I spent the last eight years living at 105 Isabella St. and though I’ve moved out, there’s a lot to appreciate about these kinds of mid-century apartment buildings. Built in 1959, 105 is a handsome 11-storey yellow brick building with symmetrical windows and balconies located at the corner of Jarvis St. In my imagination it looked like a perforated computer punch card from the era.

Mine was a standard-issue Toronto apartment and had the parquet floors to prove it, ubiquitous here, especially in apartments built between the 1950s and 1970s. The living and dining area had a panoramic view north and there was a huge balcony by current standards. There was always light in my apartment. It had a big-enough galley kitchen and one bedroom that was just separate enough from the living area to seem like a distinct place.

105 and 100 Isabella St. were once called the “Cawthra” and “Mulock” Apartments, references to turn-of-the-last-century millionaire Cawthra Mulock, whose mansion was torn down to build these two buildings.
105 and 100 Isabella St. were once called the “Cawthra” and “Mulock” Apartments, references to turn-of-the-last-century millionaire Cawthra Mulock, whose mansion was torn down to build these two buildings.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

Most importantly, everything was at a right angle and it was easy to fit furniture inside. The proportions were just about perfect and living in one for so long I began to admire how much thought went into what seems like a deceivingly simple design. I’ve become obsessed with windowsills and size them up now. Can you put plants on them, as I could in my apartment? Are they at the right height so a couch can be naturally put in front of it?

There are many thousands of apartments like this in Toronto and beyond, with either near-identical layouts or remixed versions, as if each room was a piece of Lego that could be rearranged. They are instantly recognizable as kin to anybody who’s lived in one.

If you go to a party in one of these units they seem to fit more people than seems possible. At one a friend threw a few years ago, I mentioned how similar it was to mine, commenting on the minor variations. “A machine for living,” he said, using the phrase coined by the architect Le Corbusier who, along with others, pioneered the design of modern apartment buildings like mine.

Le Corbusier is sometimes maligned for his “Plan Voisin,” a 1925 scheme that called for large areas of central Paris to be demolished and replaced with many cross-shaped towers surrounded by green space. That didn’t happen, but those towers inspired residential buildings in the Parisian suburbs later and around the world. Here, these kinds of buildings, sometimes called “towers in a park,” have housed an awful lot Torontonians, and relatively affordably too.

These buildings fell out of fashion though as Canadians continue to like, love and obsess over single-family houses. As for apartments, condos have been in fashion for the last 20 years as are single-family homes that have been carved up into quirky individual units, sometimes called “dirty mansions.”

Though they may not be in fashion and generally don’t have granite counter tops or ensuite laundry, these mid-century buildings still have style. Near the front door of 105 Isabella is a subtle nameplate noting it was built by Bregman + Hamann Architects, a then-young Toronto firm that has gone on to become the large international firm B + H Architects. 105 is connected to its sibling building at 100 Gloucester St. to the south, and the two share an underground parking garage and a grassy “backyard” over top of it. On the north side of Isabella a third building of similar style is called “Massey House,” a nod to Hart Massey who lived at what is now the Keg Mansion a few blocks south.

105 and 100 were once called the “Cawthra” and “Mulock” Apartments, references to turn-of-the-last-century millionaire Cawthra Mulock, whose mansion was torn down to build these two buildings, though those names have been lost over the decades and they just go by the street number today. Pictures of the mansion reveal a grand old building, razed during the postwar apartment buildpostwar. A lamentable loss perhaps, but I admit after it provided me and my hundreds of neighbours a home for so long, my sense of regret is low. These three buildings are the true Jarvis mansions today.

My building was a microcosm of Toronto: there were young office workers, flight attendants, blue collar workers who came home wearing steel-toed shoes, nurses, a fellow who collected recyclable material in his truck and some older and elderly folks who lived in the building for decades. Immigrant families with strollers made it their first Canadian home too, and a variety of languages could be heard in the elevator.

Via.

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