The property had a long list of things that would scare away most prospective home buyers: galvanized piping, a pending heritage designation… and a leaky old nuclear bunker in the basement.
But for some reason, Trish and Conan Lear couldn’t keep away.
The Aurora-based couple were searching for a “home with character” three years ago when they reluctantly found themselves on the doorstep of a 19th-century Victorian farmhouse in the centre of town selling for $1.59 million. The unique property on Old Yonge St. had been listed for a few months when the family went to check it out.
“At first, I didn’t want to even see the house,” said Trish, daunted by the size and age of the 1.13-acre property. But as soon as she walked in, Trish said she was “taken” by the home, built in 1875. “After we looked at this house, we must have looked at about 20 to 25 houses, and we just kept on coming back.”
While it was the beauty of the property that drew them in, Trish said, it was its history — and what was left behind — that had them hooked.
They had fallen for the property known as “Aurora’s Diefenbunker.”
With the passion of keeping heritage alive, the Lears have been working on ways to meld together the past and the present — to ensure that the story of the home continues long after them.
The former owners of the home, Werner and Orianna Broadbeck, were hobbyist historians who told them the City of Toronto discreetly bought the country home in 1962. The city built a bunker below ground — which still remains — to serve as a control centre to house Toronto politicians and emergency personnel in the event of a nuclear attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Broadbecks bought the home in 1996, even though records show it had been destined for demolition, and brought it back to life. As they looked to downsize, they were determined to find a family with a similar passion for preserving the past.
For the Lears, it was a home tour like no other.
In the basement, a large concrete reinforced room is still set up as an operations room flanked by large hand-drawn maps and status boards depicting the Toronto area and York region that were drawn by military cartographers. One board includes space to document both the “casualties — dead, rescuable and wounded” and radiation data including the dose rates and exposures. The shelter also includes a call centre with 100 telephone lines, two large water tanks that would serve as the “emergency water supply,” and an escape hatch leading to a storage shed outside.
“People don’t expect it when they walk into the house. But you walk down there, and all of the sudden you are transitioning to something that is part of history,” Trish said. “You know how a house speaks to you … and this place has a very unique story to tell and when I walked in, there was no doubt in my mind, I wanted to be a part of that story.”
But it wasn’t quite so simple, said her husband, Conan. In order to save the home from demolition and redevelopment, the Broadbecks had applied for a heritage designation on specific elements of the home — setting limitations on what could be altered by any future owners.
According to the Town of Aurora, a heritage designation is registered on the title of the property and “provides a legal mechanism for a municipality to prohibit demolition, and control alterations that would compromise specific heritage attributes of a property.”
“We had to think a lot about what we were going to do,” Conan said. “Because there are clearly a lot of unknowns … One of the big things we knew was that the basement was leaking — badly. There was probably more water going into the basement than coming out of my shower head at the time.”
There was three months of back and forth, before they closed on the sale of the home — getting it for less than list price.
Since then the family has been working to bring the house up to code, fixing up the bunker, and making the home more livable — a renovation “journey” they think will cost more than a million dollars and take at least a decade to complete.
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To start, they hired the renovation company Alair Homes of Aurora/Newmarket to help them design and renovate the bedrooms and washrooms, while the couple worked to bring the rest of the house into the modern era: such as replacing the piping, replacing the wiring of the house, and automating lights and other functions in the house with Google Home.
“If you really want to maintain a heritage home like this, you have to modernize it, and you have to embrace the changes,” Conan said. “That’s the only way you are going to get the right people, with the right attitude and right capital to take it on after you — because this house is bigger than us. If you look at it’s life, we are guests. We are just a blip in its lifetime.”
It’s with this attitude the couple has also been trying to learn more about the life of the home by digging through the Toronto archives.
“Most of the archives and the paperwork around the house is locked, it still has restricted access to it,” said Trish. “Also, lots of the changes done to the house were secretive,” she said, adding they have applied for access to the documents.
So what do you do in 2020 with an unused bunker in your house from the ’60s? The Lears say their family uses it like any large basement: their daughter has used the space to practise skateboarding and as a photography studio. And last year, the family hosted Thanksgiving down there.
“Our family has gotten large, so last year we set up tables and chairs and hosted Thanksgiving in the bunker. It was awesome,” Trish said.
But once a year, the Lears open their home to the public too. Last year, they participated in the annual Doors Open Aurora event, which brought hundreds of people to their home. They plan to do it again this year.