May 18th, 2022
Balmy Beach: Beach "Cottage" Meets the "Palace of Purification"

Q1. What does the ‘Palace of Purification’ refer to? (P6)

Q3. Why does the Boardwalk end at the foot of Silverbirch Avenue? (hint, they didn’t run out of wood!) (P10)

Q4. Who won Canada’s Grey Cup in 1927 and 1930? (P10)

Q7. Where was the original front entrance of the Fox Theatre when it was built in 1913? (P6)

Balmy Beach in the Beginning

Balmy Beach is one of the few, original lakeside communities created when streetcar and boat services began to infiltrate the district east of the old City of Toronto in the 1870's. At the same time, a number of amusement parks sprang up overnight on the waterfront, e.g. Victoria Park in 1878 (at the foot of the Victoria Park Avenue), which entertained with circus acts, carousels, picnic grounds and a small zoo, and Balmy Beach. Balmy Beach (stretching from the foot of Beech Street east to Victoria Park) was designated as a recreational area by Sir Adam Wilson, a local landowner and colourful Canadian political figure including Mayor of Toronto. In addition to securing the area for current and future Balmy Beach residents, Sir Adam was responsible for thwarting the CPR's plan to run railway lines through the Beaches community.

By the 1900's, Balmy Beach had become a small village with summer residences, athletic and recreational facilities. As more people moved to the area, residents began to build or renovate for year round living. Streets were built and services installed, i.e. waterworks, sidewalks, a fire hall and a telephone exchange, and soon the city saw the need to annex all three beach communities, Woodbine, Kew Beach and then in 1909, Balmy Beach. Despite being connected by services, Kew and Balmy Beach continued to be physically separated at the waterfront by the large amusement park. It was only when the Boardwalk was built in 1932 that Balmy Beach was finally connected to its neighbours.

Few locations in Toronto are as dramatic as the juxtaposition of the pretty, eclectic residential area of Balmy Beach with the grandeur, scale and architectural perfection of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment facility. A quiet walk through Balmy Beach reveals numerous delightful discoveries and history lessons gleaned from one of Toronto's few true "lakeside" neighbourhoods, a community that still boasts sandy shores, an historic Beach Club, friendly shopkeepers, shady parks and an authentic boardwalk

Toronto sits on the shores of the 14th largest freshwater lake in the world but except for Toronto Island and the Beaches, Toronto developed without much attention to its 10 kilometers of magnificent shoreline. Areas like Balmy Beach, which developed separately, retained its distinct identity and small-town character. Its unique, "mixed" styles of architecture was a natural result of growth - seasonal cottages replaced or renovated for yearround living, and the addition of apartments, newer, non-distinct commercial buildings, and grander, architecturally significant establishments. A number of these buildings, such as the water treatment plant, continue to play an important role not only in the neighbourhood but also in the City and indeed, the country.

Start at Queen St. and Victoria Park

The best place to begin our Walking Tour is Queen East and Victoria Park. The first landmark in sight is the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, named after Rowland Caldwell (R.C.) Harris, Commissioner of Works for the City of Toronto. This is one of Canada's finest, most beautiful examples of art deco architecture. The massive water plant stretches out to meet the shore of Lake Ontario. Walking west along Queen Street, you begin to get a sense of the considerable space in front of this beautiful architectural treasure. The outline of the building, the scale, the shape, its entrance, the patterns and details all come into view.

A Medieval Water Garden

The building of the plant has a dramatic history - in keeping with its spectacular presence. The entire area is at least the size of six soccer fields. The building was designed by Thomas Pomphrey and supervised by Harris himself. Records of that time tell us that Harris was determined to construct an inspiring and elegant landmark for the city. He certainly achieved his goal! He requested marble floors, herringbone tiles imported from Siena, art deco clocks and pump signals. The unique high windows look over filter pools four feet deep, and are described by Canadian writer and novelist, Michael Ondaatjeas, as "languid and reflective as medieval water gardens".

