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Celebrating Toronto's Architecture

Toronto’s architecture reflects its unique landscape and cultural diversity. Our city’s mixture of Native American, French, and English influences combine for a variety of different building styles. Similarly, Canadian landmarks range from First Nations igloos to Romanesque-style Old City Hall to the modern Ontario College of Art and Design.

Toronto is a bastion of architectural diversity. The city’s pockets of residential communities each have their own iconic flair. However, the many styles of Victorian homes make Toronto a hotbed for historic preservation.

Whether you are a history buff or architecture aficionado, Toronto’s neighbourhoods provide unparalleled visions of beautiful domestic architecture. Read on to learn how Toronto’s unique neighbourhoods have evolved through changes in rule and demographics, and how residents work to preserve them now.

Combining Cultures to Build Toronto

Toronto’s architecture reflects an interwoven fabric of culturally diverse traditions. First Nations developed modest and durable wooden pit-houses and longhouses. French and English settlers brought city planning, larger public buildings, and more ornate residences.

The French expanded cities and erected stone civic buildings and churches. And after the British conquered the French in the Conquest of Quebec in 1759, British-influenced domestic architecture permeated the developing colony. In the early to mid-19th century, economic prosperity aided sprawl of the newly incorporated Toronto. Victorian styles emerged in growing neighbourhoods—and their most significant feature, the bay window, became iconic in Toronto.

Other Victorian sub-styles prevailed as well. The garden-sprinkled, suburban neighbourhood, Rosedale, features two-story, Queen Anne Revival homes. These homes typically showcase large, arched Palladian windows. Another sub-style of Victorian homes called Arts and Crafts combines brick and arched openings for windows. Builders oriented the windows and rooms to maximize natural light within the home. Typically, Arts and Crafts homes featured a bay with casement windows, creating an early version of today’s sunrooms.

These British-influenced domestic styles prevailed into the early 20th century when Toronto’s changing demographics brought about a new approach to architecture.

Developing a Distinctly Canadian Architectural Style

After World War World I, Toronto grew rapidly to accommodate the influx of European immigrants. Britain depended on Canada and its other autonomous dominions for soldiers and materials. In compensation for this effort, Canada received greater independence and the resources to expand farther West. After the Statute of Westminster in 1931, many Canadian architects wanted to develop national, architectural style less influenced by British architecture. Others pushed for a more cosmopolitan, international style.

During this search for national identity, modernist trends became popular. City architecture took a turn from decorative Victorian to simple but bold buildings made of utilized steel, glass, and concrete. For example, the streamlined, concrete CN Tower in Downtown Toronto is the West Hemisphere’s tallest free-standing structure.

At the turn of the 21st century, Toronto experienced a city-funded cultural renaissance where famous Canadian architects designed and renovated major landmarks. For example, Frank Gehry increased art viewing space at the Art Gallery of Ontario by almost 50% and created sculptural staircases out of Douglas fir, a native Canadian wood. Daniel Libeskind added towering aluminium and glass walls to the Royal Ontario Museum as part of a 2007 renovation.

These buildings represent great pinnacles of modern Canadian architecture. Ironically, as Toronto funded modern renovations to civic buildings in an effort to boost city pride, residents worked to preserve historic homes.

Preserving Our Neighbourhoods and Historic Homes

Each Toronto neighbourhood has an individual architectural character. For example, Cabbagetown has the largest concentration of preserved Victorian homes on the continent. The homes in this neighbourhood have what’s called a Bay ‘n Gable style, with four-panel, sash windows. West Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, once the city’s wealthiest neighbourhood in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, has still larger Victorian mansions.

By contrast, our East York neighbourhood has mostly mid-20th century, American-influenced bungalows. Most of the homes are one or one-and-a-half stories with large, overhanging porches.

Historic preservation is a major effort in the city of Toronto. It involves updating key architectural features such as gables and windows with careful consideration of a home’s historical significance. Certain neighbourhoods, like Cabbagetown, Harbord Village, and North Rosedale, are designated Heritage Conservation Districts, meaning property owners within those districts often need to get a permit before altering any feature on their home.

Just like Frank Gehry’s renovation of Art Gallery of Ontario represents a push for national pride and cultural tourism, heritage districts provide an allure for tourist to explore and learn about Toronto’s history.

Adding Elements to Your Home

Architectural windows are the hallmark of a historic home. However, you don’t need to own a perfectly restored, 19th century Victorian home to appreciate a big, beautiful bay window.

Whether you want to upgrade older windows to a more energy-efficient model, or add an iconic Toronto feature such as a bay window, your home is part of an ever-changing, Canadian architectural tradition. An experienced, family-owned window installer can help you achieve this authentic look.


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