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Lee Taylor
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House of shadows

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Crows caw in the treetops above a low stone wall that sets an old landmark home apart from its neighbours. Inside the house, it's dark and spooky. The shadows of more than 130 years of life and death lurk in the muggy air. In the dusty living room, an eight-foot-high "coffin window" is a reminder of a time when carrying the dead out through the front door was considered unlucky.

This is the Playter mansion, the family homestead built in the 1870s by a dynasty that gave its name to the posh Playter Estates district at Broadview and Danforth avenues.

Having remained in the hands of descendants of United Empire Loyalist Captain George Playter all this time, the home is now being sold by two surviving sisters who are in their 80s.

Looming at the top of Playter Boulevard, 100 metres north of the Danforth at 28 Playter Cres., the home is an icon of architectural and historical heritage, but it's going to need a lot of tender loving care to make it comfortably livable.

It's been rented out piecemeal for several decades, and a bare minimum has been done to maintain or update it.

Only a few light fixtures work, emitting a feeble glow into the gloomy spaces. The heating does not extend to the top floor, and there's no air conditioning. The only full bathroom is tiny and equipped with ancient fixtures. In the partial, unfinished basement, a pair of fat tree trunks form the main support pillars for the house.

Real estate agents Lee Taylor and Elspeth Sinclair, who are handling the sale, say a building inspector told them the house will need major mechanical work, including rewiring, plumbing, roofing and strengthening the foundations.

"It will cost at least $200,000 to $300,000 just to bring it up to livability," Ms. Sinclair says. "You could spend $1-million to really make it great, to restore it rather than renovate it, and retain its character and features," Ms. Taylor adds. That's on top of the $1.5-million asked to purchase it in "as is" condition.

The combination of high cost and the need to consult with city heritage officials on changes makes the buyer pool "fairly narrow," the agents agree. "They'd have to be the kind of people who think it's cool to live in the home of the founding forefathers of the area . . . who'd like to say, 'my house was owned by the people whose names are on the streets around here,' " Ms. Taylor says.

The Playters were among the earliest settlers in Toronto. Capt. Playter (1736-1822) was a Loyalist officer who was granted several lots in the town of York and on both sides of the then-pastoral Don River valley in 1793, according to local historian Barbara Myrvold.

It was Capt. Playter's great-grandson, John Lea Playter, who built the house in the early 1870s on what was then a 200-acre lot east of the Don River valley. This was about 50 years before the Prince Edward Viaduct linked the area to the city of York and opened up the area for more settlers.

John Lea Playter was a dairy farmer, market gardener and local politician.

His house was initially a simple rectangular structure with decorative red and yellow brickwork, deep sash windows and a wide wooden porch with spool-turned columns across the width of the front.

Some alterations were made at the turn of the 20th century, when John Lea's brothers William and Albert owned the house. They replaced half of the porch with a sunroom and built a stone wall along the front of the porch that matched the free-standing wall at the front of the property.

The two roof dormers that expanded the attic and a rear addition with a kitchen and powder room came later.

The Playter Estates neighbourhood as it appears today grand-scale detached brick homes on leafy boulevards and crescents was developed after 1912 after the farm land was sold off. By 1920, the completion of the viaduct and improvements in tram and train access brought new residents to the area.

The house at 28 Playter has been listed in the city's inventory of heritage properties since 1982.

It has a wide field-stone fireplace in the formal living room, the hearth impressively decorated with a bas-relief bust of York city founder lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe.

There is extensive dark oak wainscoting in the central hall, original mouldings and century-old pine-plank floors. A few original iron candle sconces remain in the sunroom.

At the rear of the house, a steep slope providing access to the basement through a thick, double-width door was probably once used for coal deliveries, the agents say.

The slope came in handy when they had to move out three dumpster loads of junk abandoned by tenants, Ms. Sinclair adds.

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