Woodlawn Church Lofts – 11 Woodlawn Avenue West
It used to be that converted churches were not that common in Toronto. Not anymore. Since there are no more factories to convert and developers are putting profits before preservation (yes, I am looking at you Great Gulf with the Lever lands and the numbered company that bought the old Weston bakery on Eastern). So churches are now the go-to for conversion to lofts. And this is good, I think they usually turn out amazing and provide new use for old buildings, keeping parts of historical streetscapes intact.
Now unusual in being only one of a couple of converted churches in Midtown Toronto (other than the St. George on Sheldrake and maybe the Macpherson Church Lofts, though they are further south). And also interesting in that there are only 6 units in the building. These days, developers try to squeeze as many units into a building as possible, they make the most money that way.
The Woodlawn Church Lofts are housed in a rare and hidden upscale converted church just north of Summerhill, near Yonge and St. Clair. With only 6 hard lofts in the building, they tend to be quite large and range from 1,840 to 2,341 square feet. There are 2 spectacular penthouses with private elevators and all of the lofts feature hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings, gas fireplaces, 2 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms per suite, underground parking, lockers and terraces.
It is slightly recessed amid tall trees. And since lofts are so rare around these parts, most people don’t even know it exists. The Matthews Group converted the old Orthodox church into lofts back in 1990, making it one of the earliest examples of the current church conversion craze.
The Woodlawn Church Lofts began life as the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. The church was founded in 1950 and built in 1951 by a group of dedicated and faithful Orthodox families. Though not very large in numbers at the time, they were nonetheless extremely dedicated to their cause. With a lot of hard work and generosity, they built their church at 11 Woodlawn Avenue West. It served the community well both spiritually and socially for a generation.
Due to the political instability in the Middle East over the past 25 years, there has been an influx of immigration to Toronto. The Orthodox community continued to grow and the need for a larger building, especially with adequate Sunday School classes and parking facilities, became necessary. After raising funds for 8 years, the 4.5 acre site at 9116 Bayview Avenue was purchased in 1985. On June 6, 1986, the ground-breaking ceremony for the new Temple was held, thus beginning the end for the Woodlawn church.
I am not sure when exactly the congregation moved out, but it would have to have been in 1987 or 1988. Construction on the new church, start in June of 1986, could not have been completed before 1987. And it would not have likely taken longer than 1988. That and the lofts began to appear on MLS in 1989. There is not record of the sale of the church, just the first lofts.
Speaking of developers tearing down old buildings to erect new ones, there was another church across the street. Built a few years later than the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church was built in 1953 at 14 Woodlawn. It was sold in 1987, right around the time that St. George’s would have been sold. But the Armenian church was torn down and the condos of 12 Woodlawn now occupy the lot. But someone thought to preserve at least one of the two old Orthodox churches at Woodlawn and Yonge.
The street has more history than is housed in the mid-century churches. This Midtown Toronto street is named for the Woodlawn Estate, which once occupied the area now bordered by Yonge, Woodlawn, Avenue Road and Walker Avenue. Built as a country house for prominent jurist William Hume Blake in 1840, Woodlawn underwent several renovations and rebuilds over the years.
It all started when the government granted farm lot 21, in the second concession and flanking the west side of Yonge Street, to David Smith, the Surveyor General. Smith sold the lot and adjacent property to John Elmsley, Chief Justice of Upper Canada. Elmsley’s son inherited the tract and, in 1835, conveyed 12 acres of Lot 21 to John Doel. Doel was a brewery owner whose premises were used to plot the Rebellion of Upper Canada in 1837. The following year, Doel sold his acreage in lot 21 to William Hume Blake.
William Hume Blake was an Irish aristocrat who studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, before immigrating to York in 1832. Establishing a law practice in 1838, Blake later formed a partnership with Joseph Curran Morrison. A judge on the Appeal Court, Blake was the first professor of law at King’s College in the 1840s and, during the next decade, served as the Chancellor of the University of Toronto. Blake was active in Reform politics, representing York East in the Legislative Assembly from 1848 to 1851. After serving as the province’s solicitor general in 1848, Blake was appointed to a commission to reorganize the province’s judicial system. This led to his appointment as “Chancellor of Upper Canada”, heading the Court of Chancery from 1849 to 1862. His son, Edward Blake (1833-1912) was a prominent federal politician who became the second Premier of the Province of Ontario from 1871 to 1872.
