In the winter and spring of 1914 Toronto newspaper The World ran a campaign to counter Earlscourt’s “shack town” reputation. The partially built north-west district, proclaimed the published photographs and reports, had come through its rough early years and was now open for business.That summer’s garden competition would announce to the rest of the city that the community members, rather than being merely occupied with survival, were involved in a grand scheme to beautify.
Fifty years later another wave of beautification hit the neighborhood as the area once known as Little Britain became Little Italy. Post-war immigrants displayed pride in their property and cultural identity through a locally developed style vocabulary in gardens, fences and façades. Today with a new influx of settlers, the area bounded by Prospect Cemetery to the west, Rogers Road to the north, Oakwood to the east and St. Clair on the south is again undergoing change as its home-grown Italian-style is supplanted by newcomers’ more mainstream tastes.
Earlscourt, Google Maps
In 1911 photos taken at the onset of the Civic Car line construction along St. Clair show a landscape of farm fields dotted with some freshly built homes and older farm buildings. W. Pidgeon’s grocery-hardware store on the corner of Nairn avenue and St. Clair was the southern gateway and sales centre to Dovercourt Land, Building and Savings Company’s Nairn Estate subdivision. The modest sized lots on empty fields appealed to those looking for affordable land, low taxes and lax building regulations.
St. Clair and Nairn location of W.S. Pidgeon’s store on Google Maps street view
On New Year’s Day 1914 The World reported that Mayor Hocken, in the midst of a heavy schedule of meetings with Earlscourt groups, had praised the civic engagement evident in the district. With a steady influx of settlers over the previous three years it now had the necessary population base to petition City Hall for improvements. Among voters’ top concerns of was Earlscourt’s notoriety as a place that required charity and inspired pity.
Shaking the ‘shack town’ Label
Two weeks later The World began what would be a steady flow of news items demonstrating that Earlscourt’s hard times were a thing of the past. One article featured man on the street assertions that the famine, triggered by winter lay-offs of laborers, wouldn’t recur as residents had used the lessons of these to develop strong social support networks. Earlscourt was to be envied by workers in other sections of Toronto because it was here that land owners had escaped the yoke of the landlord and would profit from the current steep rise in property prices.
Earlscourt Residents Claim That Poverty Cases Are Not Numerous—CONDITIONS CHANGED—Good Class of Houses Being Erected and Families are Prosperous
“Merchants and the people of the Earlscourt and St. Clair district are much annoyed at the scare headlines of an evening paper with reference to the anticipated distress in the district, and the pointed reference to the trouble being most acute with the people living in “shacks.” Several residents, in conversation with The World yesterday, were emphatic that the poverty reports were exaggerated. One person remarked that the dwellers in the “shacks” were the better fixed than their neighbors renting houses in the city, as, altho (sic) the shacks were cheap, the lots upon which they stand are valuable, and the rent trouble is practically non-existent.
“Say Reports are Much exaggerated” The World Jan 15, 1914 p2
The World followed this up a week later with concrete evidence of Earlscourt’s march of progress. In terms of culture, there was a steady flow of new books and growing membership at the local library. For those with a taste for more popular fare, a theatre for movies and Vaudeville acts was soon to open at St. Clair near Dufferin. Hopes for a pool room on St. Clair would be disappointed however; the license application didn’t make it through the “vigorous” opposition of church organizations. (Jan. 23) The herald of Earlscourt’s new mainstream respectability was the Neo-Classical façade of the new Canadian Bank of Commerce that dominated the Dufferin and St. Clair intersection. (Jan 27)
Bank of Commerce today Google Maps
Throughout that real estate spring high season the The World published “good news” stories about the Earlscourt -Fairbank districts to complement land dealers’ advertisements on its pages.
With the dream of beyond-the-city self-sufficiency, the Pratt Estate offered quarter and half acre lots between Bathurst and Dufferin with free ploughing, harrowing and seeding of land with potatoes, “sell the products of your land and use the income to assist you in the payments.” In contrast, Silverthorn Grove marketing emphasized how well connected the subdivision was to factories to the city’s north-western industrial zone, for further inducement “the Workingman’s Rosedale… a few minutes walk from the St. Clair Avenue Car line,” offered free house plans to every purchaser.
In a World article titled “Many Instances of Wonderful Jumps in Value,” Dovercourt Company Sales Manager C.S. Pote sent out encouragement to residents and buyers, “Conditions in the sales field couldn’t be much better than they are now.” Emphasizing that the investors are not speculators but energetic family men with hands-on skills eager to immediately erect homes, he highlighted how land values had shot up:
The Nairn Estate three years ago was sold by the Dovercourt Land Company at a flat rate of seven dollars a foot. The company held back one lot for an emergency, and last week sold that lot at $42 a foot. The Parsons Estate when opened up sold at from $3 to $8 a foot, it is now worth $17 to $35 a foot. (April 12)
Photographs accompanied by I-built-it-myself testimonials of such paragons of enterprise as William Mills were inserted in the daily’s pages to step-up land agents’ sales. (April 16)
Other advertorial content included a portrait of well diggers who asserted that the city’s purest water was to be found in the Earlscourt and Fairbank districts.
