Exploring Edwardian Residential Architecture in Toronto, Ontario

One of the many benefits of living in Toronto is the beauty of the vintage housing stock. While older residences will require additional maintenance and repair simply because of their longevity, the high style patina and architectural touches that lend the unique character to these homes are truly immeasurable.

No wonder century homes are so sought-after in the city!

(Photo credit: “Art Deco or Edwardian: A pictorial guide to early 20th century Toronto housing styles”)

Of particular interest to many Toronto homebuyers are dwellings constructed during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In Toronto, our Victorian architecture incorporates a number of architectural styles spanning the mid-to-late 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). In the past I’ve written about two of the most popular in Toronto, being our Bay & Gable Victorian Architecture, and Ontario Gothic Revival Cottages. Edwardian architecture followed, at the turn of the 20th century, reflecting the very short reign of King Edward.

During the Edwardian era, the evolution of the city of Toronto was in full swing, having a population of around 210,000. Major changes were happening to Toronto’s infrastructure, and while horses and carriages were still common in the streets, with the introduction of electricity there was the emergence of electric streetcars. Much as it does today, access to public transportation influences how and where we live, and as streetcar service expanded beyond the core, so did the population!

It was during this era that Toronto experienced the Great Fire (1904), leading to mass destruction in the downtown core. While Toronto’s epicenter was relatively quickly rebuilt, one of the most notable outcomes from the fire was the shift towards higher-quality, safer, and more durable construction materials (i.e. use of more brick and stone), which began to characterize the construction of homes.

Check out these posts on the history of Toronto during this era: “Nostalgia Tripping: Toronto’s Streetcar Suburbs”,  “This Is What Toronto Looked Like In The 1900s” and “Toronto Ontario History – Development In The Early 1900s”.

The Introduction Of Edwardian Architecture

On the heels of frequently ornate Victorian architecture, Edwardian Houses represent a shift in what was considered ‘fashionable’. Simplicity and function with a movement towards comfort became more popular, although designs still conveyed an understated elegance. Because this coincided with the expansion of the modern city as we know it – and the arrival of electrification – this architecture is often found in ‘streetcar suburbs’. During this time streets were being designed broader (like Palmerston Boulevard) and city lots became deeper and wider. allowing homes to have more green space and a stately presence. Furthermore, construction standards and materials improved substantially during the Edwardian era, which is reflected in the design of these homes (i.e. more use of brick, higher quality timber, etc.). Higher quality materials mean greater durability, which is immensely appealing to homeowners of a century home. While there will always be replacement and repair as a matter of business, when you start with a more sturdy base, your complications tend to be less. In fact, did you know most production based housing built today is intended to be obsolete in just fifty years? Almost all our building components today have a life span of twenty years or less. Not so with Edwardian homes built of double brick, and many still surviving with slate roofs.

How can you identify Edwardian homes? Although you’ll see a number of features that cross over from era to era, if you see most of these qualities, you’ve likely got an Edwardian home. Unlike Toronto’s Victorian housing stock which tends to be narrow and tall, with ornate trim like gingerbread, decorative patterned multi-coloured brickwork, and highly complicated stained glass windows, Edwardian housing tends to be more boxy, broader, with deeper front porches, simpler stained glass and solid front doors (often inset with glazing).

Here are some good reads about the period and the distinctive differences :” Georgian, Victorian And Edwardian Homes: A Guide To Period Architectures” and “Art Deco Or Edwardian: A Pictorial Guide To Early 20th Century Toronto Housing Styles” and “Ontario Architecture: Edwardian Building Style“.

Distinctive Exterior Details

On the exterior, Edwardian homes tend to have facades of smooth brick with accents of timber, stucco or tile on gables or bay windows. The aesthetic is more relaxed and less ornate than Victorian houses. Gone is the gingerbread trim, the multi-coloured patterned brickwork, arched windows with intricate lintels or fretwork common in 19th century architecture. Windows remained sub-divided into smaller square panes – but often on the top half of the fenestration rather than the entire window.

Edwardian homes still incorporated bay windows to maximize light and create architectural interest, usually set on stone sills, but the aesthetic was significantly more understated than the architectural embellishment of earlier styles. Often having broader footprints, deep generous front porches were common, often constructed with slim clustered columns which were unfussy, low railings so as to afford a view of the street to engage passersby when sitting on them. Front doors were large, often inset with a clear glass panel which was far less formal and more inviting than previous door styles, frequently leading into generous foyers that could be closed off from the reception spaces, allowing for a separation between semi-public and private space.

Interior Features

Compared to Victorian dwellings, the Edwardian style was less weighted down with heavy fabrics, ornate plaster moldings, medallions and friezes, and opulent stained glass. Instead there was a movement to built-in benches, shelving and cabinetry, simple but cheery – often floral – stained glass patterns and coved ceilings with some, but less, plaster detail. The aesthetic was more relaxed and less complicated, without the status cues of pomp and protocol of the Victorian era, and with a focus on having more light.

The introduction of electricity into the home was just about increasing convenience and comfort into the home; it also influenced décor. Oil and gas, which were notoriously messy, were less prevalent. That meant that homeowners could select light, more delicate décor, as they weren’t as worried about dirt and damage coming from their power source.

