Somewhere between being elected to Parliament in 1949 at age 25 and planning the unification of the army, navy and air force in the mid-1960s as minister of national defence, the Honourable Paul T. Hellyer was kind enough to build my house.
Well, not really. But as president of Curran Hall Ltd. from 1950 until 1962, he certainly played a large part in its creation.
It all began with, as he calls it, "an accident of fate." During an introductory lunch with company founders Wilf Curran and Ted Hall at the Granite Club, he told them of the need for a "General Motors of the housing industry."
One of Mr. Hellyer's two lifelong passions has been "mass housing" (the other is the monetary system). In college, he wrote a paper called "H is for housing," and, as a young MP in the early 1950s, he travelled to see the pioneering assembly line homes the Levitt brothers were building on former Long Island potato fields.
Almost 20 years later, he asked then prime minister Pierre Trudeau if he could head up Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which ultimately led to his 1969 resignation from cabinet over a question of principle related to that post.
At lunch on that fateful day, he invested his "entire bundle" of $4,000 in Curran Hall (and he convinced a few family members to also open their pocketbooks). When he learned the company was practically bankrupt, he became president and brought it back into the black within 18 months, A few years later, it was one of the most successful developers in Toronto. (And all this just working evenings and weekends!)
Curran Hall's first major development was in the Bathurst and Wilson area. Then, following the path of the sewers -- "you have to follow the big pipes," he says -- there was "Curran Hall Park" in the mid-1950s, a development of approximately 1,000 homes near Scarborough Golf Club Road. (There is still a ravine and community centre named after the company there.)
It was around this time that Mr. Hellyer decided the company needed an in-house architect, so he asked Edward (Ted) Ross, a 1949 University of Toronto graduate, to set up his drafting table at Curran Hall's offices at 1201 Bloor St. West.
Next, the company was invited to build on a small number of lots in Macklin Hancock's "New Town," Don Mills.
In early 1959, newspaper advertisements teased about a new subdivision of 650 homes in the planning stages at Lawrence and Midland to be named "Midland Park."
Mr. Hellyer's brother-in-law, John Race, was secretary-treasurer of Curran Hall until 1964. He fondly remembers Mr. Ross, who died last year, and how his innovative designs made modest middle-class homes feel much larger.
"Our motto for Midland Park was 'The modern place to live,' " he remembers. "We had good design, and good design leads to better living, better community. These were small homes but we wanted a reasonable space at the entrance hall so you could receive your guests properly."
Funnily enough, the thing that immediately struck my wife and I about our recently purchased Midland Park back-split is how big it feels upon entry.
An autumn, 1959, advertisement read: "In every Midland Park home the emphasis is on space." Beside this was a map of the area bordered by Lawrence to the south, Ellesmere to the north, Midland to the west and the Birkdale Ravine to the east. Inside a giant question mark surrounded by sketches of "The Hathaway," "Elwood," "Barwick" and other models, was the question "Which of these 'design-award' homes do you like best?"
And they were award winners: Curran Hall won 10 National Design Awards in 1960, and was the 1961 "National Builder of the Year." A point of pride for Messrs. Hellyer and Race was the Curran Hall unconditional, 90-day money-back guarantee.
When I asked if it was something they ever had to honour, Mr. Race said: "Maybe once," and Mr. Hellyer said no.
A 1960 ad tells how travelling architects (who, sadly, are not named) had toured the new subdivision and given their stamp of approval, pointing out desirable features such as the many old-growth trees. "We tried not to cut down trees and took advantage of the slopes and had walk-out basements when we could," says Mr. Race, now 79 and in the ginseng business.
For Mr. Hellyer, the greatest satisfaction came not from awards or peer approval but from watching farmers' fields morph into middle-class communities.
When Midland Park was finished, he remembers thinking to himself: "We had a wiener roast right out here where this house is only two, three years ago, and here it is now with all these people starting their new lifestyle.
"It's a wonderfully energizing experience because it's so concrete," he continues in his warm baritone. "You make a dozen speeches about housing, but if you build a house and you can see somebody moving in, you say, 'Well, solved the problem for one family.' "
About 1970, Curran Hall was sold to George Wimpey Homes Ltd., a company they'd partnered with after Midland Park in the Henry Farm project of higher-end homes in 1963-64.
In 2005, standing in our new front yard admiring Midland Park's handsome suit of fall colours, my wife and I were struck with how well the neighbourhood has aged: The brickwork on the homes looks good as new, the landscaping is lush and the absence of "McMansions" is much appreciated.
Thanks for the home, Mr. Hellyer.
Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Sunday mornings. Inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.