Paul Wilson: Stinson School Lofts finally near finish line

Harry Stinson, Toronto's former condo king, came to Hamilton for a new start. His first project, 66 lofts in a school from the 1800s, has been slow and complicated. But he now declares some purchasers will have their keys just days from now.
Harry Stinson, left, shows visitors the view from the south penthouse. It's yours for $700,000. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Ever since Harry Stinson came to town half-a-dozen years ago, he’s been trying to prove himself. He hopes he’s nearly there.

He’s building lofts in the historic Stinson Street School. (He likes to say that as the building already bore his name, he just had to go for it.)  But the project has been agonizingly slow. With each passing season, another deadline is missed.

Now, however, Stinson says some purchasers are going to get their keys on Oct. 24. His estimates have never before included a specific date.

No, he does yet have that partial-occupancy permit in hand. He vows he will. “At a certain point, you just have to get on with it,” he says. “The bank loan is burning a hole in our budget.”

The north wing of Stinson Street School opened in 1895, and the south wing followed 20 years later. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Twenty years ago, Stinson went into Toronto’s Queen West, a marginal neighbourhood then, and amazed many by turning an old candy company into lofts called the Candy Factory. Years later Toronto Life declared that his renovation was one of “10 moments that profoundly changed life in Toronto.”

But Stinson suffered a major setback that led to a well-publicized business battle with partner David Mirvish. So the condo king came down the road for a fresh start. He wanted to buy the Royal Connaught. And he wanted to erect The Grand at Main and John. Both came to naught.

He's starting over

“This is a start-all-over building for me,” Stinson says, while conducting a small tour of the Stinson School Lofts for the city’s heritage committee.

There are 66 units. A dozen are still to be sold. Some purchasers signed on a long time ago. Ralph Meiers bought his condo in January, 2010. The contract said his unit would be ready in September, 2011 – but that Stinson had the right to take an additional two years. 

That deadline just passed, but Meiers isn’t going anywhere. “I could write a book on all my dealings with Harry Stinson,” he says. But he admires what Stinson is doing.

Harry Stinson says the school that bears his name is his comeback project. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

And Meiers got himself a sweet spot. It’s on the third level, south-west corner, with 13-foot ceilings and eight tall windows that all open. This former classroom sold for $300,000. 

Meiers has been fussy, because the heritage details matter to him. He insisted on original doors, trim, hardware and more. He’s 32, a project manager with Bell Mobility, and no one arriving at the Stinson Lofts will have a shorter move than he.

Sixty-second move

He lives in a Victorian duplex on Grant Avenue, a one-minute walk away. He rents out half that house. He’ll now rent out the other half too, while he and his partner live the condo life. They’re counting on moving in before this year is done.

Meiers is not the typical purchaser. Most come from somewhere in the west GTA. Locals have been a tough sell.

“Hamiltonians have a schizophrenic relationship with the city,” Stinson says. “There’s a great deal of boosterism and talk of how much they like the city. But there’s not much confidence... So I just stopped spending money on advertising in Hamilton.”

This unit, built on the roof of the gym, features a 500-square-foot patio. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

The school was designed by local architect Alfred Peene, also responsible for the former Hamilton Public Library at Main and MacNab, now Family Court.

The school is built with brown Credit Valley stone and beautiful orange Hamilton brick – now getting a soda wash. The north portion of the school opened in 1895, with a twin erected behind 20 years later. At one time, there were 700 students.

Every unit is different

Going from classrooms to condos is “like a Rubik’s cube,” Stinson says. Every unit is different. You have to get creative with design.

Stinson started out with one Toronto architectural firm, then another. But a year ago, he brought in Hamilton’s Rick Lintack. “This is a project that needs on-site attention,” Stinson says, “and Toronto couldn’t do that.”

No space is wasted. There are high ceilings and lots of light in units carved out of former stairwells. The gym is sliced into three big-windowed units. And on top of that gym is a beauty that includes a 500-square-foot patio.

Many features have been preserved in the Stinson school, including the "Hogwarts" staircase. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

But the presidential unit, still looking for a buyer at $700,000, is the south-facing penthouse with a deck that delivers the full Niagara Escarpment panorama. To access the unit’s second-level space, you take a flight of steps through a jumbo chimney.

It was March break, 2009, when the last kids filed out of the school. Harry Stinson, who’s poured his heart into this place, knows it can’t be empty much longer.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC


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