Royal York Subway Station has never been a destination for me. For a Heritage Toronto walk of Post-War Etobicoke, however, I make it so.
Toronto west of the Humber River fails in my mental map of the city, which is the reason I elected to trek cross-town to hear about Sunnylea, the area south of Bloor near Royal York. It’s also a relatively recent yet important history, one that perhaps gets overlooked because it wasn’t so long ago in the grand view of things. It’s maybe a bit closer to home in my own story, having grown up in a post-war borough myself.
Our tour leader, Don Waterfall, opens with a contextual stat about the great suburban migration: in 1941, the total population of Etobicoke was 19,000; in 1951, it was 54,000; in 1956: 100,000; and in 1961, it was 155,000. The migrants were primarily young Anglo-Saxon couples, white-collar, Protestant, with one or children. Yep, that’s a nuclear family, ain’t it? As you hope a neighbourhood would do, housing and services sprang up in Sunnylea to cater to the new demographic.
We start our own migration down the Kingsway BIA shopping strip. The heritage walk is about the emergence of this suburb, but the shops – or the buildings they’re housed in, anyways – are akin to the structures that line Bloor in the old city of Toronto. They look to me to be from the 1920s and 30s, which our guide confirms. Clearly there was some settlement in this area pre-WWII, because if it wasn’t Sunnylea itself, the Kingsway shops were servicing some other community. A short distance away, the Kingsway Theatre has existed among them since 1939.
At Bloor and Prince Edward Drive is All Saints Anglican Church, which looks older than it actually is. I certainly noticed its tower from the subway station and guessed it’s been around for a hundred years. It was actually built here in 1952 in a Neo-Gothic style. The original church however burnt down in 1966 and was rebuilt.
Across the way we find Park Lawn Cemetery, a site I already know a bit about, even if I haven’t visited myself. It predates the modern neighbourhood by sixty-ish years, opening in the 1890s as Humbervale cemetery. It’s designed in the garden style similar to St. James or The Necropolis. The bombastic Harold Ballard and Maple Leaf Gardens builder Conn Smythe (his namesake park existing on the other side of the Humber) are buried at Park Lawn.
A trip down Prince Edward produces a very familiar site to me, even if I haven’t been here before. Bungalows and two- and three-storey homes line the way. Adjacent to a few residences is the 1959 Firestation 431, which in itself sort of looks like a house.
But it’s not all new stuff. The great part of Toronto is spotting the layers of its past. Recently developed areas still show their roots on occasion. We come to an old farmhouse. It’s been altered a lot and the yard might need some TLC, but its continued existence is a plus.
Up on Glenroy Avenue, Sunnylea Public School is a highlight, says our walk leader. It’s history and Modernist design make it so. It’s not the first Sunnylea School, the first existing as a two-storey white building on Prince Edward. A naming contest won by a little girl gave the school its name and eventually the entire community. Not too shabby on her part.
The new Sunnylea opened in 1943 with an addition coming in 1948. Its architect is John B. Parkin, whose work on the school became a model for schools around the province. Parkin really stripped things down with the project – Sunnylea is only one-storey, not flashy or ornate, a hallway with classrooms on either side, and tons of natural light.
Parkin’s other notable works include the former Bata Shoe Headquarters in Don Mills, demolished for the admittedly impressive Aga Khan Museum. Like the post-war period as a historical era, I think Modernist architecture has been under-appreciated, although that looks to be changing with a lament over the loss of Bata Shoe and the Riverdale Hospital.
The final stop is Royal York United Church. Like All Saints, it looks old, but actually dates from just after WWII (in 1954). It’s got the overall look of a traditional church, but is done in a Modern Gothic design. The neat lines and simpler aesthetic mimic the surrounding neighbourhood.
The tour ends and I return to Bloor and Royal York. The northeast corner strikes me a bit. It’s an older building, a bank if I had to guess, that looks to have been annexed by the adjacent Shopper’s Drug Mart. The glass design of the Shopper’s has even creeped in on it. A 1958-2010 Then and Now blog piece proves my suspicions right and provides a good window into the transformation of the entire intersection.