From the Regal Heights Review Fall 2019, Vol I
By Harry Lay
The land that we call Regal Heights today has changed considerably over the 200 years that Europeans have been building on it.
In 1793, with the founding of a British settlement in what was then the Town of York, the Indigenous Mississauga made use of a trail along what we now call Davenport Road. The trail connected the Humber River at Weston with ravines leading into the Don River valley. An early map even suggests there was an Indigenous burial site above Davenport, somewhere on the height of land atop Regal Road. Residents of the street have reported uncovering arrowheads in their gardens.
In the nineteenth century, the Bull family acquired the acreage of wilderness in which the present Regal Heights neighbourhood is located. The land was gradually transformed from native forest into a working farm. The Bull property extended from Dufferin Street east to Alberta Avenue and from St. Clair Avenue W. to south of Davenport Road.
With the land boom of the 1890s came the first plan of subdivision of the property, a Bull family project organized around Oakwood Avenue. Oakwood and Eleanor (now Highview) avenues created building lots with good views over the city, as did Burlington Crescent and Rosemount Avenue.
Then came the market bust of the late 1890s which lasted until 1910, stagnating further development. The Bull Farm remained as fields and pastures. That year, the Northcliffe Land Development Company capitalized on the water, sewage and hydro services being extended by the City of Toronto, as a way to market the real estate development of “Northcliffe on the Hill”.
This development was very different from the wild west housing scramble in Earlscourt, to the west of Dufferin, where uncontrolled building and lot parcelling gave rise to an area known as Shacktown. “Northcliffe on the Hill” was an orderly, modern subdivision of the east half of the Bull Farm. The fields were divided into properties of uniform size fronting onto a grid of new streets, with lot sizes appropriate for middle-class housing. New streets included Northcliffe Boulevard, Lauder and Glenholme avenues and Regal Road.
Photographs of the area at the time show a barren expanse of fields, with some leftover trees in the Garrison Creek ravine. Nevertheless, a marketing brochure for the project emphasized the suburb’s proximity to a “high class residential section [likely Forest Hill] already supplied with all the conveniences of city life”. House lots were priced based on the lineal frontage of each lot, and factored in a prestige value that was dependent on the particular street. Foreshadowing our current transit needs, the marketing brochure noted the extension of streetcar service with access to the Avenue Road and Davenport electric lines.
The description of “Northcliffe on the Hill” was appealing: “Fresh breezes prevail on the warmest days in summer and the air is always free of the smoke and dust of the city”. Like the “Hillcrest” development, topographic superiority was critical to Northcliffe. The development was “located on the highest elevation of land and overlooks Toronto from the north”.
Local land developers like Sir Henry Pellatt were successful in turning the farmlands above Davenport Road into serviced neighbourhoods. Pellatt located his own new home, Casa Loma (deemed by some as the first monster home of the century) on the brow of Davenport Hill.
The Crangs were emblematic of local developers. In 1910 they owned a large parcel of land at the intersection of Oakwood Avenue and St. Clair Avenue West, on which they had built a large family home in the 1800s.
Over time, they knocked down their home and developed the property for multiple uses. The Crangs built a cinema (Oakwood Theatre, seating 1200), a public swimming pool, a stadium and a race car track on the grounds. Subsequent projects included Oakwood Collegiate Institute, many houses, and clusters of mixed-use retail residential buildings along St. Clair Avenue West. More than any other family, the Crangs were instrumental in creating a dynamic neighbourhood built around a thriving St. Clair Avenue West.
On the eve of World War I, the Westmount Northcliffe and Lauder Land Development Company acquired the westerly remaining part of the Bull Farm. Like “Northcliffe on the Hill”, this development was planned for larger and more expensive homes than those south of Davenport and west of Dufferin Street. Several styles of homes were built. Gone was the picturesque, asymmetric whimsy of the High Victorian style that was popular in the older Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Builders now favoured the American Bungalow (or Craftsman) style and the English Garden Suburb style as seen in Wychwood Park.
The construction material of choice was brick supplied by the Don Valley Brickworks. Homes were built with buff, rose and magenta coloured bricks with blonde Humber Valley stone foundations. Roofs were covered with slate or cedar shingle. Windows were often of double-hung assembly. Interiors featured high first floor ceilings, with oak staircases and oak paneling in the principal rooms. Most houses had front porches or raised landings large enough for the family to gather. Freestanding brick car garages were located to the rear of lots. The kit tin garage supplied by the T. Eaton Company was a second option.
Over time, the Regal Heights landscape gradually transformed from farm fields to an urban forest. City foresters planted elms, maples, sycamores and oaks along the street. Hedges for privacy were also very popular.
The Oakwood Avenue boom in Regal Heights began just prior to the First World War and continued for another decade. Other hilltop developments to the east, such as Wells Hill and Bracondale followed. The creation of Regal Heights gives testimony to the merits of carefully controlled development and to the skilled trades responsible for its construction.