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the architourist

A detached Toronto Special on Frankdale Avenue.Dave LeBlanc

Cities can often be identified by their most common housing type; the type, were it to appear on a postcard without the name of the city, would give away the sender’s location. Montreal, of course, has its triplexes with exterior metal staircases; New England has its wood-framed “three-deckers”; New Orleans the narrow shotgun house; Los Angeles has its Modernist masterpieces, such as the Stahl residence; and San Francisco has its famous Painted Ladies.

Toronto is defined by the bay-and-gable. Starting in 1875 in the Annex neighbourhood and petering out by the turn of the 20th century, this style – which featured a prominent, usually two-storey-high bay window capped by a pointy gabled roof – spread from builder to builder and therefore neighbourhood to neighbourhood, eventually populating huge swaths of Little Italy, Parkdale, and Cabbagetown.

So much has been written about the bay-and-gable, one could spend a great deal of time down that rabbit hole.

However Toronto can, and should, also be identified by what is likely the most ubiquitous housing type of the 20th century: the Toronto Special. We will, however, need to create a new rabbit hole, since very little has been written on this type.

Toronto Specials, such as these on Osborne Avenue, are boxy, workaday buildings.Dave LeBlanc

Heritage architect Michael McClelland of ERA, who, in fact, lives in a nice 1959 example of a Toronto Special on Merton Street, called them “the Formica table of houses.” It’s an apt description, because these are boxy, workaday buildings, built, likely, by workaday people. They’re utilitarian. They’re Modernist only because ornament would’ve been too expensive. Interesting only because of their sheer numbers. There are so many scattered across the city – from Long Branch in the west to the Scarborough Bluffs in the east – that they’re practically invisible.

Every great research project, however, begins with the simple act of noticing. And Jan Schotte, a designer at Quadrangle Architecture + Interiors, has noticed Toronto Specials for some time.

“There’s an entrance which leads directly to a stairwell, and the stairwell will have a large window that faces the street,” he begins, dryly, as if explaining how plumbing works. “And then there will be sometimes two, but usually three floors, off to the one side, with a wider band of window – like a single window – and then between the windows, which we call a spandrel, that is angel brick; the rest of the front of the building might be regular brick. Sometimes they’ll have balconies, but that’s not consistent.”

How boring. But that’s the point: Like the Vancouver Special (the inspiration for the name), these simple, inexpensive-yet-solid homes were built in response to a need, not to win awards.

The simple, practical Toronto Specials were built to meet a need for affordable housing.Dave LeBlanc

After living in Montreal and New York, the Toronto-born Mr. Schotte’s interest piqued as he canvassed neighbourhoods in the former cities of York and Etobicoke during the 2014 municipal election. Since he was already interested in housing issues such as the “missing middle” and the “yellow belt,” he started to really see Toronto Specials (coined by architect Daniel Parolek, missing middle refers to “a range of a multiunit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes”; coined by urban planner Gil Meslin, the “yellow belt” refers to the approximately 75 per cent of the city with low-rise housing that has severe restrictions on development).

“Finding this native version of a walk-up apartment style was pretty exciting,” Mr. Schotte remembers. So, when he decided to begin mapping these “background buildings” using Google Streetview, he dubbed his map “Angel Brick Walk Up Apartments” (Mr. Schotte now agrees that Toronto Special is a much catchier term). In an almost zen-like trance, Mr. Schotte would unwind in the evenings by virtually driving down street after street with his cursor, then, upon finding a prize, pin it with a red, blue or green icon (red signifies detached, blue semidetached, green denotes a wider “block” form, and areas blanketed in blue signify where Mr. Schotte has covered every street).

A quick look at his map (you can find it here) reveals a majority of red pins, with highest concentrations in the Eglinton West/Caledonia and Weston neighbourhoods, with smaller pockets near High Park, south Etobicoke near Royal York Road, and, in the east, near the Danforth and in southern Scarborough. Where one won’t find Toronto Specials, ironically, is in the 1950s and 60s subdivisions, since builders were usually replacing old and decrepit homes with them in older neighbourhoods.

A modernized Special, left, stands beside an original on Withrow Avenue.Dave LeBlanc

“I’m assuming that because of when they were built and the ethnic composition [of those neighbourhoods] at the time … that they were Italian or Portuguese builders, but that’s only a hunch at this point,” Mr. Schotte says.

It’s been my hunch for a long time as well. But how can we ever find the prototype, the Platonic Form Toronto Special from which all others sprang? Did one Italian contractor, say, draw up a plan in 1949 and then share it with his buddies, who then shared it with 10 friends (and so on, and so on)?

“To me that’s one of the most amazing things about these,” Mr. Schotte agrees. “Obviously, there are variations, but just how similar they are across such a huge swath of the city; I think of the Sears catalogue houses, where there was just a limited number of plans that a whole bunch of different builders built from.

“Did one of the [Toronto] unions have a program where they had a plan, a standard form that [they could] all build from?”

While Mr. Schotte has started preliminary research into their history, he admits that locating ground zero might be difficult, since full plans are accessible only to building owners, and, quite frankly, the first generation of builders who put these up (and can share their stories) are probably already gone.

In the meantime, however, the Toronto Special has much to teach us: “Higher densities and affordable housing are easy to accommodate within the traditional form and size of a lot of the yellow-belt neighbourhoods,” Mr. Schotte finishes, “so we should be looking at innovative ways to allow for small builders or small developers to provide housing in walk-up forms throughout our city.”

How true … and not boring in the least.

A Toronto Special with black-glazed brick spandrels on Cosburn Avenue.Dave LeBlanc

A note on the photographs that accompany this article: There are so many pins on Mr. Schotte’s map, I only had to plot a circular area around my house near the intersection of Coxwell and Danforth Avenues, with the furthest Toronto Special being about 10 minutes away, and whip around on my motorcycle. Within 30 to 40 minutes, I had photographed a few dozen.

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