Tag Archives: Downsview

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

Explore our top 20 posts with this retrospective: Back Tracks: The First 5 Years

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William Baker Park

 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

In 1947, following the end of the Second World War, the Canadian Government purchased 270 properties near the De Havilland Aircraft manufacturing facility in Downsview.  That year, RCAF Station Downsview was opened north of the city.  For the next 50 years the role of the base rose and declined with the cold war as the city grew all around the base.  In 1996 it was decided to close the base and developers started thinking about all the prime land Downsview was occupying.  It amounted to one of the largest undeveloped spaces in the city.  We set out to explore the small area of former military housing at the north end of the base and perhaps Downsview Park as well.  The capture below is from Google Earth on December 31, 2004 and shows the double row of houses set around the curve of Robert Woodhead Crecent at the bottom and John Drury Drive at the top of the picture.

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When the housing was built Sheppard Avenue was on the original alignment.  When it was realigned and widened a new bridge was built to allow easy access for personnel to get to work at the base.  At the foot of the bridge stand two larger parking lots that still retain one flag pole.  A mounting plate for a second one can be seen on the right of the sidewalk.  Perhaps the park could one day fly the Canadian and Provincial flags at the corner of Keele and Sheppard.  This little piece of grass with the flag poles was on the south side of the original alignment of Sheppard Avenue which can be seen in the background of the picture below.

Robert Woodhead Crescent and John Drury Drive are named after Canadian soldiers from World War 1.  Between them they contained 81 houses, mostly built in 1953. Eight more were added in 1971 and the last six were built in 1980-1981.  Today, the curving roads have been given benches for pedestrians to stop and relax while cyclists, joggers and feral cats pass by.

Generations of families lived in these homes, raising their children and celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.  There are still a few clues to the daily lives of the former inhabitants.  When the base closed in 1996 ownership of the three housing lots in the Downsview area was passed to the Canadian Forces Housing Authority.  In 2009 they sold the property to Canada Lands Company who are responsible for the redevelopment of the Downsview lands.  They began that year by demolishing the military housing known as Stanley Green at the south end of the base.  Some of these homes had been damaged by the Sunrise Propane explosion of August 10, 2008.  The William Baker houses fared a little better but the last of the families moved out of there in October 2012.  A clothes line that may have held a line of drying clothes on a beautiful day in October still remains nailed to a tree in the picture below.

When the government expropriated the farm lands for the base they got some prime farm land.  Farmers often left the ravines as woodlots because they were difficult to farm and provided wood for heating and fence posts.  The woodlot at William Baker was already an established climax forest and the military left it intact.  Today there are trees that are over 100 years old in the forest and it is a great place for a walk in the fall.  The 30 acre woodlot has been protected from development in the Downsview Secondary Plan of 2015.

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This private little community was featured in the 2010 Bruce Willis movie Red.  After the closure of the base, military families continued to live in the housing.  Many of them attended the military college on Wilson Road.  Today driveways are already becoming indistinct as nature takes over and grasses begin to invade the pavement.

Power lines have been removed from some of the poles but the transformers were left behind.  If these lands are redeveloped these poles will be removed but I wonder what will happen if it is left as a natural area.  Will the poles be taken out or left to fade into the forest as it takes over?

Nature has a way of using everything and switch boxes have become sheltered homes for funnel spiders.

There are some large trees in the woodlot and white tailed deer have made the former community their home.  Fields of milkweeds suggest that this will be a prime habitat for monarch butterflies in the coming years.  Many of the birds have left for warmer climates but the woods must be alive with songbirds in the summer.  It’s getting late in the season but the hardier species of mushrooms can still be found and this log has turkey tails growing around the end and all down the sides.

The sewer grates in the roads are dated 1953, 1979, 1980 and as recent as 2006.  A few houses were added at the back of John Drury Drive in the mid-1980’s but sewer upgrades were ongoing even ten years after the army closed the base.

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Here and there reminders of the recent past can be found in the woods and the power is in fact, still turned on as we noted on one of the meters.  At night, the street lights still come on to provide a measure of safety in the park.

Whats next for William Baker Park?  If the developers have their way there will be 6,700 new residents living in the 3534 new units they plan to build.  The woodlot will be saved and the rest of it would be cleared for mid-rise condominiums, capped at 15 stories.  At least that was the plan as laid out in the Downsview Secondary Plan from which the map below is taken.  However, Toronto City Council voted 43-0 to request the federal government sell the property to the city so it can be held as a city park forever.   William Baker Park is outlined in blue on the map below while the section of forest to be saved is outlined in green.  On the map the newly created Downsview Park between Keele Street and the Canadian National Railway is small in comparison to the size of the former base.  At the bottom left of the map is a section marked with little squares that was the Stanley Green housing and has already been redeveloped into townhouses.

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Having wondered the quiet trails of William Baker Park I am convinced that it should remain a park.  We never made it to Downsview Park and so that waits for another week.

For other military themed posts see: Military Burying Grounds, The Battle of York, The Battle of Queenston Heights, The Rebellion of 1837 and The Arsenal Lands

Google Maps Link: William Baker Park

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