The Annex is likely the most eclectic of Toronto’s affluent neighbourhoods, made up of a diverse assortment of housing and commercial properties within the boundaries of Bloor Street, Dupont Street, Bathurst Street and Avenue Road. The subdivision had two separate surges of growth between 1880 – 1910 and 1910 – 1930, and the consequent structural detail in the Victorian, Queen Anne, Richardsonian and Romanesque homes is some of the finest in the city.
As the Annex has been regaining its elite status for the past two decades, many of the rooming houses of years past are once again being converted back to stately single family dwellings. Bloor Street is a shopping mecca, home to a huge array of restaurants, cafes, art supply stores, book stores and even one of the city’s last independent movie theatres, the Bloor Cinema, which is over one hundred years old.
A Toronto landmark since 1941, Honest Ed’s discount department store shows off its 23,000 lights at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor, and just around the corner is Mirvish Village, a collection of art galleries, antique stores, chic dining spots and specialty boutiques named for Honest Ed’s family (son David Mirvish is a major patron of the arts in Toronto). The Annex is also well known for its vibrant nightlife. Many fine public and private schools serve the neighbourhood, most notably, the University of Toronto which gives this neighbourhood the feel of an elaborately large campus as many of the faculty and students have made the Annex their home. With several subway stations and surface routes, public transit is very effective, and motorists have a quick drive to anywhere in the downtown core.
European settlement of the Annex area began in the 1790s when surveyors laid out York Township. The area east of Brunswick Avenue became part of the Village of Yorkville, while the region west of Brunswick was considered part of Seaton Village. In 1883, Yorkville agreed to annexation with the City of Toronto. In 1886, Simeon Janes, a merchant and land developer, created a subdivision which he called the Toronto Annex. The lands had been annexed by the City in order to provide essential services such as water, sewers and paved roads. The City of Toronto continued to annex additional properties west to Bathurst Street and the Annex as it is known today, was born. Many of the homes in the Annex were built during this time and into the early 1900’s, encouraging the emergence of one of Toronto’s elite neighbourhoods.
The Annex’s first residents included such famous personages as Timothy Eaton, the noted patriarch of Eatons department store, who helped fund the building of Trinity Methodist Church in 1889 at 427 Bloor Street West. Today it is the thriving Trinty-St Paul’s Centre and includes the United Church, a performing arts centre with a great variety of classes, and the home of Tafelmusik, the renowned historical orchestra. The church also provides community based services including the Out of the Cold program for the homeless. Another distinguished, early resident of the Annex was George Gooderham, president of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery.
Rife with history, the Annex’s classic buildings are still in evidence everywhere. At the intersection of Brunswick and Bloor presides a grand building established in 1876: Ye Olde Brunswick House, at 481 Bloor Street West is one of Toronto’s oldest taverns and remains well known today as The Brunswick House (affectionately nicknamed ‘The Brunny’ by locals). E.?J. Lennox, the architect of Old City Hall, built one of his most enduring homes at 37 Madison Avenue, and the architectural style he used-red brick, rough-faced stone, deep archways-is to be found everywhere in the Annex.
Other historical buildings in the neighbourhood include Wiener’s Hardware at 432 Bloor Street West, operated by four generations of Wieners since 1923; Paupers Pub, at 539 Bloor Street West, a beautifully restored building originally built as a bank in 1914 by the CIBC and offering one of the Annex’s best views of the Toronto skyline from its roof top patio; the large and famous Madison Ave Pub and Restaurant built out of 3 spectacular Victorian homes at 14, 16, and 18 Madison Avenue and houses 6 British style pubs, 4 fireplaces and 5 multilevel patios; and the historic landmark, the Bloor Cinema, at 506 Bloor Street West. Built as a movie theatre in 1905, it has an art deco facade with an interior that seats 800, including a two tier balcony and one large screen with a magnificent curtain. It is one of Toronto’s best loved and last remaining repertory cinemas, home to many film festivals and special film events. Across the street, Lee’s Palace at 529 Bloor Street West was also originally built as a movie theatre in 1941 and is now a well known venue for live music concerts. The colourful, iconic cartoon mural was added in the 1990’s.
