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Phillips Estate future remains uncertain

Once an elegant summer home for wealthy Americans, the estate at the corner of Queen and Mississagua Streets has passed through many hands, from the early prominent citizens who originally owned portions of the property, to the Americans who first bu

Once an elegant summer home for wealthy Americans, the estate at the corner of Queen and Mississagua Streets has passed through many hands, from the early prominent citizens who originally owned portions of the property, to the Americans who first built the summer home, and then through generations who have renovated and added to it over the years.

It is listed in the Town’s heritage registry as The Ketchum-Thomas-Phillips House (named Peace Acres by the Thomas family). Known locally as the Phillips Estate, it was purchased by the Phillips family in 1955, who owned it until 2003, when it was bought by local developer Rainer Hummel. 

In 2005, Hummel had the remaining of the original parts of the exterior and a few interior bits, including three fireplace mantels and the columns in the front room, designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The documents prepared for the designation process say the “building and ground represent a significant example of the type of elegant summer properties constructed by wealthy Americans who spent their summers in Niagara-on-the-Lake during the heyday of the grand summer estates that sprang up in the Town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” 

“The landscape setting, including the greenhouse and the specimen trees located throughout the property, is an integral defining element of the property, marking it as one of the few remaining significant summer estates in Niagara- on-the-Lake.”

The bylaw prepared to designate the property describes the building as “an amalgamation of a number of revival styles, including neo-Classical Revival and neo-Greek Revival, with generous, light-filled reception rooms, spacious bedrooms, screened porches and a multiplicity of fireplaces.”

Hummel says the original building “was a very simple three-bedroom Georgian farm house. It was all the additions over the years that embellished the house,” as it passed from one wealthy American family to another. Some of the features of the house, including windows, were “jury-rigged” with materials from the large, expensive Buffalo homes of the early 1900s which were being torn down to be replaced by even larger houses.

“There were some weird things in that house,” he says, some of them described and dated by tradesmen who wrote about what they were doing in areas that were uncovered during construction.

The Phillips family, he says, added nothing new to the house, and didn’t do a good job of maintaining it — it was a mess when he took it over. One of Hummel’s first tasks was to have the attic, which contained decades of animal feces and raccoon skeletons, cleaned up to make it safe for construction workers.

The house, he says, was in “horrendous condition. The foundation was crumbling.”

In recent years the building, still elegant outside but an abandoned construction site inside, on one of the most prestigious landmark intersections in town, has been a subject of rumour, controversy and mystery.

Residents may have noticed some recent activity, foretelling the resumption of its rebirth and signalling renewed interest in what is to become of it.

Hummel says in 2003, it had been for sale for several years, and he picked it up for a “reasonable price. Here was this huge tract of land in the Old Town, almost a whole block, just under four acres,” he says, “and nobody wanted it.” He severed a back portion to build new homes, leaving about two and three-quarters acres to build a hotel.

His original plan, he says, for which he received the necessary Town approvals, was to build an upscale 24-room hotel, with a restaurant and spa. He expected to market it to the thousands of wealthy tourists he envisioned coming to town for what was then dubbed Project Niagara.

But, as he says looking back, “at a particular moment in time, an idea can be brilliant, or hellaciously stupid.” 

Counting on the success of Project Niagara to deliver well-heeled tourists turned out to be not such a brilliant idea.

The National Arts Centre of Ottawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had spent millions of dollars over several years on a proposal to create a summer classical music festival, similar to Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts. The outdoor summer festival was to be held on former Department of Defence lands along Lakeshore Road. The property was by then owned by Parks Canada, which had approved the plan of a concert venue that would include parkland and trails.

But in 2010, the principals in the project walked away from it, citing lack of funding and an economic downturn.

Locally, there had been such division in the community over the project, the word was that those who abandoned it had lost the will to fight for it.

Hummel concurs, saying there was $26 million in federal funding in place, but the upper level of government had no desire to “look like bullies fighting a small community” over something it didn’t want, although he believes it was only a small minority of people against the music festival.

