A guided tour of the city's most interesting homes.
Urban skyscrapers and suburban sprawl identify Toronto as a typical modern city. Yet there exists another, hidden Toronto a place of quiet tree-lined streets, graceful houses and appealing neighborhoods rich in character.
Old Toronto Houses is illustrated with brilliant color photographs that explore the signature styles of Toronto's urban architecture. It opens with Henry Scadding's rough-hewn log house built in 1794, then progresses through the city's landmark styles: Georgian, Regency, Gothic, Victorian, Greek Revival, Dutch Colonial and Art Deco. The book then chronicles the houses of 10 distinct Toronto neighborhoods, including laborers' cottages in Cabbagetown, Yorkville's Second Empire terraces, and St. George Street's Romanesque mansions. Many of these older homes have been beautifully restored inside and out, preserving their original character. Each one is an example of a time in Toronto's richly diverse history.
A new chapter explores Toronto's ever-expanding boundaries and illustrates the houses located in what is now known as the Greater Toronto Area -- in locations including Etobicoke, Scarborough, Thornhill, Richmond Hill and Oakville.
Featuring over 250 houses and over 400 color photographs, this book offers a loving look at how old houses add beauty and grace to a modern city.
Tom Cruickshank is the author of five books on architectural heritage, as well as Living the Country Dream. He edits Harrowsmith Country Life magazine, and lives on a hobby farm in Port Hope, Ontario.
With over 60 books to his credit, including Canadian Churches: An Architectural History and Old Canadian Cemeteries, John de Visser is one of Canada's most accomplished photographers. A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators. He lives in Cobourg, Ontario.
"York is just emerging from the woods, but bids fair to be a flourishing town."
Little could Bennett, or anyone else, have realized the extent to which his prophecy would come true. In 1834, York was renamed Toronto and, with a population of over nine thousand, the woods were already a distant memory.
Almost from the day it was settled, the city on the north shore of Lake Ontario was by far the largest in the province. Every twenty years or so, the population would at least double, and by the 1880s Toronto had emerged as a contender among the great cities of eastern North America. It passed the two hundred thousand mark at the close of the nineteenth century and continued apace into the twentieth. When Metropolitan Toronto (an administrative partnership between the city and its suburbs) was established in 1953, the population stood at just over one million. By 1985, it had surpassed Montreal as the largest city in Canada. Today, with suburbs and city amalgamated under a single umbrella government, every square foot of available land has been developed; beyond its official borders, the suburbs show no sign of slowing down. According to the 2001 census, over four million people call the greater Toronto area home.
In the wake of so much progress, perhaps it is a surprise to learn that Toronto is not one enormous suburb huddled around a random collection of harbourside skyscrapers, as a glance down from an incoming airplane might suggest. Although it has no historic precinct to rival Old Montreal, the city is nevertheless rich in heritage character. The trouble is, old Toronto isn't always easy to find and an exploration of its treasures requires a detour beyond the major thoroughfares. But in several downtown neighbourhoods, the old city still shines. There, the automobile hasn't quite taken over; the streets move at a pedestrian pace, with chestnut trees providing a welcome canopy, and the architecture can be stunning.
At first glance, it's the stained-glass windows and gingerbread gables that catch the eye, but upon further scrutiny, old Toronto houses are blessed with certain aesthetic qualities that go a long way toward creating a pleasant urban environment. Rarely taller than two-and-a-half or three storeys, they are built to a scale and density that never intimidates, and there is enough variety that they are never boring. There are plenty of verandahs to encourage neighbourly interaction. These architectural characteristics, although never mandated by city politicians or planners, deserve the credit for the vitality so evident in Toronto's older residential streets. In particular, four neighbourhoods -- Cabbagetown, Rosedale, the Annex and Wychwood Park -- stand out as exemplary urban oases in which heritage character reigns supreme.
No matter in which neighbourhood they are found and no matter what their age, the common denominator among Toronto's older homes is the pervasive ochre hue of old clay brick. Brick has traditionally been the building medium of choice in the city, even in the York years. A brickworks was in operation as early as 1800. At least one historian, Jacob Spelt, has suggested that the availability of such a good building material may have helped to attract the gentry and thus secure Toronto's future growth.
