Sometimes those stories are right under our noses, in places we take for granted. Consider Jarvis Street. If you know it today, you likely think of it as a (relatively) quick, four-lane, north-south route through the downtown. It’s been in the news this past year for that reason. City Council has debated tirelessly whether bike lanes should occupy some of the space, or whether it should be preserved as a high traffic throughway strictly for cars.
It’s hard to believe that Jarvis Street, along with Sherbourne to the east, used to be the residential address in Toronto. In the early 1800s, the land where Jarvis Street is today was the centre of one of Toronto’s original park lots –– a long and narrow, massive property between Queen and Bloor, granted by the Crown to one government official, William Jarvis. The property was subdivided for residential development in 1845 after the Jarvis family ran into scandal and debt, and the appropriately named Jarvis Street was made a main street through its centre.
Jarvis Street’s upper reaches were the city’s Rosedale before there was a Rosedale. At its height in the late 19th century, the street was the home to Toronto’s now iconic families. Ever heard of the Masseys (as in Massey Hall) or the Gooderhams (as in the Gooderham and Worts Distillery), or the McMasters (as in McMaster University)? They all built homes on this street in the grandest styles of their day, designed by Toronto’s top architects. Forget Rosedale. This was the Bridle Path.
Best of all, a good number of those homes still exist today. If you’ve ever dropped into the Keg Mansion, you’ve appreciated what McMaster money could build, and what Massey money could renovate. This landmark on Jarvis Street was designed by the important architectural firm Gundry and Langley, and built in 1868 for Arthur McMaster. Arthur was the head of a large wholesale dry goods firm, and the nephew of William McMaster, a founder of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and the namesake of McMaster University. The house was sold in 1882 to Hart Massey, the head of the family that made their fortune producing farm implements through the Massey Manufacturing Company (later Massey-Harris) reputed to be the largest such manufacturer in the British Empire.
Today, you can go for a steak at the Keg and appreciate what money could buy in terms of home décor in the late 19th century. When you re-emerge from the front door, you can look next door to see the house designed by E.J. Lennox (architect of Old City Hall and Casa Loma). It was built for Hart’s son, and was the childhood home of two more famous Massey’s: Vincent, Canada’s first Canadian-born Governor-General, and Raymond, the Hollywood and Broadway actor. In a beautiful sky-lit room to the north, their father proudly hung his collection of Dutch art. Across the road and to the north is 504 Jarvis, designed in 1889 by the Gooderham family’s favourite architect, David Roberts Jr., for the 21-year-old George Horace Gooderham. George Horace was clearly privileged to be the son of the President of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. The stunning interior of the Romanesque-Revival home has also been immaculately maintained and has been open to the public as a restaurant.
Though these houses remain, Jarvis street looks nothing like it did when they were built. Have a look at late 19th and early 20th century photos of the street, however, and you might understand. Take two or three looks, actually. The modern four to five lanes of traffic date to 1947, when the street was widened to carry more cars. Prior to that, the elegant street was lined by wide, leafy boulevards with shady sidewalks. Wrought iron fences and stone walls marked the lawns of the houses, which were then well back from the street. In its prime, this was one of the most beautiful residential streets in the city.
But change is again afoot. Walk further south down Jarvis, almost to Carlton, and you’ll be amazed at how, when carefully planned, the new can complement the old. In 2005, the National Ballet of Canada opened the new Celia Franca Centre and the Margaret McCain Academic Building at 400 Jarvis Street to much critical acclaim, including a Heritage Toronto Award of Excellence for architectural craftsmanship and conservation. Designed by leading Toronto architecture firms, KPMB Architects and Goldsmith Borgal and Company, Architects, the complex sympathetically incorporated two of the street’s signature historic buildings. At the heart of the sleek glass Celia Franca Centre is the buff-brick Northfield House, built in 1854 for Oliver Mowat. Mowat would later be known as a Father of Confederation and the longest serving Premier of Ontario, but when he built the house he was a lawyer, and Jarvis Street was a dusty road, barely 10 years old, that travelled through what we’d call countryside. Mowat’s house was later owned by Edward Rutherford, the President of Consumers Gas, before becoming a residence for Havergal Ladies College (an elite private school for girls), and eventually, home to CBC executive offices. To the south, and still part of the National Ballet, is the main red-brick building built in 1898 for Havergal. Here, in 1952, the first Canadian television program outside of Montreal went live. That’s the tip of the iceberg of CBC stories related to this site.
The new National Ballet campus is a beautiful addition to this very old street. The historic house and school building have been beautifully restored, and have been given dignity and presence by the skilled placement of new buildings with transparent glass facades. If the former mansions further north on Jarvis hint at the grandeur of the street that once was, the new home of the National Ballet demonstrates the best of Toronto today, and gives bright hope for Jarvis Street in the future.
And that, after all, is one of the most exciting things about this city. Never quiet and always ambitious, Toronto just keeps adapting and adding to its past. In this city, there is so much opportunity to make old things new again.