It's an eyesore right now, no doubt about it.
The 170-year-old tollkeeper's cottage at the northwest corner of Bathurst Street and Davenport Road is meant to provoke questions and provide answers about Toronto's forgotten past. But these days it's the tarp-draped, debris-surrounded building's uncertain future that has local residents perplexed.
"Why doesn't it get finished?" asks Mary Jane Finlayson, who takes her dog on daily visits to the lonely parkette where the would-be museum has been imprisoned behind a stern chain-link fence for the past three years. "As long as it's a construction site, it has no presence as a historic building."
"The finish line is in sight," insists City Councillor Joe Mihevc, who has clearly fielded a few complaints too many from the clapboard cottage's well-heeled neighbours along the escarpment between Casa Loma and Wychwood Park. "Any restoration project is a labour of love and a test of patience."
But as completion dates come and go without much outward evidence of progress on the oldest toll building in Canada, both Mr. Mihevc's optimism and the neighbourhood's patience have begun to wear thin. Behind the scenes, the councillor has been soliciting free labour from trade-union groups and pressing the all-volunteer, mostly senior-citizen Community History Project, which owns the cottage and leases the city parkland for $2 a year, to move much faster.
"They need a project manager who knows something about construction," says Mr. Mihevc, who jokes he has had to take on that role in addition to his municipal duties.
But political pressure does not go down well with Jane Beecroft, the moving force behind the cottage's rescue and restoration. For the 72-year-old former art teacher, it's political indifference that created the problem in the first place.
"This city has no civic pride," she says as she tours the contentious building that, by her count, has absorbed 5,000 hours of unpaid labour. "Governments just don't care about history. These days, the job of protecting heritage belongs solely to the volunteer sector. Pressure us if you want, but we're the only people doing it."
In her gravelly voiced company, what looks like a heritage slum, a noble folly at best, becomes everything the Community History Project intends it to be. Drivers racing through the Bathurst-Davenport intersection see only a tiny white cottage that barely hints at its antiquity and an unassuming modern annex designed as the interpretative centre for inquiring schoolchildren. But the humble building that is causing the commotion -- and has cost its rescuers $500,000 to date -- is just the starting point for a larger story about Toronto's more extensively neglected past.
"I get so mad when people tell you our history began in 1867," says Ms. Beecroft, never at a loss for a passionate response. "That's utter nonsense. We had 200 years of French presence here that you never hear about, and thousands of years of native habitation before that."
That may seem like a lot to hang on a vertical-plank building that started collecting tolls from market-bound farmers in 1835 and had a nomadic career after Davenport went toll-free in 1895 -- it fetched up in a Howland Avenue yard two blocks away, where it was recognized and moved to the Toronto Transit Commission's abandoned Wychwood yards in 1996, before returning to its old corner in 2002.
But the toll that companies exacted from grumbling Ontarians in exchange for maintaining public highways was much more than just a cut-rate precursor of the privatized 407. "Davenport is the oldest road in Ontario," Ms. Beecroft says. "It began at the end of the ice age."
You'll have to wait for the interpretative museum to open to get the full story about toll-collecting's geological roots. Suffice to say that Davenport follows the shoreline of the original Lake Iroquois, which washed up against the escarpment that extends out to the Scarborough Bluffs. As the lake's waters receded about 10,000 years ago, native people exploited the trail that had become accessible along the foot of the hill. When the French arrived in the early 17th century, this path became a major trade route, and their British successors made it the main road between Niagara and Montreal. The researchers from the Community History Project plan to install examples of early macadam and corduroy roads on the site.
For visitors not entranced by the history of tolls or roads, by the lost stories of the city's French roots, or the shameful betrayals of the Mississauga Indians who once lived here, the cottage can offer up a revealing picture of lower-class existence in 19th-century Toronto. If Casa Loma and Spadina House on the brow of the escarpment represent the aristocratic Upstairs, the tollkeeper's three-room house, with unheated bedrooms where children would sleep three to a bed, is all too clearly Downstairs. You get a completely different picture of Toronto when Ms. Beeforth says matter-of-factly, "The children's job was to go over to Taddle Creek, in Wychwood Park, and fetch the family's water."
When she hears some of these stories, Ms. Finlayson, an architect, can't contain her enthusiasm. "It makes me wish they were finished even more," she says. "It seemed like they had run out of steam, but this sounds like it could be a very good thing for the park."
For all the ambitions of the Community History Project, there's still the more pressing problem of the nearly $200,000 needed for the small cottage to live up to its promise. Ms. Beecroft is consumed by worries that the impatient City of Toronto will take over the cottage if she and her fellow volunteers, who have spent countless hours fashioning cedar shingles, stripping off seven layers of flooring and hammering in handmade nails, can't finish the project this year.
Her friend, former city councillor Ila Bossons, who in a mad fit of fundraising once ran out into the Davenport traffic and collected tolls from astonished drivers, tells her not to worry. "The city doesn't want to take over stuff like this," she says. "It's too quixotic."
And, though the passion of volunteerism is what has made the tollkeeper's cottage the near-reality it is, Ms. Bossons feels the time has come to move on. "All the old volunteers are dying out and heritage isn't sexy enough for the young. I think they need to become more entrepreneurial -- you can have all the volunteers in the world to nail down shingles, but if you don't have the capital, it's very hard."
The hardness shows. Right now, Ms. Beecroft is waiting for a volunteer carpenter promised to her by Mr. Mihevc and the carpenters union to finish some framing. Perhaps she should be more grateful. But, fierce advocate that she is, she remains defiant. "We haven't made a $500,000 investment for the city to screw this up the way they've done with the rest of our heritage."