Derelict Delights is a weekly series where we look at abandoned buildings begging for revitalization. This week: E.R.A. Architects ’Scott Weir and Michael McClelland tell us about a group of downtown Georgian townhouses that are ripe for rejuvenation.
What happens when you’ve got beautiful, old buildings in a problematic area?
On George Street, south of Gerrard and north of Dundas East, there are a handful of vacant, boarded-up, pre-Confederation properties. 295 and 297 George street are Georgian townhouses, built in 1858, while 305 is a centre-hall planned Georgian house, built in 1859. According to E.R.A. Architects‘ Scott Weir and Michael McClelland, these deteriorating properties are ripe for rejuvenation.
“The interior [of 305] has some of the best plaster work in a private home in that area,” says Weir.
He points out that 297 bears a striking resemblance to Bond Street’s Mackenzie House, the restored house museum of Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. The property at 295, which at one point lacked a roof and went through a fire last year, has a particularly interesting history. It became Fegan Boys’ Distribution Home in the late 1880s—English and Irish boys were brought from the UK to live at the home before they were sent out to work at farms in Ontario.
“When the fire happened, it was really interesting hearing all the stories of people whose grandfathers came through the Fegan Boys’ Home,” says Weir. “It was a really important site for bringing people to Canada.”
Several years ago McClelland and Weir put in requests for the buildings to be declared historic sites. 305 was designated, the other two were not. (Weir took a series of photos of the sites, which you can find here. Toronto photographer Timothy Neesam also took some arresting images of the interior of 305 George here.)
The biggest problem with these stately, aging structures is that they are in a difficult location.
“The site is a bit challenging because it’s right next to Seaton House [a 700-bed shelter for homeless men], Filmore’s [strip club] is at the the end of the block,” said Weir. “Every other street around it, all the buildings are fixed up and in use and it’s a bit of a tough block to figure out what to do.”
The social problems that are in abundance at Seaton House—drug use and mental-health issues—spill out onto George Street. There have been complaints over the years that Seaton House was not adequate to deal with the amount of fragile and substance-addicted men that were being housed there—here’s a 2009 NOW magazine piece about plans for Toronto Community Council to demolish Seaton House and replace it with a brand-new, long-term care facility. But so far, Seaton House still stands.
McClelland says that in other municipalities, the city might offer incentives for development in an area like this, but with the city struggling to deal with basic bookkeeping, “we’re in the wrong time zone” for any major city support. However, he says that the area’s councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, has shown a lot of interest in seeing the street developed.
McClelland and Weir agree it’s an area with enormous potential for residential use. Because the buildings are large and on “huge” lots, the alley behind could be densified.
“I think apartments would make sense,” says Weir. “It could be that there would be some kind of townhouse development facing the alley behind.”
“I actually think that I’d love to live there,” says McClelland. “It’s the perfect urban development site, it’s actually a fantastic neighbourhood except for the rep that particular street has. Some people have to be pioneers to move in there and make it happen.”
“Cabbagetown in the ’60s and ’70s, who would live there? And it took people to see the advantage and potential there, this the last holdout.”
Even though the buildings have suffered damage over the years, Weir says they are absolutely salvageable.
“These are good enough,” he said. “I live a few blocks away in Cabbagetown and I bought a house that has termite damage, was sandblasted, had no heat in the back of the house and a lot of extensive rot and we fixed it. These aren’t as bad as that one was.”
McClelland says the buildings are in need of “some savvy, small entrepreneur” who does small-scale infill development.
“I think there’s a number of people in that market, it’s just kind of unlocking it and getting it going, that’s the trick,” he said. “And it would really need someone to have their heart in it. It would have an impact not just on the one group of properties, but that whole neighbourhood.”