Welcome to The Urbaneer blog on housing, culture, and design! I’m Steve Fudge and I’m celebrating over three decades as a realtor and property consultant.
Today I’m writing about Midcentury Modern Apartments – which were built in the late 1940s through 1960s in Toronto – for three reasons. The first reason is I love this architectural style because it’s characterized by clean lines, large windows, and an interior design based on functionality. The second reason is that these buildings were constructed during an earlier Toronto housing crisis, and I think it serves us to look to the past to see how it might inform our future. And the third reason? I’ll share that at the end of this post.
Our City Of Neighbourhoods Is Rooted In Immigration
I suspect many Torontonians are so focused on the NOW that they forget our current housing crisis is not the only time our city has had a significant shelter shortage. In fact, because Toronto has served as a major immigrant reception centre for the country since the late 1800s, it’s almost always had a perpetual lack of accommodations.
In my 2018 post titled Gentrification, Densification, And The History Of Toronto Real Estate, I share how the original City of Toronto’s urban fabric evolved as a collection of villages, each with its own distinct qualities and characteristics shaped by the ever-changing socio-economic status and ethnicity of its residents. These micro real estate markets – also known as neighborhoods – oscillate symbiotically with each other.
These neighbourhoods, for well over a century, were the destinations of many arriving immigrants that shaped our housing diaspora. As each wave arrived and grew, the urban landscape also became a multicultural landscape. For example, as the Anglophones migrated up Yonge Street from Rosedale to Lawrence Park and northwards, the Jewish community – which had its roots in Kensington Market – located along Bathurst Street to Forest Hill and beyond, while the Italians went northwest from College Street to St. Clair Avenue and up to Woodbridge – each over a succession of generations. The Asian communities settled – not in trajectories – but in nodes, like Chinatown on Spadina Avenue, Gerrard and Broadview, and more recently to Richmond Hill and Markham. The Portuguese moved north and west of the Italians, while the Eastern Europeans – who bought the dwellings in Roncesvalles Village from the Scots at the beginning of the 1900s – scattered as they assimilated, though their cultural imprint remains strong in Bloor West Village. As each cultural group became established, and then expanded in size and grew in affluence, so did their locations and types of shelter as they jockeyed for place, space, and status. In other words, for the better part of the 20th century, where you lived was often a reflection of your cultural affiliation. It still exists today, but not as overtly because Toronto has become more ‘Canadian’ with each successive generation born here.
Post-World War II
The period after World War II is a critical one in Canadian housing history. As the country regained its economic and social footing in the years that followed the war, it opened its doors to new immigrants and saw an explosion in housing development. Between January 1946 and December 31, 1953, over 750,000 immigrants came to Canada. According to Statistics Canada, from the 1950s to the 1970s immigrants were from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Portugal. Many of them made Toronto their destination.
As we know, the housing sector is a critical component of the economy. It provides both jobs and shelter which are two very important factors when the size of your population is expanding. Furthermore, after World War II, as I wrote in the History Of Building Affordable Economical Housing, Canadian government policy focused on ensuring a housing supply was available – and affordable – in support of veterans and their families.
When your city is an immigration destination, although you want new arrivals to purchase a property so that they’re financially committed to their new homeland (and one of the reasons International Students get a 100% rebate on the Foreign Buyers Tax as I write in Shades Of Duplicity In The Foreign Buyer Tax For Canadian Housing), it’s important to have a sufficient supply of purpose-built rental housing to accommodate all the new eager optimistic arrivals ready to begin the next chapter of their lives if they don’t have enough cash to buy property. Just as we’re facing now, the post-WWII era experienced a surge in immigration and a shortfall in shelter. The result? A construction boom of 500,000 purpose-built rental apartments constructed over 23 years transformed Toronto from predominantly single-family residences into an urbanscape of modern mid and high-rise density housing.
The Role Of Immigration & The Rental Market In Canada
A snapshot of today’s rental market in Toronto shows a tight market with razor-thin vacancy, rising rents, and a lack of supply. This will likely only get more challenging in the immediate future, as Toronto’s robust economy grows alongside lofty immigration targets.
In fact, Calgary, Toronto, and Vancouver led the pack in annual rent inflation amongst Canada’s largest markets — rates in those regions climbed 24.9%, 22.4%, and 18.7%, respectively in March 2023. –Storeys
Here’s a chart:
The popularity of rental housing in Toronto is due in large part to migration. Migration from other destinations in Canada, as well as other places around the globe. In fact, Toronto is one of the most-entered cities in Canada, with favourable job prospects, established ethnic communities, a welcoming, multi-cultural vibe, and quality post-secondary education.