And light did abound in Edwardian homes, from décor, the physical introduction of electricity into domestic architecture, as well as from the tendency for floor plates to be broader but shallower. This allowed the incorporation of more – and larger windows – as well as the removal of the heavy draperies on both doors and windows common during Victorian times.

Stair banisters and newel posts became rectangular rather than round, with a cleaner line than the carved intricacy typical of the Victorian era. Window trim and fireplace mantles also had less ornate detail; ceramic tiles on hearths and fireplace surrounds were simpler and more graphic. There was a movement towards uniform oak strip floors rather than refined mixed wood parquetry. In the formal reception room you might find a thin plaster band of plaster molding under the cove ceiling wrapping the room, which would help demarcate the space, often serving as the dividing point for wallpaper below it and paint (or murals) above, while the dining room would have paneled wainscoting with a plate rail.

Ceiling heights were lower than Victorian dwellings, often nine feet rather than the ten to twelve feet of Victorian architecture, but given these rooms were often wider they remained visually well-proportioned and balanced. In grander larger houses, central heating was provided by a coal or coke fired boiler, usually in the cellar. Houses might have either forced air systems or hot water cast iron radiators to distribute heat throughout a house. In the case of hot water radiators, it usually used a thermo-siphon rather than a pumped system. Below is an detail of a forced air heating cover.

Broad pocket French doors are not uncommon in Edwardian houses – often separating the foyer from the sitting room, as well as between the sitting and dining rooms – with or without beveled glass depending on the affluence of the owner. For instance, in my current Gracious Manse On Markham Street In The Coveted Palmerston Pocket –  which is showcased in most of these photos – you’ll notice that the pocket doors have beveled glass, which creates a sense of height, keeping the light from being static.

In a carry-over from the Victorian era, door knobs might still be glass, porcelain or bronze, but the hardware tended to be smaller and more understated, attracting less attention as a focal point. Electric switches – which was the new fad during this time – were push button connecting to knob and tube wiring. It’s common to find knob and tube wiring in Toronto, given the age of the housing stock. Click here to read my post ‘Knob and Tube Wiring‘ to learn more.

One might still find a second set of stairs for servants in a merchant class Edwardian house, though live-in domestic help was diminishing during this time, so attic spaces began having higher ceilings and bigger windows as they became accommodation for larger families. The kitchen and scullery – still untouched by domestic modernization as we know it today – remained more utilitarian and compact. An owner might still employ day help to cook, clean and serve, so it remained separate from the formal entertainment spaces. Given Edwardian houses were broader – and four square (four rooms per floor, with the foyer being one), the kitchen was often located behind the foyer, having a narrow long configuration that might connect to a rear porch.

On the second level, the four square layout lent itself to a generous landing, four bedrooms and a bathroom (often with a separate water closet). A second fireplace – often coal and sometimes electric – would be present on this more private level of domesticity, either in the master bedroom or gentleman’s study, depending on the size of the household.

The staircase in dwellings with a third attic level – unless in an affluent household – remained hidden, narrow and accorded no status – as this highest floor might still be used by help – like a nanny – who would care for the owner’s children (of whom the youngest infants might also sleep on this floor). As a result, the attic might contain three rooms – a larger space with bigger dormer windows and higher ceilings for the resident children and two smaller rooms for staff or boarders. On this level the floors tended to be pine plank rather than oak strip.

The basement of Edwardian residences still remained utilitarian, containing electrical and mechanical rooms, cold cellars, and utility rooms. Unlike the stacked stone foundations of Victorian dwellings which were prone to leak, and collected coal dust, brick became the material of choice which meant dampness and moisture could be better controlled. Basements also started becoming higher, and having direct access to outside often from a separate side entrance (which is how help came and went), so they offered greater functionality. Washrooms and laundry rooms begin appearing in the basements of Edwardian residences, as well as additional rooms for whatever needs the household might have.

While all period homes have “that” intangible quality of character, the Edwardian home is refreshing in its subtle shifts in design. They mark how society – and homeowners – began to evolve towards comfort and convenience. Their hallmark of elegance, generous proportions, and their solid crafted construction are testaments to why these homes are so sought-after.

I absolutely love my new listing A Heart-Grabbing Edwardian Manse On Markham Street, offered at: $1,689,000! Its a sublime example of the comfort and status that domestic Edwardian architecture affords, representing many of the coveted features that Edwardian design offers: a generous lot with privacy (including a 2car garage with an as-of-right laneway housing opportunity), defined but large well-proportioned spaces (5bed+office, 3.5 baths); character details including pockets French doors, bejewelled stained glass; magnificent wood paneling, banisters and railings; coved plaster ceilings plus trim and more!

May I be of assistance? Contact me – Steve Fudge the purveyor of canadianrealestatehousingandhome.ca and the proprietor of Urbaneer.com at –  steve@urbaneer.com for more info!

~ Posted by Steven Fudge, the purveyor of canadianrealestatehousingandhome.ca and proprietor of Urbaneer.com, a division of Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage.

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