Even though the architecture of the plant is considered today as one of Toronto's, and Canada's, most admired, critics in the 1940's thought it was far too extravagant for their city. The plant quickly garnered the nickname "The Palace of Purification" because of its grandeur and sumptuous attention to detail.

A Masterpiece of Engineering Foresight

Today that plant is considered an architectural masterpiece, designated under Ontario's Heritage Act in addition to being a National Historic Civil Engineering Site. The plant's construction also is an excellent example of brilliant engineering conceived decades before its time. Due to the foresight of Harris, and that of his consultants, the original plant included all embedded piping for the future enlargement as well as space for future equipment in pumping, screening, electrical and chemical rooms.

Gateway for Lake Water to our Drinking Tap

The R.C. Harris facility was constructed by the City of Toronto from 1932 to 1941. It draws its water deep from underneath the bedrock of Lake Ontario, then cleans, disinfects and converts it into safe drinking water.

The Plants Role in Show Business

The site has been the location for several films and television shows, in addition to setting the context for Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, where he describes the actual building of the plant and attributes it as a feat that gave "proof that function and form can coexist in exquisite harmony".

Although currently closed for renovations, look forward to when public tours are once again offered at this site.

Palace Meets the Beach Cottage

The west end of the water treatment plant is on Nursewood Road, Walk south along Nursewood Road and begin to experience the undeniable charm and individuality of the beach houses of Balmy Beach.

On your right, you immediately notice the concoction of architectural styles that characterizes the community. Along all of these streets that tilt dramatically downhill to the beach (Munro Park, Neville Park, Silver Birch, etc.) you see arts and crafts-style bungalows that rub shoulders with turreted Victorian homes and renovated Coney Island-like cottages that share the street with imposing Tudor-style buildings. It is a display of competing design and detail - mansard roofs; Mediterranean stucco; the petite and imposing; flat, one story and high, 3-story "widow's walks". The only element common to the houses is the tree lined streets and the fact that no resident needs to go far in order to get a view Lake Ontario, usually visible from their front door or a few steps down the block.

The True Beach

Once you reach the foot of Nursewood Avenue, enjoy a walk along the beach and the sense of going back in time. Here there is no boardwalk - a condition agreed to by the City in the 1920's when the Toronto Harbour Commission expropriated scores of properties - mostly waterfront cottages - in order to build the boardwalk. It ends before reaching the last few streets. It was agreed that the shoreline east of Silver Birch Avenue would remain as beach - a beach that residents and visitors continue to enjoy every day of every year.

Notice a stairway back up to the street at Munro Park Avenue. Here is your chance to explore more Balmy Beach "styles" - a study in non conformity! Wander up the street to Queen Street, then proceed west to Silverbirch and south again to the Lake. One resident of Silver Birch remembered her next door neighbour in the 1960's keeping a pony in the backyard!

On Silver Birch Avenue at 70, 83 and 85 we have the Silver Birch Apartments constructed in 1925 and designated as historic properties. Also take a moment to explore little Balmy Ave. and Fern, nestled on the east side of Silver Birch Avenue. Look carefully for the smallest cottages in the Beach area. Especially interesting are nos. 11 and 18. At the foot of Silverbirth you arrive at the tranquil Balmy Beach Park. Notice where the Boardwalk begins and walk around the wooden chaletstyle building, home of one of the cities oldest and active athletic and social clubs, Balmy Beach Club.

An Authentic "Beach Club"

In 2005, Balmy Beach Club celebrated its 100th anniversary. Originally a boat club, the Club was officially established when the new beach clubhouse opened on August 17, 1905. It offered skating, curling and hockey (each with its own team and club) to year-round residents and visitors, and even had a Bachelor's Club and a Gun Club! Today it is also home to the Balmy Beach Canoe and Lawn Bowling Clubs.

