Downsview – Ghost Towns of the GTA

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The intersection of Keele Street and Wilson Avenue was home to the community of Downsview although most of the original settlement has been erased through road widening and urban sprawl.  The name has become attached to the de Havilland Aircraft plant and later the Downsview Air Force Base that came to the northern edge of town in 1928.  The 1878 county atlas below shows the five remaining points that we set out to visit. Starting at the bottom with John Perkins Bull who named his home Downs View because it was on the high point of some flat land, leading to the name of the community.  The local flat land would attract the aircraft industry to the area.

Downsview 1878 map revised

John Perkins Bull was born in Toronto on April 30, 1822 and when he turned twenty he received Lot 8, Concession 4 from his father as a coming of age gift.  He immediately started clearing some of his 200 acres and in 1844 built the house that he named Downs View.  Bull took on the nick name Squire after he served as Justice of the Peace, served as Deputy-Reeve, was prominent in promoting the agricultural welfare of the area.  He was also an active and influential member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church which originally met in his home.  Squire Bull didn’t like the commute on those early roads which were either a muddy disaster or were plank roads with tolls on them.  See the upper right corner of the map for the Dufferin and Sheppard toll gate and click on this link for more information.  Squire Bull decided to work from home and often had to lock up the guilty in the basement of the house.  He married twice and was father to three boys and three girls who grew up in this house.

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This picture of the house is from the Toronto Library and is dated 1955.  This is before rapid development took the house out of the country and planted it in the middle of a subdivision.  Before long it would become a retirement home as it remains today.

Perkins Bull House 1955

The Downsview United Church began as a Wesleyan Methodist Church around 1830.  By 1844 services were being held in the home above where they continued until the first frame church was constructed around 1850.  It was replaced with the current brick Gothic Revival church in 1870.  A small addition was made on the chancel in 1882.  From the side you can see the other major additions.  A Sunday School was added in 1937 where you can see the section with the lower roof.  A Christian Education Wing was added at the back in 1955 and the original spire was replaced after it was damaged in a storm.  The building has just completed a restoration and is the most recognizable building in the former community.

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The George Jackson House was built some time after 1885 when he inherited the property from his father.  The Jackson family owned the property from 1830 until 1967.  The house was briefly used as a nursing home before being converted to professional offices in 1981.

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This is one of only three heritage buildings left from the community with the other two presented above.   The Jackson house was designated, in part, because of the basket weave brickwork pattern under the steep gables.  This mixing of Queen Anne with Romanesque styles was popular in the late 1880’s.

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This 1976 aerial photograph of Downsview Airforce Base shows the Edward Boake House before it was demolished.  It was built in 1860 by Edward and Sarah Boakes who called it Locust Lodge.  It remained in the family for generations until it was expropriated by the Air Force who already owned the family farm surrounding it.  On the left side of the picture you can also see the officer’s housing known as William Baker Park.  It has also been demolished.  In front of the Boake house is a double row of trees which are the only mature trees in the immediate area.

Boake House

These are the trees that the Boake family looked out upon from their windows.  Today they stand in an area known as Boakes Grove where no grove has stood for 150 years.

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Downsview Park has done a great job of planting trees that will one day form a mature forest in this part of the park.  This trail runs roughly along the former fence line that separated the house from the fields of the family farm.  The park has also installed a new multi panel interpretive centre near this site to explain the history of the area.  Unfortunately they chose to etch the information into stainless steel plates that were quite hard to read with the sun on them.  They do contain a wealth of information that is worth the time to read on a cloudy day.

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In 1954 a local group decided that a synagogue and Jewish school were needed in the area and before long had a potential congregation of 200 families signed up.  The property that belonged to Fred Mowatt at the time of the county atlas had now become the Ness Estate and it was purchased for $35,000 to serve as their synagogue.  The picture below shows the home in 1956 as the Conservative Beth Am Synagogue.

Downsview synagog

The farmhouse was integrated into a new building and the congregation made several further expansions including the large front building in 1965.  By the mid-1970’s the congregation was shrinking as the area of Bathurst Street became a larger Jewish community.  In 1977 the last 228 families decided to close the synagogue and merge with the Beth David B’nai Israel congregation on Bathurst.  The ceremonial transfer of the Torah from Beth Am Synagogue took place on January 28, 1978.  The Rameses Shriners used the building next and it appears that during 1984 or so the original house was either demolished or reduced to a single floor.  Today the building serves as a sales centre for a 12-story condo development called The Keeley that will soon replace it.  There was a brief attempt to designate the building as an example of modernist architecture, mainly because of the front entrance to the 1965 addition.  A 45-foot mural had remained across the front of the building that was specifically created for the synagogue but this was moved to the Beth David Synagogue in 2013.

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That effort failed and this week a sod turning ceremony was held in front of the building.  Which means that as soon as the developers get the demolition permit the building will be gone.  What I’d like to know, based on reviewing a couple dozen annual aerial photos of the site is this.  What lies behind this door and is it a Shiner addition or was it put on the original house by the synagogue?  Is there still part of the original farmhouse inside the building?  As I work close by, I hope to see for myself if I can.

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The former town of Downsview still has a few traces left in spite of the rapid development of the area in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Google Maps Link: Downsview

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