When Frank O'Connor purchased 600 acres of farmland just east of Toronto in 1928, it was to establish Maryvale Farm, a breeding centre for Ayrshire cattle and Clydesdale horses.
But if farming was the principal purpose of the acquisition, a close second was to build a grandiose estate befitting the founder of chocolate company Laura Secord Inc. and a director of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Colonial Revival-style mansion, complete with outsized portico and an indoor swimming pool that transformed into a dance floor for lavish parties, was in many ways an extension of the owner's gregarious Irish personality. Mr. O'Connor was appointed a Liberal senator in 1935 and his mansion, with its jaunty striped window awnings, became a focal point for the community.
Almost a century later, the O'Connor estate buildings, located in the Parkwoods neighbourhood off Victoria Park Avenue on Rowena Drive, still turn heads. Last fall, Heritage Toronto gave its award of merit – one of its top prizes – to those who raised funds and painstakingly restored the buildings, which came close to demolition.
When the senator died in 1939, the O'Connor era came to a sudden halt. The estate passed to the De La Salle Christian Brothers and Daughters of Wisdom religious communities. Aerial photos show how the suburbs closed in as the original farm was sold off bit by bit, before Senator O'Connor College School was founded on the remaining land by the Christian Brothers in 1963.
Fast forward to 2002, when the school, the first co-educational Catholic high school in Toronto, underwent a four-year rebuild. The intention was to incorporate the estate buildings – the mansion house, coach house and shed which were boarded up in 2000 when the Christian Brothers vacated the buildings – into the project.
"The renovation of residential homes is not something that school boards have a mandate to do," says Angelo Sangiorgio, associate director of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) planning and facilities, explaining that budget restrictions saw those plans fall by the wayside, initially leaving the TCDSB to find a community group to lease the buildings.
Called in to design the new high school, Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. of Toronto ensured that its plans would save estate buildings. Principal architect Jonathan Kearns says he felt the buildings could be an interface between the school and the community.
"They were quite handsome, well-built buildings. They allowed us to make a unique historic front door at one end of the school and have a newer more contemporary entrance opposite Rowena Drive."
With no school program associated with them, and utilities turned off, the buildings deteriorated. Squatters damaged much of the interior of the mansion – all of the antique chandeliers were destroyed. In March of 2009, the school board requested a demolition permit from the City of Toronto, which was turned down as the buildings had been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act the prior month.
It proved to be a key turning point, and with razing the buildings no longer an option, the TCDSB and the O'Connor House group, a registered charitable organization founded in 2005 with a mission to protect the buildings from demolition, were forced to collaborate on a common goal.
"Not only the building itself, but to preserve the legacy and the history of Frank O'Connor is important, and particularly as it's outside the downtown core," says Tony Wagner, chairman of the O'Connor House board of directors, who praised the senator's values of perseverance, innovation and philanthropy. All parties would soon discover that seeing the project through to completion would be a testament to those virtues.
Raising $5.6-million in funds for renovations proved something of a struggle. Thanks to some well-connected champions such as late finance minister Jim Flaherty, the O'Connor House finally obtained federal, provincial and private funds – with the TCDSB chipping in $400,000 – and work began in April of 2011.
"When we started [redesigning the school] it was a perfectly liveable, functioning building, a little down on its heels but it was perfectly fine," says Dan McNeil, a heritage architect at Kearns Mancini Architects. "In the space of less than 10 years it was touch and go on whether it might be condemned. I think if it didn't have heavy framing and good bones and some fairly robust interior finishes, it would have gone."
With two feet of water in the mansion because of plugged drains, the mansion's basement had to be completely gutted, the mould remediated.
Thirteen months into what was originally planned as a two-year undertaking, and with renovations 75 per cent complete, an errant spark from a welders' torch set off a fire in the attic of the mansion, dealing a crippling blow.
After the firefighters left, Mr. McNeil says another four feet of water had to be pumped from the basement. The water had saturated the mansion, working its way behind the walls. "So most of the plaster that had all just been restored had to be removed."
The fire and the resulting damage set back the project another 15 months. The restored hardwood floors and detailed plaster casework in the main hall and grand rooms were saved, along with most of the windows and doors.
Outside, the outsized portico, the mansion's defining feature, became a particular challenge. The original wooden columns had filled with water and had "started to split open like an old barrel," Mr. McNeil says. They were bound up and injected with glue to bring them back to their former glory.
The estate building was completed in September of 2013, with most of the loose ends tied up by the end of that year.
The O'Connor House and the school board are in the process of finalizing formal operating procedures under the 21-year lease they signed in 2010. The school, the property landlord, is using the mansion and coach house as teaching spaces, while the not-for-profit board is renting out the buildings after school hours as a hub for community, cultural, heritage and education organizations.
Architect Mr. McNeil describes the heritage award as a feather in one's cap, but he says the proof is going to be seeing other generations use the space and learn about the original owner of the estate, the hard-working son of an Irish immigrant who left school at 14 to find fame and fortune.
"I'm not one for keeping buildings just as museum pieces; I think that they do have to form a function," he says. "This was a great opportunity for a preserving a legacy component to the school, but also integrating it and reaching out to the community."
Mr. Sangiorgio says: "I can't think of another example of a heritage building on an elementary or secondary school site. You see it in universities and colleges, but you don't see it at [schools.]"
O'Connor estate facts
After restoration, the O'Connor mansion and coach house have been transformed into a number of teaching and conference areas of different sizes.
1,000: Square feet of teaching space on the main floor of the coach house, with a partition to divide the room into two separate areas.
5: Conference rooms on the first two floors of the main estate house, with two more planned for the basement once that is renovated.
3: Offices in the estate house.
1: Archive room in the estate house, a place devoted to the memory of Senator Frank O'Connor.