Three 1914 Toronto Home Garden Competitions
In an era of social reform, garden competitions throughout North America set out to use the popularity of gardening to develop stronger communities within the city and enhance the health and well-being of its working class residents. In Toronto as elsewhere they offered home owners the chance to increase the value of their property while learning how to design and maintain vegetable and flower gardens.
The Toronto Horticultural Society
Beginning in 1909 Toronto Horticultural Society held an annual “Street Improvement Competition”. Specially selected streets throughout the city were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals for most improved appearance to a series of connected gardens. The list of streets included the entire Earlscourt area and represented garden-poor or downright eye-sore zones within the city that were a concern for the leading citizens that made up the Society executive.
For back yards in neighborhoods with narrow lots the Society, following the lead of England, advocated low wire fences that supported climbing perennials and vegetables such as squash. The open-concept garden was meant to give greater scope to gardening and neighborly relations. Celebrating the yard as oasis and laboratory, American how-to manuals such as The Humble Annals of a Backyard, The Backyard Farmer, and The Gardenette guided city dwellers in the use of the yard as a place of Nature Study, private reflection and small-scale farming.
Toronto Horticultural Yearbook 1910 Squash Growing on Fence and below open concept backyards
In the context of urban planning and subdivision development, the ideal of living spaces designed to offer the working classes the maximum light, air and a place to grow plants was at the core of the English-based Garden City and in modified form Garden Suburb concept that had spread throughout the world since its original experimental form in Letchworth. In Toronto the concept had been discussed in relation to the desire to relocate Ward residents to city owned low-rent housing away from the city centre.
The term however, also arose as a vision for community development embraced by Earlscourt residents.
The British Imperial Association
That spring the Oakwood chapter of The British Imperial Association, a group representing Earlscourt’s dominant immigrant group, launched a yard competition. Through a program of lectures all district residents were offered guidance on how gardens could enhance the beauty of even the most humble homes and provide fresh produce for the family.On March 21 The World reported that the aims of the initiative which the B.I.A. described as a “movement” were:
“To encourage people to make the best use of their lots, tidy backyards and to be able to grow a few vegetables etc. to help solve the high cost of living problem. To help those who are willing to help themselves.”
“To encourage people to build on larger sized lots rather than squeeze houses so close together as to keep out fresh air and nature.”
“By means of lectures etc. to bring out the fact that Canada is not producing enough from the land…” The B.I.A. Horticultural Committee invited the public to a series of free lectures and public meetings.
With neatly intertwined agendas, Mr. Pratt of Pratt Estate was the first speaker invited to address the community. “The first will be held on Monday next in the Oakwood High School on St. Clair avenue, when Mr. A.C. Pratt, M.L.C. will lecture on “Back to the Land.”
The previous month, W.H. Smith as B.I.A. Secretary had asked the Dovercourt Company to rent some of the vacant land in the area so that his organization could offer garden allotments at reasonable rents to community members. The brief reply from company president W. F. Dinnick the following day was that while he supported the aim of the project all land held by his company in the Earlscourt area had been sold. . (Feb. 16 & 17, 1914 correspondence, Dinnick Family Papers, Ontario Archives)
The Dovercourt Land Company
Recognizing the potential of such a competition as a complement to the marketing of his residential developments across the city, Dinnick launched a Backyard Contest offering a $1,000 prize for best garden of houses valued under $3,000 and an equivalent prize for homes whose value exceeded that sum. Prof. Hutt of the Ontario Agricultural College, Guelph was appointed as judge and was available to community groups as an advisor and lecturer. The images of exemplary gardens (all surrounding substantial brick homes on large lots) used in his slide-illustrated lectures can be glimpsed in the pages of the Toronto Horticultural Society’s 1911 Yearbook. Gardens would be judged on layout and general arrangement; variety and succession of fruit, flowers and vegetable crops; and general effect in space available with an emphasis on neatness, care and cultivation.
Dinnick explained to the Ontario Horticultural Association at their fall conference that year that his competition had the economic goal of enhancing the quality of workers’ life so ensuring that they would be more productive. It had a public health goal of encouraging the exercise in the production and dietary health in the consumption of fresh produce. It had the goal of enhancing community life by promoting neighbourliness and cooperation. However beyond all other public welfare goals Dinnick saw the competition as a way to instill a taste for beauty in Toronto’s everyman.
