THE PANDEMIC HAS KEPT US LOCKED DOWN FOR LONGER THAN EXPECTED. Canada – and Ontario in particular – has set a worldwide trend for length and severity of lockdown (an achievement of dubious distinction.) The end is in sight, however, which will hopefully mean more new work to talk about. In the meantime, here’s more of one of my lockdown projects, the first installment of which I posted late last year.
Once again I have to acknowledge the work Tim Morawetz has done documenting Art Deco architecture both in my hometown and across the country. (Please pick up his book Art Deco Architecture Across Canada or look for Art Deco Architecture in Toronto: A guide to the buildings from the Roaring Twenties and the Depression in your library.) I had a lot to choose from when putting this post together. Toronto is not the most spectacular city for Deco or Streamline Moderne buildings in the world; it was/is a very conservative town, perhaps less so socially and politically, but still very much culturally and aesthetically. There are far more office towers and public buildings in the style than residences, but there are enough for a single post devoted to Deco dwellings.
There are no districts full of Deco homes and apartment buildings in Toronto, just pockets – a few streets where developers decided it was a style that might appeal to prospective residents, who would respond to its futuristic message of efficiency and modernity. To find them you need to wander through Midtown and areas that were being developed/redeveloped between the wars. You’ll know you’re warm when you come across buildings with names that evoke luxury, high society, or more glamourous climates.
Toronto is a city of Victorian red brick, but yellow brick became the material of choice for Deco and early Midcentury Modern apartments. In Toronto Deco announces itself with bands of brickwork underneath or running parallel with windows that are often set into the corners of buildings.
As ever, look out for curves – in balconies and awnings and deep turrets. The curve was Deco’s shape of choice – evocative of machines and streamlined ships and railway engines, but a testament to the skills of bricklayers who will charge a premium for a curved wall today, if they’ll even be able to rise to the challenge.
Finally there’s the octagonal window – usually set into a bathroom or a hallway in the efficiency apartments that are usually contained within most Deco apartment buildings in this city. The octagon is rational and symmetrical while breaking up the right angles of a building – and another shape that challenges the unskilled craftsman.
Deco in Toronto features many variations, from sedate facades full of classical devices from the early ’20s to courtyards with porthole windows in places like The Dorchester, a Moderne luxury building from 1940. The nearby Mayfair apartment complex is full of sinuous stone details that call back to Art Nouveau, while a pair of apartment buildings in Parkdale present themselves like twin engine houses with porthole windows.
The most perfect Art Deco apartments in the city, however, are in the Garden Court complex on Bayview, with their landscaped courtyards and corner windows and flats that become more modest the further you get from the entrance to the grounds. During the worst summer months of the pandemic the residents were especially vigilant about outsiders in their courtyards, even if they were just appreciative photographers.
There are not a lot of private homes in the Deco, Streamline or Moderne style in Toronto. I can count the ones I know on one hand, though there might be a dozen hiding on side streets all over the city. Some are restrained and unassuming, with just a flat roof, a curved wall and an octagonal window; my wife calls this “Methodist Deco.” Others just feature a Deco detail or two, in custom stonework over a door or around a chimney. Rarest of all is a house like 170 Strathearn, with portholes and octagons, a flat roof, curved balconies and decorative stainless steel railings, finished in gleaming white stucco that looks more suitable to Miami or Melbourne than Midtown Toronto.