Update May 22, 2012
A colleague from my KPMG days and a loyal blog follower mentioned that you can book private tours with the Toronto Preservation Society for a mere $10 per person. And because they are private, you can customize them! Now that’s a deal if I’ve ever heard one!
The month of April kicked off Heritage Toronto‘s wonderful guided walks in the Big Smoke with historical tours to commemorate the Bicentennial Anniversary of the war of 1812 (just HAD to mention that for my American friends!). JT and I have enjoyed their informative tours over the years and this past Saturday we decided to enjoy yet another through Cabbagetown North (according to the New York Times, Cabbagetown has the largest concentration of Victorian homes in North America. See Footnote #1). The weather was a bit crisp with the occasional gust of chilly wind, but the sun was shining (for the most part. Read proper shoes and coat) and dressed appropriately, it was absolutely lovely.
We started out at the corner of Wellesley Street East and Parliament Street at a corner neighbourhood park; over fifty people had the same idea, but they were very well prepared and divided the group into five troupes, each lead by one of their wonderful and informative guides. We choose Christopher, and boy are we glad we did! Christopher lives in the hood in one of the cutest cottages, but I’ll get to that shortly.
The history of Cabbagetown began in the 1800s during the potato famine in Ireland when hundreds of Irish labourers immigrated to Toronto and set up homes in the North East part as it was quite a way outside the city and rather inexpensive. It became known as Cabbagetown because the immigrant Irish discovered that our growing season was much shorter than what they were used to and had to plant vegetables that would store well in the winter; potatoes were planted close to the house, then turnip and finally cabbages were planted directly by the sidewalk/road (their gardens were at the front of their homes, the backs were commerce). As Toronto’s economy grew, a variety of middle to upper middle-class moved into the area making Cabbagetown a wonderful mix of small cottages, Grand Victorian and Edwardian home (and the odd eye sore built in the 1970’s).
In 1851, during the Great Exhibition (Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London (now known as the World’s Fare) Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria) who had a keen interest in affordable housing for the poor held a contest for architects to create a particular housing style that was affordable, easy to build with a relatively small footprint that could be used throughout the Commonwealth. William Hooker won the contest with his plan for the Victorian Cottage (apparently seen throughout the Commonwealth, even today!) (Source #2). The cottages were basically four 3m x 3m rooms (10′ x 10′).
After decades of neglect and various degrees of derelict, the neighbourhood started coming alive with young families began buying up the lots and rennovating (some with more taste than others) and so in 1989 the Cabbagetown Preservation Association (CPA) was born to preserve the architectural integrity and historic character of the Cabbagetown neighbourhood in Toronto. To attain a building permit in this historical area, one must not only get the City to approve the plans, but by law, the Cabbagetown Preservation Association must also approve. The CPA takes this very seriously.
So let’s get to the good stuff.
Our first stop was a grand Victorian built by Thomas Harris in the Queen Ann style. Thomas Harris owned a stone cutting firm and decorated his home with the splendor of his business as a kind of billboard. This used to be a rooming house and was recently painstakingly and with considerable expense renovated back to its glory as a single family home.
Even in those days there were builders buying up plots of land and speculating with residential properties. The row houses on Wellesley Cottage Lane are labourers’ cottages “built in 1886-1887 by William Hooker from the plans that won him the architectural award in 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London” (Source #1). What’s interesting about this street is that it is a private street (one of three in this area, if memory serves), not owned by the City of Toronto, but by the residents of that street. They are responsible for the maintenance and care from sewage backups to snow shoveling services in the winter (I had no idea we had private streets in Toronto, and I’ve lived here all my life).
The cottages have all been significantly renovated, with enormous additions in the back.
I do hope you enjoyed your tour of North Cabbagetown Toronto. I would encourage you to seek out your own Historical or Heritage Societies within your own cities. Often these tours are free, or simply what you can afford and they are always exceptional (no disgruntled students just hammering out the details in a monotone voice). The guides are often retired school teachers, professors or just people with a real passion for their neighbourhoods.
Now I must ask you, have you ever been on an historical tour of your own city? And if so, what did you enjoy most about it?
Source #1: Heritage Toronto Walks Cabbagetown North pamphlet.
Source #2: Christopher, our Heritage Toronto Walks guide.