Presenting – A History Tour of the Beach and a Mission of Mercy With Gene Domagala

Presenting – A History Tour of the Beach and a Mission of Mercy With Gene Domagala

Gene Domagala is not only a key volunteer in the Beach, an individual who helps out with all sorts of charities and non-profit organizations – a “utility man” as Bob Murdoch from Centre 55 calls him – he is also one of the most knowledgeable individuals about the Beach. So in late December we had covered the western end of Queen Street East; today we were going to have a look at the eastern and northern end of the neighbourhood.

We met again at the Beaches Library, a great meeting point right in the heart of the Beach, at the intersection of Queen Street and Lee Avenue. Gene let me know that he had been notified this morning that the furnace of a local resident in the East end of the Beach had broken down, so our neighbourhood tour would also have to be a “mission of mercy” to deliver a few portable heaters to this family in need. So the first thing we did was to pick up three space heaters and drive into the east end of the Beach close to the Balmy Beach Club to drop off the heaters at a stately older home. Gene promised to be back later today to deliver a few additional heaters in order to make sure that the pipes in the house would not freeze since the furnace would not be fixed until tomorrow.

Gene explained that the Beach community is equipped for these sorts of emergencies; there are always a few extra heaters floating around, and Centre 55 keeps about 10 sleeping bags for critical cases when someone needs to stay warm overnight. A network of people looks out for their neighbours and makes sure they stay safe and healthy, even in the deep freeze that Toronto has been in for the last few weeks.

Since we were already in the east end of the Beach we decided to start our explorations right there. Gene explained that about 120 years ago there was a little village here with a local pastor whose name was H. Dixon. He started a tent church (literally a church located in a tent) and ran it from about 1880 to 1907. The tent church could hold as many as 500 people. Reverend Canon Dixon, as he was respectfully referred to in later years, was committed to ministering to the poor and founded missions and soup kitchens for the homeless. This tent church was later to become a permanent building – St. Aidan’s Church, which just recently revived Canon Dixon’s legacy with its participation in the Out of the Cold Program.

We drove down on Balsam Street, and Gene showed me six houses that originally date back about 110 years, beautiful wooden clapboard properties with unique architectural features. At the bottom of Balsam Avenue is the former Alexandra Hotel Annex, today a private residence. Gene explained that about a century ago there were substantial homes along the bottom of Fernwood Avenue which used to be called “Lakefront Avenue”. The Alexandra Hotel had more than 30 rooms, and two free standing additions were built: Annex 1 and Annex 2. The entire complex was a summer hotel and featured a boat house at the waterfront and little cottages in the back. In the 1890s tourists would come from downtown Toronto by streetcar to enjoy the beautiful waterfront experience in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood.

Most of these buildings were torn down around 1929 or 1930, but the old Alexandra Hotel Annex remained and recently underwent a beautiful renovation. There were several influential historic figures in this area: Sir Adam Wilson – the first elected mayor of the City of Toronto, a prominent jurist and a major landowner in the Beach; Reverend Dixon; James L. Hughes who was also the Chief Inspector of the Toronto School Board, and John McPherson-Ross, the Mayor of East Toronto which included Balmy Beach.

Our historical tour continued toward another historical intersection in the Beach: the intersection of Maclean Avenue and Queen Street. In the second half of the 1800s Alan Maclean Howard was one of the major landowners in the area. An interesting detail of his history is that his father was a clerk at the law courts in Toronto for 51 years, and his son held the same position, also for 51 years. A relative of Alan Maclean Howard was the first Postmaster of Toronto and a United Empire Loyalist.

Gene explained that Howard was a bit of an eccentric: he imported Guernsey cows and showed them at various agricultural exhibitions. He also had three large ponds with Peking ducks on his country estate which was called Glen Duart. Driving up on Hambly Street, Gene pointed out that this street at one point was supposed to be as wide as Spadina Avenue. Our drive continued north along Lee Avenue where Gene mentioned that this was the western end of another major estate in the Beach: the Glen Stewart Estate, owned by Alfred Earnest Ames. This self-made millionaire was the youngest president of the Toronto Stock Exchange, and at that time many successful stockbrokers and business people had beautiful mansions on Sherbourne and Jarvis Streets in downtown Toronto. In addition, they would also have summer homes in the Beach.

