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Toronto’s first apartment boom (1900 to 1920)

North American cities have long had a problem with apartment buildings.

One the one hand, they were viewed as an important requirement for world-class status. Regardless of whether there was an economic imperative to build in this way, you needed grand buildings to communicate that you were an important and sophisticated city.

But on the other hand, apartments were viewed as clearly inferior to low-rise houses. Apartments were too dense; they were thought to morally corrupt people (infidelity meant just walking down the hall); and by definition — until the rise of condominiums — they were filled with renters.

I recently stumbled upon this 1989 research paper by Richard Dennis (through Bob Georgiou’s blog) and it is a fascinating account of Toronto’s first apartment-house boom from 1900 to 1920:

One of the first apartment houses to be completed in the city was the Alexandra Palace Apartments (pictured above) on University Avenue near Elm Street:

The next building to be completed, the Alexandra, on University Avenue, was on an even grander scale. It was promoted by the Union Trust Company, but subsequently owned by the specially constituted Alexandra Palace Co. Ltd., and opened in 1904. The building, of stone, brick and steel construction, comprised 72 suites on seven floors; it also included dining rooms. In 1905 more than a quarter of its suites were vacant, mainly on the upper floors (although the very top floor was fully occupied); its tenants included a leading judge, two barristers, a professor, a doctor and a prominent real estate agent, but otherwise its social standing did not quite match that of St George Mansions. In 1915 occupants included Professor James Mavor. There were more tenants aged in their thirties than in St George Mansions, but overall the average age of 42 and household size of 2.6 was not dissimilar.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the paper is Toronto’s reaction to this apartment boom. We moved to stop it:

Nonetheless, it is clear that the attempted invasion of high-status single- family areas in Parkdale and, more especially, Rosedale and Avenue-St Clair, provided the catalyst to action. For all the moral outrage and sanitary evidence, there was little concern as long as apartments stayed downtown or in lower-status neighbourhoods. This becomes even more apparent when we examine what happened in the months following the passage of the by-laws.

Toronto’s housing stock has changed dramatically over the last 100 years or so, and we are now nearly 50% apartments/condominiums over 5 storeys. But at the same time, some things seem to never change.


  1. Joseph Hill

    Great Post! I love the old aprtment building of Toronto. Did not know Bay street was called Teraulay. Question: “we are now nearly 50% apartments/condominiums over 5 storeys” – Can you expand on that? Does that mean, 50% of residential buildings over 5 storeys are apartments? Or half the people living in Toronto are living in buildings over 5 stories?

    Liked by 1 person

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