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The Role of Brick In Toronto’s Architectural History

 

Welcome to Canadian Real Estate, Housing & Home.

Allow me to introduce myself! I’m Steve Fudge and I’m celebrating over three decades as a realtor, property consultant, and proud resident of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Today I’m sharing one of my October 2023 articles from my Toronto website Urbaneer.com about a sliver of Toronto’s rich architectural history.

Read on.

 


 

Even though my role as a realtor is part analyst, part stylist, part strategist, and part shelter cheerleader, I also spend a lot of time focusing on the bricks and mortar of property. So you can imagine my ‘Aha moment’ this past week when I realized I’ve never crafted a literal post about bricks. But I’ve come close! In fact, I consider these posts to be helpful reads –> Understanding The Six Essential Layers Of Property – and – The Affordability Conundrum For Toronto House Buyers: Location, Condition & Costs – and – Dear Urbaneer: What Are The Benefits Of A Presale Inspection Report For Property Sellers & Buyers?.

I love brick. As a child, I took note reading ‘The Three Little Pigs’ fable that the Big Bad Wolf could blow down the first two pigs’ houses built of straw and sticks respectively, but is unable to destroy the third pig’s house made of brick. I was clueless about the morals of this tale: that the individual who builds a solid base cannot be destroyed by the vicissitudes of life; or that living for instant gratification without planning and foresight could cost you everything. For me, the brick house built by the third little pig represented strength, permanence and survival. It was not lost on me the importance of always having a roof over your head, which is probably why, as an adult, I write posts like Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And Toronto Real Estate For Buyers – and For Sellers.

 

 

Home Sweet Home, Built One Brick At A Time

Did you know that not only has brick played a role in the history of Toronto’s housing aesthetic, but that Toronto has played a key role in the history of the manufacturing and design of brick? It’s been a foundation of Toronto’s economy and its built form.

This is a good thing, because second to stone, brick is a sturdy and stately exterior building material and a cornerstone (pun intended) of construction. It has literally built civilizations throughout human history. Toronto’s history of brick manufacturing means it characterizes many of our leafy residential streetscapes as well as any number of Toronto landmarks, such as the Ontario Legislature, Casa Loma, Osgoode Hall, and Massey Hall. This is in part because as building methods evolved through the late 1800s, we moved away from stone construction and the extensive manual labour required in creating and transporting it (many Toronto buildings are constructed of stone from the Niagara escarpment) and toward brick which was an accessible local material and reasonably easy to create.

This is why brick construction characterized much of the Victorian-era homes in Toronto and continues to this day. Red brick is the most common colour, but there are others, including buff (often referred to as yellow brick) which became more notable in Mid-century construction- an excellent example of which can be seen in our current listing: A Smash Hit Trophy-In-The-Making On Tennis Crescent In Riverdale.

 

 

Evergreen Brick Works

 

The History of Brick Production in Toronto

At one point in time, 40 percent of the brick in the province was made in Toronto, much of which happened at Don Valley Brickworks, located just west of the Don Valley Parkway (which went through various owners and iterations over time). This group produced some 43 million bricks and was operational for the better part of a century.

There were smaller brick companies in the area in the 1800s, but these were mostly smaller, family-run operations that scooped near-the-surface clay. As the years went on, digging deeper required more equipment- and more funding, so bigger companies with the capital for such ventures took a foothold in the market, among them, the Don Valley Brickworks.

The site just west of the DVP (which today has been repurposed as the Evergreen Brickworks, a veritable hub for sustainability) dates back to the mid-19th century.

The story goes that this quarry was originally a paper mill, and when the owner John Taylor was digging holes to erect fenceposts, he came across some high-quality clay, so they took advantage of this on-site resource and converted the facility into a quarry and factory for brick production.

 

 

Clay was the primary material initially, and eventually, as that became depleted over the decades, shale and a different process for manufacturing became the standard for brick-making.

The Don Valley Brick Works made various brick products including wire-cut bricks, dry-pressed bricks, stiff-mud brick and sand‑lime brick.

The quality of these bricks was world-renowned, and they won prizes at the Chicago World Fair and at the Toronto Industrial Fair in the late 1800s.

 

Brick Ovens & Drying Tube

 

As tech evolved, so did the architecture and construction, with the ability to dig deeper for more material, as well as produce on a larger scale (bricks were first made artisan-style, baked in moulds and kilns). Similarly, tools emerged that allowed bricks to be cut to different sizes and around archways, which became a common, notable feature in Victorian housing.

The brick produced here was predominantly “good quality red brick”, but other colours became popular over the years.

In the early 20th century, the quarry and factory changed owners, and the Don Valley Brick Corp Limited was eventually bought by a German company and production continued until later in the 20th century, when all the resources had been quarried.