The Annex’s Golden Era lasted until the 1920’s, when the upper classes began to migrate northward to newer, more fashionable suburbs in Forest Hill and Lawrence Park. As these wealthier residents began moving, their former single family homes, mostly large Victorian dwellings, became ideal rental properties as they were divided into multiple-occupancy rooming houses by the new owners. These rental units attracted young families, recent immigrants, labourers and, perhaps most importantly for the literary culture of the area, students and young faculty from the nearby University of Toronto. The presence of university students created a need for cafés, diners and bookstores, which soon sprung up, and during the late 1960s, dissatisfaction with the U of T led students and faculty to form an alternative educational facility named Rochdale, which was also fed by counter-cultural youth living in Yorkville and American draft-resisters who resided primarily on nearby Baldwin Street.
Activities at Rochdale led to the development of two Toronto small presses – House of Anansi and Coach House Press, both of which still contribute to Toronto’s thriving literary scene. These publishing houses attracted many writers to the area. At the same time various waves of immigrants, including Jewish and later Chinese, formed communities along Spadina Avenue. Many Hungarians arrived and opened businesses along Bloor, joining those who had done so during the late 1950s after the Hungarian Revolution was suppressed. All these contributed to a vital, energetic and ever-changing enclave of novelists, socialists, students, poets and other artists within a small, densely-populated area.
Some of these ‘radicals’ as well as long-established residents who stayed behind during the migration north and east, helped form the Annex Residents Association. This powerful lobby group, in conjunction with others in the surrounding neighbourhoods, saved the Annex from being cut in half by the proposed Spadina Expressway which would have effectively split the neighbourhood in the 1960’s, had it been built. Whole and intact today, the Annex remains one of Toronto’s most desirable neighbourhoods.
Despite its super-charged shopping & dining districts along Bloor Street West and Dupont Street, the Annex is mainly residential, with quiet, tree lined one-way streets thick with beautiful Victorian and Edwardian homes and mansions, most of them built between 1880 and the early 1900s. The majority of these are three-storey semis that average 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, with fancy flourishes making them seem even grander. An excellent example of typical Victorian architecture is The Madison Manor, at 20 Madison Avenue – a gorgeous restored mansion with 23 bedrooms furnished in the style of an English country inn, with original features such as fireplaces, balconies and alcove windows retained. Credit River sandstone in plum and pink hues, rich red brick and terra cotta clay tiles make up the exterior facades of many Annex homes. The building detail is among the finest in the city, ranging from pyramidal roofs and turrets to elaborate window surrounds, recessed grand archways and wooden spindled porches. Architectural styles are not limited to the Victorian and Edwardian but also include Queen Anne, Georgian, English cottage and Romanesque. In spite of these rich styles and finishes, or perhaps because of their commonality in the Annex, there is a feeling of homogeneity to the housing stock.
A second wave of Annex homes dates from 1910 to 1930. These homes are less elaborate than their predecessors, but nevertheless are fine examples of English Cottage, Georgian and Tudor style architecture.
The Annex is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Toronto in which to rent or own a home – in 2007, the average purchase price for a single family home was $2,219,000. Because of its proximity to the university, there is a high rate of seasonal tenant turnover in the frat houses and mid-rises along St. George Street, with some students even renting condos near Bloor & Avenue Road, but for the most part the Annex remains a neighbourhood of single family homes. On the Annex’s premier streets, such as Madison Avenue, Lowther and Admiral Road, homes sell for up to $3 million. A two-and-a-half-storey “handyman’s dream” with four bedrooms listed last year at $700,000!
The neighbourhood’s appeal and high prices sometimes results in the stretching of its borders by realtors and residents of surrounding areas who invite prospective owners and renters to live in ‘The West Annex’, the architecturally-similar and more affordable district between Bathurst St. and Christie St. formally known as Seaton Village (although the street signs along that stretch of Bloor call it the Korean Business Area.) The houses are not as spectacular, but the shaded streets, Palmerston Public School and Vermont Square Park are compelling. A good-sized two-storey home without parking can still be had for $550,000 to $650,000.
