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After two fires, a heritage rose rises from the ashes on Jarvis Street

After two fires, a heritage rose rises from the ashes on Jarvis Street

The Globe & Mail - March 9, 2020

It’s not often that one experiences a heritage emergency.

But, last Labour Day, it happened to Graywood Developments’ Neil Pattison.

The September sun beating down on his heavy coat, the fire marshal said that the wall at 314 Jarvis St. had to come down; his people needed to get inside to check for evidence of arson, and, perhaps, for victims.

For Mr. Pattison, it wasn’t so cut-and-dried. That wall – and most of the rest of the handsome 1902 house near the corner of Jarvis and Carlton Streets – was designated as heritage, and therefore protected from demolition. And, since the house had already survived an earlier fire in January, 2016, Mr. Pattison didn’t want an unsympathetic backhoe ripping into what remained.

Fire crews attend the scene of a fire at 314 Jarvis St. in September, 2019.

The police detectives weren’t making things any easier. They were peppering Mr. Pattison with questions, hoping he’d slip up and say something incriminating – don’t most developers want to be rid of problematic historical buildings?

The thing is, Mr. Pattison, a vice-president at Graywood, isn’t like most developers. After acquiring the property in July, 2019, with Phantom Developments, he’d spent the summer strategizing with his colleagues on how best to incorporate the Beaux-Arts house – once owned by two very prominent Torontonians – into a new condominium development. Should it be retail? An office? An amenities space?

However, with the fire marshal breathing down his neck, those questions had to be shelved for the time being. What was needed was a heritage professional to show up, and quickly.

“It was quite the intense experience,” Mr. Pattison said on a cold February morning a few weeks ago.

A rendering of the condo development to be built adjacent to 314 Jarvis St.

Thankfully, Joe Muller, program manager at the city’s Heritage Preservation Services, was only a phone call, and bicycle ride, away.

After much back-and-forth with Mr. Muller, a cherry picker deposited a Graywood engineer and architect Chris Borgal of Goldsmith Borgal & Co. into the charred ruin from above. While Mr. Borgal pointed to what was heritage and what was not, the engineer tagged what needed to be removed for safety’s sake and what needed to be reinforced, regardless of heritage, while fire professionals and Mr. Pattison cooled their jets in the empty lot beside the house.

“This happens at a glacial pace,” Mr. Pattison explained. “It took us all day to say, ‘okay you can take this wall down,’ because they had to go back to city hall and get the approval.”

They are important walls. Designed for Dr. Charles Sheard (1857-1929) when in his mid-40s and Toronto’s chief medical officer (sources suggest – but can’t confirm – his architect brother, Matthew, was responsible), the home was one of many along Jarvis – the city’s Champs-Élysées in the late-1800s and early-1900s – occupied by the professional classes. The upper portion of the street was reserved for the very rich. When Dr. Sheard purchased the property as a newlywed in 1885, it had been a much smaller wood-framed home that he and wife Virna (née Stanton) occupied; four sons by the turn of the century meant a larger house was necessary.

The home, seen here in the 1980s, would eventually become a rooming house and remained so until 2016.

Just before that home was constructed, Mrs. Sheard (1862-1943) saw her first poems and stories published, many of them in The Globe and Mail. By the time the couple were picking out furnishings, her second book, A Maid of Many Moods, was published. While Mrs. Sheard would achieve great status as author and poet – penning five volumes of poetry – by the time she was widowed, the status of her beloved neighbourhood was changing. A 10-storey apartment house, Frontenac Arms, was being constructed just to the south (it became a hotel, and still is today) and many of her neighbour’s homes had been converted to rooming houses. After the Second World War, this trend would increase as the city struggled with a housing shortage.

Eventually, the Sheard residence would succumb as well and have much of its interior unsympathetically rejigged; it would remain a rooming house until the 2016 fire.

The owners at that time, Toronto Ward 13 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said, were “horribly combative” and “didn’t care about the Sheard heritage house.”

The curved front porch will be reconstructed to precise specifications.

“When 314 Jarvis went up in flames, it felt like a big middle finger to the city and neighbourhood,” she continued. “Toronto Fire, Toronto Building, City Planning and my office were all dealing with the owners and they did the minimum to keep the house safe.” In contrast, Graywood/Phantom “has been proactive in their communication, courteous to their neighbours and responsive to city requests.”

Perhaps that’s because Mr. Pattison is a self-confessed “nerd” when it comes to history. While only a coffered ceiling, some moulding, a small staircase, and the ornate radiators remained when he first walked through, the plan was “to preserve the entire structure, all four walls, and try and reinstate some of the original pieces back into it.” The second fire, however, destroyed most of that, and the need to gain access to the basement (no bodies or evidence of arson was found) means Graywood/Phantom had to switch gears.

Only the north and east walls remain standing.

So, today, the keen aficionado who finds herself walking past will notice only the north and east walls standing. After the backhoe had its way with the south wall and the rear, west-facing wall was deemed too weakened, a compromise was made with the city: Document those walls with detailed architectural drawings and then take them down. The curved-and-columned front porch will get the same treatment, although in that case samples have been saved in order to reproduce it to exact specifications (the original roofline and dormer window will also be rebuilt.) If our aficionado looks closer, she’ll note waterproof caps on exposed walls, cinder block and steel bracing added here-and-there for reinforcement, and replaced or re-pointed brick.

“What you see today, all the fire damage and all the restoration,” finished Mr. Pattison, “it’s about half a million dollars’ worth that’s been sunk into this.”

From glorious to glum, and from almost-lost to rising, literally, from the ashes, one could say a rose will soon return to Jarvis Street. Well, Ms. Sheard may have put it that way:

From out the limbo where lost roses go

The place we may not see,

With all its petals sweet and half-ablow,

– “The Gleaner,” 1913

Credit: After two fires, a heritage rose rises from the ashes on Jarvis Street