Pssst, wanna know a secret? The Toronto Public Library produces some of the best local history books around.
Want another one? Often, they're in disguise: The revised and expanded edition of The Most Attractive Resort in Town: Public Library Service in West Toronto Junction, 1888 - 2009 , for instance, is as much a history of the Junction as it is a history of the impressive library on Annette Street.
Okay, here's one more: If you haven't heard of architect James Augustus Ellis (1856 - 1935), it's high time you took a tour of the neighbourhood, as I did one bright and chilly mid-October day with the book's author, Barbara Myrvold. The occasion, if the book's re-release and a love of good architecture wasn't enough, was the 100th anniversary of the opening of the library, designed by Mr. Ellis and partner William Connery and built with funds obtained via a Carnegie grant.
We met in the library's foyer, upon which Ms. Myrvold took me to the basement level to collect local history expert David Wencer in the offices of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society (a tenant since 1997), and then up to the main reception area to see the gorgeous ceiling, uncovered by architects Henno Sillaste and Hiro Nakashima during a 1979 renovation.
"It really is the highlight of this library," she said.
Standing outside the Beaux-Arts building, she explained that when construction was under way it was determined the pillared entrance would face the front lawn of a private residence across the street; the purchase of an extra piece of property allowed a nudge to the west to line up with Medland Street and the view-corridor north to Dundas Street. She pointed, also, to the former Victoria Royce Presbyterian Church - now undergoing a conversion into condominiums - and told the story of Allan Berlin Rice, a member of the congregation. An occasional reporter for the Toronto Globe and chairman of the Toronto Junction Library Board, Mr. Rice was instrumental in securing the Carnegie grant.
We walked past the Ellis-designed 1909 Masonic Temple next door - Ms. Myrvold noted that most of the "movers and shakers" of the early town were Masons - and began our driving tour.
Surrounded by flaming autumn reds at 204 High Park Ave., is the former home of newspaper owner and real estate agent James T. Jackson, designed by Mr. Ellis and built in 1891. Today, it's home to Holy Cross Anglican Priory. After passing many grand homes along this wide thoroughfare, including one for a Heintzman Piano family member (the factory was located in the Junction), we navigated the gentle curve of Gothic Avenue (named "because it's shaped like a Gothic arch," explained Mr. Wencer) until we came to No. 32.
Atop a hill across from High Park subway station, what is today a seven-unit condominium was once the home of West Toronto Junction's second mayor, George Johnston St. Leger. An Ellis design built in 1889, it sits so close to Bloor Street it reminds us that the boundaries of the original town reached much further south than contemporary Torontonians place them: "I know a lot of people say, 'This isn't the Junction, this is High Park' but historically this is the Junction," explained Ms. Myrvold.
The original Romanesque revival bulk of Humberside Collegiate (formerly Toronto Junction High School, 1894) came to fruition during a brief partnership between Mr. Ellis and William Fingland, and we next stopped to admire the carved creatures flanking the entrance. It's a massive school, but Mr. Ellis displayed a deft hand at commissions of all sizes - office buildings such as Campbell Block on the northwest corner of Keele and Dundas, the Heydon House hotel (St. Clair Avenue West and Old Weston Road), small homes, large mansions, banks and the oldest continually operating synagogue in the city, the 1912 Knesseth Israel Synagogue on Maria Street - due to his early carpentry training by his father.
Born near Meaford, Ont., young James began his architectural career by branching out from carpentry into design and construction. Two years after designing the Meaford Fire Hall in 1887, he joined the Ontario Association of Architects. He relocated to West Toronto Junction in 1890, perhaps due to the commissions he'd already received from the Junction's founder and first mayor, Daniel Webster Clendenan.
We wrapped up the day with a look at a home on Glendonwynne Road and another at 24A Woodside Avenue built for John D. Farquhar in 1892, which, like many Ellis designs, reminds me of an Annex home, except that it's flanked by what are clearly builder's homes from the 1920s and thirties.
But that's the charm of the Junction: Houses, commercial and institutional buildings by a world-class architect rub elbows with those of lesser stock. Once a gritty railroad town, it was annexed by the City of Toronto in 1909 and remained under the real estate radar for nine decades as a place with "a fierce, independent spirit," says Mr. Wencer. Since the late 1990s, however, the secret's been out as artists looking for cheap studio space and bargain-hunting hipster couples discover its rough charm.
And now, thanks to Ms. Myrvold's book, the secret of the Junction's colourful history, characters and architecture is as close as the nearest library.