Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Deer Park ( Yonge & St.Clair )

The Heritage of Deer Park

In 1837, around the time that Toronto was founded, a woman bought 40 acres of land northwest of Yonge and Third Concession Road (now known as St.Clair). Agnes Heath, the widow of Colonel Charles Heath, called her estate Deer Park, an English translation for the native name of the area, “Mushquoteh”. The deer were living wild in the area back then, and you could see them wondering around the Hotels of the area, looking to be fed by the guests.
Agnes’ son, a lawyer named Charles Wallace Heath, bought the family farm in 1846. He had the land subdivided into 33 lots, which were all sold by 1850. The same year he became one of the original founders of the Toronto Boat Club, which changed name in 1854 to The Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

When Deer Park was annexed to the city of Toronto in 1908, the Yonge and St Clair intersection looked like this. Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives

The neighbourhood was annexed by the city of Toronto in 1908. The area became more urban and in a couple of years the farmland and villas were only a distant memory. By the 1930s, many upper-middle class families established themselves in the area. Deer park is still today one of Toronto’s finest residential districts.

Country life on St. Clair Avenue in 1911. Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives

To get in and around

The limits of Deer Park are roughly defined by the Rosedale Ravine to the east – Farnham Avenue to the south – the Belt Line trail to the north – Avenue Road and Oriole Parkway to the west. Most Torontonians know this neighbourhood for its main intersection, Yonge and St Clair, which is the commercial core of the area.

17 years before the opening of the subway, the area was still very quiet, with a very middle class twist. This photo of Avoca Avenue in 1937 shows how the area evolved (these houses are now condo towers). Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives

The opening of the subway in 1954 is responsible for Deer Park’s recent development with the St Clair station considered the heart of the area. Residents and visitors can also ride the 512 streetcar which runs along St. Clair Avenue from Yonge and St Clair Station to Weston Road. As a dedicated streetcar line, the route offers a limited number of stops compared to regular streetcar lines.


In 1999, Robert Fulford, a Canadian journalist and columnist, gave an honest description of Deer Park: “Sandwiched between Forest Hill on its western flank and Moore Park to the east, Deer Park is utterly unlike either of them – it’s more commercial, a fast changing community dominated by apartment dwellers.”. The opening of the subway line in the 50s has probably something to do with it. As an after effect, the intersection of Yonge and St.Clair became the site of extensive commercial development. Nowadays, the area is filled with stores, office buildings, restaurants and high-rise condo/apartment buildings.

Yonge and St. Clair nowadays. Photo credits: John Fitzgerald

There is much more to discover. For example, few people know that Deer Park is also home to one of Toronto’s oldest cemetaries. St. Michael’s was opened in 1855 by the Roman Catholic Archidiocese of Toronto. Joseph Sheard, who later on became the mayor of Toronto, was the architect hired to design this ten acres cemetery. The reason why it’s one of the area best kept secret is because it is surrounded on all sides by the back of tall buildings. To access it, you must walk through an alley off Yonge Street. It’s worth a visit – the vault itself was designated a historic property in 1975.

Deer Park is one of Toronto’s “pedestrian friendly” neighbourhoods. Some would even call it a hiking paradise with all its parks wrapping around the area. The many green spaces have this “forest feeling” and they are ideal for walkers, joggers or cyclists. When strolling in Rosedale Ravine, just down the stairs from Heath Street, you don’t even know you are steps away from the city. There are at least 3 major parks here: the Rosehill Reservoir Park on Pleasant Boulevard, the David Balfour Park which includes a hiking trail through the Vale of Avoca Ravine, and Oriole Park who is located at the northern tip of the area. We can also add to this list the old Belt Line Railway, which offers a seven kilometres path under the trees.


The area is filled with condo and office towers on St. Clair... Photo credits: John Fitzgerald

Small side streets feels more private, with smaller detached houses. Photo credits: John Fitzgerald

Deer Park is not an area with a well defined style and has an eclectic mix of residences. There are the “posh” brick homes on Chaplin and Oriole Parkway, which match the grandeur of the nearby Forest Hill. Then, there are also an increasing number of high and mega-high-end condo buildings. In between, potential buyers can find older townhouses and two-storey brick boxes… still coming with a very high price tag. For those who can afford it, they can be assured a very good return on their investment.

Many of the historical houses are well kept in this neighbourhood. Photo credits: John Fitzgerald

Monday, April 26, 2010

Riverdale & Playter Estate

The Heritage of Riverdale & Playter Estate

Riverdale, formerly known as Riverside, was a small village and a home for a very rural community. That all changed by the 1850s when the Grand Truck Railway put down tracks through the area. Many industries opened soon after, bringing a mass of working class families and people in need of a job. The first homes built south of the tracks were for these workers and their families.

