An intact 1950s enclave, for now
Bathurst Manor's mid-century modern homes have survived on the modesty of their owners
Some neighbourhoods are media celebrities from the get-go. Don Mills, that innovative "New Town" of the early-1950s, or the late-1990s replacement for Greenwood Racetrack known as "Pleasantville," are no strangers to the glare of the spotlight.
Others, such as Scarborough's Midland Park (started 1959), where I lived for five years, or Bathurst Manor, which sits between Sheppard and Finch avenues and Bathurst and Dufferin streets, and began construction in the mid-1950s, can soldier on under the radar for decades. Pauline Landriault, an architect/furniture designer who busies herself with store development for Roots Canada, recently brought the latter to my attention.
Ms. Landriault, who bills herself as a "retail marketechture specialist," has seen the devastation McMansions have caused in Don Mills and, even closer to home, to the areas just to the south of Bathurst Manor, and she and her neighbours are hoping to stem the tide.
"Definitely they're coming," she says, her tone grim.
"We need to rejuvenate the neighbourhood the way it was."
Her own split-level home on Acton Ave., near Wilson Heights Blvd., which belonged to her husband before they met, boasts a lovely, large living room with oversized windows (not quite floor-to-ceiling but close), an ample kitchen, original banisters and pickets on the stair, a few original pin-holed light fixtures – "I'm not a vintage expert [but] there was no way I was going to get rid of those lights," she says – larger-than-period bedrooms and a bright basement for a home office. And while it's expertly and lovely decorated today, it still exhibits the lack of pretension characteristic of the neighbourhood.
Ms. Landriault's friend, Judi Cohen, an urban planner who now directs the "experiential" travel company WorldwideQuest, grew up in a slightly smaller home on Acton closer to Bathurst. She says her Hungarian Holocaust-survivor parents, as with many other immigrant families in the neighbourhood, purchased in 1957 and never considered moving elsewhere regardless of financial status.
"People lived very modestly in these houses, but they amassed massive wealth, they went on and they bought real estate everywhere, and they became builders, and the Hungarian Jews became some of the biggest builders and owners of real estate … but they never collected any kind of show-wealth."
Ironic, then, that newbies to the neighbourhood feel the need to show their wealth via bricks-and-mortar today. As the Globe's visual arts critic, John Bentley Mays wrote in 1997, "Suburbia's not boring if you're escaping persecution." Housing in Bathurst Manor was, "built at a decent human scale, and in an architecturally democratic spirit, with no house much grander or meaner than any other."
The first of those "decent" homes went up in 1954, as best as I can gather from studying real estate sales advertisements in the Toronto Daily Star's "Properties for Sale" pages (remember, this is a neighbourhood that shied away from the spotlight), with the heaviest pushes for sales beginning in 1955 and continuing into 1956. In one advertisement, Ernest Goodman Real Estate announced: "200 Homes Now Ready" at Acton and Elder St., built by "Delzotto and Sons," who would go onto to become behemoth Tridel. On offer were "6-room ranchers, 7-room split-levels, and oversize 6-room bungalows" with features such as "1 or 2 luxuriously colored [sic] tiled bathrooms," "Youngtown [sic] all science kitchens," which I assume means they were equipped with Youngstown steel kitchen cabinets, and "bonus closet space throughout." These were offered at $16,000 to $23,000.
Two columns over, Mr. Goodman was highlighting Probar Construction's "The House of the Year" on Acton Avenue, near Wilmington Avenue, which consisted of a number of "7-Room Tri-levels." And, a few months later, realtors Brethour & Morris were presenting "California Split-Florida Ranch" luxury bungalows "designed by Canada's leading architect" – that they chose not to name – by Westdale Construction for $16,900.
As the neighbourhood would mature into the late-1950s and early-1960s, larger, custom homes would be built closer to the ravine on Blue Forest Drive. But, stresses Ms. Cohen, even the kids who grew up in those walked to school like she did; this closeness, she says, created something "magical."
"Everything was focused on Wilmington Park and the plaza," she says, and then laughs. "I never, ever saw the outside of Bathurst Manor; my mother didn't drive, most of [the mothers] did not drive, so that's a huge difference, today kids get driven all over the place."
The thing is, as Toronto grew up and welcomed immigrants from other parts of the world (Canadian immigration policies, which had favoured Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s, loosened by the 1960s and 1970s), that cohesion started to unravel. In a hilarious 1988 essay published in The Globe and Mail "The Tweed Curtain," Jay Teitel confirms that, while in the fifties and sixties "people in such places as Bathurst Manor and the Keele Street corridor had proclaimed their ethnicity with reserve, not fanfare," things changed by the 1970s, when the city "officially discovered Toronto's unique cultural quilt, putting up special, sometimes bilingual, street signs and creating ethnic tourist areas." While this was wonderful in some respects, that attention could also be harmful by causing overdevelopment.
Thankfully, Bathurst Manor, somehow, remained a secret. Today, it's still an almost-intact mid-century modern enclave. "I think that's what distinguished this area," confirms Ms. Cohen, "it was really contained, people really didn't leave the neighbourhood."
"And that's what I was hoping," interjects Ms. Landriault, "that people could come back and kind of rebuild it that way, if they knew about it, somehow."
"They're perfect houses," finishes Ms. Cohen.