Echoing the scaffolding and massive restoration of the much-ballyhooed and much-filmed 1930s R.C. Harris filtration plant across the street, another, lesser-known Beaches complex - this one from the early 1950s - is in the process of a retrofit.
While never kissed by the Hollywood spotlight, the butter-coloured, butterfly-roofed, three-storey gems at 2368 and 2378 Queen St. E. should be considered landmarks in their own right.
Sitting stoically atop a hill with a commanding view of the filtration plant, the lake and the termination of Victoria Park Avenue, the trapped-in-time twins are currently undergoing replacement of their original, handmade double-pane wooden windows. This will be followed by the restoration of the concrete balconies, the replacement of balcony railings and, finally, a restoration and repaint of the stucco façade.
While these improvements are most certainly causing celebrations within the 33 two- and three-bedroom apartments, local architecture lovers - especially those with a soft spot for Baltic and Scandinavian modernism - should celebrate these buildings for another reason: their fascinating history.
The Estonian Houses Co. Ltd. co-op buildings were designed in 1952 by Estonian émigré Viktor Tretjakewitsch (1904-1993) while under the employ of Michael Bach, a fellow Estonian and architecture professor at the University of Toronto. Mr. Tretjakewitsch had arrived in Canada from Tallinn three years before with his wife and children, after a promising architecture career and the 1939 family home he'd designed had both been snatched away during the Soviet occupation. During the war, he travelled to Germany to work as an aeronautical engineer at Messerschmitt AG.
Choosing Toronto as his new home (along with thousands of other Estonians), he was unprepared for the city's massive postwar housing shortage - which meant life in crowded rooming houses or the expensive option of new suburban construction. So, in early 1951, he joined a group of other newly arrived immigrants to incorporate as a non-profit, limited company to build "something like they were used to in Sweden or Estonia," recalls his daughter, Livia Thoeny, 73, who still lives in the building.
In other words, a little bit of the Baltics or Scandinavia on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Problem was, share-based, apartment-style housing was such a new idea (Mrs. Thoeny thinks the group may have been the first in Ontario to propose a co-operative model) that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. refused to grant the young company a mortgage. It was only after two delegates arrived in Ottawa armed with a dossier of multiple successful European examples that one was granted.
Families moved into the buildings in 1953 and apartment selection was done by lottery. Back then, more than 100 residents called the two buildings home; today, it's about half that number. Following that, Mr. Tretjakewitsch designed a "sister building" on Corinth Gardens in North Toronto for Mr. Bach, and then established his own design firm. After going bankrupt a few years later, he finally found his calling as a consulting engineer.
He lived at the complex until his passing.
It's worth a walk or a hop off the streetcar at the Neville Park loop (the Queen car's easternmost stop) to get a look at these buildings before renovation work is complete. While the new vinyl windows certainly keep the proportions of the originals intact, a little authenticity is lost in translation. To see the building as it was - with its extremely large windows sporting thin, burgundy-painted frames, wiggly teal-green balcony panels (made of asbestos!) and utilitarian stair rails - is to understand the pragmatic modernism of the Baltic and Nordic countries. Indeed, in a comparison between a photograph of Mr. Tretjakewitsch's Tallinn home and the Queen Street buildings, only size and roof shape stand out as different.
While standing on Queen Street gazing up at the buildings, note how they are staggered on the lot. While this sacrifices parking spots (there is a waiting list), it gives oodles back in light penetration: "Every apartment has two exposures … we get morning light but we get a little bit of afternoon light," Mrs. Thoeny says. Compare that to other buildings from the early 1950s, with their small, punched windows that often have a lovely view of a brick wall.
Mr. Tretjakewitsch may not be as recognized as fellow Estonian Uno Prii, who brought us swooping, futuristic Annex apartment buildings, and he may not possess Elmar Tampold's track record of community advocacy and leadership, but his small contribution to Toronto modernism should not go unnoticed. Had he not brought his pioneering architectural ideas to our shores, perhaps we'd have waited a little longer to embrace the wide-open floor plans and big windows that became commonplace by the late 1950s. Perhaps, in 1958, we'd never have voted for a Finn named Viljo Revell to build our now iconic city hall.
Today, each time the international architectural community shines its spotlight on our city, we should silently thank the many northern Europeans who came here clutching little more than a dream.