."

The kitchen looks as if it was just renovated.

Tony Robins, the architect who designed the controversial "cube house" on Point Grey Road, says that unique house also remains on the market. It was listed in June for $14 million. Like a lot of people, he's counting on the September market to pick up.

Overall, it's been a slow summer for Vancouver's detached house market, says Mr. Baker.

Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver July numbers show the benchmark price for condos shot up 20.5 per cent on the east side and 11.7 per cent on the west side. Mr. Baker says the market has swung from houses to condos. He's selling downtown condos near the water for as much as $2,500 a square foot.

Mr. Lemon's house works out to $1,600 a square foot, which, weirdly, is starting to look like a bargain by Vancouver standards.

"Nothing about this market is predictable," says Mr. Baker.

Market for detached houses goes soft

Detached houses are no longer driving the high-end market like they did just a year ago, says realtor Gregg Baker. The buying spree is on for luxury downtown condos with views.

"For detached in particular, it's a complete reversal from 2016," says Mr. Baker. "The foreign buyer tax had some impact, but there was such a hustle with detached housing driving everything. Now, it's the condo and town home market that is very strong.

"I've been selling [condos] anywhere from $2,200 to $2,500 a foot, and that's people lining up to get them, too."

He says that not long ago, people were "aghast" when downtown condo tower Vancouver House averaged $1,500 a foot.

"A big part of my market, they want waterfront proximity, a well maintained building, an ease of lifestyle with the concierge and all the amenities, so they can lock up and leave."

He believes it is mostly locals that are driving the condo market. He's seeing buyers either cashing out of the west side to buy downtown, or opting to keep a house and a condo. Some on the west side are cashing out to buy on the east side, where there's a stronger community, he says.

Realtor and blogger Steve Saretsky pointed out that sales of Vancouver luxury houses priced at more than $3 million have gone down 27 per cent and inventory is up 24 per cent. The slowdown of the detached house market is no doubt in part because of the August, 2016, introduction of the 15-per-cent foreign buyer transfer tax.

Like many in the industry, Mr. Baker would like to see that tax revoked and replaced with other measures to ensure affordability for locals. In Australia, for example, foreign buyers can only buy new builds.

But Simon Fraser University's Josh Gordon, assistant professor at the School of Public Policy, says the tax continues to serve its purpose.

In a Facebook post that has been widely shared, he writes that the tax was never intended to create an affordable housing market on its own:

"It was supposed to cool the market until other, further measures were enacted – principally the property surtax idea. But those further measures never arrived. In fact, demand stimulus arrived. Hopefully, these further measures will arrive with the new NDP-Green government."

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