Around the same time I was looking to purchase a retail-residential property along the Danforth in Toronto, author and historian Barbara Myrvold was preparing a report for the city on the significance of a little, polychromatic brick house built between 1884 and 1888 at 292 Main St., a few steps south of Danforth Avenue. Without going into too much detail, Ms. Myrvold – her history books have been featured here before – was advocating for retention of the house in the face of, what else, a large condominium development.
The house’s owner, she wrote, was Donald George Stephenson. Born in Scarborough Township in 1835, the “born leader” with a “magnetic personality,” went from being a lumber merchant to a politician by the age of 31. With his move to Main Street in the mid-1880s, his focus turned to that community, and he helped it incorporate as a village in 1888, serving as its first reeve. He’d branch out into speculative building, realty and arranging loans as well. Most intriguing was his disappearance in July, 1894 “to escape his creditors” after the economic turmoil of the Panic of 1893 had overloaded the “tall, stout, broad-shouldered” man with debt. By then, the Stephenson clan was living in a much larger Queen Ann-style mansion on the northwest corner of Gerrard Street East and Enderby Road (designed in 1892 by Edwards & Webster). In 1897, his wife, Lucy, would announce that Mr. Stephenson had been hiding out at home for 18 months, and had died of heart failure.
And as much as I’d love to dig deeper into the dark minutiae of Mr. Stephenson’s life, I really should switch back to a macro view.
It was during my first full year of living on the Danforth, 2019, that I’d pulled over a few times–much to my wife’s chagrin – to admire that Gerrard-Enderby house. And although I didn’t know Mr. Stephenson’s story at the time, I did know that Main Street had once been, well, the main street of a community that had clustered around the Grand Trunk Railway’s big yard. So, for lack of anything better to do during the pandemic of 2020, I started exploring East Toronto on foot, and by automobile.
One of the first things that stuck me was the railway worker row houses. Located on Norwood Terrace, on Main Street from Nos. 108 to 122, and on Swanwick Avenue east of Main, these are sturdy, pockmarked, red brick beauties that remind me of areas in Cabbagetown or the row houses on Marlborough Place in midtown. The ones on Norwood Terrace, wrote Ms. Myrvold, are attributed to Mr. Stephenson, who “built other houses in the neighbourhood.”
So, around the same time a heritage designation was filed for 292 Main St. (October, 2020), I began walking deeper into East Toronto to gaze at the larger homes on Glen Oak Drive, and Benlamond, Lyall, and Swanwick avenues, picking out Dutch gambrel roofs or bay-n-gables as I went. There were surprises, too, such as the cottage-in-a-laneway at 4A Kimberley Ave., the house with five fan windows at 21 Lyall Ave., or its neighbour at No. 23, which sports an ornate, second-storey enclosed porch. Of course I’d noted the two impressive public buildings, the police station at 97 Main St., and the fire station next door (both by city architect Robert McCallum and staff), but these were constructed in 1910, the year after the City of Toronto annexed East Toronto.
By December, 2020, around the same time 292 Main St. was, thankfully, officially designated a heritage building – the entire house is being prepared for a move a little to the north so it can become an extension of the condominium lobby – I started to think about other lost villages in the east end.
When I lived in Midland Park (2005 to 2010), I’d often drive north on Midland Avenue into Agincourt and almost every time I’d slow down so my long-suffering wife would be forced to look at the much older houses north of Sheppard Avenue East. Just above Knox United Church (built in 1872 as Knox Presbyterian) at the corner of Donalda Crescent, there stands a sturdy, former bay-n-gable house (now a business) that wouldn’t look out of place in the Annex and, a little further north, pregnant balustrades can still be spied on the front porch of No. 2589.
And should you decide to take a pandemic pleasure-drive into Agincourt, a must-stop is the Knox Manse at 2656 Midland Ave., which the church built in 1863 (the 1872 church at the corner replaced a wood-frame building built in 1848) and is now privately owned.
Be sure, also, to hit Lockie Avenue to see the Agincourt Junior Public School, which was built in 1914 because the village children “previously had to walk an average of two miles to the old Ellesmere [school],” Robert R. Bonis writes in A History of Scarborough (Scarborough Public Library, 1968). Directly across from the school are more heritage homes to gaze upon, as well as a smattering on Agincourt Drive to the west.
Sometimes, there is so much current history being made – much of it frightening – it can be helpful to remind oneself that the rushing waters of time can be paused, if only for a moment, to wade into the healing pool of nostalgia.
So, around the same time as you read this, I’ll be searching for other Toronto spots where time stands still.
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