The Glen Stewart Estate starts north of Williamson Road, while south of this street was the location of the Glen Duart Estate. Ames had bought the Glen Stewart Estate in 1899 from a certain Walter Stewart Darling who was a minister in the area. Alfred Earnest Ames also had two duck ponds on his estate, and a white picket fence surrounded the entire expansive property. A twelve foot embankment bordered the property east of Lee Avenue, this embankment was later levelled after Ames had sold his property and it was divided up into a residential subdivision. The Glen Stewart Estate ended at Kingston Road.

The main entrance to the Glen Stewart Estate was on Glen Stewart Crescent where Alfred Earnest Ames’ residence was located. Gene took me to the property which is a large mansion that has been converted into a multi-unit apartment building. The mansion has lost quite a bit of its former glory, but when you look at it closely you can still picture the beautiful and imposing villa that it once must have been. In 1906 Canada’s Governor General stayed here for one week to attend the Queens Plate held at the old Woodbine Race Track, an event that attracted thousands of horse-racing fans from around the country.

Behind the mansion is a steep drop off, and in the ravine below the crest Alfred Earnest Ames built one of the first golf courses in Toronto in 1920. Before the construction of the golf course this part of the property had consisted of woods and ponds. Alfred Ames’ stables were located just below the crest on Long Crescent.

A small dead-end street called Leonard Circle is the former location of the Glen Stewart Estate’s ponds, and some of the houses on this street are actually built on stilts, a necessary construction technique due to the marshy ground. The ponds went all the way to the north end of today’s Williamson Road School, and Gene explained that around 1912 at least three or four boys died in the pond. The back entrance of the school was the main entrance to the palatial Glen Stewart Estate. The houses west of Lee Avenue were not part of the Glen Stewart Estate; they were built in the 1920s while the houses east of there on the former estate were put up in the 1950s.

Southwood Drive, the extension of Main Street south of Kingston Road, was the borderline between the Glen Stewart and the Glen Duart estates. East of Southwood Drive there was only bush. When Alan Maclean Howard moved out around 1915, the property was subdivided and houses went up on Glen Manor Drive East. Today’s Glen Stewart Ravine was the location of several ponds that were located on the former Glen Duart Estate. Gene added that the ravine should really have been called the Glen Duart Ravine since it was part of Alan Maclean Howard’s estate.

As we were driving south along Glen Manor Drive, we stopped at the natural ice rink that is maintained by local Beach residents. Gene introduced me to Thomas Neal, a local real estate agent, who dropped by a few years ago to take his boys skating and realized that the rink had been closed down due to municipal funding cuts. Together with Brock Grant, another neighbour, he decided that the community would run the rink itself, and ever since then the two men with the help of other neighbours, have been maintaining the natural ice rink on a daily basis.

Brock and Thomas take turns, and Thomas alone spends about five hours a day maintaining the ice rink. When I got there Thomas had just hooked up a big hose to the water supply and was spraying the rink with water which was freezing fast on this chilly day. After every snow fall he and several like-minded volunteers come out to shovel the rink. Now there are two sides to this natural ice rink: one side is designated for hockey players and one side is for pleasure skating. Thomas said that even Guy Lafleur once visited this natural ice rink. He added that he loves maintaining the rink, it is great for the kids, and at night the facility turns into a beautifully lit venue.

The community spirit is strong here, and Thomas Neal is just another example of how regular citizens pitch in and help out in the Beach. I let Thomas continue his work, and returned to Gene who pointed out a wooden bridge that crosses the Glen Stewart Ravine which has been there since 1915. The bridge will be replaced by a new model in the near future, but Gene, with his love for history, adds that he would love to hang on to the original one.

Ivan Forrest Park, at the southern terminus of the Glen Stewart Ravine, was named after a Parks Commissioner of the City of Toronto from the Second World War. Alan Maclean Howard’s ponds were finally diverted into pipes which carried the water into Lake Ontario. Further north, the natural part of the Glen Stewart Ravine stretching towards Kingston Road has not changed much throughout recent history. Gene explained that the ravine is a favourite destination of naturalists and bird lovers because of the large variety of bird species and indigenous plants.

