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A brief history of Toronto's first apartment building

Posted by Chris Bateman / January 25, 2014

toronto first apartmentSo many people live in apartments or condominiums in Toronto that it's hard to imagine a time when renting a small portion of a larger building was a radical, even a shockingly salacious way of life.

Amazingly, before 1899 there were no purpose built apartment buildings in the city at all, making Toronto something of an anomaly in North America. Sure, people rented rooms or floors of sub-divided homes (The Ward, a notorious slum that used to be located near current City Hall, was densely populated much earlier), but nothing had been constructed specifically for that purpose.

The first building in Toronto purpose built for multiple occupancy was the St. George Mansions at 1 Harbord Street, directly opposite where the looming brutalist mass of Robarts Library would later sit.

In 1905, the intersection was part of a relatively quiet and affluent neighbourhood west of the University of Toronto campus. Dappled sunshine filtered through young trees and little Model T Fords lined the curb. It was a "a district of substantial detached villas," according to Richard Dennis in a 1989 research paper published by the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto.

Dennis' paper discusses the St. George Mansions and the real estate market leading up to their construction in detail.toronto first apartmentAs Dennis recalls, the permit for the building's construction, the first of its type in Toronto, was issued in 1899 to A. W. McDougald, the president of the Improved Realty Co. of Toronto Ltd. He estimated the building would cost his company about $100,000 - the equivalent of about $2 million in today's money.

The six-storey pressed brick and Bedford stone building, roughly "C"-shaped with a partially enclosed courtyard, took about 5 years to complete. Many of its 34 apartments had access to balcony space, though some were decorative Juliet-style affairs with heavy stone balustrades.

In 1904, shortly after it was finished, it contained 34 apartments and was home to 99 people, most of them wealthy middle-aged couples. Three barristers, two professors, two bank managers, and a director of an insurance company appeared on the occupancy list at that time.

Toronto was slow compared to other North American cities to build its first apartment block. The living concept had already appeared in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and other nearby cities, and was established in the form of "apartment hotels" in Boston, New York City in 1850s and 1860s.

Apartment hotels were typically marketed at single, city-dwelling businessmen. Buildings such as the New York's Stuyvesant Flats, built in 1869, had "between 6 and 10 rooms each" and were let for "$1,200 to $1,800 per annum," according to Dennis.

The buildings of this type often had a central restaurant, laundry, recreational facility, barber, and dentist - complete miniature communities for the residents that turned a handsome profit for the owners.

The living concept became less communal and exclusive in the later decades of the 1800s. Apartment buildings that were constructed around this time were private and self-contained and became accessible to middle class families.

toronto first apartmentThe apartment building concept wasn't without its detractors. In Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, a character is shocked to discover a disabled woman has moved her bedroom to the ground floor of her New York home, in doing so providing "architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of."

Observers fretted that apartment living was unsuitable for families, prompting one Milwaukee landlord to offer free rent for every child born or marriage proposed in his building. "It is a shortcut from the apartment house to the divorce court," Dennis quotes the author of Housing Problems in America, written in 1917.

The St. George Mansions were targeted firmly at middle class occupants when they were finished in 1904. Economic evidence suggested middle income families were less likely to move and were more numerous than the upper class renters, making them the perfect market to tap.

Toronto's rents spiked massively in the years the building was under construction - up to 95 per cent between 1897 and 1906 - in part due to a sudden uptick in immigration. There were more new arrivals than the number of new homes could accommodate, making apartment blocks and attractive idea for developers.

toronto first apartmentThe second Toronto apartment building was completed a year after the St. George Mansions on University Avenue. The stone, brick, and steel Alexandra was a larger building: 72 suites across 7 floors with panoramic views of the city from its penthouse windows. Like the apartment hotels of New York, the property included a communal dining room and appealed to middle-class renters.

By 1907, Toronto had its first apartment building directory that included Sussex Court at 389 Huron St. and Spadina Gardens at 41-45 Spadina Road, both of which still exist, in the west end.

The St. George Mansions and the Alexandra are both sadly gone. The former survived until after the second world war when it was repurposed as Trinity Barracks, the Toronto home of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. One contemporary account described the building as "cockroach palace," suggesting time wasn't kind to Toronto's first apartment complex.

