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Meet Casa Loma’s more interesting neighbour

The present Spadina House was built in 1866 by Irish immigrant James Austin.

Roger Hallett/The Globe and Mail

Everybody knows Casa Loma, Sir Henry Pellat's turreted folly on the brow of Davenport Hill. But how many know Spadina, the elegant historic house right next door?

Its luxurious interior, carefully restored, is a marvel. Its gardens are at their summer peak just now. The apples in its little orchard are growing ripe. Its broad lawn runs right down to the edge of the hill, where you can catch glimpses of the modern city below.

Yet when I visited at noon on Friday, a perfect day at the height of the tourist season, precisely three other people joined me on a guided tour. While visitors spill out of tour buses to see Casa Loma, most don't even glance at Spadina. The staff told me that they usually get a few groups of perhaps 10 to 12 people each on weekdays, though more come on Saturdays and Sundays.

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What a shame. Spadina has a lot to say about Toronto and its history.

The first house on the site was built in 1818 by William Baldwin, a wealthy doctor, lawyer and landowner whose son, the reformer Robert Baldwin, led the push for Responsible Government. The second, present house, which rests on the foundations of the first, was built in 1866 by James Austin, another Irish immigrant. He learned the printing trade from William Lyon Mackenzie, went on to run a successful grocery business and helped found the Dominion Bank.

His Spadina was the first of several grand houses, including Sir John Eaton's Ardwold, built in the area by local magnates. Only Spadina and Casa Loma are still standing. For my money, Spadina is by far the more interesting of the two.

When the last Austin moved out in 1982 to make way for a public museum, the family left a trove of original furnishings and dozens of boxes of documents containing everything from grocery receipts to private letters. With this material to work with, restorers were able to return the house to the way it looked in the 1920s.

Two stuffed wolves stand guard inside the front door, as they did then. Elaborate cut-glass gasoliers (gas-run chandeliers, still in working order) hang from the 14-foot ceiling of the living room. The lush, sun-filled palm room still has a trap-door in the floor, built so the gardener could get in without tramping through the house in his muddy boots.

The tiny telephone room is insulated with felt to muffle the sound of people shouting into the new-fangled device. The bathroom has a small gas burner so the Austin men could warm their shaving cream. The billiard room – the ultimate 1920s man cave – has a cork floor so the gentlemen's leather-soled shoes wouldn't slip as they lined up their shots.

Most of the furniture, including the nine-foot black walnut headboard in the master bedroom, is by the prominent local manufacturer Jacques & Hay Co. You can see the influence of the Art Nouveau movement in the frieze of birds and trees on the billiard-room walls.

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Despite their wealth, life was not all sunshine and roses for the Austins. Albert Austin, who inherited the house from James, saw one son, Albert Edison Austin, die of tuberculosis in 1913 while still in his early twenties. A portrait of the handsome young man hangs on the wall. A second son, James Percival Austin, was profoundly affected by shell shock in the First World War and was never able to work. He is shown in his khakis and Sam Browne belt in a small watercolour.

Through the recently restored servants quarters on the third floor, we get a glimpse of the life of the domestic help, too. The Austins employed five helpers: a gardener, a chauffeur, two maids and a cook, the stalwart Mrs. Wallace.

Why don't more people visit Spadina? To drum up interest in this overlooked Toronto jewel, the city has been deploying some clever marketing tricks. It held a series of Downton Abbey tours this spring in which the Austins' life was compared to the Crawleys in the British hit show. In June it held a well-attended Gatsby Garden Party to go with the film of the Fitzgerald novel. But Spadina is worth a visit any old day. This summer it is open noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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