A landmark at Annette and Medland Streets, set amidst century-old homes and mature trees, the Victoria Lofts is an historic church and Sunday school conversion project built by Triumphal Developments Inc. in 2011 that created 34 lofts on four floors, with units ranging from 588 to over 2,500 square feet. The architect, Paul Oberst – a Toronto loft conversion expert responsible for projects such as the Medland Lofts and the Kensington Market Lofts – took enormous care in ensuring this stately church would remain a landmark for generations to come.
A true west Toronto landmark, the transformation of the church preserved and maintained the integrity of this elegant building. The soaring ceilings and original architectural detailing combined with contemporary designs to create one-of-a-kind lofts. The lofts offer all the comforts of contemporary living while preserving the original features such as the church spire, period light fixtures, soaring ceilings, historic capitals, hammer beam trusses and exposed interior masonry. The Victoria Lofts offer outstanding character and colourful charm.
It is not until you look at the large arches of the exterior that you realize this church is no longer a church. The large arched openings on the façade once held the church’s famous stained glass windows, which have since been donated to St. Paschal Baylon in Thornhill (and thankfully not destroyed or discarded!). Now those arches hide the balconies of the lofts within, a brilliant move that keeps the exterior free from any type of modernity, while preserving its heritage.
What was most recently known as Victoria-Royce Presbyterian Church, is a well-designed example of the Romanesque Revival style, which was popular for religious and residential buildings in the late 19th century. Inspired by French and Spanish architecture from the 11th and 12th centuries, the revival style is recognized by its oversized round-arch motifs, rugged surfaces, and ornate detailing. You can see similar architecture in the Ontario Legislature and Toronto’s Old City Hall.
But the church is one of only a few religious buildings in Toronto in this style, making it architecturally unique. The church was designed after a committee was sent to examine a Detroit church, believe it or not. They then advocated a square-planned church without galleries, a high tower, and a sweeping roof with its weight supported by four massive pillars. The Detroit church that inspired the design is, unfortunately, unknown.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What was first known as West Toronto Junction Presbyterian Church began in 1885 in the waiting room of the Toronto Junction railway station of the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was in the following year that a small wooden church was built to house the congregation. This wooden church stood just down the street, at Annette and Pacific Avenue, now the site of St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church. But that church did not last long, as the congregation grew, forcing the construction of the beautiful Romanesque building we see today.
Completed in 1892, it stayed the West Toronto Junction Presbyterian Church until it was renamed Victoria Presbyterian Church to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The final name came about from the amalgamation with Royce Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1969, becoming Victoria-Royce Presbyterian Church until it closed for good in June of 2006.
The church is associated with the architectural partnership of Wilm Knox and John Elliot, who practiced in Toronto from 1888 to 1892. Knox, who trained as an architect in his native Scotland, and the Canadian-born Elliot had previously worked for the notable Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root, whose early projects embodied the popular Romanesque Revival style (known in the US as Richardsonian Romanesque).
In Toronto, Knox and Elliot (in association with local architect Beaumont Jarvis) employed a Romanesque Revival design to win a prestigious competition for the Confederation Life Company’s headquarters. This highly publicized commission led to others, including the West Toronto Junction Presbyterian Church. The church was one of the last projects in Toronto completed by Knox and Elliot, who returned to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exhibition.
The area is well-known for its architecture. From the Masonic Hall across the street to the library next door, this stretch of Annette contains a lot of Toronto architectural history. On a related and interesting note, Andrew Carnegie funded many libraries in his time and had a huge influence on the Toronto Public Library system. He paid for many branches, most famously the Riverdale branch at Broadview and Gerrard.
But I digress… it was Allan Berlin Rice, a member of the Victoria Presbyterian congregation (who was occasional reporter for the Toronto Globe and chairman of the Toronto Junction Library Board) who was instrumental in securing the Carnegie grant to build the library across the street.
Victoria Presbyterian Church would have been where many of The Junction’s leading families came to worship. In fact, this was one of the first brick churches to be built along Annette Street, which helped make the street the centre of public life in The Junction. In addition to church services, the church also played host to concerts and served as the community’s first high school.
Thankfully, we can still admire the magnificent tower (which contains the best unit in the building) and the grand triple Romanesque arches with Gothic decorative curves and three-point cross superimposed in the wall above, now home to balconies and BBQs. The project made great effort to conserve the significant architectural elements of the church and ancillary school structure (with arts and crafts elements, built in 1927).
They essentially left the masonry of the church building intact, with only a few small new openings. As with the better church loft conversions, they left the massing of the church building essentially unchanged, without touching the building envelope of the church structure. And they left the roof almost intact, using discrete reverse roof dormer elements.
The Victoria Lofts preserved some of the smaller leaded windows, as well as the large arched openings and exterior light fixtures. The original tower entry was adapted to the new residential use. We all drool at the interior hammer beam structures that were retained… it is features like this that make a loft truly stand out. And the lobby kept some original lights, which I just love.
The church was a big deal when it was built. Back then, The Junction was a manufacturing community with working class housing dating from the late 19th century. It grew up around notable companies such as Canadian Cycle & Motor Co., Campbell Milling Company and the Heintzman Piano Company. Before The Junction underwent a rebirth, it was neighbourhood chocked full of history.
Then people discovered its central location and reasonable price points, drawing crowds of young families, urban professionals, artists and entrepreneurs. Now, The Junction has blossomed into a community-driven neighbourhood. Its revolution is a testament to how neighbourhoods can retain their roots while enjoying a renewed celebration for urban life.
And it is projects such as the Victoria Lofts that help with neighbourhood renewal such as this. The project was awarded a 2013 Toronto Heritage Award, namely an Award of Excellence in the William Greer Architectural Conservation and Craftsmanship award category. This is after being completed in 2011, following the first proposals to the City in 2008.
Church conversions are one of the best ways to improve neighbourhoods and bring new life and increased density. Church structures are expensive to maintain, especially in these days of declining congregations. Thus, it is imperative that new uses are found for them so that they continue to provide our communities and residential streetscapes with the layered texture of intact historic and architectural landmarks. History lives on our streets, not just in books or websites.