The building itself was rebuilt twice because of fires in 1936 and 1963. The current building opened in 1965, and inside and out, it retains its old charm and sense of a true "beach club". Over the years, Balmy's athletes have made a significant contribution to the world of sports, competing in bowling, hockey, rugby, volleyball, etc. They have attended seven Olympics (i.e. Paris 1924, Berlin 1936) with gold and silver medals awarded, and its football team won Canada's Grey Cup in 1927 and 1930.

Balmy Beach Club has endured because of its community ties and a member base that continues to select it as a favouite site for athletics as well as special events and celebrations. Its activities attract both older and younger members. At any time of the day, you can find some one to chat with, many with a story to tell from their childhood memory.


Beech Avenue

From Balmy Beach walk north up Beech Avenue, another memorable street for discovering large, grand houses, and cottages renovated to include multi architectural styles and details. Here you may want to take a couple of detours along Fir and Hazel. Notice that all the street names are trees, aptly named because of the forest that once covered the area.

A Community within a Community

At the intersection of Queen Street and Beech Avenue, on the north west corner is Quigley's, one of the oldest buildings in the area. Built in 1902, it was originally called the Ross Drugstore, and in the 1950's became a pub called Chalet. As Chalet, it was the first pub in the Beaches to obtain a liquor license. The site is well known by long time residents as a favourite in a traditional Beaches "pub crawl". Today it remains a popular pub - a perfect spot to treat yourself to some refreshment or be part of your own restaurant and shopping "crawl". Don't forget to peak up the side running along Beech north of Queen and enjoy the tromp l'oeil painting.

Sitting on the north east corner is another local landmark, the Fox Cinema, the oldest continually running movie house in Toronto. The theatre opened in 1913 as the Prince Edward Theatre where the original entrance was located on Beech Ave. Two years after in 1915, the Bank of Commerce built at the corner of what today is The Wholesome Market. The original cinema showed silent movies with piano accompaniment. The 250 seat theatre survived the arrival of the "talkies" and in 1948 was renamed the Fox.

The cinema has been an integral part of the Beach community for over 93 years, attracting movie lovers from four corners of the city because of its reputation for some of the best alternative and mainstream films in the city- cult classics, foreign films and Hollywood re-runs. Many beach residents today remember watching movies at the Fox on Saturdays for 25 cents!

Fox Gets a Make Over

When the past owner Jerry Szcuzr announced last year that he was looking to lease the historic theatre, two local businessmen and entrepreneurs, Willick, 25, and Demois, 26, left their respective jobs in the banking and mining industries to run the Fox.

"This neighbourhood has supported the theatre for the better part of a century", says the new operators, "And we will work hard to give back to the Beach".

After a month-long closure to update the theatre, the official reopening took place this past October 1st. In keeping with their promise to stay connected to the community, the two new operators already have booked a variety of local organizations and events in the space. They have set their goal to show quality films and to be "a community hub, where a familiar face is always one aisle over."

Continue east along Queen, the next block is Willow Avenue. You will notice varying styles of apartments, but at the corner of Willow and north of Queen are two buildings (82, 84) worth noting. The Victoria Park Apartments were designed and built in 1929 by Stanford and Son, architects of several of Toronto's historical properties. In 1990, the buildings were designated an historic properties by Toronto City Council for their architectural significance.

Next we find the longest running business on Queen, Cirone's Foods grocery store. The owner Joe tells the story of how he purchased the building because of the lake view he could see through the trees from his window. Today Joe keeps his store with the look and feel of a small town general store. Year after year, people have made it a tradition to buy their Christmas tree from Cirion even though they have moved out of the neighbourhood.

Shopping Treat

As you walk along Queen Street, there are countless stores, pubs, shops and coffee shops to explore along this delightful stretch, and many surprises.

A trip to Balmy Beach has always been a little off the beaten path. Today, it is still a real treat for those who venture east, past the shopping district, to explore the area. From the tiniest cottages and quiet beachscapes, to beautifully appointed century homes and a Canadian architectural masterpiece, you will experience it all in a day spent in Balmy Beach.

Thanks to information by Gene Domagala, beaches historian, Daniel Karpinski, architect and Christine Staddon, writer.

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