Just north of the Riverside village was the estate of George Henry Playter, a Loyalist captain that moved to the area in 1793. The Playter clan lived there for a long time, and one of Captain Playter’s descendants, John Lea Playter, built the farm house that still sits today at 28 Playter Crescent. The home is currently undergoing a major restoration project with the construction of a massive brick addition at the back of the original house.

The Playter Mansion, before it went under many modifications. Photo credits: Andy66

In 1884, Riverside became Riverdale, as part of the bigger city of Toronto. The amalgamation brought richer Torontonians to the neighbourhood, but the real rush of people happened some years later, in 1918, with the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct. That bridge, along with the rest of the city brought the golden age of the new eastern Toronto. Riverdale became a very popular neighbourhood.

The Prince Edward Viaduct under construction in 1918. Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives

By the 1970s, many of the homes had fallen into disrepair. The Victorian and Edwardian grand homes were a vague testimony of the long gone wealthy residents. In time, Riverdale got back on track stimulated by the arrival of a new artistic community.

Navigating the Area

Riverdale is considered a fairly large neighbourhood bounded by Jones Avenue to the East – Lake Shore Boulevard to the south – Playter Estate and a portion of Greektown to the north – Don River Valley to the west. This area also encompasses East Chinatown, Studio District and South Riverdale. Also part of Riverdale, as a satellite neighbour, is the Jones Pocket. It is bordered by Danforth to the north, Pape to the west, Greenwood to the east and CN Railway tracks to the south. This area is call “the Pocket” by its residents, a more affordable counterpart to Riverdale.

For people using public transportation, there are two ways to enter Riverdale from the downtown core: the subway and the streetcar. On Danforth Avenue, the Bloor-Danforth subway line has the Broadview, Chester, Pape, Donlands and Greenwood stations. Streetcars or buses are also available with regular service offered on Broadview, Queen, Gerrard, Carlaw, Greenwood and Jones.

Commuters owning a car are surrounded by easy to access expressways and boulevards… when traffic is good! Rush hours in the morning and in the afternoon can bring traffic to a snails pace.


Riverdale is a good example of Toronto’s ethnic diversity. Food, history and culture from around the world can be found within couple blocks. Greektown, along Danforth Avenue, offers a diverse selection of restaurants, shops and businesses that are owned by Greek families. On Gerrard Street, East Chinatown, offers a quieter version of Spadina’s Chinatown, and is known for its many fresh food markets.

Riverdale offers a lot of greenery throughout the area with many grand Victorian houses framed by mature trees. There are many parks in the area, including Riverdale Park, Withrow Park and Jimmie Simpson Park. The largest one is Riverdale Park, which borders along the Don River. A good portion of the park almost disappeared in the 1970s when the city was planning on building a large stadium. Thanks to local resistance, the project was rejected and later renamed “SkyDome”, which was built downtown.

Another major attraction of Riverdale is its incredible view. The entire west border has a natural geographic slope, looking toward the Don Valley. It creates the perfect panorama on the downtown high-rise buildings.

Also located on the western border is one of Toronto’s oldest public buildings, the Don Jail. Built just before the Canadian Confederation in c1862, this jail was designed by the architect William Thomas. This landmark is an exceptional structure, almost unchanged since it was first opened. Nowadays, the Bridgepoint Health Foundation is incorporating the famous jail to its facility. Once finished, the jail will be accessible to the public, but will be mostly an administrative centre for the hospital.

The distinctive facade of Don Jail, in 1950. Photo credits: City of Toronto Archives

Situated next to the jail is the Riverdale Public Library. If not for the books, one should go there to enjoy its architecture! This branch of the Toronto Library was actually a Carnegie gift. In 1903, the Carnegie Corporation of New York granted $350,000 for a new central library. In 1910, the new Riverdale branch was opened to the public. Since 1977, this wonderful structure is listed on the Toronto Historical Board’s Inventory of Heritage Properties.

The Riverdale Public Library, seen here circa 1910. Photo credits: Toronto Public Library


It’s in this neighbourhood, on Broadway Avenue, that we can find one of the oldest residential houses of Toronto still on its original site. In 1807, John Cox built his little cabin for his family. The house went through some renovations and changes during the Victorian era, but it is still used today as a private house. One interior wall at the rear of the residence highlights the original structure that John Cox built himself.

John Cox cottage, on Broadview Avenue. Photo credits: Snuffy

Unlike many other neighbourhoods, Riverdale never experienced the full inner city residential collapse, even during times of working class poverty, or a downturn in the 70s. This may be explained by the presence of the Don River, which protected Riverdale’s tree-lined Victorian streets. While there are some rental towers on Broadview Avenue and other small projects scattered throughout the area, these projects never reached the expansion levels of St. Jamestown, in neighbouring Cabbagetown.

Exemple of a restored house in Playter Estate. Photo credits: Eric Pellerin