When Ric Tremaine first laid eyes on the inside of 512 Jarvis St., little could be seen of its original splendour. Thick beige carpeting covered the original oak floors; lowered ceilings hid crown mouldings. Where timeless Victorian hearths once stood were outdated Angel stone fireplaces in a dull shade of grey.
"It was a total mess," said Mr. Tremaine, who in the 12 years since has spent millions of dollars and countless hours restoring 512 and its neighbour, 514, a provincially designated heritage property.
The Edward Gallow and Charles Rundle mansions, named for their original owners, were designed by E.J. Lennox, the Toronto architect responsible for Casa Loma and Old City Hall. Completed in 1889, the stately homes were just two of many on Jarvis Street, once home to Toronto's wealthiest families.
Today, they are two of the Victorian-era mansions that remain, and their future is uncertain.
Mr. Tremaine, who has run the mansions as a bed-and-breakfast for six years, put them up for sale last November, when the credit crunch left his business struggling. He is intent on the houses remaining a pair, saying he's turned down offers from developers who express interest in just one or the other.
"I may have hurt myself badly in the process, but I just didn't want to see the years I put into them gone," he said. "The harsh reality is this is the only block of Jarvis that's left."
Of the late-19th-century homes that lined Jarvis, 15 are still standing between Carlton and Isabella streets. The Rundle and Gallow mansions, built on a shared lot on the western corner of Gloucester Street, are the first in an unbroken line of the red-brick manors.
Two doors down is the grand Gooderham house, long-time home to the Italian eatery Angelini's. In between are two fully restored mansions now subdivided into apartments.
Across the street, the homes have met far less dignified fates. Euclid Hall, once home to the prominent Massey family, is now better known as the Keg Mansion. Elderslie, the yellow brick home of a member of Sir John A. Macdonald's cabinet, houses a Mac's Milk.
Like the mansions themselves, Jarvis Street lost its elegance as the city matured. Demolition started at the turn of the 20th century, first to make way for low-rise apartment buildings, then for high-rise towers. The tree-lined boulevard, once called the Champs-Élysées of Canada, was replaced by a five-lane thoroughfare.
Developers and politicians have turned their attention back to Jarvis in recent years, looking to restore the street to its former glory. Councillor Kyle Rae (Ward 27, Toronto Centre - Rosedale), who represents the area, said the once magnificent street has been allowed to turn into a freeway. As a remedy, Mr. Rae is pushing a proposal that would see the street narrowed to four lanes, reducing traffic volumes and making it more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.
"It's a shame what's happened to it. I think it's time, in the 21st century, that the street catches up with its history," Mr. Rae said.
While the concept goes before city hall's works committee next week, it appears to be a long way from reality. The $6-million project is not fully funded, and would only go ahead once Jarvis is scheduled for a full road reconstruction - something not even included in the city's 10-year plan.
Plus, residents in affluent neighbourhoods to the north - North Rosedale and Moore Park - who use Jarvis to drive downtown, have complained loudly about the possibility of increased traffic congestion.
"They still think it's their personal driveway," Mr. Rae said. Susan Prince, a member of the Moore Park Residents Association launching a campaign against the plan, says those who use the road haven't been consulted.
"Kyle Rae is supposed to represent me as well," Ms. Prince said. "... It's interesting that Kyle Rae has chosen to stereotype some of his constituents as greedy, wealthy, North Toronto people." She and other members leafleted cars on Mount Pleasant north of Jarvis this week, and plan to show up at the works committee meeting next week wearing "Don't Jam Jarvis" T-shirts.
Jarvis has already been through something of a real-estate renaissance in recent years - the modern kind - with luxury condo towers going up along the street.
Brad Lamb, whose realty company handled the sale of some of the developments, said at first he wasn't convinced that anyone would buy there. "You had the prostitution problem along Jarvis Street ... and a perception that there's more crime along Jarvis Street," he said.
But buyers recognized that the neighbourhood was ripe for gentrification.
Still, Mr. Lamb doesn't think the makeover plan will have people flocking to the street any time soon. "A large part of Jarvis is just abysmal," he said.
Sitting in the front parlour at his bed and breakfast, Mr. Tremaine said he doesn't think his buildings are in danger of being knocked down. But the Gallow house, which does not have the protection of a heritage designation, could be gutted and left as a façade.
It would be a sad end to the pair of houses, each with its own storied history. In the years since the Rundle and Gallow families left the homes, they've passed from owner to owner, few as loving as the first or the current.
The interim years were especially cruel to 514, which was derelict by the 1970s. Its owner left the house empty and unheated for years before the city took possession in the late-1980s. Virgin Records bought it after that, using it as lodging and rehearsal space for visiting musicians.
Things were quieter next door, where 16 Jesuit monks lived for 20 years. They were responsible for the drab decor that Mr. Tremaine found when he bought the house.
But despite how it looked at first sight, Mr. Tremaine knew the house was something to behold.
"The scale of the house was very special. You could feel it," he said.
With a report from Jeff Gray