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The bricks and mortar of Confederation


As we look ahead to a new year and Canada’s 150th birthday, it’s natural to look back at where we began.

In many cases, all it takes is standing back and looking up.

Buildings of the Confederation-age in Toronto beautifully show their age with architectural styles from the Victorian age — predominantly from the mid-1800s to the start of the 20th century. Straightforward bay-and-gable designs, for instance, adapted the look of the period named for Queen Victoria’s reign, and made the most of the region’s red-clay brick and narrow property lots.

University College, at U of T, dates back to 1856 and is among the country’s oldest Romanesque Revival buildings. Old City Hall and Queen’s Park are also solid and imposing examples of the Victorian-age architectural style.

Like other large cities, Toronto has beautiful architecture and a rich city history,” said Kaitlin Wainwright, the program director for Heritage Toronto. Founded in 1793 as the Town of York, Toronto was incorporated as a city in 1834 — before Canada was officially a country.

“Old buildings can show the ebb and flow of the economy, and the adaptive re-use of buildings can spur innovation. Think of the Distillery District,” Wainwright says of the former Gooderham and Worts alcohol manufacturing area. It is among the largest collections of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.

“Sometimes, historic buildings become a destination because of the look and feel of the space, such as the LCBO shop at Summerhill Ave., which was once a train station. There is a recognition that there is a certain esthetic value to having a building that is unique in its character.

“Historic buildings enhance the character of our streets, making them more beautiful and more livable,” adds Wainwright. That’s the case in Parkdale, Cabbagetown and The Annex, all notable for their Victorian-style residential architecture and all sought-after neighbourhoods.

The late Jane Jacobs, the iconic city-planning author and guru, extolled the virtues of re-purposing historic structures: “New ideas must use old buildings.”

With 2017 and Canada’s birthday year set to begin, consider our country as it was, and how it looked, 150 years ago:

SPADINA HOUSE MUSEUM

285 Spadina Rd., Toronto.

Spadina House is built on a six-acre property, a remnant of the 200 acres of farmland purchased in 1866 by James Austin, an Irish businessman and financier, with his wife, Susan. They built the home there the same year.

Austin immigrated to Canada in 1829 and spent eight years as an apprentice to the future prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie. Austin became a wealthy wholesale merchant and was a founder and president of the Dominion Bank and president of Consumer’s Gas Company.

The original house was brick and designed in the Second Empire architectural style of the Victorian era. Between 1898 and 1913, the house was enlarged and remodeled to keep up with the changing times and has evolved from mid-Victorian to 1930s Colonial Revival and includes items from the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles

Anna Kathleen Thompson, James and Susan’s granddaughter, negotiated the sale and transfer of the house in 1978. Today a museum, it showcases the Austin family’s lifestyle during the 1920s.

THE DON JAIL

1 Bridgepoint Dr., Toronto.

Perhaps Toronto’s most notorious Confederation-era building, the Toronto Don Jail was built between 1858-64 with cells for 180 inmates. Today the refurbished prison is the administration building for Bridgepoint Healthcare rehab hospital.

Originally surrounded by farmers’ fields outside the city, the jail was designed in a Renaissance Revival style by architect William Thomas, with a main entrance stone carving of Father Time, as well as an interior, light-filled rotunda.

The construction of the jail was prompted by growth in Toronto’s population prior to Confederation, and the accompanying poverty and crime. The property also housed a refuge to serve the city’s needy and disabled. Its mission also covered capital punishment and a number of hangings took place there over the years until the country’s final executions of Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas, in 1962, before capital punishment was abolished.

Designed as a reform prison, and once dubbed the “Palace for Prisoners,” the historic jail was closed in 1977 after an outcry over its inhumane conditions. Its eastern wing, built in 1958, was closed in 2013.

JOHN MULVEY HOUSE

125 Bathurst St., Toronto.

A brick house with gingerbread trim, a welcoming entry hall and wooden staircase, the John Mulvey house was built in 1869 in the Queen Anne Gothic style. It was then in the heart of Claretown, an area popular with immigrants like Mulvey’s parents who escaped Ireland’s Potato Famine.

Mulvey came to Toronto as a child and by age 23 was running a grocery store on Queen St. W. He, his wife, Catherine, and children lived above the store before their home was built. Mulvey also served as a Toronto alderman and owned a brickyard before losing his fortune in the Long Depression in the 1870s. When his adult son, Thomas, moved to Ottawa, the house passed out of family hands.

In 1909, St. Mary’s Catholic Parish purchased the house and added an extension for a parish hall.

The Factory Theatre moved into the building in 1983 and purchased it in 1999. The theatre’s Mainspace lounge inhabits the original bedrooms; the lobby, stage extension and permanent seating were created from the church hall; the nursery is now the theatre’s workshop.

DANIEL FLYNN HOUSE

Yonge St. and Drewry Ave., North York

Daniel Flynn, a master shoemaker, and his wife, Sidney, emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1848, during the Potato Famine.

A decade later he purchased two property lots, in what is now North York, to build his family’s home. Today it is one of 40 historic structures at Black Creek Pioneer Village that showcases the life and work of new Canadians during the time of Confederation.

Unlike either Mulvey House or Spadina House, the Flynn’s wood-frame home was small, reflecting the family’s modest income. Its rectangular façade shows that, originally, the family home and cobbler’s shop were attached. There were four rooms downstairs, all with wooden floors: two bedrooms, a combined living room/kitchen and a front room that Daniel used for his shoemaker’s shop until he was able to afford a separate building, located nearby. During the winter months, the family would have used the large fireplace in the common room for both heating and cooking.

Flynn and his wife are buried in the cemetery at the Cummer Burial Grounds, at Yonge St. and Church Ave. in North York.

JACOB STONG HOUSE

3105 Steeles Ave. W., York

Daniel and Elizabeth Stong settled on a large parcel of land on the south side of Steeles Ave. after immigrating to Upper Canada in 1816 with the Loyalists who left the U.S.

First-born son Jacob was born in 1821 in his parents’ log cabin that is now part of Black Creek Pioneer Village. Jacob would become a prominent community member as a farmer, sawmill owner, justice of the peace and in 1879 a director and livestock judge at the annual Canadian National Exhibition.

Jacob bought 80 acres of land from his parents and his home, built in 1857, still stands at Keele St. and Steeles Ave. The 2-1/2-storey house has Classical features including patterned brickwork around windows with lintels — long horizontal blocks — and blocks, or quoins, on the walls’ corners. The building has a steep gable roof with returned eaves and brackets, and glass sidelights and transom at the main door.

York University acquired Jacob Stong’s house and barn in the early 1960s. They were restored and have served as a studio facility and visual arts centre.

TORONTO STAR | LIFE | HOMES