In fact, in Toronto alone, the University of Toronto had over 27,000 international students (out of 97,000 total) enrolled in September 2021, and York University had 10,000 international students (out of 54,000 total) enrolled in September 2022. And these two institutions of higher learning only have accommodations for 14,000 students combined. The sheer pressure this puts on Toronto’s housing market is significant. This recent Globe & Mail article called “Thank Your Local University For Your Higher Rent Bill” provides some sobering insights.
As immigrants poured into Canada in the decades that followed World War II, as the country worked to rebuild, the need for rental housing also swelled. In response to demand at that point, the construction industry answered the call, building half a million rental apartments from 1952 to 1975, almost all by Jewish developers, some of whom were immigrants and Holocaust survivors, as this article about ‘Shelter: Building Toronto After The War‘ – a film that ran at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival this past June – chronicles.
The film is fascinating as it tells the tale of deals and shrewd business that was both visionary and necessary, creating wealth for the developers, but also creating affordable housing for scores of people in need, many of them immigrants seeking rental properties.
In many ways, this was the beginning of –> The Growing Trend Of Financial Landlords In Toronto Real Estate.
The History Of Apartment Houses, Or Apartment Buildings
Apartment buildings have held a place in history for centuries, reflecting – as housing does – the domesticity of a society at a specific point in time. This overview from Britannica shows how urban living, available space, and need in specific locations spurred the creation of multiunit housing out and up.
For example, in the Roman empire, with the exception of the very wealthy who had sprawling private dwellings, four storey multiunit residences were common; in Europe during the Middle Ages, larger houses were subdivided into suites to accommodate servants; in 18th century Paris the first “apartment houses” (similar in design to what we see today) were built, extending up anywhere from four to eight storeys. The ground-floor residences were the most desirable, and therefore built grandly for the most affluent because they had private gardens and easy access. As each floor level increased, one might find more apartments of a smaller size constructed within the same floor plate, because the higher one went the less desirable the units were because there were more stairs to climb. As a result, the higher the floor the smaller the units as a means to attract tenants with lower incomes.
Over the years, apartment house construction grew because it was an efficient and economical means to create shelter. In North America during the 19th century, relative poverty was common, so many of these apartment houses were tenements, overcrowded, and with poor living conditions.
**Questionable Fun Fact** Did you know that previous to 1899 there were NO purpose-built apartments in Toronto? This made it an anomaly among North American cities. -BlogTO.**
Over the generations, the introduction of numerous housing features and technology that could support comfort and practicality of lifestyle. In the 20th century, indoor plumbing, heating, and elevators appeared in apartment houses, along with other lifestyle-enhancing onsite amenities.
Apartment construction has served a key role in urbanization, as it makes use of limited land to produce the most housing in a single footprint. As such, they have been a fixture in urban centres. They have also historically served a role in social and subsidized housing because of their economy of scale.
Paris incidentally, has been key in the history of this particular housing type, with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. He master-planned a bulldozer- style revival of the urban areas in Paris, replacing “character” housing with towers of apartments. Although his radical plan was never fully realized, it was highly influential in the post-WWII construction boom that reflected his vision, as far away as Toronto. Check out this Globe and Mail article ‘Photos Uncover The Everyday Beauty Of Toronto’s Post-War High-Rises‘.
The roots of these modernist apartment buildings that we see today come from Le Corbusier’s ‘Towers In The Park‘ concept.
The Evolution Of Apartment Construction
In the apartment building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, I believe the quality of the buildings was superior compared to today’s construction, in part because of the types of materials used back then versus now. Here’s a piece that proclaims it possible to have both quantity and quality in multiunit housing: ‘Are Postwar Buildings From The 1950s and ’60s Constructed Better Than Ones Built Later?’
Of course, the marketplace was entirely different back then, and we now benefit from advances in technology and materiality to make construction better and cost-effective, but I also find we build with obsolescence in mind which we didn’t back then, as I share in –> Gaudy Or Grand: Behind The Doors Of Multi-Million Dollar Mansions In Bridle Path & St Andrews-Windfields (Plus Lessons On The Lifecycles Of Neighbourhoods & Houses).
These post-war apartment buildings are not shiny, flashy, or new like the condominiums constructed today, but they are undeniably sensible – in that their design, which usually features larger and more dynamic floorplans enhances their usability, especially in contrast to many of the mass-produced condominium footprints we see today.
These buildings are also often smaller than the high-density buildings of today, so offer a more community-centric experience to residents. And there are other architectural and design attributes that make them a fascinating part of Toronto’s housing history.
For example, this Toronto Star article – ‘An Ode To The Mid-Century Toronto Apartment’ – talks about the smart design of mid-century modern Toronto apartments. The author describes his apartment in an 11-storey building built in 1959 on Jarvis Street as having an abundance of natural light throughout the day, how the angles of the floorplan made spaces feel distinct from each other, how the galley kitchen was functional – and how at parties, magically there was room for abundant guests, with a comfortable flow. It comes down to proportions ideally – for perception and use of space.
