The Eaton mansion, the architect and the legal nightmare that ensued


TORONTO -- When George Eaton needed an architect to design a new home, he called up his old friend Conrad Black and asked if he could recommend someone.

It was early 1988 and Mr. Eaton wanted to build a house for his family and his mother, Signy, on Hawkridge Farm, a 240-acre spread the Eaton family owned north of Toronto near Caledon, Ont. Lord Black didn't hesitate to make a recommendation -- Thierry Despont.

The French-born Mr. Despont worked out of New York and had become something of a legend among the rich and famous. He'd not only redesigned Lord Black's Toronto mansion, but also homes for Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta and, later, Bill Gates.

But what seemed like a perfect match -- a Canadian business mogul and a renowned architect -- has turned into a legal nightmare. Mr. Eaton alleges in court filings that the house Mr. Despont designed -- a 28,000-square-foot behemoth -- was so badly planned and built that it has literally made him sick. Mr. Despont has fired back with allegations that it's not his fault.

Rather, he says, the blame resides with the builders and Mr. Eaton's constant changes to the design.

"My houses are not investments," Mr. Despont once said. "They are investments in joie de vivre."

Mr. Despont doesn't just design houses, some of his other projects include building a residential tower at New York's Museum of Modern Art and refurbishing the Statue of Liberty. His artistic flare has carried over to his name. Although born "Thierry Guy Despont," he prefers to be called "Thierry W. Despont" because the "W" makes his name look more symmetrical.

Mr. Eaton, great-grandson of Eaton stores founder Timothy Eaton, was running T. Eaton Co. Ltd. at the time and he didn't know much about Mr. Despont. All he wanted was someone who would draw up a Victorian house that would please his mother. Lord Black assured him Mr. Despont was perfect. On May 12, 1988, Mr. Eaton retained Mr. Despont.

Everything went well at first. Mr. Despont drew up plans, worked with construction crews and made regular site visits. The two even became friends and took trips together, visiting Mr. Despont's house in Brittany, sharing a New Year's Eve in a chateau and skiing in Aspen.

But as the project dragged on, the relationship frayed. Today, it has fractured completely and the two men are locked in a legal battle.
Caught up in the fight are three engineering firms, one Ontario builder and the Town of Caledon.

According to court filings, the house took seven years to complete and cost about $20-million, almost 10 times the original estimate. It features 11 bedrooms, copper roofs, an indoor swimming pool, mahogany window frames and doors, five chimneys and cedar siding.

Mr. Eaton alleges that he and his wife, Terrie, have faced constant problems from the moment they moved in 15 years ago. Their 22-page statement of claim provides a litany of alleged woes, including:

Water condensation, leaks and decay that have allegedly caused "widespread insect, worm and rodent infestation and fungal contamination including the growth of dangerous moulds."

Seven types of "toxic moulds" allegedly found in the walls, causing the Eatons headaches, respiratory and eye problems, runny noses, skin irritation and exacerbation of their allergies.

E. coli, F. coli and T. coli allegedly found in the water system.
Insulation allegedly so thin the Eatons spend $84,000 a year to heat and cool the place, about 70 per cent more than it should cost.
Numerous building code violations.

Fifteen other structural problems ranging from improper sealing, caulking and roof ventilation to allegations that sections of the support system are made of plywood instead of steel.

Mr. Eaton, 61, claims Mr. Despont misrepresented his credentials, leaving the couple the impression he was a licensed American architect when he was licensed only in France. He's suing Mr. Despont, the engineers, the builder and the town for $7.4-million, including $4-million in repair bills and $500,000 for "mental anguish."

Mr. Despont, 58, has vigorously denied the allegations and has filed counterclaims. He calls the allegations about his credentials "outlandish" and insists in court filings that he never held himself out to be an American architect but made it clear his partners were licensed in New York. He also alleges that Mr. Eaton has waited far too long to sue.

The other defendants, including the town which provided permits and performed inspections, have also denied any wrongdoing. They've filed counterclaims and motions to have the case dismissed. They argue Mr. Eaton's claims are excessive and he is responsible for not mitigating the alleged problems sooner.

Everything looked so promising in the spring of 1988 when Mr. Eaton, his wife and his mother first met Mr. Despont at a dinner at Lord Black's house.

Mr. Eaton was leery about hiring an architect but his mother insisted, arguing that a project this big required a proper design. At the time, Mr. and Ms. Eaton lived in Toronto and the elder Ms. Eaton lived in a four-bedroom house on the farm, which had been in the family since the 1930s. Her husband, John David Eaton, had died in 1973. Mr. Eaton's plan was to build a new house on the farm for his family, which included three sons, and also provide living space for his mother.

Lord Black had first suggested Arthur Erickson, the designer of Simon Fraser University, which Mr. Eaton attended for one semester. But Mr. Eaton balked, saying that he wanted a traditional design. "Remember," Mr. Eaton says in court filings, "I was working with two women, one I was married to and one was my mother, so I had to be a little careful in the design process."

