For lovers of architecture, the City of Toronto provides a treasure trove of visual interest with its housing stock. Take for instance the prevalence of the charming Gothic Revival Cottage, or the wealth of Edwardian Residential Architecture In Toronto.
Another common style that is both beautiful and historically fascinating is the Bay & Gable style home, which dot many streets in Toronto’s storied neighbourhoods. The Bay and Gable was one of the more common styles in the Victorian era in the City of Toronto. Their tall and narrow design lent itself perfectly to make the most of the lots in Toronto – that were narrow and deep. You’ll find them in numerous neighbourhoods as row and semi-detached housing. There are detached Bay & Gable homes, but they are more rare.
While they were really in their heyday through the late 1880s, the first known Bay & Gable home in Toronto dates back to 1875 in the Annex. This style came about mostly as homage to Gothic mansions, providing the merchant class with a high-styled elegant address. Along with Cabbagetown, the Annex holds many of Toronto’s most well-preserved Bay & Gable homes. Here are two styles side by side in the Annex:
These homes are immediately recognizable by their iconic gables that are placed atop immense windows. While everyone appreciates natural light in their home, these large windows were a necessity given the Bay & Gable design. Given the pronounced depth typically of these homes, the large windows allowed light to make its way through the entirety of the home. Air circulation through the narrow home could be challenging, and the ample window space at the front of the home was meant to ventilate and circulate most effectively. It wasn’t just about keeping the indoors comfortable; it helped to divert some of the odours that city residents were faced with during the era (like burning coal and gas fumes), living in a tight neighbourhood. Even more light was ushered in through trademark transom windows that were usually placed over the front door.
Other distinguishing characteristics include stained glass, iconic barge board trim on the gables (the “gingerbread look”), steeply pitched roofs and long windows with low sills to permit the maximum flow of air and light. Subject to personal style, barge boards were customizable:
While most often built with brick, a variety of different materials was used. On the exteriors, some homeowners trying to save money would have a brick façade on the front with clapboard or shingle siding elsewhere. Here are two examples of Bay & Gable homes in Toronto where siding has been added, but, more noticeably, the owners have tried to introduce bright colours to the facade. It’s not fo us – we’re purists – but what do you think?
If you’re going to dress up the exterior – particularly the gables – subtle is better:
24 Hazelton Avenue in Yorkville
Their tall design also let homeowners maximize the space of their home, while avoiding paying hefty property takes. During the Victorian era, property taxes in Toronto were based on the width of a lot’s frontage, so instead of building out, homeowners built up, often three stories high with soaringly high ceilings (often 10+ feet high). The gables play role in design diversion, drawing the eye up to a pleasing focal point, rather than revealing the narrow size of the home. Inch for inch, the Bay & Gable design offer an awful lot of visual interest compared to other housing designs. That’s because while they are smaller in size, the level of detail in the design and décor is opulent and impressive.
The earlier Bay & Gable style (pre-1880) possess a more Italian influence with round headed windows, angled bay windows and steep gables. As the years progressed, a Queen Anne influence emerged marked with rectangular bay windows and rectangular bays and a softer pitch to the gables. For a taste of something a little more Italian,particularly in the rounded windows, take a look at the historic Charles Johnson house on Gwynne Avenue in Parkdale:
28 Gwynne Avenue in Parkdale
The interior floor plan was generally the same, with variations based obviously on the size. The traditional layout featured formal sitting and dining rooms at the front of the house, with the kitchen at the rear in a separate zone for ventilation. The bedrooms were located upstairs, with the more important household members sleeping near the large bay windows and transoms to receive the most natural light and air. In the attic levels were additional sleeping quarters, allocated either to children or household staff. While much of the physical layout was standard, the intricate décor was often very personal and ranged widely depending on homeowner taste (just like today).
There was a great deal of flexibility with the style itself that really allowed homeowners to embrace the style while putting their own personal stamp on their home. For example, the style evolved to reflect a half-bay that also had a balcony that stretched across the top storey. Double bay homes were larger and needed larger lots to accommodate the extra width.
Curious to read more about the history of this iconic style that is so deeply rooted in Toronto’s housing history? Click to read this article from Hoss Magazine, this piece from Blog TO, or this piece from Mirvish+Gehry!
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