We live in one of the world’s most intact neighbourhoods of homes built during the elegant and eclectic last half of the nineteenth century--the high Victorian era. The wide range of home-building styles in this community is unique in its diversity.
Unlike subdivisions of today, where vast tracts of houses are built by the same builder in variations of the same theme, the individual builders of what was Toronto’s original suburb were a very eclectic and imaginative bunch.
Most of the land in the Town of York had been built up to Queen Street by the time of the incorporation of the City of Toronto in 1834, and developers began looking north for building lots.
The land north of Queen and west of Parliament, which had been covered in pine forest, was logged and cleared for farming and was at the time known as the “city liberties.” The land between Parliament and Sherbourne south of Bloor had been divided into two 100-acre “park lots” originally granted by Lord Simcoe to early officials of York: John Small, the first clerk of the Executive Council of Upper Canada and John White, York’s Attorney General.
Later, White’s westerly park lot, number four, was sold to Thomas Ridout, whose home, north of Carlton, was called Sherborne.
To the west was the estate of early tycoon William Allan (who bequeathed part of his land to the city, which became today’s Allan Gardens). His home was known as Moss Park, which still lends its name to an apartment complex just south of the Cabbagetown heritage area.
The earliest buildings on the area were farm houses and a few cottages, dating back to the 1830s. The first building lots were sold in 1845 along Sherbourne Street, created from what had been a lane between the Allan and Ridout properties.
The land was subdivided into a grid pattern of streets by city surveyor John Howard, Building lots along the streets were mostly 100 feet wide, and their buyers then divided them again into narrower lots that were generally between 15 and 20 feet wide. The close confines made attached or row houses the most practical to provide maximum floor space.
By the 1860s, well-to-do families were building big estate homes along Jarvis Street. Sherbourne Street became an alternative, where wealthy merchants and gentry built spacious two and three-storey brick homes.
Serious development of homes in the nearby streets in the area, which only later came to known as Cabbagetown, started in earnest about the time of Canada’s confederation in 1867. The main streets Dundas and Gerrard were beehives of building activity in the early 1870s. Remember that electricity, running water and indoor plumbing didn’t really start to be installed in homes until after 1880, so the deep rear yards of the early homes often featured a privy in the yard and a well for water. Homes were often furnished with a table that featured a water pitcher on its top and a chamber pot below. However, the area was an early adapter of indoor gas lighting, thanks to the Consumers Gas plant at the foot of Parliament which made gas from coal brought in by the trainload on the railroads.
By the mid-1880s most of Seaton and Ontario were lined with homes, each built individually from designs that originated in England and Scotland. Carpenters built from pattern books that had basic dimensions, but the details and trim were embellished on by the carpenters as they built each house. Everyone had their own idea of their dream home and even houses that were built as part of attached rows have subtle differences in their windows, roofs and trim work that make each a custom work of art.
The homes were built of some of the finest materials available to home builders of the day. Most of the lumber was cut locally from old growth pine and maple trees whose trunks were so ample that structural materials and trim without knots was readily available. Walls were covered in lath and plaster that had horse hair added for extra durability. Much of the brick was made locally, in the brickyards in the Don Valley, that made distinctive buff yellow and rose red brick colours. The Toronto Brick Company continued to produce bricks into the 1970s and later became a nature preserve along Bayview Avenue.
Who were the residents of the new utopia? Bankers, doctors, lawyers, store owners, engineers, managers, “commercial travelers” and “gentlemen” according to records in the city archives. Because so many Torontonians of the day were from Scotland and England, the predominant religions were Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of England, with a smaller representation of Roman Catholic, Baptist and Jewish residents.
Building of homes in the area continued over a 30-year period and almost all of today’s streetscapes were complete by 1900. The streets were not originally paved, but there was transit, very early with horse-drawn trams and later streetcars running along Parliament, Sherbourne and Carlton..
The fact that the neighbourhood has remained intact over more than a century is a tribute to its livability. Contemporary developments have tried to recreate the ambience of Cabbagetown but they overlook the essence that makes this such a vibrant place to live: the neighbourhood services, like local corner variety stores, restaurants and pubs, pharmacies and hardware emporiums and a high street, Parliament, within walking distance.
Other cities in North America may have had neighbourhoods with as many homes from this era as we have, but most others got mowed down by fires, neglect and urban development. Cabbagetown has endured because of its livability and convenient location at the edge of downtown Toronto.
Over the years, Cabbagetown has gathered a lot of myths, and none so difficult to pin down as the definitions of what is “the real Cabbagetown.”
There are several competing explanations for the cabbage reference. Some say the moniker came from Irish immigrants moving into the area and planting cabbages in their yards. Others say it originated from the fact that Polish refugees in the area cooked cabbage so often. There are even disputes about what area had the nickname first. Some, such as novelist Hugh Garner, hold that the true Cabbagetown was the area south of Gerrard and east of Parliament, which was torn down in the 1950s to build the Regent Park housing complex. Others claim that Cabbagetown is the area east of Parliament to the Don River, which is still known as Don Vale. But Cabbagetown South came first; its homes predate much of the development to the east of Parliament.
Whatever the origin, the name stuck and by the First World War, the area was becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. While it has had its economic ups and downs, Cabbagetown has been and remains a very stable and safe community of caring neighbours, a haven of tranquility within walking distance of the centre of downtown Toronto. And that’s why we love to live here.
