The influx of young families around Roncesvalles area has been great for new bars and shops—but not so great for those that deal in the business of dying.
The rapidly changing Roncesvalles strip has seen many new shops and restaurants open up, and many old stalwarts go. But, as far as neighbourhood pedigree is concerned, few businesses in the area can rival the Turner & Porter funeral home—it’s operated out of 436 Roncesvalles Ave. since 1919. However, as of Dec. 1, the chapel has been closed as the owners look to selling the 20,000-sqaure foot site for redevelopment.
Nothing’s been finalized yet. In the wake of an early community consultation, all that father-and-son operators Douglas and Jeffrey Porter will reveal is that the site will most likely be turned into a mix of residential and retail space.
The company has four other chapels under its name and roughly 100 employees. (Full disclosure: my father once worked at the Roncesvalles branch.) But the firm can trace its history back even further than the 1919 opening of the Roncesvalles location.
Started up in 1874 at 9 and 11 Queen St. W., Turner & Porter began as an undertaking and cabinet-making operation. (Many undertaking businesses also dealt in furniture back then.) It eventually moved further west to 200 Queen St. W., and then to 700 Queen St. W. before settling on Roncesvalles.
Douglas Porter, the fifth-generation to be involved in the family business and its current president, lived at the Roncesvalles branch until he was roughly six years old. The upstairs part of building had full living quarters back then and, though they’ve been cut down in size, apprentices and other employees still lived on-site up until the recent closure.
“When you live upstairs, one thing is your friends from school never want to visit you,” Douglas says with a laugh.
Growing up, Douglas went to Howard Park School, the same school his father Ray attended before him. His mother also grew up in the neighbourhood, across from the former Brighton Theatre, while his grandparents lived on Parkside Drive.
His family moved out to Etobicoke in the mid-1950s. And in 1957, the company bought a chapel, previously run by the Yorke brothers, at Bloor and Windermere, marking another westward shift that’s characterized much of the firm’s history. By then, the head office shifted from Roncesvalles to the new Bloor West Village chapel.
Recent demographic changes around Roncesvalles affected the business as well.
“A number of years ago, we served 700 families a year,” says Douglas Porter. “But, back then, there were a lot of older families who were here for a long time. People stayed in the house until the end.”
Douglas’ son Jeffrey is the vice-president of the company and the sixth generation to be involved in the family business. As he explains, “The people who spent their entire lives in the neighbourhood are gone.”
Much of their traditional client base now patronizes the company’s more western locations.
“A lot of the people who did live in the Roncesvalles-Parkdale area moved out to Kingsway and Etobicoke,” Douglas explains. “When they had a death in the family, before 1957, they would drive past the Yorke brothers’ funeral home, and still come down to Roncesvalles. But when dad bought Yorke in 1957, we immediately started seeing a change,” Doug says. “Families that had used us for years were now going to stop [at our Bloor West Village location] rather than drive down to Roncesvalles.”
With Roncesvalles currently experiencing a baby boom, business from local families has become much less frequent.
“If you’re only doing a couple funerals a week, it doesn’t make sense to keep that building with this building [in Bloor West Village] literally six, seven minutes away,” says Jeffrey.
Eventually, the entire building at Roncesvalles will be torn down, though the company plans to keep many of its old artifacts. Jeffrey’s office is full of the many old signs that once hung out in front of the chapel.
“It’s kind of sad to do this, because it’s really the backbone of what we have here,” says Doug. “It was here before all the other chapels.
“It’s the end of an era for a building.”