Say, who are the people in your neighbourhood, in your neighbourhood, in your neighbourhood?
The people that you meet when you're walking down the street, the people that you meet each day?
This popular Sesame Street ditty popped into my head while walking along and talking about Woodlawn Avenue West with Doreen Sears a few days ago. When she lived here in the 1960s and 70s, not only would the mailman, baker and dentist have been given a verse to follow that chorus, architects would have had their own verse, too.
Fact is, many residents in this neighbourhood near Summerhill station were architects, and not just the work-a-day kind either, but some of the most influential modernists who gave shape to postwar Toronto.
Calling Woodlawn home was architect Henry Sears (her husband), who, with partner Jack Klein, won many awards for multiunit housing. There also was Baltimore-native Macy DuBois, creator of the Ontario Pavilion at Expo 67 and the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, as well as his Harvard classmate, Australian John Andrews of Scarborough College fame. (They both came in 1958 as partners in the city hall competition; their design was one of eight finalists selected from 510 entries.) Then there was landscape architect Richard Strong of Sasaki Strong and Associates, responsible for the grounds at Queen's Park, and way-finding guru Paul Arthur, son of influential University of Toronto architecture professor Eric Arthur.
One street up, on Farnham Avenue, were architects Irving Grossman and Peter Hamilton, and hanging his hat a kilometre to the west on Poplar Plains Crescent was architect Jerome Markson. Peter Munk, then running his Clairtone audio empire, hired Mr. Markson for a major overhaul of his Woodlawn home.
As Mrs. Sears and I walk, I can't help but wonder how all of that architectural star power came to be concentrated in one area. Was it by design? A fluke? Emblematic of the incestuous nature of the business or something more positive, such as a genuine desire among friends to feed off each other's creative energy?
"Ah, well, we all wanted to live here because of the view of the city," Mrs. Sears answers with a chuckle. "It felt like San Francisco, up on the hill."
It's true: Woodlawn is perched on the old shoreline of Glacial Lake Iroquois. Directly behind the houses on the south side, there is a dramatic drop, which gets even more dramatic as one moves west; by Casa Loma, it's practically a bluff.
But that majestic view wasn't easy to obtain. In 1960, when the Searses and friends Macy and Sally DuBois purchased the rooming house at 53, 55 and 57 Woodlawn - with the idea of converting its 22 rooms into four apartments, one for each couple to live in and to rent - the area was quite sketchy. Securing financing for the $35,000 property was difficult, as Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. wasn't comfortable mortgaging older homes south of St. Clair Avenue. (The transformation of areas such as Cabbagetown by the "white-painters," which would give these older downtown areas new credibility, was still a few years off.)
Even family members questioned the sanity of their decision. "A relative of mine said to me after we moved here, 'What's it like living in the slums?'" Mrs. Sears says.
Many that ended up pioneering in midtown had come from Macklin Hancock's "new town" of Don Mills, which broke ground in 1953. However, Mrs. Sears says, despite it being a hotbed of modernist architecture, many in her group had decided - even before moving to Don Mills - that their hearts really belonged on the hill, nursing those crumbly turn-of-the-century homes back to life.
"There was a real excitement around being here and being downtown," she says as she looks at a new house standing where Mr. Strong's used to be. "I remember how wonderful it was to walk to Yonge and St. Clair where there was action, and [to]wonderful ravines over at the end of Woodlawn."
Her two boys, Alan and Joel, also loved it. That steep hill framed by the home's porte-cochere made for quite the toboggan run, which terminated at "the ruin," the remains of a collapsed coach house. Many neighbourhood kids grew up hanging around the Searses' place; one of them eventually became an architect.
By the late 1960s, the DuBoises had rented out their unit and moved down the block to a bigger place; in 1971, the Searses did the same thing, moving right next door to No. 59.
A decade later, as the profession of architecture itself changed considerably by becoming more corporate, so too did the faces on Woodlawn change. It was almost as if, after helping each other build the future, they all decided it was time to move on.
Today, only a few traces of this unique moment in time remain. Certainly many thoughtful modernist renovations remain behind closed doors, despite the fact that some are approaching the half-century mark. There is one contemporary house that Mr. Sears, who passed away in 2003, designed in the 1970s.
And of course there are memories, some captured in small, framed photographs depicting tobogganing, cocktail parties and street life. And if I look very hard at these, in the background, it's almost possible to see the rest of the neighbourhood waking up to its own potential.