The Hill District in Toronto is a lost neighbourhood — well, somewhat. The name may not be in prominent use, but its geography is certainly still there. The events of the 19th century and early 20th century that led to the rise of this interesting district involve pre-historic escarpments, stately houses, prominent Torontonians, unbuilt plans, and more.
In rough terms, the Hill District can be found from Avenue Road to Bathurst Street and the Canadian Pacific Railway to north of St. Clair Avenue.
The “Hill” is the Davenport Road Escarpment, a glacial leftover of the old Lake Iroquois. It is also called the “Davenport” Hill or the “Spadina” Hill – words with Indigenous connections and origins. Davenport was an old portage trail; its name in Ojibwe is Gete-Onigaming: “at the old portage”. Spadina is a transliteration of “Ishpadinaa” or “a place on a hill” (meaning Spadina Hill actually means “Place on a Hill-Hill”).
In the 19th century, the area that would become The Hill District was mainly made up of grand, hundred-acre-and-more estates owned by prominent early Toronto settler families. These included the Baldwins, the Austins, the Wells, the Nordheimers, and more. By the turn of the century, the large, open estates began to turn to subdivided lots with the beginnings of a street grid.
At this point, developers and newspapers began to formally refer to and market the area as the “Hill District” — “the finest and will be the most exclusive residential district”. Advertisements attracted potential buyers to areas such as College Heights near Bathurst between St. Clair and Eglinton, Dunvegan Heights on Forest Hill Road, and Walmer Hill and St. Clair Park, both adjoining upscale subdivisions northeast of Bathurst and St. Clair.
Coinciding with the growth of ‘The Hill District’, areas were annexed by the City of Toronto in the first decades of the 20th century. This included the annexation of Wychwood and Bracondale in 1909, which included parts of the Wells, Austin, and Nordheimer lands. Also included were areas north of St. Clair and south of Lonsdale Road, between Spadina Road and Avenue Road.
There were three noted neighbours of the early Hill District. James Austin, founder of Dominion Bank, was the owner of ‘Spadina’, an estate purchased from the Baldwins in 1866. Austin built Spadina House, the third version of the Baldwin manor. It was the next generation of homes to experience the spectacular vista of Toronto from the hill.
In the late 19th century, the western part of the Austin estate was subdivided into lots with laying out of Austin Terrace, Walmer Road, and Spadina Road.
An interesting part of the Spadina story was the corridor leading from Davenport Road to Austin Terrace. Although the Baldwins laid out Spadina Avenue south to the lake, the right of way running north of Bloor faced the challenge of Davenport Escarpment. Here, a set of wooden steps was built in the place of a road. At the top, running adjacent to Spadina House and it gardens was a green right of way. In 1913, the wooden steps were replaced by a sturdier construction which offered a less steep climb. (They would be replaced again in the 1980s to give us the present Baldwin Steps).
In the middle of the first decade of the 1900s, the very-interesting industrialist and land speculator Sir Henry Pellatt purchased property from the Austin and Wells estates for the construction of Casa Loma. The first structures completed were Pellatt Lodge and the horse stables on Walmer Road in 1905. His grand ‘castle’, which translated to ‘house of the hill”, was completed between 1911 and 1914.
An interesting episode in the construction of Casa Loma was Pellatt’s desire to expand his property at the expense of the Spadina Road steps and right of way. The Globe reported on Pellatt’s proposal:
The Works Committee of the City Council displayed gratuitous toleration of Sir Henry Pellatt’s ridiculous proposal to close Spadina road to Davenport road, and sell the right of way up the hill to enlarge the building site…
…It would be, were Davenport road widened, as it ought to be, comparatively easy to make a carriage road up to the hill…Perhaps the fear of the effect of such improment on his propety is the real motive for Sir Henry’s proposal. Whatever it is, he cannot have at any price what he is asking.”The Globe, June 3, 1911.
More than the objection from the Works Committee, residents were also up in arms about the prospect of their direct access to the Dupont Streetcar being removed.
Sir John Craig Eaton was the son of Timothy Eaton, the famed department store baron. In 1908, Eaton purchased and razed the ‘Ravenswood’ house and estate, part of the Austin property, and constructed ‘Ardwold’, meaning “high green hill’, which was completed in 1911. Like Casa Loma and Spadina, Ardwold became the social hangout of ‘elite’ Toronto.
Eaton also funded and constructed Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair Avenue near Dunvegan Road, opened in 1914.
In 1916, Casa Loma Architect E.J. Lennox moved into ‘Lenwil’ at 5 Austin Terrace at Walmer Road, on 3 acres of land from the Wells Estate. Lennox previously lived on Sherbourne Street.
The Rise of The Hill
In the 1920s, The Hill District further filled out with stately residences, ornate apartments, grand churches, and new (and proposed) roads.
In 1925, the Toronto Transportation Commission began running a coach service to the Hill, running a bus from Bay & Albert Streets to the district via Poplar Plains Road and Warren Road to Lonsdale & Orioles Roads. It gave Hill residents an alternative to the St. Clair and Dupont cars.
