Editor’s Note: This post is the second of an ongoing column exploring various architectural styles in and around Toronto. Spacing writer and heritage architecture consultant Thomas Wicks will look into the history of that style, the people behind it and where in Toronto examples can be found.
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During the 1940s an army of unassuming houses laid siege to Toronto’s outer regions. Now located in the hearts of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, wartime housing (also known as Victory Housing) laid the foundation for many of the sprawling suburbs that grew in the following decades. In their quiet way they housed a shifting and growing population while indicating where urban development in Canada was heading.
In a step meant to meet the growing demand for low-cost housing in urban areas for both defence-related industry workers and returning veterans, the federal government jumped into the world of residential development for the first time. The Veterans’ Land Act provided the funding required to assist municipalities in building the homes and provided the veterans and munitions workers financial assistance in purchasing them. Originally meant to be temporary housing, the government quickly realized that these new settlements would be permanent. Constructed of prefabricated components the houses mimicked the mass production of the war effort. In all over 30,000 houses were built across Canada through this program under the direction of the Wartime Housing Corporation (later to become the Canadian mortgage Housing Corporation or CMHC).
Most homes had steeply pitched roofs, small sash windows and clapboard walls. Both centre and side-hall plans were available, as were shingle and brick veneers. Inside, small rooms and sensible plans made use of every corner with little energy spent on embellishment. Overall the appearance could best be described as pseudo-Cape Cod Revival. Normalcy was sought after with a traditional aesthetic: what could be homier than a pitched roof and a colonial-revival design? Detached housing with an eye on collective community made these houses appealing (not to mention the low price).
Individually the houses do not present a particularly high architectural style. They are small (often lacking basements) and constructed of cheap materials. Their uniqueness stems not from their design but from the factors that contributed to their existence (the war) and from the streetscapes they created. Most often they were built on large lots on winding streets and cul de sacs. Emphasis was placed on giving a uniformed and homey feel to the entire neighbourhood. In southern Etobicoke in a large block of land near the Queensway and Royal York Road an entire neighbourhood was created out of these houses. Built on winding streets around a centrally located park, these houses retain their original feel, despite modifications over the years. Lacking the sexy modernist aesthetic of suburbia that was aspired to after them (and which went largely unrealized) these houses still don’t lack character.
In comparison to the drabness of many suburban developments, wartime housing has a comforting feel. They constitute a distinct break from Toronto’s generally free-market housing developments. They are a unique byproduct of the war. Now many of them have seen their final days; torn down to make way for larger homes or severely altered. They are representative of an interesting period of Toronto’s housing history. They may lack the charm of Victorian row houses but there’s something about them that endures and endears.
Photo of Winston Park, 1945, from City of Toronto Archives