Architectural heritage… another one bites the dust

Sometimes it seems as if Toronto is a city of constant construction. But there is also a darker side to many cities, and that is the destruction that occurs, and often it very much goes under the radar. I’m talking about historical buildings of course. Toronto has a varied history in making historically significant buildings disappear. I think one of the most significant losses was the Toronto Armouries. Built in 1891, it was demolished in 1963 to make way for the provincial courthouses that sit on the site today. Many such buildings have disappeared, often due to a lack of interest in maintaining historic architecture for the future.

The Toronto Armouries after 1900 (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 0220)

Another classic loss is that of Chorley Park, the fourth Government House built in Ontario (and the last). It was built between 1911-1915, and lasted a mere 45 years before it too was demolished in 1960 after the city of Toronto bought the house for $100,000. The 1960s of course marked a time when Toronto demolished much of its architectural legacy. Chorley Park is today parkland.

Chorley Park (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1128)

You have to wonder when there are books dedicated to Toronto’s lost architectural treasures, like Doug Taylor’s “Lost Toronto“. Lost not because of natural disasters, or war, but because of progress. Look, I’m not against progress, as long as that progress is achieved in a way that balances the history of a city, and the need to build non-descrip, monolithic buildings. And let’s face it much of what is built in the modern world lacks character. The demolitions continue however, sometimes an “accident” by a developer, often planned. One of the more recent victims, the buildings of the Davisville Junior Public School, being demolished to make way for a new school. I do whole-heartedly understand the new for new facilities, but it does lend itself to the gradual erosion of both our cultural, and architectural heritage.

Nixing the Davisville Junior Public School buildings.

Davisville Junior Public School was built in 1962, and represents (or did represent) a prime example  of the mid-century modern style that flourished in Toronto after WW2. At the time the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) had its own in-house architects, lead by chief architect Frederick Etherington. Ultimately a lack of funds to maintain the building (leaky roof anyone?), and upgrade it, has lead to its doom (note that two architects, Carol Kleinfeldt and Roman Mychajlowycz offered the TDSB two pro bono expansion plans that would have saved the building). At the end, as you can see it will be all gone by the end of next week. I photographed the school just after Christmas, and decided to post it as a B&W photo, to indicate that the building will soon be just a memory (and I should have spent more effort photographing it).

Other cities like Montreal seem to do a much better job at maintaining and promoting their architectural heritage, even restricting the building of huge monolithic towers. Toronto on the other hand seems to love the concept of facadicide (but we’ll leave that to another post).


It’s amazing what you find behind the walls

So I am in the midst of making a plan to replace the mantle piece (which is currently made from oak), with one made from cherry, that is somewhat smaller, and a bit simpler. The first step is always some form of exploratory surgery. In this case, I took the end piece off to see how it was constructed. Basically not very well. It seems like a core frame of 2×4 covered with the ¾” oak.


But often it is what is behind these old mantles that truly tells a story. I found this licence for gas during WW2, and a ration coupon book. Not in the best condition, but it was sitting behind the mantle for over 70 years. At the start of rationing, “non-essential” users (“A”) would get 65 gallon “units” per year.


Stricter rationing meant that by 1942, non-essential users, now classified as “AA”, would get half the units per year. Here’s one of the ration coupons:


Toronto’s semi-detached houses (part 2)

The semi’s may seem small to some, but in 1900, the average home in the US was 1000 square feet, and I can’t imagine it was much different in Canada. Even post-WW2, houses hovered around the same size, only increasing to 1200 square feet in 1960. So at the time these were considered average sized homes. Below is a plan of a general elongated semi-detached house (or at least the right half of one).


These houses are generally well constructed, even though historically they are considered to be “economically” built. Flooring was often 1/4″ strip oak (which after 80+ years of wear does not often refinish well). Trim was a combination of oak, and likely some form of knot-free older-growth pine, or maybe Douglas fir. Doors were oak veneer over a solid Douglas fir/pine core. The fantastic aspects of these homes are the small items, like stained glass windows either side of the fireplace (and across the front living room window, sadly many of these have disappeared over the years). Not every home has these, but it somewhat works against the principle of these homes being built in an inexpensive manner.


