The Regal Heights neighbourhood is situated on the westernmost crown of the Davenport Escarpment between Dufferin and Oakwood. The center of Regal Heights are the headwaters of Garrison Creek, with the nearby St Clare Catholic Church and enormous Oakwood Collegiate at either end. The neighbourhood’s main street, St. Clair Avenue West, is one of Toronto’s classic streetcar tracks, both sides of the busy street lined with unique shops and restaurants. Regal Heights is also home to the renowned Ontario School of Ballet and the innovative Zia Mosaics fine art gallery. Winding, hilly well-shaded streets and large homes with turn-of-the-century architecture and steep outdoor stairs have attracted many film production companies to the picturesque Regal Heights locations.
While much of Toronto is fairly level, Regal Heights enjoys a prominent 50 to 75 foot bluff also known as Davenport Hill. This escarpment, which marks the shoreline of a prehistoric lake that was formed at the end of the last Ice Age. The striking elevation gives homes on Regal Road a view of Lake Ontario, the Niagara Peninsula and the city of St. Catharines. Often in summer those on the hillside even enjoy a cool breeze from the lake.
Tributaries of Garrison Creek, which supplied water to Fort York in the 1700s, helped shape the local landscape. Springmount, Alberta and Mount Royal Avenues were built on top of or close to the actual creek bed. Garrison Creek was treated as a garbage dump in the 19th century until it was diverted to an underground sewer pipe in the early 1900’s to protect public health.
The soil in the Regal Heights neighbourhood is largely composed of heavy clay, which present-day residents with green thumbs can appreciate. Centuries ago, this productive land gave rise to small farms and market gardens that were established to feed surrounding communities. In addition to food crops, settlers also planted ornamental gardens around their homes to cultivate such flowering plants as lilacs, orchids, prairie roses, and cacti, as well as bushes such as spiraea and St. Johns-Wort.
Even before farmers began working the land, stands of white oak and pine covered the landscape. A handful of century-old white oak trees still remain, a legacy of Regal Heights’ forest past that co-exists with the towering Norway Maples planted by the city in the 1920s to shade the front yards of many homes.
In 1824, an Irishman by the name of Bartholomew Bull bought land in a pocket east of Dufferin Street and south of St. Clair Avenue West to build a log cabin and create farmland. In 1830, he constructed the first brick house at Davenport Road and Springmout Avenue, calling it Springmount, and volunteered the use of his log cabin not only as the first school in the neighbourhood, but also as a site where traveling Methodist clergy could preach. This cabin became the first church in Regal Heights, and ensconced the Bull family as the first patrons of the Regal Heights neighbourhood.
In the 1850s, the old path at the base of the hill was widened and called Davenport Road, after the village of Davenport, which was established near Davenport Road and Symington Avenue (west of today’s Regal Heights neighbourhood). Although originally improved by the colonial government, for many years during the 19th century the road was privately owned and people using it had to pay tolls. Despite the tolls, in poor weather the road would become a lake of mud. Locals were said to observe that horses exhausted from pulling wagons along muddy Davenport Road would drop to the ground at the thought of having to pull a load up the hill! The 1830s cottage of the toll keeper at Bathurst Street and Davenport Road, in the Wychwood Park neighbourhood, still survives today.
By the 1910, the Bull family sold the farm at Dufferin and St. Clair to developers so that the land could be apportioned into city lots. Roads were surveyed and schools built, with widespread construction of homes occurring in the 1920s. The Springmount name remains in Springmount Avenue, which is one of the signature streets in the Regal Heights neighbourhood.
Between 1900 and 1914, the land northwest of Regal Heights was developed by British immigrants who would buy property and build temporary shelters for their families before constructing more stable homes. This area was known as the shacklands, immortalized in author Judi Coburn’s The Shacklands, about the life of girl growing up in the neighbourhood.
Inside Regal Heights
Regal Heights is well served by the ‘Corso Italia’ shopping district along St. Clair Avenue West. Corso Italia has a lively Italian atmosphere peppered with some of the city’s best Italian restaurants and cafes. Corso Italia is also known for its fashion and accessory boutiques and restaurants.
Hillcrest Park at Davenport Road and Christie Street, features four floodlit tennis courts, a children’s playground and a wading pool. This park also has a spectacular view of the Toronto skyline and Lake Ontario. Recreation lovers have plenty of opportunities at the Earlscourt Park and Recreation Centre, located at St. Clair Avenue West and Caledonia Park Road – it’s one of Toronto’s largest multi-use recreational facilities. The centre includes a large gymnasium, an outdoor pool, soccer fields, tennis courts and an artificial ice-skating rink.
Residents also enjoy close proximity to the Dufferin/St. Clair branch of the Toronto Public Library, which contains the largest collection of Italian books in the city’s public library system, as well as programming for children and preschoolers. Public transit is easily accessed in Regal Heights, as the St. Clair streetcar is within walking distance of every home, and additional bus service is available on Oakwood Avenue, Dupont Street, and Bathurst Street. Motorists are approximately ten minutes from downtown Toronto (with no traffic) and from the Allen Expressway which links commuters to Toronto’s major highways.
Despite Regal Heights’ close proximity to Corso Italia, the housing styles are quite distinct within the two neighbourhoods. Regal Heights detached and semi-detached three storey houses were largely built between 1912 and 1923, while some of the larger homes have been converted into multi-plex dwellings. The homes are loaded with traditional charm, including oak trim, beamed ceilings, stained and leaded glass windows, hardwood floors, and fireplaces. Extravagant brick finishes and oversized, arched doorways make the neighourhood unique. The Regal Heights Residents’ Association, active in the neighbourhood for thirty-four years, consistently encourages community involvement in a variety of yearly activities and meetings while reiterating to its residents that their neighbourhood is a unique community within Toronto – an impetus for meticulous renovations that preserve the original architecture of the houses.
A recent property listing for a detached four bedroom, two bath home on Springmount boasted “abundant old world charm; rich wood trims, French and pocket doors, an oak staircase and banister, stained glass, and a beamed dining room ceiling”. The house sat on a large lot and had a garage plus a wide mutual drive. This is quite typical of the neighbourhood.
The Future of the Neighbourhood
The local Business Improvement Area is encouraging Regal Heights residents to shop locally, as the area has entered a busy construction period. With the creation of the dedicated streetcar lanes along St. Clair Avenue between Dufferin and Oakwood that commenced in August, businesses are experiencing the slowing effects of more congested traffic, so the BIA launched a campaign called “Make Tracks to Regal Heights and Win!” asking residents to walk and discover the stores and restaurants along St. Clair rather than get in their cars to go elsewhere. The idea behind the campaign, which included photo ops for local businesspeople and online contests, is that in addition to helping the environment by leaving their cars behind, residents can help boost the local economy, while fostering a safe and vibrant community.
Recently the Regal Road School won the William Greer Architectural award in the Conservation and Craftsmanship category, for its Portico which had been commissioned by the Residents’ Association and the Toronto District School Board. This award category honours projects that have restored or adapted buildings that have been in existence for forty years or more. In addition to the quality of craftsmanship, appropriateness of materials, and the use of sound conservation principles, the jury considers how well the project meets current needs while maintaining the integrity of the original design.
The pride of local residents and businesses in preserving their unique heritage ensures that Regal Heights will continue to develop into one of Toronto’s premier neighbourhoods. Significant home appreciation in comparison to the market is to be expected, as Regal Heights catches up with its high flying near neighbours like Forest Hill and High Park.