Have you ever felt Heritage? No, no, it is not a mistake. Sure, you have read about historical past, watched movies, visited museums and other memorable places. But what about that sensations and emotions when you can touch, smell, see, and feel History? Contentment, peace and tranquility come over you while you are there. It is as if this house still alive and its inhabitants just left for a picnic. This could very well be, because almost everything at Spadina House (unlike in many other museums) is unique to the Austin family, and has belonged there throughout this home’s years. From what we have read and heard, it was a very happy family dwelling…
We would like to tell you a story of Spadina House which is truly one of the nicest, prettiest and best maintained museum-houses in the Metro Toronto Area but overshadowed by its grandeur next door neighbour Casa Loma. Casa Loma is a dream; Spadina is a house to live in. At the same time Spadina House is a cradle of TD Bank and Toronto’s and Canadian history is closely connected with this marvellous place.
The house as it stands is actually the third home on the same foundations. The first one was built by Dr. William Baldwin in 1818 on 200-acre land as a country home (back then Toronto had not spread that far north yet) and was a two-storey wood-frame family dwelling typical of well off society members in Upper Canada. He called it Spadina (pronounced spadeena), after the native term espadinong, meaning “hill.” Although the house was three miles from town, Baldwin declared, that the trip, often on foot, contributed much to his and his sons’ health.
Over the years, Dr. Baldwin occupied a number of important public positions. He was a judge, Treasurer of the Upper Canada Law Society, and a member of the Legislative Council, in addition to carrying on both law and medical practices, William was an amateur architect, and designed the house himself. He was a busy man, and in time the trip to the country home became less convenient. So when it burned down in 1835, Dr. Baldwin built a home in town on Front Street and in 1836, a more modest one story residence appeared on the lush piece of real estate.
Beginning of the Austin’s Era
In 1866 the property was acquired by James Austin, who saw the home and land as an ideal setting for his own ‘castle’ in a very rural area close to York (Toronto). Baldwin’s grandson sold the property through public auction (to look after some bad debts). Austin’s bid of £3,550 topped those of John Ross, former president of the Grand Trunk Railway, and John Macdonald, the dry-goods magnate.
By that time, parts of the property had been sold off, and what Austin purchased covered 80 acres. The home was located in an area that was starting to become “Millionaires Row” with a number of Toronto’s wealthiest families having large estates there. Austin demolished the original single story Baldwin house and on top of its foundations built a grand Victorian home surrounded by Gardens.
A prominent businessman and financier, James Austin was a founder and the first President of the Dominion Bank in 1870. In this capacity he was responsible for the institution of the branch banking system in Canada. He was also President of the Consumers Gas Company for over two decades, being first elected for that position in 1874. By the way, there were gas lights in the house, and a big chandelier in the hall is still working, emitting a smell of gas a little bit.
In 1889, James Austin subdivided the forty acres west of Spadina. Three years later he deeded twenty acres and the house to his son Albert.
Albert Austin’s Improvement
Over the years, Albert added to the house a billiard room, ground-floor kitchen, palm room and glassed porte-cochere. Changes were made to accommodate a growing family and to improve its vistas… not the least of which was the ruining of their Westward looking porch’s view by the building of the imposing Casa Loma.
The influence of new technologies such as gas lighting, central heating, electricity and the telephone can be seen here. The life of the domestic staff is represented in the working kitchen and pantries. The most visible reminders of the original house are the former front door, sidelights and fanlight, which now form the back entrance.
We were much impressed by knowing a lot of details about domestic life of high society of that time. First of all, the attitude towards the servants: all lower level staff had to be invisible. For example, when the flowers in the palm room needed to be watered the servant had to enter the room only from the basement through a hatch in the floor, and if the access was locked it meant that the owners didn’t want to be disturbed. Or the kitchen entrance: it is located in the front close to the main door but you could never distinguish it because of camouflage with the plants. Or a special porch in the dining room where the meals were delivered unnoticed by the kitchen staff to be served by a specially dressed servant of a higher rank.
The kitchen in the house is another story. It is big, sunny and well organized. There is ice storage at rare where the meet was kept during the summer time. The first fridge in Toronto was installed in this very kitchen and it is still in order. Isn’t it amazing?!
Again, one of the first in Toronto telephones was set at Spadina House in a special room to insulate from the loud voices. We didn’t know that at the beginning of telephone era people had to shout to the phone to be heard on the opposite side.
Under the Austin’s, the house seems to have been a happy place filled with family and friends and on occasion, up to nine children living within it’s walls. There were no tragic events there. There are no legends. In fact, the Austin’s even weathered the Great Depression with much more cushioning than most of the other families that had moved in around them.
Going from room to room it’s like traveling in time in a home décor museum. The historic house illustrates the evolution of styles from mid-Victorian to 1930s Colonial Revival and includes items from both the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements, as well as items in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. The rooms contain furniture purchased by the family, much of it made in Toronto.
The Estate’s Gardens reflect both Victorian and Edwardian styles and today feature more than 300 varieties of plants. The garden setting is a result of archaeological studies on the grounds and painstaking research through family diaries, old drawings and photographs, journals, letters and stories told by members of the Austin family. Much original plant material can still be seen on the grounds; the magnificent white oaks, for instance, predate the house. Other plants still growing include the lilacs, peonies, daylilies and irises, as well as a rose identified as a Dorothy Perkins: “one of the best of the old ramblers,” according to a garden writer of the Edwardian period.
Becoming a Museum
In 1912, the north part of this property was sold to the city for a reservoir. Albert Austin died in 1933. His second daughter, Anna Kathleen Thompson, lived in the house with her family from 1942 until 1982. The aged house had outdated wiring and needed a thorough overhaul, which would have been far more expensive than rebuilding it. While the house could have been sold to private interests such as the Keg Restaurant, the family decided instead to donate the house and all of its furnishings to the city. In 1984 it has been opened as a museum, jointly operated by the City of Toronto and the Ontario Heritage Foundation. The family still keeps some links with the house and celebrations such as weddings are held there. Austin Terrace and Austin Crescent are also reminders of this leading Toronto family who occupied Spadina for four generations.
Spadina House is a manor on 285 Spadina Road (phone: 416-392-6910) operated all year round. But please do not mix Spadina Road and Spadina Avenue like we did for the first time. Without doubts it is one of the favourite places to visit at any time of the year.References
- Spadina House Museum documents
- Austin Seton Thompson, Spadina: A story of old Toronto, Paguran Press, 1975.
- Liz Lundell, The Estates of Old Toronto, Boston Mills Press, 1997.