As the third owner of a house that turns 100 this year, I feel like I am the curator of a domestic museum. My house was born before the First World War. It was built on the optimism of the new century, its neighbourhood made possible by one of the feats of engineering immortalized in classic Canadian novel In The Skin of the Lion, when the Bloor Viaduct connected Toronto’s East and West over the mighty Don River – complete with the prescience to include room for a subway track that would not be used for another 50 years.
When my neighbourhood of homes was developed, it was the suburbia of its day. Much more modest than the mansions of Rosedale on the other side of the bridge, but solid and attractive single family houses with handsome embellishments like stained glass, broad front porches and bay windows.
One of my favourite features is the smooth wood on the stairway banister and rounded edges of the newel post, which have been honed to a fine patina by the hands of previous generations of adults and children. I spent hours stripping the wallpaper down to the original plaster walls with the ultimate reward of the plasterer’s pencil signature attesting his pride of accomplishment. In the kitchen, behind the cupboard door that hides the new drain pipe, there is still some wallpaper picked out by the original lady of the house. I marvel that the current flooring is the same oak boards trod by every other occupant and that the front door and doorbell are as functional today as they were a century ago. The original light fixtures have been rehabilitated to modern electric standards and are as good as new.
When the second owners took possession in 1955, they embarked on a renovation of the kitchen, installing handmade wood cabinets, and perked up the third floor with linoleum that was surely highly stylish in its day. Those same kitchen cabinets still grace our kitchen and, having been repainted and re-hinged, are very serviceable. The mid-fifties Northern Electric stove is still going strong and thanks to the careful care of the original purchaser, has a spotless oven. Laid underneath the linoleum were copies of the Toronto Star from May, 1955, perfectly preserved. Selected examples of newspaper ephemera now form a feature wall in our kitchen. Legs of lamb legs were 53 cents a pound at the new A &P in Port Credit and $79.50 would buy you a fancy new Lewyt vacuum cleaner at Eaton’s College Street store. I’d love to be able to visit Club One Two for the shopper’s luncheon buffet ($1.95) and I regularly assess my suitability as a candidate for the Help Wanted – Female ads.
But here’s what I wonder when driving north of the city, past the vast tracts of new suburban housing that seem to multiply daily. Where are the proud plasterers? When did brick become just veneer instead of structural material? Why did front porches disappear? And more importantly, will these houses still stand 100 years from now?
While I understand the desire to own something brand new, I feel honoured to live in a functional piece of history. Sure, the floors creak and the alley access was built for horse and buggy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.