If design is your passion, this article – ‘1950s Interior Design And Decorating Style — 7 Major Trends’ – provides an overview of the mid-century modern design trends of the 1950s and 1960s from which the ethos ‘form follows function’ is showcased. The décor appeared minimalist but was all about maximum function.
Toronto once branded itself as the City Of Neighbourhoods but it’s also become known as the “City Of Towers” because it possesses more 12-storey or higher buildings than any city in North America. And notably, these towers are located in both urban and suburban areas which are distinctive to Toronto among large urban centres. It’s partly a testament to our forward-thinking eye to development but mostly because the Greater Toronto Area is a merger of cities.
This ‘Tower Renewal Report‘ created for the City of Toronto by E.R.A. Architects provides an excellent photographic history of the apartment tower construction boom in Post-WWII, which represents the largest construction boom in Toronto’s housing history. And check this piece out on my sister site Canadian Real Estate, Housing & Home called The Tower Renewal Project In Toronto Led By ERA Architects.
And this article by our friends at Spacing Magazine –>’The First Modern Apartment Complex In Toronto‘ tells the story of City Park Apartments – the first modern, multi-building apartment complex & largest residential project in Canada – when it was built in 1954. It looks at the iconic design and some of the processes and challenges the project experienced along its development path.
Examples Of Mid-Century Modern Apartments Constructed In Midtown Toronto
Here are some examples of mid-century modern apartments located north of Bloor Street south of Lawrence Avenue, and from Mount Pleasant Avenue west to Bathurst Street that were built from 1948 to 1963.
Hello, My Name Is Co-ownership
While mid-century apartments were originally constructed as rental housing, there was a period in the 1980s when landlords began converting their buildings into co-ownerships. Different than condominium ownership – which I explain in What’s The Difference Between Condominiums And Co-Ownership? – this housing typology is an affordable model for homeownership.
Incidentally, there are relatively few of these co-ownership buildings in Toronto, which number around 50, but they offer a great value proposition.
Remember at the opening of this post I said there were three reasons I was writing about Mid-Century Modern Apartments? The third reason is that all of the mid-century modern buildings in midtown that we featured here are Co-ownership buildings – and The Urbaneer Team would love to share with you this Panoramic Penthouse Perch In Forest Hill located in Vincent Court at 660 Eglinton West at Spadina Road which we RECENTLY SOLD!
This generous one-bedroom penthouse suite (it used to be two bedrooms!) is over 1000 square feet, with a large south-facing terrace of almost 300 square feet! Dreamy!
Here are some of our other great history-centric blogs that you may enjoy!
Want to have someone on your side?
Since 1989, I’ve steered my career through a real estate market crash and burn; survived a slow painful cross-country recession; completed an M.E.S. graduate degree from York University called ‘Planning Housing Environments’; executed the concept, sales & marketing of multiple new condo and vintage loft conversions; and guided hundreds of clients through the purchase and sale of hundreds of freehold and condominium dwellings across the original City of Toronto. From a gritty port industrial city into a glittering post-industrial global centre, I’ve navigated the ebbs and flows of a property market as a consistent Top Producer. And I remain as passionate about it today as when I started.
Consider contacting me at 416-845-9905 or email me at Steve@urbaneer.com. It would be my pleasure to assist you, and yours.
Serving first-time Buyers, upsizers and downsizers, and people building their long-term property portfolios, our mandate is to help clients choose the property which will realize the highest future return on their investment while ensuring the property best serves their practical needs and their dream of “Home” during their ownership.
Are you considering selling? We welcome providing you with a comprehensive assessment free of charge, including determining your Buyer profile, ways to optimize your return on investment, and tailoring the listing process to suit your circumstance. Check out How Urbaneer’s Custom Marketing Program Sold This Authentic Broadview Loft In Riverside to learn more about what we do!
Consider letting Urbaneer guide you through your Buying or Selling process, without pressure, or hassle.
We are here to help!
Thanks for reading!
-The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
Bosley Real Estate Ltd., Brokerage – (416) 322-800
– we’re here to earn your trust, then your business –
*Did you know we were recently listed as one of The Top 25 Toronto Real Estate Agents To Follow On Twitter! – The Top 50 Blogs On Toronto – and The Top 100 Real Estate Blogs In Canada? Consider signing up in the box below to receive our FREE monthly e-newsletter on housing, culture, and design including our love for unique urban homes and other Toronto real estate!
*Love Canadian Housing? Check out Steve’s University Student Mentorship site called Canadian Real Estate, Housing & Home which focuses on architecture, landscape, design, products, and real estate in Canada!