From the Glen Stewart Ravine we crossed Queen Street southwards and arrived at the former location of the Scarborough Beach Amusement Park, a development that was started in 1906. The former owners of this parcel were the Sisters of St. Joseph who ran the “House of Providence Farm”, a specialized school for people with disabilities, in this area.

Revellers would come from the city in street cars of the Toronto Railway Company; these used to turn down on Scarborough Beach Boulevard. A giant velodrome used to be located just west of this street, and the street car would end at the bottom of Scarborough Beach Boulevard. Further south near the Hubbard Apartment Buildings used to be the midway with a giant Ferris wheel and 125 foot high tower that was lit nightly with thousands of electric lights. The tower was also used for a variety of stunts by different performers. The Scarborough Beach Amusement Park also included a quarter-mile long roller coaster ride, and different attractions such as a “Tunnel of Love” and a “Shoot the Chutes” flume ride. The first boardwalk in the Beach ran from the Hubbard Street apartment building to Fernwood.

At the bottom of Scarborough Beach Boulevard is a historic plaque that tells the story of the amusement park. As an expert in and advocate of local history, Gene Domagala has been lobbying for historical preservation in the Beach for many years, and was able to get six historic plaques installed in this area. The plaque commemorating the Scarborough Beach Amusement Park is one of them.

After the amusement park closed down in 1925 the land was bought up by developers; among them were the Price Brothers, a team of Toronto-based real estate developers who created more than 200 houses in the area, among them a whole section of architecturally unique fourplexes characterized by their front porches and arched verandas. Several of these fourplexes on Wineva Avenue have been listed on the City of Toronto’s Inventory of Heritage Properties as a result of their unique design.

Our drive continued further east, and at the intersection of Maclean and Queen Streets Gene pointed out a historical property: the elevated building behind the Beacher’s Café is actually the original location of Alan Maclean Howard’s residence, although it has been modified a great deal over the years. Gene had been looking for it for a long time and could not find Howard’s original house. He realized that the street numbering on Queen Street had changed several times, and he had finally found the original house of Alan Maclean Howard. We drove north of Maclean Avenue and arrived on a winding, hilly road called Pine Crescent. This is the only area in the Beach where there is brick pavement. Gene explained that several neighbours came together and pitched in to get a historic reconstruction of brick pavers installed in their road. At the top of the hill is a beautiful private residence called “Pinecrest” which dates back to 1902 and was designed by renowned architect Charles Frederick Wagner, who had also created the well-known Inglenook property on Waverly Road.

Across the street is a mansion formerly owned by Joseph Harris, a member of the Canadian Parliament. We then drove up towards Kingston Road, past Glenn Gould’s birth house on Southwood Drive. Glenn Herbert Gould (1932 to 1982) was a celebrated Canadian pianist and became especially well known for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach’s keyboard music. Gene added that Gould was almost better known in many countries around the world than he was in Canada. A historic plaque educates visitors about the life of this outstanding Canadian musician.

Once arrived on Kingston Road we drove by the Notre Dame Convent which also houses a local Roman-Catholic school. This area used to hold the car barns for the Toronto Street Railway Company. We drove into the neighbourhood north of Kingston Road and turned left on Swanwick Avenue. Gene started explaining to me that this entire area used to be called the Village of East Toronto. Just up the street were the largest freight yards of the Grand Trunk Railroad which included marshalling yards, coal storage facilities and a roundhouse. The area near Gerrard and Main Street was a center of railroad activity in the late 1880s until the early 1900s. About 300 to 400 workmen were employed here, and many of the houses were built for these railroad employees. In total the Village of East Toronto had about 5000 residents.

Gene added that many of these employees were rather transient, they would often move from job to job, depending on the opportunities that presented themselves. There was a problem with the freight yards, however: the steep gradient from downtown Toronto to the Village of East Toronto necessitated three locomotives, three firemen and three engineers in the moving of the trains. Because of this unsuitable topography the CN freight yards closed down in 1908 and relocated to Belleville and Etobicoke respectively, a move that plunged the area into a serious long-term economic decline.