As the Hill intensified, new roads were proposed. Many were built, but some remained as only plans. In 1912, the former Nordheimer estate lands were the site for a proposed alternate road to Poplar Plains Road. The new road would have ran northwest from Davenport and Dupont through part of the Austin and Eaton lands to meet with Spadina Road near St. Clair. It never materialized.
In late 1920s, during the conceptualization of the St. Clair Reservoir to be located under the ravine, the idea of a highway through the lands resurfaced once more. While the reservoir was built along with a new bridge on Spadina Road, the road never materialized. (It would be another twenty years before another much more consequential highway project through Nordheimer Ravine — this one cutting through the valley west of Spadina and Road and down the street itself.)
A particularly interesting project was the Peter Pan Statue in a parkette at Avenue Road and St. Clair Avenue. The College Heights Association funded the installation of the statue, which was a replica of the sculptor Sr. George Frampton’s work in Kensington Gardens in London. It was unveiled on the northwest corner of the intersection on September 14, 1929.
Along with the Peter Pan Statue, a fountain was unveiled on the northeast corner. A donation by H.H. Williams, it too was a replica of a fountain found at the Peace Palace at The Hague.
The Neighbours, Revisited
The development and re-development of the area atop the Davenport Hill in the 1920s and 1930s featured some noteworthy episodes. In 1923, twelve plots opposite Casa Loma owned by the Pellatts were sold to a developer. These were four lots fronting onto Austin Terrace facing the castle and eight lots fronting onto Spadina Road and Walmer Road. In 1928, a plan was in place to build 26 semi-detached duplexes on the site. The caveat was the area required a zoning change, which was put to a vote:
Opposed were the following: R. A. Jones, K. M. Scott, F. E. McMulkin, Charles E. Walsh, W. C. R. Harris, Mary A. Rea, A. W. Austin, Mary R. Austin, Wm. A. Logie, Albert H. Austin, E. J. Lennox, C. W. Hookaway, Eleanor Guerney, H. L. Mathews, Helen McI. Kelley, Marjorie C. Pellatt, E. A. Bott, J. A. Rowland, Charles B. Boeckh, D. Macdonald; in favour, Lady Eaton and Eaton estate, H. J. Long, H. M. Pellatt, F. McMahon, and E. Renfrew.Toronto Daily Star, May 19, 1928
Although not constructed until 1939, the homes were ultimately built along with a new road — now the appropriately named Castle View Avenue — connecting Walmer and Spadina. An aerial look at the subdivision shows a distinct departure from the surrounding neighbourhood and how the historic properties line inform today’s environment.
The land to the west of Casa Loma directly north of the escarpment was also redeveloped. By 1910, Austin Terrace was extended to Wells Hill Avenue. Austin Terrace west of Walmer Road was renamed to Theodore Avenue, but then renamed again to Wells Hill Crescent in 1914. By the end of the decade, Austin Terrace was extended to Hilton Avenue near Bathurst Street. Hilton Avenue would be absorbed into Austin Terrace by 1926, completing a route from Spadina to Bathurst.
Coincidentally, by 1923, the lot south of Austin Terrace and north of Davenport directly over the escarpment was bought for development. Austin Crescent was partially built to run south of Austin Terrace; it was later extended into the adjacent lot. Lyndhurst Court, the twinning cul-de-sac, was completed in the 1950s.
For the Eatons’ Ardwold, Sir John C. Eaton passed away in 1922. By 1936, his widow, Lady Flora Eaton, announced it no longer made sense to maintain the stately home as their children had grown up. The 11-acre was sold and subdivided into lots. The house was demolished, with its former site being located at the end of the cul de sac, Ardwold Gate.
The Other ‘Hill District’
North of St. Clair, The Hill District had a neighbour in Spadina Heights. The area was known as such since 1910, when the area organized into York School Section 30. In 1923, after a failed bid for Toronto annexation, the area re-branded and incorporated as the Village of Forest Hill. It saw annexation finally in 1967.
The Hill District at one time may have actually included Forest Hill. But as The Hill District came to refer to areas annexed by the City of Toronto south of Lonsdale Road, the areas to the north came to be their own region.
The Toronto Transportation Commission extended coach service to Forest Hill in 1925. Most of the street grid south of Lonsdale Avenue was filled with buildings by the time, and development moved north through Forest Hill later in the decade and into the next.
By the 1930s, The Hill District and Forest Hill became part of the next generation of ‘fashionable Toronto’ neighbourhoods, moving north from the lake. First there was Jarvis Street; then came Rosedale; then finally the Hills. For example, several Eaton houses were located along Dunvegan Rd in the 1930s, including Lady Eaton’s residence following her exit from Ardwold.
The Fall of The Hill District?
By the middle of the century, uses of ‘The Hill District’ diminished in the newspapers, possibly as other names gained prominence or the neighbourhood changed again. In modern times, the area is referred to with names such as The South Hill and Rathnelly. The City of Toronto in its neighbourhood profiles names the entire zone the “Casa Loma” neighhourhood.
Today, the Hill District is home to two amazing museum and event spaces, a stunning ravine, beautiful parks and parkettes, and thousands of people within its houses and apartment buildings — many with references to the escarpment and elevation. While ‘The Hill District’ may not be as prominent a name as a century ago, its legacy certainly lives on.