BARRIE—Mark Porter points to an east-facing basement wall of a huge Second Empire home the locals call a castle.
“I think the tunnel entry has been dry-walled in,” he says with excitement, “or maybe it’s through the floor. But I’d love to find the tunnels.”
Maybe, he muses, he’ll find them during excavation for the six-bay garage he plans to build. He figures he may come across an underground shortcut to the property of the nearby cemetery. But even if such a thing exists, he reasons, chances are time and the roots of the trees would have taken their toll on them.
Porter’s not looking for treasures — the discovery of a tunnel would be treasure enough for a man who gets excited about finding original moldings under a dropped ceiling or decorative exterior brackets from the 19th Century.
Buying and fixing old houses is a hobby for Porter, a plasterer by trade who runs a national general construction company. And his current project is this eightplex, sitting majestically on a knoll overlooking a desirable residential area in Barrie’s north end.
It’s known as Lount’s Castle, built in 1877 as a summer home for William Lount, a lawyer working in Barrie and Toronto who became a politician and then a judge.
Parcels have gradually been severed off the original acreage over the years, and a neighbourhood developed around it. Porter, himself, sought a severance so that he can build a house next door, which he’ll eventually sell to support extensive renovations to the “castle”.
The building was converted into an apartment complex and remained in the same family for about 50 years, until Porter picked it up last year as a somewhat neglected edifice.
In the attic, he found original floral-patterned slate for the Mansard roof — a two-tiered block effect allowing for lofty railings edging off a prominent turret, which shoots vertically up alongside the oversized height of the three-storey building.
Ornamental brackets, largely decorating the more attractive rear of the building, are cracked and weathered, even while being squirreled away inside, likely for decades. But Porter has had exact replicas made.
And a box of broken plaster moldings, none even a square metre in size, almost brings out the giggles in this plasterer-cum-businessman. He plans to puzzle the pieces back together into its former glory.
“It’s one of Barrie’s pre-eminent old homes,” said local historian Brad Rudachyk. “Many people don’t know about it, because of its location (in the centre of a residential area).”
Lount purchased the original 33 acres for $600 and had the house built by George Brown and George Ball for the princely sum of $10,000. And, as one of the few Second Empire buildings in the area, a lofty one at that, it attracted immediate attention.
An “elegant” structure ranking against the most beautiful French-villa style homes, reads the March 7, 1878 edition of the Northern Advance newspaper. “Nothing seems to have been left undone for the comfort and convenience of the inmates.”
The Second Empire style was modelled after the opulent architecture of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III.
Now, the third-floor ballroom, which had long been abandoned, serving only for storage with a lone light bulb dangling from the ceiling, has been brought back to life as an open living space, with a kitchen and island off to the side. The subtle neutral colouring is offset by white trim and accents, giving the stripped-down, light hardwood floors a simple elegance.
A winding staircase leads down to the second floor with more living space and bedrooms, serving as a two-storey owner’s unit. Porter figures he’ll occupy it for awhile, something he’s in the habit of doing with his refurbishing projects before selling them off. He splits his time between Markham and Barrie and, instead of commuting, keeps homes in both communities.
There are two other units on the second floor, three on the first and two in the basement — most have been almost completely renovated.
Porter took some liberties with the exterior, originally a red brick. His hesitation to paint brick was put aside when he came across a master craftsman who specializes in the process. It now sports seven coats of a Chicago yellow. Each one painted individually, separated by faux mortar, also painted on.
Porter borrowed from a classic Savannah style in the creation of long banks of dark shutters that run diagonally away from the windows. It’s an unusual addition for a Canadian home, but, somehow, it all works. Porter knew it would.
“This is my specialty, my personal hobby,” said the man with a track record of bringing back old homes.
Just down the road, in the Lehman household, hangs a picture of Lount’s Castle as it stood in all its glory, almost on its own with little else around it.
“It’s a winter scene with a horse-drawn carriage in front of the castle in its original setting. Jenn and I are both delighted to see the castle becoming more and more like what it looks like in the painting,” said Jeff Lehman, the Mayor of Barrie. “Barrie has torn down or otherwise lost far too many of its historic buildings over the years, so it is very nice to see this one being restored to its original grandeur.”
Other Porter restoration projects in the Barrie area have included The Woodlands, along Lake Simcoe, 72 High St. and 158 Dunlop St. E. Another of his buildings in the core had been prepared for façade improvements and Porter is hoping to restore the iconic flatiron Simcoe Hotel to a status befitting a unique building, sitting prominently in the centre of the city’s Five Points intersection.
Porter said he pretty much breaks even on these ventures. He sees value in them that seems to escape others who might opt to rip them down.
Still to come is the six-bay garage to be built in a Victorian style. It will connect to Lount’s Castle through a basement door. And that, he figures, is when he’ll find out once and for all if there’s anything to this tale of tunnels.