… what we have to do is to create a greater intolerance of ugliness. It must be regarded as an evil, something not merely distasteful to the eye, but as having some subtle affect upon the soul. Beautify their surroundings and teach them how to themselves take part in that process of beautifying and you enoble the people. …(“Town and City Backyard Development” Address to the Ontario Horticultural Society nov.11 & 12 1914, correspondence, Dinnick Family Papers, Ontario Archives)
Jumping on the gardening competitions bandwagon that so neatly dovetailed with its advertisers’ interests, its working class readerships’ aspirations and possibly the editor’s own land speculation, The World ran a feature outlining Baltimore’s celebrated vacant lot and community garden project; it gave readers a peek at the gardens of the rich as inspiration and offered a free gardening manual with each subscription renewal.
A proposal from the Toronto Housewives’ League that a local farmers market be set up to serve the Oakwood-Earlscourt-Wychwood residents was greeted by the B.I.A. with enthusiasm for its potential for neighbors to sell their own produce there.
As residents invested time and effort in their gardens, poultry from neighboring yards scratching and pecking seeds were put on notice.By June 11th The World noted the viral effect of the yard competitions on the mainstreet .
Following out the idea of the garden scheme so popular in the Earlscourt district, Manager M. Holmes of the Dominion Bank, corner of St. Clair avenue and Dufferin street has placed three choice flower beds on the lawn and eight Boston ivy plants on the south wall of the building, the effect being very pretty … The concrete sidewalk from Oakwood to Lansdowne avenue on the south side of St. Clair is rapidly nearing completion.
On July 25th at the height of the summer The Toronto Star Weekly published photos of the B.I.A. competition’s winning gardens. The top prize was awarded to a garden that featured “the best flower garden and neatest premises.” The symmetry of the garden design, its strongly delineated edges and formal plantings is a foretaste of the garden style that fifty years later would prevail on the same streets.
Photographs of the Earlscourt streets from its earliest moments of settlement show the multiplicity of modest suburban house styles characteristic of the area.
Many of the bungalows were owner built with kits ordered from such enterprises as the Aladdin Company that had a Toronto office.
The basic insulated version of this house type had by the 1940’s became one of the prototypes designs recommended by Canadian Mortgage and Housing.
By the early 1920’s the gaps in the streets evident in earlier photos had disappeared and Earlscourt appears fully built up. Generally, streetscapes north of Rogers road are characterized by narrower lots than those on the south and houses with a high degree of customization. Throughout the former Earlscourt district homes show evidence of additions, newer house styles for higher occupancy and other practical modifications driven by city-enforced standards.
The Italians Arrive
The Toronto Italian house is a grass-roots phenomenon that does not exist in Italy. Local Italian-style evolved as a statement of ethnic identity rooted in the prosperity of the 1960’s and sanctioned by 1970s Multiculturalism. Small religious grottoes, arches and wrought iron railings became the markers of Italian streets where immigrants spoke the symbolic language of a shared culture. (Cameron, 1988).
Beyond creating a distinct social space, the hallmarks of Italian-style–the use of wrought iron as a counterpoint in texture to brick and stone, second floor balconies, and statuary, fountains or other focal points in the front gardens express the prosperity of the home owners. Ana Cameron, an art historian who carried out a study of the houses sees the influence of Baroque forms passed to the immigrants through their southern Italy architectural heritage.
One notes distant but distinct echoes in Italian Toronto of the Baroque aesthetic: a desire for control and containment, multiplicity rather than simplicity and, most consistent of all a desire to impress on the spectator a sense of drama, dignity and solidity of the structure. … The incongruous effects one sometimes finds are frequently the effects of unresolved compromises between English or American aesthetic and the Italian classical one. “The Contemporary Italian House in Toronto” Italian Canadiana Vol. 4, 1988
While many of the Italians that originally settled in Earlscourt have migrated northward to lower density suburban neighborhoods, house designs were kept intact and elaborated upon by the later Portuguese settlers. Patrick Cummins’ Flikr Collations in-depth online visual study of Toronto’s lanes, streets, and ravines includes a series titled d.i.y. living that documents the typology and concentration of the small-lot narrow long bungalow in particular neighborhoods. Few changes are evident in the facades and gardens of some of the Earlscourt houses between the time when shot by Cummins in 2010 and as they currently appear online as Google Maps street views taken the following year.
Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular photographs by Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micaleff
The Contemporary Italian House in Toronto, Italian Canadiana Vol. 4, 1988, by Ana Cameron
St. Clair in Pictures, a history of the communities of Carlton, Davenport, Earlscourt and Oakwood by Nancy Byers and Barbara Myrvold
Join me at market square to discuss your experience of local gardens. Play a card-match memory game to test your powers of pattern recognition.