The Annex is one of Toronto’s most famous neighbourhoods and one of my favourite places to go for a walk. The area is filled with unique buildings and is steeped in history. It’s a story of great wealth, culminating in a struggle that saved the city.
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Our story begins in 1886 with Simeon James, a land speculator who purchased land from James Austin, founder of the Dominion Bank that stretches from Bedford to about Spadina and from Bloor to Dupont Streets. Austin had previously purchased the land from the Baldwins of reform leader Robert Baldwin fame. Now, land speculation doesn’t exactly conjure up feelings of civic pride or the sense that a great story Is about to be told. Bear with me. The year after James bought the land the City of Toronto agreed to extend its boundaries to include what it called The Annex.
Shortly after, The Annex became home to many of Toronto’s richest and most famous families, including the Masseys, the Gooderhams, and the Eatons. The most significant architect employed to build The Annex’s mansions was Edward James Lennox who designed such prominent Toronto landmarks as Old City Hall, Casa Loma, and the King Edward Hotel.
In the Annex, Lennox cultivated a new architectural style native to Toronto, incorporating elements of the Richardson Romanesque and Queen Anne Revival. This new Annex Style is best encapsulated with its progenitor at 37 Madison Avenue, a house that still stands to this day.
The actual layout and zoning of the neighbourhood are of interest as well. Interestingly, The Annex was built with relatively few east-west streets as the builders assumed that the wealthy residents would move around on horse-drawn carriage, rather than on foot. The residents also opposed most non-residential construction in the area, an easy task considering this was the beginning of the decline of Toronto’s industrial heyday.
Regardless, the bylaws they inspired form the basis of zoning in laws in Toronto. The effort of residents to control development in their neighbourhood would go on to forge one of the strongest neighbourhood associations in the city. When the residents of Prince Arthur Avenue with faced with the prospect of first a Catholic school on their street, they formed a group that successfully blocked the development, taking their case through the Supreme Court and the British Privy Council. One wonders who much of that was motivated by then very Protestant Toronto’s relationship with its Irish Catholic residents. Prince Arthur Avenue had an even tougher time when plans for an orthopedic hospital were made. Drawing on broader support from the neighbourhood the group formed the successful Annex Ratepayers Association (ARA).
Though the ARA was born out of a world of vast inequality, and perhaps prejudice in the case of the Catholic school, it would go to perform a vital function in the city’s history. By the 1920s The Annex had been on a decline as many of the wealthy families moved north to Forest Hill, Rosedale, and other newer uptown neighbourhoods.
The older residents who stayed behind were reluctant to see the old mansions converted into rooming houses and made largely unsuccessful efforts to stop the change. Much of the area’s clout had left with its wealthy residents and by the Great Depression, there was little appetite for restricting affordable housing. This conversion not only opened up the neighbourhood to a more diverse population but also gave them life in a beautiful and unique environment that would have been completely closed to them a few years ago. Not to suggest that these rooming housings were in the lap of luxury, they were however housed in Edward James Lennox’s grand old manors. There’s definitely a romance to that.
After the war, the neighbourhood welcomed refugees from Hungary along with renewed interest from Toronto’s middle class. Now home to immigrants, students and professors, the Annex had become a much more bohemian place.
When it was revealed that there were plans to construct an expressway through the neighbourhood along Spadina, the community was aghast. The expressway would have completely altered the city, cutting off the west end from downtown and making it all the harder for pedestrians to move around. All in all, it would change Toronto from a people-oriented city into a Los Angeles knock-off. Led by prominent residents like future Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, the ARA, now composed of residents of all stripes, launched a series of ultimately successful protests. One of particular note was when protesters dressed up in Victorian costume, trying to make the point the city’s heritage was under threat. In the end, the Premier at the time, Bill Davis sided with the protesters and made sure the expressway was never built.
Nowadays, The Annex has begun a return to its roots. Though still home to many students and other renters, it is one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the downtown. Part of the romance of the area is the idea that ordinary people could reclaim a place of great inequality, keeping the beauty and band together to protect a way of life. As the area gentrifies, it would be nice if something was done to keep that idea alive.
Featured Image: Alex Beauregard Realty