`Old modern house' bucked trend at Doors Open
April 24, 2008

Ellen Moorhouse


Architectural historian John Blumenson says he had to do some persuading to get Toronto Doors Open to put an "old modern house" on its program in 2004.

But he succeeded, and everybody was surprised at the number of people who came to see a so-called Trend House in Etobicoke's Thorncrest Village.

"They kept telling me no one would go to those places, but they've changed their tune considerably," says Blumenson of organizers of the May event when the public can visit many buildings and appreciate the city's architecture.

Located at 48 Rathburn Rd., the 1952 house was the prototype for a cross-country program sponsored by the British Columbia lumber producers to demonstrate modern Canadian architecture and interior design.

A split-level plan, it featured a beamed ceiling, wood siding, and plywood on interior walls and cabinetry. Slate and cork were also used for the floors – materials that are popular again.

The 1,000-square-foot house, which needed repair, is no longer there, demolished two years ago like so many of the small mid-century homes built in the Etobicoke subdivision between Islington and Kipling Aves.

"It was amazing we lost the trend house that was so unique and was such a landmark in its day," says Catherine Nasmith, president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

Meanwhiile, Blumenson says preserving modernism has become a strong movement in parts of the United States. He points to Phoenix, Ariz., where some two dozen neighbourhoods have opted for historic designation.

"They have a lot of modern districts, and they're managing to preserve bungalows from the early 20th century as well as modern ranch houses from the '60s and '70s," Blumenson says.

In Ontario, heritage preservation essentially rests with the municipality, Blumenson explains.

"It's up to the local community to pass bylaws, and enforce them, do whatever is necessary to preserve the heritage."

It would seem, however, that Toronto isn't ready to embrace preservation of modern residential design. While the city has 14 Heritage Conservation Districts, none covers post-war suburbs. And if the views of Thorncrest Village residents are an indication, it would appear the interest is not there to safeguard the often modest modern communities.

Even larger architect-designed homes are being demolished, a discouraging trend for Jerome Markson, noted Toronto architect who has practised for 50 years.

"It's heart-breaking. There are a couple of houses we put our heart and soul into for private persons, and the lots are sold and the buildings torn down."

Says Nasmith: "It's as important to understand 20th-century design as it is 19th-century design. As we move forward in time, you can put a value on the architecture of any period, but we haven't done enough work on the 20th century ... We just don't have the resources."


Toronto Star