The area between Bloor and College Street is also sometimes referred to as the “South Annex”, again, to take advantage of the big draw of the Annex name.
Inside the Annex
Affluent and peaceful yet close to the bustle of Bloor Street, the university, museums and shopping, the Annex is in the political riding of Trinity-Spadina, which is represented both provincially and federally by the New Democratic Party. This district is well known by Torontonians as one of the friendliest neighborhoods in the city. Families love to raise their children in the Annex due to the proximity of excellent schools such as Huron Street Public School, Lord Lansdowne (film site of the recent musical Hairspray with John Travolta), Harbord Collegiate which has a prestigious French Immersion program, and the Randolph Academy For The Performing Arts.
The stretch of Bloor Street between St. George and Bathurst is a vibrant social and retail area, offering a wide range of products and services from upscale dining to discount retailers like Honest Ed’s, as well as clothing boutiques, vintage/resale stores, food markets, and outdoor cafes. When someone says that they are “going to the Annex,” this stretch of Bloor Street is usually what they are referring to. Favourite destinations include Future Bakery, a poets’ hangout with affordable hot food, a huge patio and an even bigger selection of Dufflet cakes; Sonic Boom, a funky record shop buying & selling CDs, games and vinyl; and The Outer Layer, carrying imported soaps and whimsical gifts and cards. Additional convenience shopping, dining and professional services abound along Dupont Street.
The Annex has a thriving multicultural scene, with the Tranzac (Toronto Australia-New Zealand) Club,the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto at 16 Spadina Road and the Miles J. Nadal Jewish Community Centre in the heart of the neighbourhood at Spadina and Bloor. The Spadina Road Public Library at 10 Spadina Road, offers a wide variety of programming for neighbourhood residents. Stores are generally open until at least 9 p.m.; there is a 24-hour Metro grocery store, the Shoppers Drug Mart open till midnight, and some restaurants, like the Cluck, Grunt & Low barbecue restaurant at Spadina & Walmer Road, are open well past midnight.
Many of the area’s retail, quick eats, bars and entertainment venues are aimed at the university student demographic from which it draws its energy – young, multicultural, health-conscious and eco-friendly, educated, and non-driving; though people from all over the city and from all walks of life converge upon its restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the evenings. Ever-changing sushi restaurants, pizzerias and falafel stands all rub elbows along crowded Bloor Street.
The Annex is well served by public transit, including seven TTC subway stations: Bathurst, Bay, Bloor-Yonge, Christie, Dupont, St. George and Spadina. Buses and/or streetcars operate on Bathurst Street, Christie Street, Dupont Street and Spadina Road. Motorists are within minutes of Toronto’s business and entertainment districts and are approximately twenty five minutes from the commuter highways.
Although the Annex is widely regarded as being peaceful, vibrant, and highly desirable, it is also very densely populated. In fact, it is said that if the rest of the City of Toronto (not including suburban municipalities) were populated in a similar manner, the entire population of the GTA – about 6 million people – would fit in an area estimated to be less than one-tenth the City’s current size!
The Annex offers local attractions too numerous to list, however, among the most notable are the Bata Shoe Museum across from St. George subway station, the Royal Ontario Museum at Bloor and Avenue Road, the Annex Theatre and the adjacent Bathurst Street Theatre which is a landmark roadhouse for original Canadian theatre. Nearby, Casa Loma and the Spadina House Museum are big tourist attractions. Held in and around the Annex for twenty years, the summer Fringe Theatre Festival is one of the city’s cultural highlights, featuring comedy, drama, dance, and a range of other independent productions. It is no wonder that the area has long been a popular locus for legions of famous writers and artists, perhaps most notably Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee and Morley Callaghan – both as a place of residence and as a source of inspiration.
Annex residents care about their community. One case in point is The Annex Cat Rescue, which began as a group of volunteers living primarily in the Annex, though it now boasts members from all over the city. This well known non-profit organization, with no government funding, seeks to eliminate cruelty to animals by providing for the fostering and adoption of cats that are homeless or abandoned and by education and information.