By Marta O’Brien, originally published March 30, 2009
Long before luxurious condos and penthouses, Toronto architects and developers tried to make apartment living appealing through beautiful architecture. Some of the most opulent buildings were erected beginning in the late 1920s along Avenue Road, halfway between Davenport and St. Clair. This article will focus on four of my favourite examples.
Tudor Revival architecture has always been popular in homes for those who are well off (or aspire to be) so it’s not surprising that the style was used to give apartment buildings a familiar air of grandeur. The Clarendon, on the northwest corner of Avenue Road and Clarendon Avenue, was built in 1927 and designed by architect Charles B. Dolphin. The three 4-storey buildings are primarily brick with a generous amount of smooth stone trim. Dark headers (brick ends) alternate with light stretchers (the long sides of the bricks) to create a checkerboard effect in the brickwork. Each building’s ground floor is clad in rough-faced dichromatic stone. Tall leaded-glass casement windows are typical of the Tudor Revival style. The centre block’s decorative parapet adds to the medieval motif, and a shield and the building’s name are carved above the entrance.
The Clarendon provided commodious living in apartments with one to four bedrooms. People were further enticed from houses by the fireplaces, billiard room, and miniature golf course in the rear court. Private parties could be held in the grand oak-panelled reception hall measuring 18 by 9 metres (60 by 30 feet).
Another even more imposing Tudor-inspired building is just north: The Balmoral dominates the northeast corner of Avenue Road and Balmoral Avenue. S.B. Coon & Son were the architects for this 1927-28 building. The most distinctive feature of the 7-storey structure is the huge arched entrance. The arch includes pinnacles, battlements and – like the Clarendon – a shield and building name.
The Claridge is the most unusual and grand apartment building in Toronto. I’ve always agreed with architectural historian William Dendy’s description of it as “the queen of Toronto apartment buildings.” Built in 1927-28 and designed by Baldwin & Greene, the building is a 6-storey H-shape. Here the influence is Venetian palazzo rather than Tudor manor. The brickwork is the most elaborate I’ve seen on a post-Victorian building. Many of the effects are achieved by alternating textured and smooth bricks. Other bricks are laid in a basket weave pattern, and moulded bricks form cords around the French doors and beneath some window sills.
Gargoyles and angels are usually associated with churches, but the Claridge has both. Winged gargoyles extend from near the top of the building corners. Three serene angels support each oriel window. (An oriel window is a bay window above the ground floor.)
Group of Seven artist J. E. H. MacDonald decorated the Claridge lobby. The beamed ceiling is painted in gold, blue, red, and black in a geometrical, somewhat astrological theme with zodiac signs and suns. The walls are cream stucco and there are several heavy dark wood tables. The Italian theme is reinforced by the arched windows and door openings.
Perhaps because of the Great Depression, the Mayfair Mansions are not nearly as elaborate as the previous three examples but their distinctive Art Deco details make them worth a look. There are three buildings, all by architect H. C. Roberts: 394 and 396 Avenue Road were built in 1931 and 398 was completed in 1937. The details here appear to be cast stone, but they are no less delightful. There are waves above the windows, and owls and other creatures adorn the entrance. Geometrical bursts top the pilasters which emphasize the vertical element typical of Deco architecture. It was common in Art Deco to use natural themes along with angular forms.
All of these buildings are listed on the City of Toronto’s Inventory of Heritage Properties; The Claridge and Balmoral are designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
This portion of Avenue Road has more architectural treasures. South of the buildings described above is the Benvenuto (originally Benvenuto Place Apartments) designed by cutting-edge architect Peter Dickinson while working with Page & Steele. This 1955 building is now a condominium. North of St. Clair are more post-1950 apartment buildings, while toward Davenport there’s a series of smaller buildings from the 1930s. With condos rising at and near St. Clair, Avenue Road provides a fairly complete history of multiresidential architecture.
Marta O’Brien is an architectural historian who enjoys sharing her photographs and knowledge of Toronto’s architectural history through continuing education courses at Ryerson University, George Brown College, and the University of Toronto. Through Citywalks, Marta develops and conducts walking tours featuring distinctive neighbourhoods and districts in Toronto. Marta is a member of the Heritage Toronto Board.