Some people prefer detached houses, but the benefit of semi-detached houses is the common wall – especially in winter. Why? Because the common wall is in a climate-controlled environment, so does not leak heat in the winter.  This contributes to lower heating costs.

Toronto’s semi-detached houses (part 1)

Montreal has it’s three storey triplex row houses. Toronto has an abundance of what we call “semi’s” – two houses that are semi-detached, i.e. share a common central wall. These are iconic to many of the inner neighbourhoods of Toronto, and prior to 1945 may have been the predominant type of house in the city (According to the 2006 census, there are 139,350 semi’s in Toronto).  There are of course many different styles, which can be found in different pockets of the city. In the inner suburbs of the downtown core there are three-storey Victorian era semi’s, as well as Gothic Revival and Queen Anne. Further north in the midtown region, which was likely hailed the “suburbs” in the post-WW1 era, there are “working class” semi’s, and suburbs like Leaside, evolved in the 1930s and included more “modern” semis. Two of the more profuse styles of semi were built as working class semi’s.


From: Report of the Toronto Housing Commission (Toronto, 1920)

Many of these homes were built in the years prior to WW2. In the years after the First World War, many of these houses were built as inexpensive housing. There are also differences in how they were built. There are those that are double brick on both storeys, and others where the ground floor is double brick, and the upper floor is covered with cedar shakes, or siding of some sort. Some of these semi’s have elements of Craftsman-style. The exact configuration sometimes depended on the year they were built in, and by which builder. Kitchens are generally at the back of the house, and some had windows on the side of the house, others had a side door leading into the basement stairs. Here are some of the general characteristics of these house:

  • Porches – all these semi’s traditionally have a full width front porch. Some of the front living rooms have bay windows that project into the porch, others (as in the examples shown) do not.
  • Roof – some form of gable or hip roof in the front, traditionally coupled with a flat roof on the rear half.
  • Bedrooms – most semi’s have three bedrooms, but there are also shorter ones with only two bedrooms.
  • Size – 900-1200 ft², not including basement.
  • Basement – generally 5.5-6.5 feet in height, the basements were not made as living space… they were where furnaces lived… usually  gravity-fed octopus furnaces.
  • Mechanicals: electricity was knob-and-tube, the plumbing stack cast, iron, and the sewer pipes were clay.

From: Report of the Toronto Housing Commission (Toronto, 1920)


A very cool knife store

Knives are tools too – in fact they were likely one of the first things humans designed when they began making tools (of bone, stone, and even wood).

A couple of days ago I visited hacher & krain – a very unique knife store in Toronto. Unique because they have a nice mixture of hand-made knives, from pocket knives to kitchen knives, from places all around the globe – Japan, France, Germany, and Finland – they don’t restrict themselves to one particular region. They also have some solid, thick cutting boards. Greg, the stores owner, doesn’t sell online – which makes real sense, because to get a real feel for a knife, you have to hold it in your hand – check the weight, balance. I decided to buy three new knives: a paring, a boning, and a filleting knife – with the ultimate goal of retiring my Wüsthof knives. hacher & krain carry an excellent selection of K-Sabatier knives from France. The word Sabatier is derived from two knife makers who worked in the French town of Theirs at the beginning of the 19th century. There are many Sabatier brands, but K-Sabatier is the original.

I decided to buy from the K-Sabatier Carbone series – French pattern carbon steel. Having a multitude of woodworking tools – very few of which are made of stainless steel – I have no issue buying carbon steel knives. Carbon steel contains smaller carbide granules, giving it a finer grain which ultimately holds a keener edge that can be better retained, and can be honed with greater ease. The one caveat with carbon steel knives is that if neglected they will rust if left wet or damp, so they should be wiped and dried after use – they will develop a dark patina over time. The knives are tempered to Rockwell 54-56 HRC.Getting a feel for the knives, it is apparent straight away that the Carbone knives are noticeably heavier than their stainless steel equivalents, making for a much better balanced knife.



Once I selected the type of Carbone knives, Greg brought out three of each knife, and I selected the one which felt best. Overall it was an excellent knife buying experience, Greg obviously has a wealth of knowledge and a close affinity with the tools he sells.