February 1997

Rosedale - old money and new luxury

by Gil Zohar

The rich get richer and ... well, historic Rosedale just gets posher. Toronto's toniest, oldest and most central neighbourhood of the super wealthy has changed subtly in the half century since the end of World War II. The once WASP enclave of old money is now home to the variety of people who make Toronto such an ethnically rich and cosmopolitan city - Jews, Italians, Chinese, Asians, blacks and other well-heeled newcomers. But all share two things in common - lucre and lots of it, and a yearning for privacy.

This blue chip neighbourhood of stately mansions and beautiful estates is nestled in the very heart of Toronto, in close proximity to all that is upscale in the city. Within a 10-minute walk of Bloor and Yonge, and trendy Yorkville, and a short commute to Bay Street's glass and concrete canyon in the skyscrapers of which toil many of the area's stock brokers, lawyers and businessmen, Rosedale offers a lush landscape of mature trees, flowers and more than 200 acres of verdant parks.

The winding tree-lined streets have park-sized lawns in front and chauffeurs out back, giving the neighbourhood a decidedly staid, elegant aura. Many of Toronto's wealthiest families live here, in palatial brick and limestone homes in the Victorian, Romanesque, Gothic, Georgian and Tudor styles. The eclectic architecture and leafy bowered streets lend Rosedale a charm unique in Toronto. Indeed no other city in Canada or the United States can claim a comparable reserve of the ultra-rich so close to the city centre.

Defining the graceful neighbourhood is subjective. Yonge Street forms the western boundary and Bloor Street the south border. The Moore Park Ravine and Bayview Avenue define the east side, while Mount Pleasant Road divides the neighbourhood into east and west halves. But the northern edge is less clear. Indeed Rosedale has two different ratepayers groups reflecting this geographic north-south ambiguity.

Emphasizing the privacy sought by those living at society's pinnacle, the roads and crescents of this much sought after residential district don't relate to old Toronto's regular grid of north-south and east-west streets. It was a 19th century planner's way of saying "keep out. You have no business being here unless you have business being here."

Today that trend continues. Current real estate offerings include an 8,000-sq. ft. home on a .64-acre ravine lot on a cul-de-sac. The five-bedroom mansion, which includes an indoor swimming pool, is listed at $1,580,000. More affordable at $749,900 each are a four-bdr home built in 1993 on a more modest 39.5 ft. by 149 ft lot, and a five-bdr charmer completely renovated in 1995/96 sited on a 50 ft. by 129 ft. lot. In Rosedale, modest is relative.

But the edges of Rosedale have attracted some major infill housing projects where condominium luxury is slightly more affordable. A major redevelopment is in the works for the former CNR Summerhill commuter station, now used as an LCBO store. The parking lot will become a major urban piazza flanked by low-rise housing and stores. Rosedale residents initially opposed the intensification scheme claiming the scheme was too grand for the neighbourhood. Now scaled down, it remains unbuilt waiting for an economic recovery from the slump that has plagued Canada since the bust of the late 1980s. Alas, even in Rosedale money doesn't grow on trees.

One new landmark developers have tried to emulate is the Rosedale Glen at 278 Bloor Street East. The stylish apartment house, designed by the Zeidler Roberts Partnership in 1983, faces onto Bloor Street to the south and leafy Rosedale to the north. The architects have discreetly arranged warm honey-covered brick and beige-banded glass balconies to distinguish the building's residential function from the nearby office towers.

Brick detailing and architectural craftsmanship have been synonymous with Rosedale for well over a century. Pioneers in Upper Canada called the steep, gorge-like ravine where the Rosedale Valley intersected the primitive Yonge Street laid out by Governor John Graves Simcoe "Blue Hill" in reference to the bluish clay exposed in the eroded hillside. Col. William Botsford Jarvis, the Sheriff of York from 1827 to 1856 and son of Simcoe's contemporary Stephen Jarvis, the first Secretary and Registrar of Upper Canada, utilized this material for making bricks when he built the area's first homestead - Rosedale House. It was dramatically perched on the crest of a precipitous bank overlooking the deep winding ravines that drained into the Don River.

The name Rosedale reputedly was coined in 1827 when the newly appointed Sheriff's bride Mary Jarvis (ne� Powell) discovered the hillsides covered with a profusion of wild roses.

Col. Jarvis, who together with Joseph Bloor laid out the village plots for the town of Yorkville, considered naming the new suburb Rosedale, Cumberland and Bloorville. Yorkville was annexed to Toronto in 1883, making the development of Rosedale the next logical step in Toronto's growth.

In 1890 Sir Donald Macpherson bought the 200-acre Jarvis estate and started subdividing it with meandering streets. By 1900 Rosedale was established as the address for gentlemen, with 80 mansions already built.

Snob appeal led to the enactment of some progressive measures. The city's first ratepayers association was formed here at the turn of the century. Similarly Rosedale pioneered the burying of hydro wires in the 1920s. For better or worse, commerce was banished in 1905. There are no corner stores in Rosedale as one finds in other Toronto neighbourhoods of this vintage. In fact, but for a few out of the way shops on Summerhil Avenue, there is nothing to buy in Rosedale.

But even the wealthy are subject to inexorable market forces. Wartime housing shortages and high municipal taxes led to old mansions being converted into rooming houses. That opened the way for postwar developers, who, conforming to local by-laws restricting heights to three storeys, constructed apartment buildings spilling down the sides of the ravine lots they had picked up. It also made living in an apartment building quite respectable - if it was in Rosedale.

Some grand estates avoided the sorrowful fate of being demolished to make room for expensive townhouse developments. Chorley Park, a 13-acre estate built by the government of Ontario at a staggering cost of $1,000,000 between 1911 and 1915, was originally intended to serve as the residence for the province's Lieutenant Governor and venue for government functions. Modelled after the chateaux of the Loire Valley in France, the lavish residence by far outshone Rideau Hall in Ottawa. But the expense of maintaining so grandiose a building and its staff proved politically unpopular for the Conservatives, especially with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. By 1937 Liberal Premier Mitchell Hepburn ordered the mansion closed. Two years later the empty building became a military hospital, and so it remained until 1956.

The grounds were gradually overrun by a maze of temporary buildings, some of which were used to house refugees from Hungary's abortive 1956 revolution. Three years later the decaying and abandoned building was demolished, and the grounds converted into a park. Today all that remains of the provincial folly is the bridge to the forecourt

A similar fate befell St. Andrews, a ritzy private academy which left Rosedale and became a residential school in Aurora. But Rosedale is also a neighbourhood in the old-fashioned sense of the word - with neighbours creating a deliberate sense of community. When TTC bus driver John Abuja steered his bus into the Rosedale subway station for the last time on November 24, hundreds from the community were there to greet him - and to thank him for 16 years of exemplary service on the no. 82 Rosedale bus. The North and South Rosedale Ratepayers Associations sponsored a "Say Goodbye to John" morning from 7:30 to 8:45 at the station.

Much mythologized, Rosedale's name has been borrowed by those who desire its cachet. Rosedale Livery Ltd. offers chauffeur-driven cars for weddings but will also take passengers to the airport. A Toronto gift parcel company offers a basket called, you guessed it,

The Rosedale stuffed with delicacies like Camembert cheese and smoked salmon. Rosedale has also been the butt of satirists like Frank magazine and gossip columnists like The Globe and Mail's Rosemary Sexton. A gay and lesbian resource centre a few km away on Church Street pointedly calls itself This Ain't The Rosedale Library. But on the status-conscious streets of Rosedale, there's only one thing that matters - money.