Goin’ Down the Davenport Road

Originally published on Torontoist on July 8, 2011.

 

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Unveiling the Davenport Road plaques are (left to right) executive director of Heritage Toronto Karen Carter; heritage advocate Jane Beecroft; Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam; Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation Chief representative Carolyn King; Greater Yorkville Residents’ Association president Gee Chung; and heritage advocate Shirley Morriss. Photo by Jamie Bradburn, July 2011.

Waves from a glacial lake once lapped along it. When the water receded, the winding path at the bottom of the escarpment left behind proved an ideal path for local aboriginal peoples to travel between the Toronto Carrying Place along the Humber River and the Don River to the east. After Europeans arrived, the trail became a route for farmers to bring their goods to the city and a vital link for growing villages like Yorkville and Carlton. While the rest of downtown adopted a straight grid pattern, the old route kept its curves, though numerous widening and paving projects allowed for vehicles, from streetcars to bicycles.

The long history of Davenport Road is now commemorated in Frank Stollery Parkette at the road’s eastern terminus, through a trio of pillars prepared by Heritage Toronto.

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Davenport, the house of Colonel Joseph Wells, east of Bathurst Street and north of Davenport Road, Toronto, circa 1900. Archives of Ontario, Item F 4436.

The road derived its name from Davenport, a home built in 1797 by military officer John McGill, who reputedly named it after a major stationed at Fort York. Located in the vicinity of the northeast corner of Bathurst and Davenport, the home was said to possess an amazing view of the town of York. When the property was bought by Joseph Wells in 1821, the original house was demolished and replaced with the structure shown above. Wells, a former military officer, also served as a legislator, a bank director, and, until forced to resign due to financial improprieties, the treasurer of Upper Canada College. His eldest son, George Dupont Wells, inspired the names of several nearby roads, including Dupont Street and Wells Hill Avenue.

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Canadian Pacific Railway crossing Davenport Road from north, 25 yards distant, circa 1895. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 1A, Item 3.

During the 19th century, the old trail slowly took on the characteristics of a modern road. To finance improvements, a series of toll booths were set up along Davenport, one of which survives as a museum at the northwest corner of Bathurst and Davenport. By the end of the century, railways and streetcar tracks crossed the road.

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Gate to Ardwold, Davenport Road, circa 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3138.

Mansions that sat along or above Davenport, such as Casa Loma, had their own access points to the road. This picture shows a gate for Ardwold, the home of Eaton’s department store president Sir John Craig Eaton. Built in 1909, Ardwold remained in the family until it was demolished in 1936. The name lingers on through the residential street built on the property, Ardwold Gate.

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Car on muddy Davenport Road east of Bathurst Street, 1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 42B.

As automobiles took over city streets in the early 20th century, the muddy nature of roads like Davenport posed problems, especially when snow thawed. Given the deep ruts, we wonder if the vehicle’s occupants eventually required a tow.

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Hillcrest Park, Bathurst Street and Davenport Road, circa 1911-1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8213.

For a short time around the First World War, horse racing fans congregated at the southwest corner of Bathurst and Davenport to place their bets at Hillcrest Park. The notes for this photo from the City of Toronto Archives debate whether the crowd has gathered for the opening of the track in 1912 or the ribbon-cutting for the newly graded section of Bathurst Street to the north.

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Davenport Garage under construction, looking northwest, July 6, 1925. Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3888.

The horses were soon replaced with transit mechanics. Soon after its formation in 1921, the TTC (then known as the Toronto Transportation Commission) purchased the site and transformed it into the main repair complex for its streetcar fleet. A garage for buses was built along the Davenport side of the property in 1925.

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Dominion Bank branch at the corner of Dovercourt and Davenport Road, circa 1947. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 3, Item 1430.

Though its use has changed over time, the front of this former branch of the Dominion Bank still bears the name of the intersection.

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Traffic jam at intersection of Davenport Road and Dupont Street, June 20, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2434, Item 34560x-4.

By the 1950s, traffic volume caused rush-hour backups at the intersection of Davenport and Dupont that required the assistance of Toronto’s finest. On the left is the Sign of the Steer restaurant, a European-style steakhouse that hosted banquets and receptions for Toronto’s well-to-do.

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Sign of the Steer restaurant, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 504.

Owner Hans Fread hosted the CBC’s first cooking show, Hans in the Kitchen, from 1953 to 1954. The former lawyer was a bitter man when he closed the 600-seat restaurant in June 1960, placing the blame on Ontario’s “stupid liquor laws.” He especially blamed Premier Leslie Frost’s wife for persuading her husband not to relax regulations that prevented Fread from serving drinks after 11:30 p.m. on Saturday and all day Sunday. (Mrs. Frost claimed to have no influence on the premier in such matters, and noted that Fread’s claims were “one for my scrapbook.”) Fread soon moved to Winnipeg, where he found far better eats than were served in the Toronto restaurants that catered to “Lady Plushbottoms.” As Fread told the Star: “Torontonians like cubbyhole restaurants. They think a candle on the table makes good atmosphere…Instead of service, we offer our guests a short course in sobriety.”

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Davenport Road, looking west from Howland Avenue, July 1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 100, Item 284.

Long before a bike lane was first installed on Davenport in the mid-1990s, cyclists enjoyed its non-grid meanderings. Modern cyclists can take a rest in front of the new plaques and contemplate the past, the lives lived on the route they just followed.