Those in favour considered it would be an economic driver for the town and the region, but some residents were vehemently opposed, believing it would have been too intrusive for the community and a bad fit for a natural area that should be left green.

Hummel says that put an end to his dream of creating a grand and lavish boutique hotel that would attract those who were drawn to the music festival and could afford what he planned to offer.

In the following years, his wife urged him to renovate the estate to become their future home, and he compromised, agreeing to “build it as a hotel but live in it for a few years,” while he waited for the market to change and decided what he would do with it long-term.

But that plan was also abruptly abandoned, when he and his wife separated in 2014, in part, he says, due to their disagreements over that property. Her views were very different to his when it came to where they lived, he explains — he considers himself a minimalist, and had no desire to live in a massive, extravagant home.

As their marriage dissolved, the ownership of the property became a matter for the courts to settle, and he was forced to stop all construction. He was able to enter the property only for basic maintenance, such as grass-cutting, but as the prominent corner location became more run down, he asked the CAO to send him a letter saying the Town would charge him under the property standards bylaw, and with that letter, he went to court and was given permission to do the bare minimum to keep the property tidy.

Hummel took a lot of criticism for leaving an important piece of property looking neglected over a period of time. “It was a mess,” he says, “but I had no choice. It wasn’t because I wanted to leave it that way.”

During that time, his former wife settled in the coach house, the only area that was not an abandoned construction zone, with their two children.

With a final court decision granted on the property division in spring of 2019, she has now settled nearby, the two splitting time with their kids, and he is able to begin work again on the estate.

He has a plan for moving forward, he says, indicating blueprints that show a 75-room hotel with underground parking for 233 cars. It includes the main building and coach house, an outdoor-indoor spa, a pool, three dining areas, two outdoor eating spaces, and a conference centre on the top floor of a three-and-a-half storey annex, which will stretch from the original building to Simcoe Street, and where most of the guest suites will be located.

The greenhouse on the property will remain, to be used as a breakfast and meeting room, and it and the coach house, where the kitchen will be located, will be connected to the main building by loggias. There will also be corridors underground connecting to the main building basement.

There are several lounge areas, which will have fireplaces and cozy seating for relaxing, and a large bar/lounge designed to provide a comfortable setting for meeting and socializing, all surrounded by huge expanses of glass. 

Up a dramatic spiral staircase in the main building, there will be seven suites — including a bridal suite — and five more in the two-storey coach house. They are large, bright, some with balconies and fireplaces, walk-in closets and huge, skylit bathrooms.

While none of the rooms are finished or furnished, there is no doubt from the work already done that the plan is for every inch of the space to be upscale and impressive, including the spa area and wine cellar in the basement.

With the exception of the bridal suite, which Hummel considers appropriately over-the-top, he calls the design and decor he is going for as “understated elegance.” 

Along with most townspeople, he still refers to the property as the Phillips Estate. He’s not at the stage where he is ready to choose a name for his vision, although it will be something that reflects the history of the main building.

But as enthusiastic as he is about his plans, he is also well aware they too can be dashed. He needs to go back to the Town with an application for something that is far larger, covering a greater area of the property, than what he now has approval to build.

He explains when he received approval for the original 24-room hotel, the bylaw to rezone the block of property for commercial use was intended to also deem three lots that make up that block into one. Through a Town error, that didn’t happen, and has never been resolved. What he has now on that corner remains three lots, technically owned by three different entities, that could each be developed for commercial use. He wants to use them all to fulfill his current vision, but acknowledges there may be opposition to his plan. He expects to ask for an Official Plan amendment, and the decision to be settled at some point by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

However, he points out the Prince of Wales, anchoring the main intersection at the other end of the downtown area, has about 100 rooms on a piece of property 30 percent smaller than his.

There is no doubt there will eventually be something more than the hotel he originally planned on the prestigious piece of property, he says, but what that turns out to be remains to be seen.