Lord Black recommended Mr. Despont and invited everyone for dinner, according to court filings. That evening, Lord Black showed the Eatons around his home, pointing out Mr. Despont's handiwork which included a three-storey elliptical library featuring a copper cupola modelled on the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. The Eatons liked what they saw and invited Mr. Despont to visit the farm.

Mr. Despont was also taken by his new clients. "I was very impressed by Mr. Eaton," he says in court filings. "He was a successful head of a very large business."

They met at the farm in April. In court filings, Mr. Despont recalled the family's excitement about the project. He said Mr. Eaton's mother "was enthused with the idea of seeing her son, her favourite son, she said, build a house on the property." Throughout the visit, Mr. Despont took copious notes and asked questions about the family's lifestyle, tastes and how they entertained.

On May 12, 1988, Mr. Despont sent Mr. Eaton a letter outlining a proposal. It called for a large house with four bedrooms and bathrooms for Mr. Eaton's family; a living area, dining room and bedroom for his mother; two guest bedrooms with bathrooms; a gymnasium, swimming pool and wine cellar. Mr. Eaton had to pay a $20,000 (U.S.) deposit to get started, and Mr. Despont's total fee would be based on the final project costs, the letter said. Mr. Eaton alleges in his lawsuit that Mr. Despont estimated the house would cost $2.5-million.

The Eatons agreed to go ahead and Mr. Despont started working on drawings. Construction began in the spring of 1989.

By then, Mr. Eaton had brought on board his old fishing buddy Risto Laamanen, who ran a construction company in Sudbury, Ont. They'd met in the 1970s, when Mr. Eaton was involved in a mining venture near Sudbury. The mine never came to fruition and Mr. Eaton, whose previous careers included car racing and music promotion, left for Toronto to run Eaton's stores with his brother, Fred. But he and Mr. Laamanen remained close.

In court filings, Mr. Laamanen says he thought he would have control over the project, but other engineering firms were soon brought in and they took over. Mr. Eaton alleges there was confusion from the start about drawings, contractors and getting decisions made.

Mr. Despont alleges the Eatons made constant changes, such as ordering him to drop the wine cellar when Mr. Eaton suddenly decided to give up drinking. They also changed the library, the roof, the living quarters and made major revisions to the swimming pool, Mr. Despont alleges.

Everything came to a halt in the fall of 1990, according to Mr. Despont, because Mr. Eaton ran into "severe business issues" and could not complete the house (T. Eaton Co. filed for bankruptcy protection in 1997). Costs had climbed to more than $14-million and "Mr. Eaton was very eager to stop spending money on the project," Mr. Despont alleges.

A few months later, Mr. Eaton and his wife decided to move in and finish it later. Sadly, Mr. Eaton's mother did not enjoy the home for long: She died in September of 1992.

Not long after the Eatons moved in, Mr. Despont sent them a letter expressing his joy at the project. "Hawkridge is without a doubt a splendid house," he wrote. "I wish I knew all the words to express my gratitude to your unfailing support and encouragement throughout the project . . . There's never been a great house without a great owner and you are magnificent patrons."

The Eatons finished the home around 1996 at a final cost of $20-million (Canadian), not including $2.5-million (U.S.) paid to Mr. Despont and $370,000 to other consultants.

Mr. Eaton was so pleased he asked Cardinal Emmett Carter to perform a mass at Hawkridge. Mr. Despont came, too. "He was the altar boy," Mr. Eaton says in court filings. "A little old to be attempting, but there you go."

Two years later, Mr. Eaton faced "tax considerations" and decided to sell the home and move to Ireland, according to court filings. He listed the mansion at $20-million (Canadian), but did not receive a single offer. He resolved his tax issue the following year and took the house off the market.

Mr. Eaton alleges they began noticing small problems at first, such as rotting on the deck and condensation in some rooms. Then Mr. Eaton's skin became itchy all over, his wife experienced headaches and they both had more colds than usual, according to court filings.

Soon the repairs were becoming so extensive that in 2001 Mr. Eaton hired a local contractor who identified many more problems. In June of 2002, Mr. Eaton retained Architectural Management Inc. of Unionville, Ont., to perform a "technical construction audit." It revealed "massive design and construction flaws," the suit alleges.

Mr. Eaton filed his lawsuit a year later, alleging the conduct of Mr. Despont and the others "fell so far below the standard expected of them that it amounted to gross negligence."
Mr. Despont fired back with a lengthy statement of defence, and his lawyers argued that Mr. Eaton waited too long to sue. He filed a motion to have the case dismissed, but an Ontario judge has ruled against him and the case is set to go to trial.

His Toronto lawyer, Ken Crofoot, said Mr. Despont intends to fight the action vigorously. "Nobody can really blame Mr. Eaton," Mr. Crofoot said in an interview. "He doesn't know anything about construction. But we're certainly taking the position that the advice that he received is quite wrong and he should have consulted the parties that were involved in the project before he started ripping it apart."