Paul Wilson: See Hamilton's best mansions for free – and buy one for millions

Just under the Escarpment, Hamilton has the finest enclave of old-money mansions around – not a gaudy one in sight. You can view them all at a show that opens soon on James Street North.
The house at 12 Ravenscliffe is on the honour roll for a show opening during SuperCrawl: The Grand Durand – Mansions of Hamilton. Lots of Windex needed here, because the 1908 home has 84 windows. (Graham Crawford/HIStory+HERitage)

When you want to do some proper mansion spotting in this town, there’s really just one place to go.

Yes, there are expensive homes in Ancaster, the new mega manors. And Westdale has some very nice addresses in the area of Oak Knoll.

But for mansions row-on-row, ivy and architecture up and down the street, you need to sniff the rare air around Aberdeen and Bay. And many of us do. We cruise past slowly. Or get out of our cars and stroll and gawk.

"I call it real estate tourism," says Graham Crawford. He was tourist himself nearly 10 years ago, when he came back to Hamilton on a family matter and took a drive through the land of mansions.

In no time, he had sold his place in Toronto and bought a century-old fieldstone-faced home with a great verandah that looks out over Turner and Aberdeen.

It's always free

He had soon sold his successful management consulting business and looked for a fresh challenge. He bought an old Chinese bakery on James North and turned it into HIStory + HERitage, Hamilton’s storefront museum, where you never pay to walk through the door.

Lively multi-media shows are mounted on a wall of flat-screen monitors. History class was never like this.

The next show at H+H opens Sept. 14, the weekend of Supercrawl, and it’s all about those big houses. The title: The Grand Durand – Hamilton’s Mansions.

Crawford figures he had about 50 to choose from, and narrowed it down to 18. He then persuaded each owner to let him inside to document all those heritage details. There are hundreds of pictures in this exhibit and he took them all.

"I had lots of help from local historians," he says, "but it turned out to be a much bigger project than I thought."

His own house too

Few could have pulled this off. It helped that Crawford lives in the neighbourhood. And through H+H, he is known for his love of heritage architecture. Plus, he has put his own house in the lineup.


'Mine is a bit of a stretch.'—Graham Crawford, underestimatinghis own wee mansion

"I couldn’t very well tell people, ‘No, I’m not taking pictures of my own place, but I want to shoot yours.’ But including mine is a bit of a stretch." For the record, you would be very comfortable in Graham Crawford’s house.

Oldest house on the list is the 1877 stone mansion that belongs to Steve Smith, aka Red Green, and his wife Morag. It sits on a one-acre property on Aberdeen.

The newest house was built in 1933, on Bay at the foot of the Escarpment, on grounds that are nearly four acres. This had been the site of Highfield, a boarding school for boys. It burned down in 1918.

Along came the Niblets. Their fortune was not tied to canned corn, but oil. Apparently there was a patent for the processing of petroleum which was sold to Esso. And for 25 years the family got a royalty on every gallon of gas.

Money was no object

Naturally, the Niblets were able to build whatever house they wanted. With the Depression all around, they erected a Normandy manor house, modeled on one they had fallen in love with in France. Wood carvers and stone masons were imported from England for the job.

After seeing Crawford’s pictures of this home at the show, you may decide you’d like to move in. Fortunately, it’s for sale – $3.6 million.

Brian Decker says his mansion is now too big. He shares it with Ares, his 17-pound Maine coon cat. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

I’m knocking on a mansion door right now, 12 Ravenscliffe. It’s part of the show too, and the owner is Brian Decker. Among other things, he runs a medical publishing company.

His eight-bedroom 84-window house was built in 1908 for one W.E. Phin, whose activities included dredging the Welland Canal. He lived in the Hamilton mansion until his dying days. Decker bought the home from spinster descendant Skye Phin in 1981 for $250,000.

Decorators, renovators, landscapers have been coming by ever since. The dining room is done in a South African theme. The media room has a glow-in-the-dark jungle mural, something his four kids used to enjoy.

But the original features remain - the mahogany trim, the oak doors, the marble fireplaces, the white tile in the bathroom. And the basement vault that is now a wine cellar, complete with some stock from Phin’s day - even an ancient Guinness.

Deluxe garage

Three-car garages are rare even today, but W.E. Phin had one a hundred years ago, complete with basement, mechanic’s pit and hand-cranked gasoline pump. It’s still there.

The house at 12 Ravenscliffe has a pool, of course. But this mansion also features what has to be the oldest gas pump in town. (Graham Crawford/ HIStory+HERitage)

And in the house, lower level, the magnificent full-size 1922 Burroughes & Watts billiards table is still ready for play. But Decker is about to move it upstairs. He wants this space for his dancing room.

He gets two hours of lessons here five days a week with Brandy Pitt, who has a dance studio on James North. As you read this, Decker is just returning from Havana, where he Latin-danced each night away.

And he comes home to a house that now feels too big. These days it’s just him, a tuxedo cat named Darian, and his true love, a 17-pound Maine coon cat that sometimes answers to Ares.

This address has been on the market at $1.5 million. Decker’s taken it off for now, but Miami is where he’d rather be living. So one day, the mansion will be gone. Will that be hard?

"I’ve left my stain here," he says. "I love this place, but I’m not married to it. I can move on."

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.