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Woodlawn, originally designed by John George Howard. (TIM FRASER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Woodlawn, originally designed by John George Howard. (TIM FRASER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Heritage homes

Historic Woodlawn, preserved and modernized Add to ...

For many well-to-do politicians, lawyers and businessmen in early Victorian Toronto, the perfect house was a rural villa up Yonge Street, on the picturesque rise of land north of the built-up village of Yorkville, and far from the busy wharves, warehouses and immigrant tenements of Front Street.

Some of these people hired fashionable local architects, constructed and lived in their dream homes for a while, though almost all the mansions vanished when the once-expansive estates on which they stood were divided into small residential lots in the later nineteenth century. If these pleasant houses, with their handsome stables and orchards and gracious sociability, are remembered at all today, it's because they have left a trace in the names of streets and neighbourhoods such as Summerhill, Farnham, Humewood and Rathnelly.

But at least one still exists. Last week, I visited Woodlawn, as this brick architectural survivor has been known since its construction on a 12-acre site in 1841. (Today, it is nestled deep among sturdy family homes built later along Woodlawn and Walker avenues.)

Designed by high-society Toronto architect John George Howard, who had earlier done Colborne Lodge on his suburban estate of High Park, the original parts of Woodlawn embody the ideals of Georgian taste in country-house building. These sober, anti-urban values include the very plain, symmetrical façade treatment popularized by Palladio in his rural projects, enormous windows (the better to frame views of the gardens and countryside), and a shallow veranda with ornamental Gothic ogee arches between slender pillars.

The interior of what's left of the original house speaks even more clearly about the Palladian roots of Howard's Georgian style. The rooms used by the present owner as a study and a formal dining area are not vast, but they are majestically proportioned. Especially in the study, the crown moulding and tall windows - which have been preserved from John Howard's time - are elegant and restrained components of this highly successful room.

As you can imagine, Woodlawn has undergone numerous changes over its long career, not all of them favourable to Howard's 1841 scheme. The first of these transformations took place after 1845, when ownership of the estate passed from Howard's client, the prosperous lawyer William Hume Blake, to the future railway magnate Joseph Curran Morrison. A horticulturalist as well as a powerful businessman, Morrison built a conservatory and heated greenhouses adjacent to the house, and happily gardened at Woodlawn until his death in 1885.

Subdivision of the estate by Morrison's heirs quickly ensued, and that might have been the end of Woodlawn's story - had it not been for a certain reluctance on the part of these heirs to see the dwelling demolished then and there. They saved the house, while stripping back the land on which it stood to a tiny fraction of the size it had been.

But they did not remain kind to Woodlawn. In 1886, a Morrison child lopped some 1,200 square feet off the 7,300-square-foot original structure. (The reason is not known.) Around the same time, a "modern" two-storey annex - viz., ordinary to the point of being factory-like - was tacked on perpendicular to the long axis of Howard's plan.

Woodlawn was in this injured state when the present owner bought the property in 1995. His ongoing contribution to the house and its history since around 2000 has been a mix of historical preservation and sensible modernization. He has restored the principal doorway to its central place on the long side of the house's volume, where Howard, following Palladio's example, had intended it to be. But he has also retained certain embellishments of owners after Howard's time - a florid staircase that sweeps up to the upper storey, for example - and faithfully cast and reused some later Victorian mouldings.

And at the owner's request, Toronto architect Peter Turner brought back just over 2,000 square feet to the garden façade of the building. This addition has been done with effective sensitivity to the architectural fabric of John Howard's original structure - the exterior is clad in a modern compound that mimics very well the rugged plaster of lime, shells and pebbles used to cover the oldest brick surfaces - but it brings the interior up to date: The part of the house facing the garden is now an open-plan ensemble of kitchen, informal dining room, and living room, all opening outward through tall French doors.

As it exists today, Woodlawn is what an old house should be: not something frozen in time or reconstructed with archaeological accuracy and rigour, but a richly layered document of the many lives lived within its walls.

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