Cottages and Houses in Toronto’s Beaches Neighbourhood 

With summer in full swing, many Toronto residents are escaping to the retreats of their lakeside cottages. In this blog post, Richard White, author of The Beaches, writes about his observation of cottages and houses in the iconic east-Toronto neighbourhood.

One of the pleasures of intensive historical research, which is to say taking the time to uncover and digest previously unexamined source material, is having one’s own so-called knowledge proven wrong. I experienced this pleasure many times in researching The Beaches. The reason for it, I can see now, is that in my twenty-five years living in this old east-Toronto neighbourhood along the shore of Lake Ontario I had unwittingly absorbed much of the received wisdom about its history – knowledge that floats around, passed from neighbour to neighbour and repeated in cursorily researched histories and journalistic accounts. 

One of the most striking of these was unlearning the supposed fact that its houses had once been summer cottages. Notwithstanding a few anomalous examples, this is simply not true. I had long been somewhat dubious, for the neighbourhood’s long rows of houses and rectilinear grid of streets hardly seemed like a cottage community. I also knew how few residents of Edwardian Toronto could afford two homes. But the lake and the beach made the claim plausible, so I had vaguely accepted it. Research would thoroughly disabuse me of this erroneous fact, although so too would it make the error understandable. 

The neighbourhood did at one time have summer cottages. Between about 1880 and 1910, residents of Toronto built more than a hundred such cottages along the lake in what would become the Beaches neighbourhood. These structures took various forms. Some, notably a dozen or two in the Balmy Beach district in the east end, were substantial summer homes, owned and occupied by well-off professionals and businessmen and their families. But others, especially in the Kew Beach area to the west, were more modest; some were little more than shacks. And along with the buildings, of course, came plenty of owners and renters. By the first decade of the century both Kew Beach (in the west) and Balmy Beach (in the east) had become recreational communities, small but populous enough for them both to have private clubs with membership revenue sufficient to build and maintain clubhouses.  

Lakefront cottages on Kew Beach, in west end of neighbourhood, in 1930 prior to demolition. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub-series 3, Item 804.

But beginning slowly in the 1890s, and much faster after 1900 – by which time full electric streetcar service connected the neighbourhood to the city – nearly all the land a kilometre or so in from the beach was transformed from semi-rural and sparsely occupied into a dense residential suburb. The owners of this land, most of them well-connected speculators holding substantial parcels, subdivided their now-valuable property into small lots that they sold to builders who, in short order, erected and sold hundreds of year-round houses. 

The product of this entrepreneurial activity is, essentially, the Beaches neighbourhood of today. This ‘streetcar suburb’, as such creations have long been known to urban historians, did not supplant the cottage community. For about a generation the two co-existed, or perhaps one should say they overlapped for some permanent residents used the beach and some lakefront cottages were lived in year-round. But in 1931 the cottages disappeared. In one fell swoop that year the City of Toronto expropriated all private lakefront properties from Woodbine Avenue to the eastern city limit and demolished and cleared away all the structures on them to create Eastern Beaches Waterfront Park. It was a drastic move, which profoundly unsettled the neighbourhood, but it was also a major step forward for Toronto’s public realm.  

Lakefront home on Balmy Beach, in east end of neighbourhood, in 1930, prior to demolition. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub-series 3, Item 390.

So decisive and so complete was the City’s action that few now realize the strip of grassy land alongside the neighbourhood’s popular boardwalk was once covered by private cottages, from one end of the park to the other. It is indeed hard to imagine them now, though one can imagine how much less of a public space the iconic boardwalk would be had they remained. So yes, the neighbourhood had cottages – of course, considering the existence of the beaches, the growth and increasing wealth of Toronto, and the popularity of summer cottages at the end of the 19th century – but no, it does not have any now. 

This chain of events partly explains misapprehensions about the origin of the neighbourhood’s housing. But other explanations can be found in some of the housing itself. Much of the earliest housing in the residential suburb was, and some still are, small and wooden-clad, giving it a decidedly cottage-like, or at the least small-town, appearance. Records of ownership and occupation of these early houses, however, make it clear that these were not summer cottages but year-round dwellings for families of modest income. Furthermore, some of the neighbourhood’s year-round houses, especially in the Balmy Beach area, were built in what might be called a cottage style, perhaps as a nod to the district’s past, although this nostalgic style was somewhat in vogue for suburban residential buildings in these years. One will see a few such houses today, distinguished by their clapboard exteriors and wraparound porches. Some of them might have been lived in seasonally at first – there is evidence of this – but not for long, and in any case they are anomalies in an urban fabric of conventional houses. The Beaches was built as, and remains, a residential urban neighbourhood. 

Read an excerpt of The Beaches by Richard White.

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