Wilfrid Servington Dinnick is celebrated as the developer of Lawrence Park, Canada’s first garden suburb and today one of its wealthiest neighborhoods. Few know him as the creator and promoter of another subdivision that he marketed in the same period using the same tools and strategies. The story of Parsons Estate, the poor twin sister of Lawrence Park has sunk into oblivion. And yet it is the complementary part of the long story of Toronto’s experimentation with suburban living.
Despite the depressed economy in the years before the First World War, Toronto’s housing shortage and people’s distaste for downtown conditions drove many to the recently annexed northwestern district. The bargain basement priced land was situated just beyond the city limit.
Two residential subdivisions north of St. Clair Avenue West were marketed by Dinnick’s Dovercourt Land, Building and Saving Company. Using highly visual and targeted marketing, the company was able to sell land quickly. Sales strategies were developed with insight into both the momentary economic opportunities and the circumstances and dreams of investors and buyers. With richly illustrated printed promotion and commission-hungry salesmen using cars and telephones, Dinnick cashed in on the real estate sweepstakes in the years before the First World War.
A panoramic view of the landscape in the central leaf of the Parsons Estate promotional brochure highlighted that the subdivision was in open country and yet within view of potential employment represented by the smokestacks of Canada Foundry to the south. The offer of land at a minimum $4 per foot with $10 down and monthly payments of $5 was designed to be irresistible to workers fed-up with rent eating up their wages.
“Who Gets Your Wages, You or the Landlord?” was the tag line for the Parsons Estate. The first advertisements for the subdivision appeared in local dailies in the spring of 1909. Numerous photographs reproduced in the promotional brochure and also featured in ads for the working class readers of the Toronto World drove home the subdivision’s selling points.
A life of self-sufficiency in the countryside had appeal for labourers from industrial-England, a group that dominating early twentieth century immigration and had made Toronto more English than it had been in a long time.
West of Dufferin street and “three blocks north of St. Clair” as the promotional material deceptively claimed, Parsons Estate was outside the city limit. In contrast to the more efficient street grid to its south, the subdivision was “laid out in charming crescents and ovals”. In 1910 more southerly Earlscourt subdivisions such as St. Clair Gardens, also targeted to the working man were selling for $15 per foot. The “healthful country air”, as many settlers north of what is now Rogers Road were to find, swept through the clear-cut former farm fields with a vengeance in winter.
The brochure featured numerous photos of homes under construction alongside testimonials and success stories of some already happily settled purchasers. The winsome illusion created by the promotion of Parson’s Estate was that any buyer could gradually, as his means and as available credit in local lumber yards permitted, build a home. The sloping topography, while not mentioned in the text, could be glimpsed from some of its homes-under-construction photos.
A photograph of the purportedly original Parson homestead pointed to earlier noble pioneers and conferred an aura of history to the place-less suburban tract. While the Victorian farmhouse has long disappeared, today’s architectural marker of the Parsons Estate history are the small cottages such as those built by motorman, Mr. MacEllegatt in his venture into the real estate market a century ago.
Are these homes on Dynevor avenue Mr. MacEllegatt’s upgraded cottages? Click on the Google Maps link beside the image to search for architectural vestiges of Parsons Estate.
The rosy view of life in Parsons Estate in the marketing material is contradicted by a 1910 Christmas fund appeal in the Toronto Daily Star titled “A Look Into Homes That Santa Desires to Visit” (November 29, 1910 p1):
Santa Claus wishes to visit Parsons Estate this year. This is the new Earlscourt which has sprung up like a mushroom half outside the city limits north of the suburbs. What Earlscourt was three years ago Parsons Estate is today. It is the home of about 150 families. They are housed in little one-roomed, tar-papered shacks, tents, and buildings erected with discarded bricks. The majority of residents came to Toronto during the summer. Land values in Earlscourt, which were within the reach of all a few years ago, are beyond the means of the poor now. Consequently the newest arrivals had to move further out. They have secured their small lots and have put up their little dwellings on the back of these lots. When more prosperous times come these buildings will serve as kitchens for more substantial dwellings. Such was the evolution through which the greater part of Earlscourt passed.
The Parsons Estate people are about 85 percent English and half of these come from the east end of London, 7 per cent are Scotch, 2 per cent Newfoundlanders, and the balance from European countries. At the present there is much demand for labor and the men who are able are at work. Winter is coming however, and laborers on civic projects will be out of work…
Oakwood Orchards was sold as the middle class dream of a family home on a tree-lined street. Consisting simply of lots on Kennedy (now Atlas) avenue, the subdivision was put together by an investment syndicate looking for quick profit from sale of land in the path of growth north of St. Clair avenue and east of Oakwood. The marketing campaign by the Dovercourt Land, Building and Saving Company targeted builders in the first four months of 1914 who knew that buyers would be attracted by the new Civic Car Line. Builders could purchase lots at a reduced price and low down payment to begin construction immediately. The strategy depended on a strong market confidence for the quick sale of both land and real estate.
Advertising was essential to give a ready vision of a community taking shape out of the surveyors’ plans. Between January and April 1914 the the Dovercourt Land, Building and Saving Company spent between four and five thousand dollars monthly on advertising.* Because there existed nothing to show in photographs, Oakwood Orchards ads promoted a vision of the future through drawings of a streetcar picking up and depositing commuters at a tidy streetscape with homes, trees and picket fences.
A century later, real estate values on Atlas Avenue as well as other neighborhood streets would again rise dramatically with the construction of the St. Clair right-of-way.
Dinnick had not secured the water mains and sewers from the city at the time of the marketing campaign and was forced to pay for their installation to respect the terms of sales. (letter to Dinnick from R.C. Harris Jan 21, 1914)* Thanks to the advertising barrage, Oakwood Orchards was sold by February. He was then able to turn to pushing Glebe Manor, Strathgowan Park and Lawrence Park, his subdivisions in north Toronto east of the Yonge streetcar line and also in the path of the city’s reluctantly extended sewers, electricity grid and water mains.
Lawrence Park Estate
The object of his most intense creative and entrepreneurial energy was Lawrence Park Estate. Handing control to top landscape and residential architects, Dinnick would prove that the ultimate arbiter of a subdivision’s value was good design. In contrast to the Parsons Estate promotion offering photographic views of open spaces, wide horizons and men at work on their own improvised shelters, Lawrence Park was sold on the strength of its detailed plan and photographs of the first garden-surrounded Arts and Crafts homes built on the estate.
Rumors of Real Estate Bubble Burst
However, just as sales for Dinnick’s most upscale residential projects were to hit their peak, an article published in the April 17, 1914 Globe “reflecting very badly on Toronto real estate” drove him to action. (Letter Aril 18, 1914 re: Oakwood Syndicate)* Having lived through the local boom and bust economic cycles of the previous decades, he quickly launched an ambitious campaign to shore up investor confidence.
In Tremendous Toronto, a lavishly illustrated brochure, he outlined why the city held the ideal infrastructure, resources and conditions for continued economic growth. A one man Board of Trade, Dinnick also produced an exhibit to complement the Guild of Civic Art’s own displays that summer educating the Toronto public on the principles of town planning and proposing a new city plan. Demonstrating a command of the art of promotion, the brochure its related exhibit and a feature article in the Toronto Sunday World were a tour-de-force calculated to catch the attention of advertisers and publicists attending their annual conference that summer in Toronto.
However some things are beyond the control of real estate developers, on August 4th war was declared and the effort to sustain the Toronto real estate boom was abruptly abandoned.
* Archives of Ontario F 175 Wilfrid S. Dinnick Family Fonds, Correspondence January 1914- November 1914