While renovating his kitchen, my friend Tom ripped up the counter to find the Toronto Star from June 26, 1953. “There was a story about land prices in Oakville ‘skyrocketing’ to $2,000 an acre,” Tom told me. “I was born on June 19, so I thought I might find my birth announcement in the paper, but it wasn’t there.”
Tom’s story and others like it pique interest in the history harboured by our homes. What Tom found by accident, Dana King digs for deliberately as she learns the history of her clients’ houses. To King’s mind, Every House Tells a Story, so that’s what she calls her company.
If many Toronto houses could speak, they might tell tales of a century ago when speculators built them on newly acquired crown lands. Since they’re rather mute, King has to sift through their building permits, land records, property assessments, and the like to write their stories. Period maps, photos and newspaper clippings add to the sense of place afforded by Toronto’s large stock of old homes.
King’s mother, Arden, unwittingly started her daughter on this path. “In 1970, we moved from Port Credit, where houses were all the same, to Walker Avenue,” says King. When she found out her “new” house was built in 1885, she told her daughter she was intrigued. “Without me knowing, Dana went down to the archives and found out all this information. I was thrilled with it,” she says.
Among other things, King learned the property cost $1,500 new. Located in “Hippieville” in the 70s, King’s mom paid $57,000. Her home, near Summerhill and Yonge, is now assessed closer to $700,000.
“The most exciting part for me was to find out the actual date it was built,” says the elder King. “That was what I really wanted to know. She was able to find out who built the house, who lived in it, what their occupations were. It was like building a little family… People would move off, others would move in. It really brought the house alive for us.”
“Lists of former occupants are the easiest to find,” says Dana. “Up to the 1900s, the city even recorded numbers of dogs and horses living in the house at the time.”
Such details appeal to Jennifer Pierpoint, a Toronto real estate agent. After King spoke at a sales meeting, Pierpoint followed through and gave one of her Rosedale clients a history of his home as a gift. “It’s a really different kind of gift to give to a client,” Pierpoint says. “He loved it.”
“One thing I asked her to do was find a list of all previous owners of the house. Dana also found the occupations, and offered other suggestions. She takes it personally. It’s a passion for her.”
“Most of the stuff I need I can’t get from the Internet,” claims King, so she indulges her passion at the Toronto Archives. “I’m there so often that when the phone rings, the staff ask me to answer it,” she laughs. ”They had a meeting to determine whether to charge me rent or pay me a salary.”
King also tracks trends and events of a century ago through her work. The impact of the Municipal Property Assessment Council amazes her. “Certain properties were assessed at $10,000 up to the ’70s,” King says, “then MPAC comes along in the 90s and your house is assessed at $695,000.”
Her research in Parkdale and Rosedale showed they were places for the affluent who wanted to escape the city. While Rosedale preserved itself well, Parkdale declined during the First World War. In one client’s home during the Depression, says King, “you would find 15 people living in what was listed as a single family home.”
In the Annex, houses built as single-family homes became rooming houses. Neighbours protested, and a 1929 bylaw made rooming houses illegal in the area. The bylaw drove many landlords to simply make their properties into rooming houses on the sly. King chuckles when telling tales of irate neighbours who hired private detectives to hunt and hound the cheats, in addition to watching their comings and goings.
Famous names occasionally pop up too. Author Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame penned the last works of her life at 210 Riverside Drive, which she presciently called “Journey’s End”. Actress Mary Pickford donated her name to the first bungalow built in Woodbine Gardens. This home was raffled to raise money for Canada’s World War Two effort.
Pierpoint covers Toronto’s core where, she estimates, there are thousands of old homes. “For the most part, they haven’t been knocked down and rebuilt, so to some degree they would be in their original condition,” she says. “People look back on the past as they make a house their family home. It’s interesting and comforting. It helps homeowners make homes their own. They create ties.”
“There are so many people in their 30s and 40s who buy these older homes and renovate them,” adds Pierpoint. ”One of the nice things is that they have a sense of history; they appreciate prior generations, what happened during the war years and other times. Everybody likes to know that there was a human element involved in the house and not just something cold and metallic.”
“Sometimes people miss that sense of belonging somewhere,” Pierpoint muses. “That sense gives us all a little extra security in who we are. I think that’s lacking more now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The anxiety that seems so prevalent today might be alleviated if we have a really secure space at home.”
King explains the psychic income that comes with her calling. “I travel to different places in Toronto that I never saw before, so many magical niches that I never would have seen if I didn’t wander off the beaten path.”
“It’s so rewarding when you find stuff that you didn’t know was there.”