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  • Writer's pictureVertu Art + Design

SAVING A TORONTO LANDMARK: CHARLOTTE'S CASTLE

Updated: Apr 2






Artistic communities play a significant role in the vibrancy and health of cities, nations, and ultimately our world - where cultural exchanges are increasingly part of lived experience.

Nestled in the Annex neighborhood in Toronto, Canada is an historic building, whose residents include artists, diplomats, writers, and intellectuals, contributing to local, national, and global arts. Built in 1904, the original Canadian architect and British builder of Spadina Gardens drew their designs from the grand apartment houses of Paris, also appearing in New York and London. There was however much controversy over bringing this bohemian style of apartment living to Toronto, where such buildings were thought to disrupt a more traditional, family-oriented city. At the turn of the twentieth century, Ernest Hemingway gladly left his temporary home of "Toronto the Good", the city's then nickname, for Paris, criticizing Toronto's spécialité de ville (only good for having children according to the writer). As Toronto was known for stable family life and house ownership, there existed a strong prejudice towards tenants (See Richard Denis's historical geography on Toronto's apartment housing for University College, London). Renting is now of course a reality in Toronto in step with a global housing crisis, but in Hemingway's day, Toronto's apartment houses were discouraged; this was especially true for single, young women, who were expected to marry, have children, and take care of a house, instead of a career. From its inception, the building attracted single men and women in the arts, as well as an international, creative community. Visitors to Spadina Gardens include: Salman Rushdie, Arthur Miller, and the actress Lauren Bacall, among others. The apartment building is the city's oldest and still running of its kind.


One of Spadina Gardens' most unique and intact features - which set the stage for its creative inhabitants and their exchange of ideas - is its Versailles-like procession of large rooms, allowing for gatherings and privacy (this Western tradition finds its roots in eighteenth-century French salons, hosted by female intellectuals of the Enlightenment). These Edwardian, light-filled rooms in the style of French "cabinets" were called salacious by some local visitors of the time. Their "Frenchness" was often noted as a negative trait among established British immigrant home owners in Toronto. The floor plans starkly contrasted with many of the more anglicized family homes in the same area (These homes, with which Spadina Gardens shares its history, tell their own valuable stories; one of Spadina Gardens' current residents founded the movement to save them from being torn down for an expressway in 1971).


The construction of Spadina Gardens however prompted Toronto to pass an ordinance in 1912, banning apartment houses from its neighborhoods. Today the building exists as a testament to the city's missing "middle" architecture, ironically suitable for families, many of whom can now neither find nor afford suitable housing. (You can learn more about Spadina Gardens and "the missing middle" here on this popular podcast).


In 2018 Spadina Gardens was bought by foreign developers, whose plans for drastic reconstruction threaten to disband its valuable character and artistic community, while contributing to the astronomical costs of city housing. I was pleased to be involved in a behind-the-scenes project to save Spadina Gardens, the subject of a recent documentary film, "Charlotte's Castle". My research and writings contributed to the case for Spadina Gardens' historic designation - the first such successful designation (floor plans) in Canadian history (Special thanks to the University of Toronto for sharing our news about this important cause). A community of art activists, including film professionals, curators, designers, architects, and preservationists advised and collaborated on this ongoing project.


"Charlotte's Castle" was recently nominated by the Canadian Academy for four awards in 2024, including best documentary. The film previously aired earlier this year via Hotdocs Cinema, host of North America's largest film documentary festival, and the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), as well as television, TVO. The film is also scheduled to appear at the Winnipeg Architecture and Design Film Festival.

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