Mike and Harry's excellent house-moving adventure

A historic two-storey apartment block sliced in half a year ago and carefully moved from Richmond Avenue to Rockland is whole again and one of four character rental homes, all upgraded by the same owners.

“Definitely five stars. I don’t think it could be better,” said Victoria Coun. Pamela Madoff, who has a special interest in heritage. She praised Mike Sweet, of Black Horse Contracting, and Harry Newton, of Newtco Realty, for buying and taking on the enormous job of fixing up the circa-1880 building.

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Many old Victoria houses have been moved to the Gulf Islands or up-Island, Madoff said. “To see this one not only staying in the city, but staying in the neighbourhood, that’s when you start to think that sometimes maybe the stars do align.”

Madoff praised Sweet’s technical skill, attention to detail and esthetic sense. Original items were saved in the building and others were salvaged from old buildings being demolished.

Once called Richmond Court, the building today is simply known by its address, 1016 Pemberton Rd. Sweet and Newton stepped in to buy it for $1.

The building, at one point threatened with demolition, was originally at the corner of Richmond Avenue and Oak Bay Avenue, now a development site for Victoria’s Abstract Developments Inc.

A landmark structure in the neighbourhood, it was used for a period for what is now St. Michael’s University School. It was more recently used for rental apartments.

Janet Simpson, Rockland Neighbourhood Association president, is sorry that the historic flavour at Richmond and Oak Bay is gone, noting a big chestnut tree was taken down as well. She meets Wednesday with Abstract to discuss potential development on that property. The association is aiming for something not higher than three storeys to fit in with surrounding buildings and area plans.

Simpson is, however, applauding Sweet and Newton, saying the restored building “looks really great” and improves that part of the neighbourhood.
The 120-tonne house had to be cut in half to move it. It was originally 5,000 square feet, but now measures 6,200 square feet. A new foundation was poured and a full basement was added.

That original $1 investment has ended up costing more than $1 million, double the $500,000 estimate of a year ago, Newton said. The house can be used for four or five suites. Each high-end unit is about 1,000 square feet. Tenants are moving in next month and in December. The owners are not releasing rental rates.

A set of 23 stairs runs through the house where it had been divided for the move. Each unit is unique. Depending on the unit, features include original kitchen drawers lined with tin, ornate original fireplaces fitted with old tiles, intricately designed hardware such as door hinges, plate and picture rails, original fir floors and kitchen cabinetry, double cast-iron sinks, new windows and a new roof, heated bathroom floors, refurbished claw-foot tubs, and new interior and exterior paint. Sweet saved the original flat-headed screws on the hardware, all requiring cleaning after being coated with paint over the years.

“When you want to restore an old house, you have to be in it for the long haul,” Sweet said. “You’ve just got to keep pushing. This thing is an hour-eating monster,” Sweet said. “There isn’t a square inch that didn’t get worked [on].”

Sweet’s eyes light up as he talks about the project, which has seen him on the job six days a week for the past year. Along with Newton, family members have pitched in to help restore the house. While Sweet has led construction, Newton, a real estate agent, takes care of the money side of the property management, as well as advertising and tenant selection.

Newton and Sweet are partners in four Pemberton homes. They bought 1026 Pemberton first, in 2007, and failed to win city council’s approval to convert it to strata use the following year. That rejection turned out to be the “absolutely best thing that happened to us,” Newton said. When the global financial crisis hit that fall, the real estate market tumbled.

They renovated that 1896 building to keep as a rental property. Then they bought 1022 Pemberton, built in 1913, and 1004 Pemberton, which was remodelled in 2010. When Newton and Sweet learned that Richmond Court’s future was uncertain, they stepped in and won subdivision approval to make room for it between two of their existing homes.

The pair has created something of a community with their houses, all upgraded since being purchased.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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