Sources: Spadina: A Story of Old Toronto by Austin Seton Thompson (Toronto: Pagurian Press, 1975), Toronto Street Names by Leonard Wise and Allan Gould (Willowdale: Firefly Books, 2000), and the June 29, 1960, and October 17, 1960 editions of the Toronto Star.

Ardwold and Ardwold Gate

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on February 19, 2013.

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Ardwold, 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3087.

Things were going well for John Craig Eaton as the first decade of the 20th century ended. He inherited ownership of the family department store following the death of his father, Timothy, in 1907. His wife, Flora, was developing a reputation as a cross-Atlantic socialite. With his elevated social status and growing family, Eaton decided to build a grand mansion.

In January 1909, he purchased an 11-acre estate on Spadina Road north of Davenport Road that possessed a great view of the city and lake. Wanting to keep the purchase price discreet, he delivered a valise filled with $100,000 worth of bills to the bank to close the deal. His new home joined a collection of neighbouring fine residences, including Rathnelly, Spadina, and the under-construction Casa Loma. Eaton hired A.F. Wickson to design a 50-room home inspired by English and Irish country homes of the early Stuart era. The residence was dubbed Ardwold, which was gaelic for “high green hill.”

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Entrance to Ardwold, Eaton family residence, Spadina Road, September 18, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 2072.

Built between 1909 and 1911, Ardwold included 14 bathrooms, an elevator, Italian-inspired gardens, and an indoor swimming pool connected by a basement tunnel. The centrepiece was a two-storey great hall outfitted with a pipe organ that Eaton frequently played. When Eaton introduced the family to the completed home upon their return from a long European tour, his two-year-old son John David moped at the bottom of the grand staircase. “I don’t like this hotel,” he cried. “I want to go home.” Perhaps the boy reacted to what architectural historian William Dendy described as the home’s “air of empty pretentiousness.”

When the family fell ill, they used the on-site hospital room, which could be converted to an operating room during emergencies. Unfortunately, Eaton spent much of the last two months of his life there before dying from pneumonia in March 1922. His wife, by now Lady Eaton, spent little time at Ardwold afterwards, preferring to reside in Europe, Muskoka, or in Eaton Hall near King City.

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Wedding fashion parade at Ardwold, circa 1926. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1855.

By 1936, Lady Eaton thought it was “wasteful” to maintain the property. Telling the Star that it was “too large for the needs my family,” she demolished the house. Eaton family biographer Rod McQueen believed that “such a destructive approach can only be described as desecration, or at best, wildly eccentric.” Dynamite was required to bring down the thick walls. While some furnishings were moved to Eaton Hall, the rest were auctioned off. Only elements like a stone-and-wrought-iron fence survived.

After considering an apartment building, real-estate agent A.E. LePage subdivided the property along a new road, Ardwold Gate. “We plan to develop the whole 11-acre area with homes of Georgian design to harmonize, as is done in many of the finer residential sections of England,” LePage told the Star in 1938. The average cost of the new homes was $30,000, or just under $500,000 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation.

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ts 38-05-20 plan for homes at ardwold gate article

Toronto Star, May 20, 1938.

The community became an exclusive residential enclave for well-heeled businessmen. Among them was George Beattie, an Eaton relative whose career with the department store ended over an expletive-filled argument. Nursing a grudge, Beattie watched gleefully when Ardwold was demolished. Soon after buying a home on Ardwold Gate in 1947, he peed on one of the remaining cornerstones of the old house.

Residents engaged in several battles to maintain their peace during the 1970s. After initially approving the nearby placement of the Spadina Expressway, they joined the opposition against the freeway. As construction began on the Spadina subway line in 1973, they feared their homes would be damaged by vibrations similar to those that inconvenienced home owners along the recent extension of the Yonge line north of Eglinton Avenue. (The problem was reputed to be thin tunnel shields.) In April 1977, residents pressured City Council to reject a proposal to build non-profit housing units for 14 families along Ardwold Gate on land that had been reserved for the freeway; those who feared that the project would ruin the neighbourhood jumped into full reactionary mode. One complaint the City received observed that such housing “contributes to the general weakening of our democratic system.” The proposal was defeated and, as a Globe and Mail editorial observed, residents could sleep easily without worrying about sharing the neighbourhood “with people who didn’t own even one Mercedes.”

The street remains a quiet residential cul-de-sac. Among its notable homes is the Brutalist concrete residence designed for Harvey’s founder Richard Mauran at 95 Ardwold Gate. The home was the final project of architect Taivo Kapsi, who was killed in an encounter with trespassers on a friend’s property near Lake Wilcox during the summer of 1967. Finished the following year, the heritage-designated site includes impressions left in the concrete by construction boards.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993), The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), the April 14, 1977 and April 18, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 2, 2012 edition of the National Post, the February 26, 1936, July 3, 1936, May 20, 1938, May 4, 1970, and February 10, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 1999 edition of Toronto Life.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Ardwold Estate. - [ca. 1920]

Ardwold, circa 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3016.

Lady Eaton’s description of the area which surrounded Ardwold, from her book Memory’s Wall (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1956):

We had agreeable neighbours around us at Ardwold, and several of them became our good friends. Probably we came to know each other better because of the rather isolated community we formed. St. Clair Avenue was not paved, of course, and often vehicles sank down to their axles in the mud. A very rickety old bridge crossed the ravine on Spadina Road, which was the street giving main access to Ardwold, and the few other big houses on “the hill.”

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Toronto Star, April 14, 1977.

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Globe and Mail, April 18, 1977.

Two editorials on the failed subsidized housing proposal – an issue still playing out in neighbourhoods across the city.