To celebrate our move to the West Toronto Junction THA has worked with Sarah King Head CAHP (writer and historian) and Kamila Hakimova (website design) to provide a series of narratives about the people and events that shaped the place that we will soon call home.
Our move to 2928 Dundas West in the West Toronto Junction is only two weeks away! It is only fitting we now focus on the history of our new office by digging deeper into the history of the 1919 William Speers Building, and the architects who designed it.
The building was constructed 102 years ago, and designed by architects Charles Wellington Smith (1878–1973) and Percival Ross Wright (1879–1949) as their first significant commission. A stylish three-storey mixed-use building, it had a clothing store on the ground floor, a barber shop in the basement, and the apartment of the local funeral director and philanthropist, William Speers, on the second and third floors.
Archival material suggests that the Smith & Wright partnership was formed about 1913 – nearly two decades before they were actually licensed by the OAA in 1931. Evidence shows that they each got their start in the construction industry, where their families were Junction contractors supporting the area’s growing demand for housing and commercial stock.
Smith received formal architectural training, first apprenticing with the Toronto architect E.R. Babington and then studying in Philadelphia. Wright by contrast appears to have learned the trade and fine-tuned his design skills working alongside his father Thomas Powell Wright. The elder Wright had been working on commissions with local architects like Simon Larke since the 1880s, but also helped Robert Home Smith realize his visionary park-like community at Baby Point in the early years of the twentieth century. It was here the Wrights designed and built their own home: the semi-detached English Cottage/Tudor style house at 50–52 Baby Point Crescent (1914), which not only exhibits an extremely high degree of craftsmanship but helps put into context the design skills exhibited by the otherwise untrained Percy Wright.
Looking back, it is also clear that Smith & Wright were influenced by the reputation and output of another local architect: James Augustus Ellis, who was responsible for designing more than 30 buildings in the area over the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His work culminated in the prestigious Carnegie (Annette Street) library that he completed with his then business partner William Connery in 1908. But Ellis’ contribution to the built heritage along Dundas West seems to have had a lasting influence on the young Smith and Wright with buildings included the iconic Campbell Block (1888) at Keele on the north side of Dundas Street as well as James Hall (1888) at Pacific on the south side along with the row of mixed-used buildings that formed the W.H. Ives Tailor Building (1889) to the east.
Within this context of architectural innovation, Smith & Wright launched their own professional trajectory with design of the William Speers Building at 2928 Dundas Street West.
Before larger commissions would showcase their mature style, the young architects focused initially on local commissions. Their next design after the Speers Building was another – but larger – commercial building a few hundred metres to the west at the corner of Pacific and Dundas: the William Rowntree Block (completed in 1921). Soon hereafter, they opened their office in J.M. Lyle’s Dominion Bank across the street, where they stayed until relocating to Bloor and Dundas a year before the Stock Market crash in 1929.
Both the Speers Building and Rowntree Block acknowledge Smith & Wright’s application of the stylistic Edwardian and Neo-Gothic architectural idioms popular in the early 1920s – but the earlier structure, with its stylish Art Deco proportions and detail, illustrates an interesting progression of stylistic flexibility and more modern interests, with a hint at things to come. The use of large areas of glass, fine yellow brick with limestone dressings, leaded and coloured glass was a sophisticated departure from its neighbours.
Later work saw a shift in focus for Smith & Wright to the design of school buildings (although they did complete a few private residences, including the fêted Agnew House in 1926 and Valley Halla Villa in 1936). Among their educational commissions, York Memorial Collegiate Institute (YMCI, completed in 1929) is now considered to be the fullest expression of their mature style.
The famous monument to the era’s war dead, YMCI suffered a tragic fire in 2019; and it is a wonderful but sheer coincidence that THA was retained by the Toronto District School Board as prime consultant for its reconstruction and restoration.
The economic depression of the 1930s appears to have struck a major blow to the partnership. Records suggest that Smith & Wright managed to hang on for a few years at their Bloor and Dundas office, but by 1934 they had relocated to Wright’s Baby Point address and in 1936 at another of the Wrights’ houses on High Park Avenue. By 1938, they were no longer in business.
With the building boom after WWII, Smith was able easily to resume his practice as sole proprietor from his family home on Jane Street. He earned acclaim for designing major additions to Vaughn Road Collegiate Institute (1946) and Queen Street Public School in Etobicoke (1947), before retiring in 1959. Wright’s business was less resilient but not without success: after losing the family homes on Baby Point Crescent and High Park Avenue, he ultimately settled on St Mary’s Street near Queen’s Park. He enjoyed a brief period of professional work before his early death in 1950 when, in 1947, he was hired to work with the prestigious architectural firm of John B. Parkin Associates.
It is with great interest and gratitude that we are able to occupy a building that is a landmark in the West Toronto Junction, and that we can bring new life to a building made by architects, for architects.
Thanks to Diana Fancher of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society for sharing archival material, located at Ellis & Connery’s Carnegie Library (now the Annette Street Public Library).
To help protect this historical neighbourhood, please consider supporting:
Adam, G.M. Toronto, Old and New: A Memorial Volume, Historical, Descriptive and Pictorial … Toronto: Mail Printing Co., 1891: https://digital.library.yorku.ca/yul-253940/toronto-old-and-new-memorial-volume-historical-descriptive-and-pictorial-designed-mark#page/1/mode/2up
Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. York Memorial Collegiate Institute, in TOBuilt: https://www.acotoronto.ca/show_building.php?BuildingID=5735
Biographical Dictionary of Canadian Architects, 1800–1950: http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/454 and https://www.dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1973
EVOQ Architecture. Baby Point Heritage Conservation District Study Report: Recommendations. City of Toronto, July 2018.
Etobicoke HS: http://www.etobicokehistorical.com
Fancher, D. Ed. The Leader and Recorder: History of the Junction. Toronto: WTJHS, 2004.
Fenn, M.J. Visiting the Campbell Block, The Junction, Toronto, Ontario: Ornate Building Formerly Housing a Hotel, Dating from 1888. Discover.hubpages.com, 21 January 2021: https://discover.hubpages.com/travel/Visiting-the-Campbell-Block-The-Junction-Toronto-Ontario-Ornate-Building-Formerly-Housing-a-Hotel-Dating-From-1888
Junction BIA: https://www.toronto-bia.com/find-a-bia/bias/junction/
Might’s Greater Toronto City Directories, 1918–69: https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/history-genealogy/lh-digital-city-directories.jsp
Myrvold, B. and Forsyth, B. The Most Attractive Resort in Town: Public Library Service in West Toronto Junction, 1888–2009.
Recent Canadian Branch Banks, Construction: A Journal for the Architectural Engineering and Contracting Interests of Canada, vol. 11, no. 4 (1918), pp. 105–121
Rice, A. B. West Toronto Junction Revisited: Excerpts from the writings of A.B. Rice. Ed. J. Miles. Erin ON: Boston Mills Press for the West Toronto Junction Historical Society, 1986.
Smith, C.W. Obituary: Toronto Star, 4 September 1973, p. A7
Toronto West Junction Historical Society: https://wtjhs.ca