133 Madison Ave., Toronto
Asking Price: $5.9-million
Sold price: $5.77-million
Taxes: $17,677 (2021)
Lot Size: 41 by 126 feet
Listing Agent: Andrew Beveridge, Re/Max Hallmark Realty Ltd.
The back story
It’s frankly remarkable how many relatively intact Victorian homes there are in modern Toronto. It’s almost beyond belief that a city that recently passed three million residents retains a large collection of houses built before 1900, when, by the way, the population was barely 200,000 people.
But as Monica Ruffo discovered, there were times when all of the period charm and workmanship found in 133 Madison Ave. could have been stripped out by an overeager landlord.
“In the seventies and eighties there were requests to do work on the house that were turned down by the city,” she said. “[Previous owners] wanted to turn it into apartments and gut the main floor: the living room would be a self-contained apartment, and dining room another; tiny 450-square-foot spaces.”
With time on her hands during a pandemic lockdown, Ms. Ruffo researched the history of her home and found records that at one time the home had been subdivided as a rooming house, likely quite popular with university students. Oftentimes such conversions from single-family to rental results in the loss of such period charms as original stained glass, hand-carved mantles and crown moulding, all of which was still present in 2019 when Ms. Ruffo purchased 133 Madison Ave.
Also present was a brick garage that had been converted into a coach house apartment with loft bedroom. That structure, too, could have been lost if the city hadn’t stepped in.
“They wanted to get rid of the coach house and create a larger paved backyard parking space,” Ms. Ruffo said. “I read the commentary written by the committee: ‘Why would we destroy a garage to create more parking? Why would we pave over a green spot in the back when there’s parking on the street?’ "
It turned out to be a handy feature of the property when the pandemic turned the world upside-down.
The house today
Instead of a grand portico and entryway found on some Victorians, this red-brick house has a more modest side entrance and small porch off the side laneway. The front yard is taken up by a fenced courtyard with tall windows for the basement apartment (Ms. Ruffo hasn’t been renting it since she moved in).
Inside is a woodwork-filled foyer anchored by the staircase to the second level (with large stained-glass windows on the landing), to the left is to the formal sitting room at the front of the house with tall windows (and more stained glass) and a wood-burning fireplace. Side note: Ms. Ruffo doesn’t burn wood, she prefers coffee logs, which are an eco-friendly product made from recycled coffee grounds.
The floors through this main floor are hardwood, but not original. The crown moulding and chandelier medallion in the formal dining room (to the right of the entry foyer) are likely original, according to Ms. Ruffo, given that kind of elaborate workmanship is difficult to come by today. Another fireplace flanks one side of this room, on the other side is a nook that’s become home to a piano.
Off the rear of the dining room is the kitchen, black and white checkerboard floors (very Annex) contrast with white walls and light-grey cabinetry and the white quartz countertop of the U-shaped kitchen space. A window-filled solarium (with door to the back porch) has been opened to the kitchen to draw in light and make an eat-in space.
The solarium porch is covered and is big enough to either serve as a barbecue station or as currently designed: a sitting area. The kitchen has a separate entrance to the paved patio space (which connects to a separate basement entrance) with pathway to the coach house entrance, and a fire-escape/separate entrance for the third-storey loft.
The coach house is almost too pretty to be a garage, with stable-style (non-operable) wooden doors facing the driveway and gingerbread woodwork and a tiny cupola on the roof. Inside there’s one large space for a living/dining room and a full kitchen and bathroom squeezed into the back third of the building. Wide-plank wood floors make it feel like a condo, but the suspended steel loft with mesh floor feels like a space station, and lets in lots of light through from the skylights. There’s enough space on the sleeping platform for a queen bed (and glass railings so you don’t roll off to your death) and there’s a landing with more windows, closets and even a bank of cabinets along the pitched roof of the dressing-room space.
When the pandemic shut down the universities, the home’s flexible living spaces were ideal for her two boys who needed to move back in full time. One son took over the coach house, and the other camped out in “the penthouse” of the third-storey loft. Ms. Ruffo was able to use two of the bedrooms on the second floor as a home office and a gym, keeping the primary bedroom for herself.
Not that it was all roses when she first bought the house. “It was in honestly really bad shape,” Ms. Ruffo said. “We had squirrels in the roof, like … a lot of squirrels. The furnace was emitting carbon monoxide, all the AC units were filled with black mould … basement wasn’t fit for human living, we had to rip all the walls open down there, and we repaired a lot of woodwork.”
She hopes the end product would make the original owner – with whom she feels a kinship – proud.
Ms. Ruffo’s research says the house was built around 1901 by Sylvester Briggs, a co-founder of the Steel Briggs Seed Co., whose company headquarters still exists on Spadina Avenue. Briggs’s company made hybridized seeds designed for Canada’s short growing season and shipped beautiful hand-drawn catalogues to customers, which have become collectors items.
“I’m really interested in plants and nature; when I found out the person this was built for had a seed company, I somehow felt a connection there,” she said.
Ms. Ruffo is the founder of a brand of plant-based wellness products and health supplements called Well Told Health, and has seen her profile expand rapidly in recent years by positioning her offerings as “clean” with no synthetic ingredients. “Today we’re in Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws,” and in the United States her products are on shelves in CVS and Rite Aid, and expect to launch soon in Walgreens.
Her holistic branding extends to her thinking on the house, which sold not long after it listed. She was pleased to restore it to safe living, and just as pleased to pass it on again.
“I have this view of houses where even when we own a house we don’t own it,” Ms. Ruffo said. “The house has a much bigger history than us living in it: this house had 120 years of history and will have another 120 after us; you really are just there in passing.”