The city stands on acre upon acre of clay soil, so it's no surprise that the first brick factory was soon joined by dozens of others, producing both red brick and the less frequently found yellow (historically called "buff"). Not only was brick widely available, it was also popular because it performed well in the event of fire. In fact, it was required by law in large quarters of the city. But among history buffs, its greatest asset is aesthetic: brick is one of the most recognizable traits of local architecture, the common link between its various eras. It's only when you leave Toronto that you notice it is missing, for those red and buff tones are not nearly as well represented in the city's two closest rivals: Buffalo, whose houses were more often frame and clapboard, or Montreal, where stone prevailed. Perhaps it's time that brick is given its due as the single defining feature of old Toronto buildings. As you browse through the pages that follow, its importance becomes self-evident.
Visiting Toronto in 1842, Charles Dickens didn't take particular notice of the brick, but he did observe that the houses were large and the shops excellent. On a sour note, he complained, "The wild and rabid Toryism of Toronto, is, I speak seriously, appalling." Early on, the city earned a dubious reputation as a bastion of conservatism, founded, no doubt, on its role as the capital of the loyal colony of Upper Canada, as Ontario was originally named. Led by an unbending aristocracy, Toronto was a hotbed of class distinctions and political cronyism that in 1837 was challenged by open rebellion. But "Toryism" also showed in more subtle ways, including architecture. Although they could be substantial and imposing, Toronto houses were rarely adventuresome. City and country folk alike clung to the old English Georgian style long after it had fallen from favour in the mother country, and an innate lack of daring would characterize Toronto architecture for generations. By comparison to Montreal, where architecture was a spectator sport, local houses seemed conservative indeed.
Nevertheless, Toronto was not without its architectural flourishes. As staid Georgian gave way to Victorian romance, builders indulged themselves in a battle of one-upmanship, each new home reflective of the latest styles. At first, these trends were influenced more by Britain than the United States, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the pattern was reversed. Regardless of their roots, however, few of these houses could be called pure examples of their type, for Torontonians, just like builders everywhere else, adopted an eclectic approach to architecture, borrowing a little of one style to mix with another, sometimes to whimsical effect. And it wasn't just the wealthy who took part -- even the homes of the working class followed a stylistic progression. Into this aesthetic fray, Toronto introduced a couple of original styles all its own, notably the Bay-n-Gable row house (page 92) of the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the affluent Annex house (page 102) of the 1890s -- two indigenous styles that deserve to be better known in the Canadian architectural lexicon.
Although stylish in their day, the old houses of Toronto were nothing more than quaint anachronisms by the dawn of the postwar suburban boom. Looking back, it is amazing how quickly developers and city governments dispensed with whole neighbourhoods in the name of progress, while old farmhouses were bulldozed by the hundreds to make way for new subdivisions. Fortunately, however, Toronto never embraced urban renewal to the same extent as many American cities. Downtown neighbourhoods remained vital: first due to the waves of new immigrants who settled there and then to a new generation of suburban refugees who were attracted to the old red-brick facades and shady streets. Many a battle was waged at City Hall to ensure the survival of -- indeed, it is unsettling to tally up the number of houses in this book that were once threatened -- but since the 1970s, older homes, especially those from the nineteenth century, have acquired a new cachet. Once dowdy and run down, those ginger-breaded Victorians are icons of urban living today.
In his groundbreaking 1964 book, Toronto, No Mean City, early preservation advocate Eric Arthur worried about the pace at which old Toronto was disappearing. "It is not inconceivable," he wrote, "that by 2000 A.D., all the nineteenth century buildings ... will be one with Nineveh and Tyre." However, the year 2000 has come and gone, and although much has been lost in the intervening years, nineteenth-century Toronto is hardly an ancient memory. In fact, its surviving older buildings are cherished today to a much greater extent than a generation ago. But as the city continues to grow, pressure is always mounting for redevelopment. It's anyone's guess as to whether civic pride in our architectural heritage is a match against the juggernaut of economics, but let's hope Arthur's prophecy is one that never comes true.
Table of Contents
The Georgian Town 1793-1837
The Confederation Years 1837-1867
High-Victorian Toronto 1867-1901
City and Suburbs 1901-1939
THE CITY EXPANDS