So what’s your house style? It isn’t always easy to pigeonhole the architectural influences of Cabbagetown South’s homes. But here’s a rough guide to the styles you’ll see on a walk down any of our streets.
All photographs by Wallace Immen.
Victorian What constitutes Victorian architecture style has many interpretations, since it lasted such a long time, between 1837 to the start of the Twentieth Century. It was a time of a rebellion against simplistic plain houses and is characterized by ornamentation and exquisite designs. It was a time of revival of many earlier styles, aided by the fact that the industrial revolution made it easy to reproduce architectural features in any style. So Victorian may represent a little bit of whatever was going on for half a century, a bit of Gothic here, romantic, pre-Raphaelite, renaissance and eclectic folk revival. In Cabbagetown, look for gingerbread trim work around gables, spindles, decorative cornices, ornate porches multiple colours in brick and trim colours and stained glass windows.
Our most prominent early Victorian example is Allandale, a house at 241 Sherbourne built in 1848 as the home of brewer Enoch Turner whose philanthropy built Toronto’s first free school, before the days of public education in the city. It’s wide by comparison to other houses in the area with a big rustic front porch, ornate trim and two-toned brick in decorative patterns.
Mid Victorian, eclectic. Other examples of early and mid-Victorian in the area are at 231 Seaton which demonstrates influences of the Gothic revival of the time with its deeply carved ornamentation and 424 Ontario Street, in which the design remains delicate while ornate gingerbread trim on peaks and porches become bolder.
These Victorian houses are also set further back on their lots than most in Cabbagetown, so they have expansive front gardens.
Bay and gable. This ubiquitous and unique variation on Victorian home design was developed in Toronto between 1870 and 1890 and became widespread through Cabbagetown. The style was an adaptation of the Victorian designs of the day to suit the narrow lots of downtown Toronto neighbourhoods. A three-sided bay with tall windows extends out from the first two stories and the roof has a gable that is often trimmed in gingerbread. Brick work is often two toned red and yellow and porches often feature decoratively caved doors. This example is at 445 Ontario Street.
Half bay and gable. A variation of the bay and gable has a bay window on the first floor and a flat wall and gable above. This made it possible to have a balcony porch extending across the entire second. However, many of the original porches have been removed in later renovations. This example is at 207 Gerrard Street East.
Second Empire. The French style was in vogue in Europe between 1865 and 1880. It’s notable for a rectangular design and a sloping mansard roof, generally with dormer windows and often decorative iron trim work along the edge of roofs (sadly mostly lost in later renovations in Cabbagetown). A number of examples in Cabbagetown South include appealing half-round bay windows reminiscent of castle turrets. The first house is on Carlton, the second at 368 Berkeley.
Georgian. This is a revival of a style also known as Palladian that dates to the era of the Georges 1720-1840. Generally two storeys with a very symmetrical design and decorative mouldings outside, the fronts are simple and flat with windows that are either four or six panes of glass in each. Examples in Cabbagetown are among the oldest homes in the area. These houses are at 133 Seaton and 77 Seaton Street.
Italianate. This style was Inspired by classical renaissance features this design includes elaborate eaves that have trim called corbels and low or flat roofs and arched windows with pediment trim.. On some, a tower-like third storey projects from the centre, resembling the campaniles or lookouts of Italian cities of the 16th century. This example is on Carlton Street.
Gothic Revival. A style that was particularly popular for row houses in England and Scotland was familiar to many of the carpenters and craftsmen who immigrated from Britain to Toronto at the time. The design is exaggerated vertically, tall and narrow with a steeply pitched peak at the top. Cabbagetown examples often had exuberant, elaborate mouldings and trim work inside. This example is at 226 Gerrard.
Queen Anne revival. This style with its turned wood trim and elaborate decorative porches came into fashion in the late 1870s and lasted through the 1890s—a period in which steam powered saws and lathes made elaborate carvings easy and inexpensive to reproduce. The style also coincided with a revival of interest in castle architecture, so some of the houses feature stone in place of brick in their facades. This example is 139 Seaton.
Cottage. The Ontario cottage style is a feature of many streets of Cabbagetown, many of them built originally for workers in the many manufacturing companies that operated south of Dundas Street. The cottage style in Toronto is a descendant of a one storey house with a gabled roof shown at the great Crystal Palace exhibition in London in 1851. They are traditionally one-storey with a steep pitched roof and a central peak which is often trimmed with ornate fretwork. Most often done entirely in wood, several examples in Cabbagetown South are in brick. While modest looking outside, they are surprisingly ample in side in part because they are often wider than the row houses that dominate the area. These two cottages are at 75 and 91 Seaton Street.
Farmhouse. An example of the Victorian farmhouse style still remains in the area at 306 Seaton. Wide and plain, with stucco walls it sits on a large lot compared to the homes built later.
Edwardian. Named for the reign of Edward VII, who succeeded Victoria to the throne of England, the style tends to reflect the optimism of the early twentieth century, featuring dark red brickwork, big gables and large porches with flamboyant carved trim work. The interiors featured an innovation: purpose-built bathrooms. In earlier homes, indoor plumbing required a refit that meant adding a room subdividing a bedroom or sacrificing a pantry. These examples are at 379 and 369 Berkeley Street.