Today, U of T's Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories building, built in 1965, occupies its former lot.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives



Ramsay...right? / January 25, 2014 at 02:19 am
I worked in Ramsay Wright when I went to U of T 10 years's still a "cockroach palace" LOL. Those apartment buildings looked pretty cool when they were first built.
McRib / January 25, 2014 at 11:31 am
great article; it shows how behind the times Toronto was, even then. Our density could have been much improved had we built streets full of these types of apartments. Like the stretch of Avenue road south of St. Clair, these types of grand brick apartments will likely never be built again. too bad.
Rob Ford / January 25, 2014 at 11:32 am
Apartment buildings make wonderful places to manufacture Crack, and create a convenient one stop shop for all your Crack, and Gangster/Hit man needs.
Aaron / January 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm
Great story. Like the good condition pictures too. Nice to learn more about the history of Toronto. Hope to see more.
W. K. Lis / January 25, 2014 at 01:09 pm
When I was a kid, my house had a second floor kitchen. My parents rented out the kitchen and bedroom, but we had to share the one bathroom on the second floor.
Petey Stuyvesant / January 25, 2014 at 01:22 pm
Ok, back up for just one moment. I do not believe that the concept of a true apartment building was as widespread in North America at that time as the article suggests. I think there is a confusion here with multiple use tenement housing which was common from the 1830's. It is considered that the first true apartment building in New York City (that is to say with private toilet that did not have to be shared) was built in 1869-1870, and called the "Stuyvesant," located at 142 East 18th Street. Check this out:

Just sayin'.
W. K. Lis / January 25, 2014 at 01:53 pm
Do we still have outhouses in Toronto, or when did the last one flush away? Do we still have shared washroom apartments?
Hello replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / January 25, 2014 at 02:23 pm
Those are called boarding houses.
Fergus Flattery / January 25, 2014 at 02:27 pm
Then there's condo hotels. On Earl Place just east of Jarvis stand two of three buildings erected in 1923 by developer 'Merrill'. You could buy apartments in the building as an investment solely to rent out to visitors
Artefacts / January 25, 2014 at 05:53 pm
Sussex Court is at 21 Sussex Avenue, SW corner Sussex and Huron, not 389 Huron.
Kate replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / January 25, 2014 at 06:42 pm
I think we're probably at least 40 to 50 years away from the last real out house in Toronto proper (although if you went to some of the outlying rural areas in the former 'burbs - some of which weren't even serviced by sewers 20 yrs ago) you might bump up the time frame a bit. Outside Toronto, but some of the dwellings on the Pickering Airport lands had out houses about 20 yrs. ago.

Re shared bathrooms - the Drake and the Gladstone did have rooms like this prior to their revitalization - probably just rooming houses have shared other than some special facilities (i.e. apartments for disabled or psychiatric patients etc).
Kate / January 25, 2014 at 07:26 pm
revise my comment - outhouses in TO were probably further back...but someone out there might know
John Fortney / January 25, 2014 at 10:14 pm
The house across the street in the first photo (where Robarts Library is now) was the original site of the Toronto Chapter of Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity. all of the Frats in that row were expropriated by the University in the early 60's to guilts Robarts Library.
iSkyscraper / January 27, 2014 at 02:13 pm
The second photo is from 1918, not 1905. (Hint - Model T didn't come out till 1908).

The term "apartment", of course, was deliberately chosen by developers from the French "apartement" to distinguish from the lowly tenements then common in cities everywhere. The reason the rich had to be enticed into multi-family dwellings was that they had a terrible image at the time as home only to crowded, filthy conditions (think: primitive plumbing) and the sins of immigrants, plus amplified risk of death by fire. It would be like building a condo today that physically resembled a housing project and trying to get people to move to it -- the architecture simply had a bad vibe. Starting with the idea of it really being a hotel was the logical transition.

Hence the design flouishes, the amenities, etc. Toronto was a little late to the party but not by much -- until indoor plumbing, electric elevators, electric wiring and central heating systems all became commercially feasible and available in the 1880s and 90s there was little incentive to live in a multi-family structure.
Andrew J / January 27, 2014 at 03:21 pm
Excellent article - as always by Mr. Bateman. Thank you. My grandparents, father & uncles all lived at 23 Harbord in the mid-30s - a rental house just west of the St. George 'Mansions'. Then my grandmother secretly bought their first house - on Spadina, 2 doors south of Harbord - with money she saved without telling my grandfather (or it would have disappeared). There's a swimming pool where their backyard used to be.

p.s. I believe the current Soho House club (formerly the Pretzel Bell tavern) was built in 1829 as the "Bishop's Block" with rooms, if not full apartments, available for long-term lodging by 'gentlemen'. Thus, perhaps Toronto's first quasi-apartment building?
Adam S / March 7, 2014 at 11:08 am
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Carly replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / September 19, 2014 at 07:42 pm
There are shared washroom apartments they're called roomming houses. I lived in one years ago on Dundas Street East.
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