Blake occupied the residence with his family until 1844 when he sold the site to his law partner, Joseph Morrison. Morrison was an important politician and jurist who combined his interest in Reform politics with the development of railways. Morrison was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1848 and served as solicitor general for two governments. He became the Chancellor of the University of Toronto in 1863. Morrison resigned as the president of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, the province’s first railway, in 1862 when he was appointed to the Court of Common Appeals. After his promotion to the Queen’s Bench in 1863, Morrison oversaw the trials of the Fenian raiders after their unsuccessful invasion of Canada in 1866. Morrison was elevated to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1877, serving until his retirement in 1885.
From 1844 to 1885, Morrison occupied the residence. After Morrison died, his executors registered a plan of subdivision that divided the estate into 92 lots. While James Morrison’s youngest son, Angus, inherited the portion of the property including the house, he lost the site to foreclosure in 1894. The two-storey kitchen and bedroom wing was commissioned in 1895. During this period, the west two-thirds of the house and the west wing were removed, along with several outbuildings. The latter included a greenhouse completed in the mid-1850s according to the designs of the notable landscape architect, William Mundie. Architects Gregg and Gregg designed the two-storey southeast wing in 1895.
The property at 35 Woodlawn Avenue changed ownership several times until 1920 when Bernard R. Saunders, a descendant of the Willcocks family, acquired the property. He began a restoration program that has been continued by his son, Guy Saunders, to the present day. As well as preserving the surviving elements of the original building, the family added landscaping and, where the original foundations of the house were laid, a sunken garden. In 1951, Guy Saunders acquired the property at 33 Woodlawn Avenue, using the rear portion of that lot to extend the garden area at the east end of “Woodlawn”. The property at 35 Woodlawn Avenue West was listed on the City of Toronto Inventory of Heritage Properties in 1979.
The east third of the original house survives. Rising two stories under a flat roof with two brick chimneys, the house is constructed with brick that is stuccoed on three sides to resemble stone. Important interior elements are found in the original part of the house. In the first-floor hall, living room and dining room, the original pine and walnut woodwork and interior shutters, two fireplaces, and pine plank floors are significant features.
The “Woodlawn” house is historically significant for its associations with two early Toronto politicians, and as one of the oldest continuously occupied residences in the city. Architecturally, the surviving portion of the house is an important example of Regency design with intact interior elements by noted Toronto architect John Howard (who designed the original home). “Woodlawn” is contextually important as a local neighbourhood feature. The building is acknowledged as Toronto’s second oldest house (after Drumsnab, 1830, in Rosedale) that has been continuously occupied as a private residence.
Another interesting historical note. As the original lot was subdivided and sold off in the late 1880s, one large chunk remained. That remaining piece was acquired in 1912 by a group of women from the St. Thomas Anglican Church as a home for unwed mothers. The property was still large enough to include an orchard, two acres for a vegetable garden, and room to raise a hundred chickens. The old house was demolished in 1924 and the first part of the present day building, designed by architect William Rae, took its place; a newer wing, designed by John C Parkin, was added in 1960. In 1973 Humewood House broadened its mandate to serve also as a group home for young women in crisis.
For over 100 years More than 5,000 young women – many of them mere children themselves – found a haven at the home, just north of St. Clair Avenue. on Humewood Street. Society and its attitudes may have changed over the past century, but young women and their babies still struggle. It’s why Humewood continues to offer the support they need to deliver healthy babies and prepare them for motherhood. You can find out more at www.humewoodhouse.com
Now, the entire area has changed, and Yonge & St. Clair has become one of the hottest parts of the city. The Woodlawn Church Lofts are located in a chic part of the city, with many trendy shopping and dining options close by. Not quite downtown, not quite uptown, this location offers a perfect balance of serenity and centrality. It’s only a short drive or subway ride to the city’s core. Rosedale and Yorkville visible just to the south.
Contact Laurin Jeffrey for more information – 416-388-1960
Laurin Jeffrey is a Toronto real estate agent with Century 21 Regal Realty.
He did not write every article, some are reproduced here for people who
are interested in Toronto real estate. He does not work for any builders.