This post chronicles a journey throughout Toronto and former brickyard sites, bounded by Danforth on the north, Gerrard Street on the south, Jones Avenue on the west and Greenwood Avenue including the east side “Self-Guided Tour: Bricks, Devils And A Pocket“. It’s a good read, with fascinating history at each stop about the activities that took place there generations ago, and how each contributed to Toronto’s architectural contribution and history around bricks, home construction and brickmaking.

 

 

Evergreen Brick Works

The Don Valley Brick Works site was filled in eventually and redeveloped to include parks and wetlands, mindful of its proximity to Mud Creek the Don Valley Watershed and is connected to a number of well-known trails around the area.

It’s a fascinating example of how something so overtly industrial and commercial can be revamped into a boost for the area eco-system.

Today, and since 2010, the site has been managed by Evergreen Brick Works, which describes the modern iteration of the site as “a year-round destination where the world comes to experience sustainability in action. Once an industrial brick factory, now it is an internationally renowned showcase of green design, an award-winning public space and a test site to pilot ideas that can be scaled across the country to shape our cities for the better.”

They welcome a half-million visitors a year, with a garden, public market, educational opportunities and more.

 

362/364 Wellesley Street East – Built 1860

 

The Brick Aesthetic

Toronto-quarried bricks were initially coloured in the red family, with hues that gravitated towards pink, eventually with shades of yellow (buff brick) more commonly seen; yellows were initially used more for trim around windows and doors, particularly in Victorian Homes.

Cabbagetown is home to the largest collection of Victorian residences in North America. We can see how red brick was commonly used to construct the majority of the dwellings with buff brick being laid to embellish the architecture, though there are a handful of buff brick residences too.

Here are some snaps of Cabbagetown residences as examples:

 

414 Sackville Street – Side Elevation – Built 1885

 

357 Wellesley Street East – Built 1900

 

100/102 Winchester – Built 1911

 

In the Edwardian era, it wasn’t unusual for dwellings to be constructed on a brick foundation. That began changing in the 1920s and 1930s when cement and concrete became more widely used in construction. Concrete blocks, which are larger and less porous, became the material of choice for foundations until poured concrete grew in popularity in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, the use of brick switched from being a dominant building material to a veneer. Why? Because it was faster and more economical to build a timber structure and face it in a brick veneer.

 

8/10 Tennis Crescent – Built 1961

 

32/34 Givins – Built 1982

 

Lofthouse – 495 Logan – Built 2023

 

Mid-Century Use Of Yellow (Buff) Brick As More Than An Accent

Our listing on Tennis Crescent – A Smash Hit Trophy-In-The-Making On Tennis Crescent In Riverdale– is a prime example of the rise of buff brick. The semi-detached dwellings, located in Riverdale just east of the Don Valley south of The Danforth, were built in 1961, when alternate  – by and large ‘warm’ – colour palettes were popular in mid-century modern buildings.

 

* Image courtesy of Richard Lautens / Toronto Star, with thanks. We hold no rights.

 

The above photo is from a Toronto Star article, entitled, “An Ode To The Mid-Century Toronto Apartment“. Here, again, we see the use of yellow brick at 100/105 Isabelle, both built on the cusp of the 60s – in 1959.

I’ve often discussed the fact that how we design, construct and finish our homes is a reflection of broader sociological trends, but sometimes it’s simply a question of fashion. The 60s and 70s were heavily characterized by happy colours like yellow, orange and avocado green, and this chromatic feeling was also expressed in the design of our homes.

 

* Images courtesy of Rick McGinnis, with thanks. We hold no rights.

 

I also want to call attention to the work of Rick McGinnis – a Toronto photographer, who documented Toronto architecture throughout the pandemic in posts like this one: “ Toronto Deco 2“. In it, he writes, “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.

 

 

The bricks are 8 and 1/4 inches long, 2 and 3/8 inches high and 4 inches deep.

 

 

The appeal of this particular colour is its earthy warmth and lends a visual texture that is unique, but welcoming at the same time. Buff brick is known to be durable as well and lends a patina of experience that wears in, rather than wears out.

Are you keen to own a piece, literally, of Toronto’s aesthetic and architectural history? With a deep knowledge of housing history that lets me guide clients toward their happy housing future, I’m here to help!

 

~ Steven

 

*NEW LISTING*

Allow us to introduce this mid-century modern semi-detached swell dwell that we call: A Smash Hit Trophy In The Making On Tennis Crescent In Riverdale – offered at $1,629,000!

Well-situated, well-proportioned, and welcoming, this family-friendly residence is an ideal opportunity for those seeking customizable space (and a lot of it!) in a superb coveted neighbourhood. Check it out!

 

 

Contact Steven Fudge – steve@urbaneer.com  – with any questions, or to chat about this stellar opportunity to tailor a property to suit your needs!

 

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