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the architourist

The Olympic pools at Woodbine Beach would lose that small-town feel if developers intensify the density in the Beaches.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

If I’m a betting man, I think the next time it winks at me will be in 2028 or 2029.

The first time Exploring Toronto winked was in 2005. Back then, I let architect Irving Grossman walk me around Cabbagetown and Macy DuBois and Erland Gustavs take me on a short tour of the downtown core. In early 2014, Ron Thom was kind enough to lead me around a neighbourhood he was particularly fond of, St. Lawrence and Old York. Each time, I compared these 1972 walks with the city today and each time I was surprised and delighted with the results. Even more fun was to “hear” the thoughts of these architects, since many had been dead for some time.

The written word: it can be a time machine. And, thanks to the Toronto Chapter of Architects (in affiliation with Architecture Canada magazine), this little book has nine other time machines to consider, as penned by Jack Diamond, Eberhard Zeidler, John C. Parkin and others.

But since I’m a (relatively) new east ender, let’s see what Jack Klein thinks of the Beaches … almost 50 years ago.

By the time Mr. Klein penned his tour, he and partner Henry Sears – they hung their modernist shingle up in 1958 – had already won two Massey Medals. And since their work focused on private residences, innovative row housing projects and social housing, I had a feeling his eye would be laser-focused on housing right away.

The R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant was constructed in Toronto's grand Art Deco style.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Instead, he deposits me at the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, which he calls the “Water Works.” And, quite surprisingly, he writes that the “buildings are disasters both inside and out, and there is not even the end-of-tour enticement that a candy factory or brewery can offer.” How can an architect not like Toronto’s grand, art-deco, hill-climbing “Palace of Purification”? It’s a complex I’ve visited again and again over the years, and each time I’ve marveled at the quality workmanship and human scale. Perhaps Mr. Klein was dizzy: He’d opened his essay with a description of a “risqué and daring” dance he’d heard about in high school called “The Balmy” and how it had been invented in that “remote part of the city” called Balmy Beach.

Anyhow, his mood improves somewhat as he next takes me to admire the 1952 Estonian Houses co-op buildings across the street. While Mr. Klein attributes them to Estonian Michael Bach (I learned in 2010 it was a Bach employee, Viktor Tretjakewitsch, who penned them) and offers that he finds their scale “odd,” I can’t help but wonder if, in tower-obsessed 1972, they seemed too small for the site? In any case, Mr. Klein has nothing but praise for a small apartment at the bottom of Nursewood Road: a “small and very clean, orderly” building by Tampold & Wells, which is still there, and other than the need for a little paint and routine maintenance, still quite clean, orderly and almost Bauhaus-like.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point that Mr. Klein’s tour gets more abstract, and only a person familiar with the area will be successful in locating his stops along the way. While he does point out where the beloved boardwalk begins (still at the same place in 2021 as in 1972), he vaguely instructs walkers that “any westerly route (towards the city skyline) is interesting,” and his map is of little help. Why? Well, in 1972, abstract, pop-art graphics were all the rage, and many of the maps in Exploring Toronto, while visually interesting, are poor; Mr. Klein’s for example, offers up big, mustard-coloured dots that could be any of five houses and no street numbers are given.

Despite this, I am successful finding the cul-de-sac off Silver Birch Avenue to compare the small photograph to today’s view. Save for some changes in paint colour and one new house, it’s still pretty much the same. And the “group of houses right along the boardwalk” near Hammersmith Avenue is still there, as well as the little apartment building with the Gothic window, but the “lucky few” who lived there in 1972 have surely changed over.

The Blarney Castle in Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood was owned by Edward Martin in 1920.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Other houses identified are impossible to find – save for the “rows of elegant fourplexes” on Hammersmith – but I am able, with Google’s help, to locate what Mr. Klein calls “Larney Castle” on Lee Avenue. Beach Metro Community News identifies 11 Lee Ave. as “Blarney Castle” and writes that it was “owned by Edward Martin in 1920.” However, the tiny, crenelated turrets as seen in Mr. Klein’s photograph have been altered – de-crenelated in fact – and the house has lost much of its unique character.

Of course Kew Gardens is still a place for meandering, which Mr. Klein instructs me to do, but while he laments that the Beaches neighbourhood will “not tempt walkers who would like to refresh themselves with an interesting meal,” there are many places these days that will tickle the taste buds.

Ending his tour at the “handsome, strong” Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pool, the architect writes that this is a neighbourhood “under some pressure for redevelopment,” and warns that high density would “destroy” the quaint, small town feel of the area. Looking at recent development on three of the four corners of Queen Street East and Woodbine Avenue, and, further along, at the old Lick’s Homeburgers site, I think a fairly good balance has been struck; none of these 21st-century condo buildings is taller than six storeys, and brick façades attempt, in a small way, to relate to the existing heritage fabric.

So, while I’m not sure residents who have called the Beaches home since 1972 are dancing “The Balmy,” to my eye, it’s still a character-filled, charming, small-scale neighbourhood worth walking often.

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