New office building evokes downtown Harrow’s Victorian past

HARROW — Kingsville lawyer Sebastian Schmoranz felt he found the perfect location for his new law offices in Harrow. It was in the heart of town at King and Queen streets.

While the location at 15 King St. was ideal, the 19th-century building was not.

There were no proper foundations, the old brickwork was barely clinging to its wooden backing and the wiring and plumbing reflected the age of the building.

“We knew obviously it was very, very old,” said Schmoranz. “There had been multiple additions to the building off the back and on the sides, all with different structures, different types of plumbing and different types of electrical work.

“Really, it had gotten to the point where structurally it was compromised (and) it would cost 10 times more to try and renovate it.”

The building had a long history in Harrow, dating back to a time when the community was known as Hopetown. It’s housed a general store, a department store and most recently an antique store. 

The new building is in the middle of a continuous stretch of Victorian commercial buildings —one of the few such blocks left in Essex County. 

“We didn’t want to put up some ugly, bland, modern-looking monolith in the middle of what’s a cute, old, heritage-filled downtown,” Schmoranz said.

The $3-million two-storey version will have 5,000 square feet of space on each floor.

The commercial space on the ground floor will have a family feel. On one half, Schmoranz — who recently purchased the Golden law firm — will have his law office. His wife, Dr. Rena Rabheru, will use the other half to house her dental practice. 

“There will be eight (dental) chairs. We are trying to offer a more comfortable approach,” Schmoranz said. “We understand we may be entering a mild recession so we’ll be offering a membership program so patients can make smaller monthly payments.”

The Kingsville lawyer said Essex council and its heritage committee were both fully on board with his plans to demolish and rebuild. 

He said the co-operation was remarkable.

“Coming from Kingsville where we have a great deal of nimbyism, the town council, administration and heritage committee all liked the idea and understood the practical reality that the building was a fire hazard and was going to fall down at some point.”

The original building at 15 King St. in Harrow most recently housed an antique store.

He said going with the historical look added between five and 10 per cent to the cost of construction.

Laurie Brett, chair of the heritage committee at the time Schmoranz’s plans were approved, said the committee was impressed with his plans to build something in keeping with the surrounding architecture.

“I think we had the feeling that it’s an iconic building in Harrow, it sits right at the intersection of King and Queen streets and he wanted to preserve the look and put a modern building in a place that would anchor the downtown.”

Brett said many small towns in Ontario have “a feel” to them that developers need to respect.

“These downtowns date from the 1800s, not the Middle Ages like many buildings in Europe do. Generations of people have lived here … have been raised here and recognize the look and feel of the downtown.

“So when a developer comes in and removes a commercial property and they put something in its place that’s not in keeping with the spirit of the downtown, that’s difficult, and it diminishes … the downtown. It changes it.”

Chet Liu, a Chatham-based civil engineer, designed the building. Liu also designed the renovations for the Retro Suites hotel at the corner of King and William streets in downtown Chatham.

“Chet has a lot of experience renovating historic buildings and designing new buildings that respect existing historic downtowns,” Schmoranz said. 

Essex Mayor Sherry Bondy said prior to Harrow’s recently completed streetscaping upgrades, Harrow residents were asked how they wanted the downtown to look.

“We went through a lot of public discussion for our streetscape plan and residents wanted that rustic look maintained. We got that and we now have a modern building that is up to code,” she said.

Bondy said Harrow’s downtown is on the upswing. In 2017, Harrow had a commercial vacancy rate of 10.4 percent. Now it’s down to six per cent.

Schmoranz said the new building should open in the spring. He hopes it sets an example for other municipalities.

“If a building can be saved, obviously try and save it, but if it can’t please try and recreate in a way that honours what stood there before.”

He said there are no plans for the 5,000 square feet on the second floor. He said residential units or more commercial space are both options.

Vintage safe discovered behind wall was owned by ancestor of former prime minister Paul Martin

In 1986 a good portion of the North American television audience was glued to their sets to watch TV personality Geraldo Rivera record the opening of a vault that once belonged to Chicago gangster Al Capone. 
More recently, a similar safe was opened in Harrow during demolition of a building at 15 King St.
“Like Geraldo, we didn’t find anything inside,” said Kingsville lawyer Sebastian Schmoranz, who will be opening new offices on the site this spring.
Over the years the mid-nineteenth century building had numerous additions and was filled with many nooks and crannies. The safe was found behind one of the walls. 
A plate on the 1,580-kg safe showed it was built by J & J Taylor company in Toronto — which was founded in 1855 and went out of business in the mid-1920s.
Schmoranz said the safe was made for T.B. Adams, a great-uncle of Paul Martin, a former prime minister who has roots in Windsor.
Ceiling tiles and old hardwood beams were also salvaged from the building.
The Kingsville lawyer said he will display the safe as a conversation piece in his new Harrow office.

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