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This handsome, post-and-beam home beside the former Downsview military base sheltered generations of Canadian Forces personnel. Downsview demolition: 51 John Drury Blvd. (Dave LeBlanc)
This handsome, post-and-beam home beside the former Downsview military base sheltered generations of Canadian Forces personnel. Downsview demolition: 51 John Drury Blvd. (Dave LeBlanc)

At shuttered Downsview military base, old homes face their fate Add to ...

It’s been quite a ride for No. 51 John Drury Dr.: From a sketch and floor plan found in the pages of Small House Designs by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., to a real wood frame, drywall and hardwood floors, to family gatherings with laughing children … to vacancy, peeling paint and, soon, demolition.

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Put into service in 1953 to shelter generations of Canadian Forces personnel, this handsome, chocolate-brown, post-and-beam, shallow-pitch roofed home beside the former Downsview military base performed its duties with honour, asked only for routine maintenance, and then, like a good soldier, accepted its fate with dignity.

It’s not alone, either: Every one of the little semis and big brick split-levels in William Baker Park – two winding streets attached to the base by asphalt umbilical cords – will also face the wrecking ball early next year. The majority of the more than 80 houses were built at the same time as No. 51, with eight more constructed in 1971, five in 1980, and one in 1981. They have been vacant since October 2012, when the last family moved away.

Canadian Forces Housing Authority, which has managed the Keele and Sheppard area neighbourhood since 1996, began divesting itself of Toronto properties in 2009. Now, with ownership recently transferred to Canada Lands Co. (CLC) – the arm’s length Crown corporation responsible for Downsview Park’s redevelopment, including the new Stanley Greene neighbourhood to the south – next in line for an overhaul, naturally, is Robert Woodhead Crescent and John Drury Drive (both named after First World War soldiers).

What’s less simple to understand is the mixture of melancholy and contentment felt while walking these weedy streets. Many of the 1953 homes aren’t particularly beautiful (of course, in the same way one can appreciate the design of a utilitarian household appliance, a stocky, dollhouse-like saltbox can be a beautiful object indeed), some are painfully small, and, even the more stylish of the designs wear barebones exterior trim. Despite this, there is sadness in the stillness. Perhaps that’s because the neighbourhood hasn’t changed much in six decades: Squint away the odd satellite dish and it’s Leave It To Beaver Land, minus the children and station wagons.

It doesn’t help that Canada Post continued to stuff overflowing mailboxes until recently, and swollen, mouldy phonebooks lay spread-eagled across front stoops.

But, opening the front doors to a few homes with David Anselmi, CLC’s director of real estate, and the mood changes to contentment.

Inside, these homes are not forlorn; they’re not the kinds of places “decay fetishists” swoon over. Peeling paint is minimal and graffiti, thankfully, is non-existent. They’re empty, yes, but they’re mostly bright, in surprisingly good repair (the vinyl windows are fairly new, and Mr. Anselmi says the CLC is talking to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores). They still feel like warm and inviting spaces to live.

“I think in the day they suited the purpose,” Mr. Anselmi says. “The military families, they would have been quite comfortable here.”

In the chocolate-brown house, for instance, the freestanding fireplace in the 13-by-16-foot living room looks good as new, and the shelves that connect it to the kitchen partition wall are ready for tchotchkes and trinkets (or bowling balls, they’re that sturdy). The parquet floor in the family room is pristine. The washrooms (both a two- and three-piece) look to have been renovated in the 1980s or early 1990s.

The holes in the wall, Mr. Anselmi explains, are not the result of vandalism, but rather of recent testing by CLC staff to check for lead paint and asbestos. It would be difficult to vandalize these homes anyway: workers are coming and going (especially leading up to the demolitions) and patrols are frequent. South of this home, on Robert Woodhead Crescent, we find the little saltboxes and semis to be in slightly worse condition, with buckling floors and at least one collapsed ceiling. But that’s only because these were the earliest to be vacated, and have therefore had to contend with more freeze-thaw cycles, he explains.

Back on John Drury, we head north to a pair of striking all-brick, split-level beauties with shed roofs built in 1980. Around back, tiny balconies offer sweeping views of the thick forest that must have been a wonderland for children. Inside, we find another freestanding fireplace, a spacious kitchen and, for the time, a large bathroom. Further up the street, at Nos. 7, 5, 3 and 1, we find “general’s row.” Lined up as if for inspection, these are larger, angular homes built for those of higher rank (also constructed in 1980). In No. 7, save for a vertical blind gone awry, the tidy, carpeted home awaits a four-star cocktail party.

According to Canadian Forces Housing Agency senior communications adviser Marie-Claude Gagne, only this row of homes were off the “first come first serve” list (before the CFHA was created in late 1995, however, she says homes were in fact assigned according to rank and family size). Ms. Gagne also confirms that, no matter what the rank, all occupants were charged market rent for their PMQs (Private Married Quarters).

Despite the fact that these homes were rentals, there are a number of examples of renovated basements, divided rooms, and interior decoration beyond the spartan nature of the exteriors. Evidence, again, that people cared. With enough care applied to the planning of the new neighbourhood, this little patch of land will fill once again with the sounds of lawn mowers, snow shovelling, road hockey and backyard barbecues.

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