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Customs House takes an iconic location on Victoria's Inner Harbour

Jan 20 2018 Customs House

Redesigning a building that sits alongside the Empress Hotel and the B.C. legislature — the “grand dames” of Victoria’s Inner Harbour — could be an intimidating exercise for any architect, even one as experienced as Paul Merrick.

The renowned B.C. architect, whose honour-winning heritage projects range eclectically from the Orpheum Theatre and Pennsylvania Hotel in Vancouver to Victoria’s St. Ann’s Academy, knew there would be high expectations in an estimated $100-million makeover of a landmark heritage building facing the legislature on the Inner Harbour.

His first thought, when transforming the building into 57 luxury residences known collectively as Customs House?

“I was humbled,” he said. “Its significance took a while to sink in, which says something about what kind of place that it is. It is really one of the most magnificent urban rooms in all of the world.”

Much of that humility results from his respect for famed British architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury, who designed both the legislature and the Empress. Today, both buildings are seen as among Canada’s most stately and historically important heritage structures.

Customs House, which takes up an entire city block framed by Government, Wharf and Courtney streets, was built on the harbour between 1894 and 1898. It has been variously known as the Federal Building, Post Office and Customs House, the latter for its role in processing goods leaving and entering the country. Its important historical features include the façade’s sandstone walls, quarried from nearby islands in Georgia Strait.

It also has what might be considered an eminently forgettable element — the addition of a post office, built in 1952 in a drab post-war style. That made it easier for Merrick and his co-partner in the project, Studio One Architecture, to recommend to Customs House developer Stan Sipos to demolish that portion and replace it with new construction that constitutes about half the project.

Merrick said Sipos moved back and forth between considering long-vacant Customs House for commercial, office, retail and residential development before settling on a mixed use.

About 16,000 square feet of retail space at ground level will eventually be home to high-end restaurants and boutique retail stores, says Johnathon Sipos, Stan’s son and vice-president of Cielo Properties Inc.

“We (Cielo) have always been drawn to it,” said Sipos. “It was just such a prominent location in Victoria that we really wanted to do something that was a true landmark, a true legacy. It is really the last unfinished piece in Victoria downtown.”

Studio One managing partner Jim Wong said his firm worked alongside Merrick focusing on the building’s interiors and underground parking.

“It’s an A-1 location in Victoria, the best location in the city,” said Wong, whose firm has undertaken several other building restorations in the city. “Obviously, when you have the legislature and the Empress as your neigbours, you are in good company.”

Among the project’s greatest challenges has been retaining the heritage features of the windows, including those at ground level, and adapting the interiors, which had the typical floor plates of office and administrative structures of the day, to modern-day living standards.

“The building has much larger floor plates than those in residential buildings,” he said, adding the original design has “long, narrow bowling alley-like footprints from the building’s core to the facade” that are not suitable for residential living. “We went through many iterations.” Also challenging is shoring up the heritage façade while performing seismic upgrades and excavating under the building to construct three levels of underground parking.

Patrick O’Callaghan, marketing manager of Magnum Projects, which is selling the homes, said about 50 per cent of the units — including one of the penthouses for $10 million — have been purchased since the sales campaign began in late August.

The majority are local buyers, including people downsizing from larger homes in Oak Bay, Uplands and Saanich, as well as from Vancouver. The project has also attracted buyer interest from farther afield, including Calgary, New York, Texas, New Zealand and Asia. Residents will be able to enjoy easy access from Vancouver’s Coal Harbour to Customs House via seaplane, O’Callaghan noted.

Customs House has a second-floor gym complete with sauna and steam room, a car-wash station underground, and a 24-hour concierge service in the lobby.

“It really is unprecedented in Victoria,” he said. “It has had private previews for the most part and we’ve reached out the realtor community and our private database.”

O’Callaghan notes that the homes range from 618 to 1,178 square feet for a one-bedroom unit, 1,125 to 2,378 for a two-bedroom, 2,279 to 3,433 square feet for a three-bedroom and from 3,531 to 4,422 for the penthouses. The penthouses also have up to 1,900 square feet for a rooftop garden, which is accessed by a small elevator from the main living area.

The ceilings range from 10 feet to 13 feet high, with some units having views of the Inner Harbour. Buyers have choices of light and dark palettes. Imported Italian cabinetry is used for kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms. Perimeter countertops in kitchens are made of engineered stone, while the island is quartzite with a waterfall edge.

Appliances vary depending on the unit group: the Harbourview kitchen features Wolf and Sub-Zero appliances, with a 36-inch gas cooktop, 36-to-42-inch integrated refrigerator-freezer, a 30-inch combination wall oven and steam oven, and a built-in Asko dishwasher and built-in microwave. The kitchen is completed by a wine fridge.

The Kohler cast iron sink ranges from 24 to 36 inches with white enamel finish and a Kohler pull-down style faucet. Glass backsplashes are back painted. Some larger kitchens have a pull-out pantry.

Main bathrooms and secondary ensuites have large-format 12-by-24-inch porcelain floor tiles, and marble dual vanity countertops with marble mosaic tiles in the shower stalls.

Customs House

Project Address: 816 Government Street, Victoria

Project Scope: A total of 57 one-, two- and three-bedroom condominium homes in a seven-storey heritage building facing the Inner Harbour, along with the provincial legislature building and the Empress Hotel. Homes range from 618 to 4,422 sq. ft., including penthouses with rooftop patios up to 1,990 sq. ft. Set in the heart of Victoria, Customs House has easy access to seaplane service and high-end restaurants and shops, in a historic structure with commanding views in all directions

Prices: From $850,000 to $11 million
Developer: Cielo Properties Inc.
Builder: Farmer Construction
Architects: Studio One Architecture
Interior Designer: Insight Design Inc.
Sales Marketing: Magnum Projects
Sales Centre: 955 Wharf St., Victoria
Telephone: (250) 590-9881
Centre Hours: By appointment only
Completion: Late 2019/early 2020