We continued our drive and stopped at Centre 55 where Gene briefly connected with Bob Murdoch. The Meals on Wheels deliveries were in full swing, and Bob and several of the volunteers had their hands full. From there we continued to Gerrard Street where we briefly dropped in at the offices of the Beach Metro News. The new edition of the paper had just been printed, and several of the captains had come in to pick up their many bundles of paper to pass on to their volunteers who look after the street delivery of the paper. As Gene also volunteers as a captain with the Beach Metro News he picked up his bundles of paper, and then we continued our historic drive.

Our conversation went back to the historic significance of the Main and Gerrard area. Gene added that there were three major intersections in the Beach: Queen and Lee, Queen and Beech as well as Main and Gerrard. He explained that the area featured a farmer’s market and a mix of smaller townhouses and nicer homes. At the corner of Enderby Road and Gerrard Street is a house that used to be owned by a man named Donald George Stephenson. He was a lumber merchant with a physically imposing appearance who was also the mayor of East Toronto. He was well known for his overspending ways, and in 1894 he built a series of row houses on Norwood Terrace, but ended up accumulating major debts and in the end he pulled a disappearing act to escape his creditors.

Behind Norwood Terrace today is the Main Street Bridge which used to be a wooden trestle bridge during the 1920s, spanning eight railway tracks. The area around Main Street was a thriving commercial hub with its own farmer’s market, diverse retail stores and several theatres. One of these theatres was the Ideal Theatre which today is a local retail store. The YMCA used to be on the other side of the intersection where the Ted Reeve Arena is today. Several banks were located at the Main and Gerrard intersection. A hospital and a library were nearby. This was the real centre of East Toronto.

From this area we drove south to the intersection of Main Street and Benlamond Avenue, another historical centre. Gene explained that Main Street used to be called Dawes Road in this area. Following Benlamond Avenue into an old established neighbourhood that used to be blocked to the public by a gate, Gene told me about the business owner duo of Benjamin Morton and James Lamond Smith who were both bankers with the Bank of Upper Canada. They were major landowners in this area. Swanwick Avenue, a local street, was named after Mary Swanwick Morton. Together these two business men created the first golf course in Toronto in 1871 near Woodbine and Coxwell Avenues, just north of the St. John Norway Cemetery. On Glen Oak Drive near Norwood Park there are several large stately homes dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. There is no through traffic in this area, and this little nook is virtually unknown to most Torontonians. The house of Edward Lyall Morton, Benjamin Morton’s son, is in this neighbourhood, and some of the nicest houses are located on small side streets at the edge of an escarpment with a beautiful view over the Beach and Lake Ontario.

We came back out on Benlamond Avenue where the food bank at Calvary Baptist Church was in full swing. Gene added that this church features a beautiful stained glass window. Reverend Sneyd collected windows from bombed out churches in Europe after World War II and put them together into one giant stained glass window that was installed in the 1970s. We then drove east on Lyall Avenue, and Gene informed me that the first 60 houses on both sides of the street are actually protected as part of a designated heritage area. These homes were built for middle class families who had settled here permanently in contrast to some of the other lower income housing that was built for the more transient population of railway workers. Gene pointed out a unique feature of this neighbourhood: several street corners have houses with large front yards, an unusual sight in Toronto’s older high-density neighbourhoods. Gene referred to them as the “fifty-fifties”: the front yard measures fifty yards by fifty yards, and the houses are set in from the street.

Our next brief stop during our tour was at Malvern Collegiate, a venerable educational institution since 1903. Malvern is one of Toronto’s top academic high school and counts such illustrious graduates as Glenn Gould, Robert Fulford and Don Getty. Other celebrity students at Malvern include Norman Jewison, Alex Trebek, Keanu Reeves, Kiefer Sutherland and Jack Kent Cooke. The impressive library wing addition on the west side of the building opened in 1987 and features a statue that dates back to the First World War.

From here we headed down on Hannaford Street to Kingston Road where Gene showed me a local convenience store that used to be “Ritches Dairy” – a stone insert in the building’s façade still testifies to the agricultural heritage of this area. Gene added that about a dozen dairies were located here about a hundred years ago, and he explained that there was nothing on the south side of Kingston Road until the 1940s.