Traveling Through Time at Spadina House

My friend Andrea and I visited Spadina House this summer and both really liked it!

Described as “Toronto’s Downton Abbey”, it’s a three story mansion reflecting the style and decor of the 1920s and 30s.

Located up on a hill overlooking downtown Toronto, Spadina House was built and continuously occupied by three generations of a single family, The Austins, for 116 years, from 1866 until 1982.

The land was purchased by James Austin in 1866, who demolished the house that was there, in order to build one that was more to his liking.

Then 25 years later, the property and home were given to his son Albert in 1892, who moved in with his young family. He began a series of extensions to the house, including adding a sunroom and a third story.

The last of the Austin family to live there was one of his daughters, Anna Kathleen (1892–1983), who went by Kathleen.

She was the granddaughter of the original builder and, although she moved out for several decades in between, moved back into the house in 1942, presumably after her parents had passed. This time, she lived there for 40 years until 1982, when she was 91 years old. Rather than sell off the property, she and her family generously donated it to the city, so that it could be maintained and protected as a museum, Spadina Museum.

The extra-special part about the acquisition of this historically relevant house was that it came completely intact, including all the original contents and decorative items. So, the sofas, tables, mirrors, dishes, cushions, curtains, knick-knacks … everything! … are the very items that had originally been in the home when the family lived there.

Certainly, since Kathleen had lived there until the 80s, pieces would have been moved around and put into storage — there’s a big room at the top of the house which was apparently filled with things — and modern everyday items introduced, however these were all removed during the two restorations undertaken since the house became a museum. Things like the wallpaper and the washroom were redone, based on studies of old family photographs. Today, the house looks just as it did during the 1920s and 30s.

So, back to the Downton Abbey comparison, for fans of that show (I am enthusiastically included!), the last resident of Spadina House, Kathleen Austin, who was born the year her family moved in, in 1892, would have been one year younger than Lady Mary Crawley, and exactly the same age as Edith. Kathleen’s sister, Constance, born in 1894, would have been a year younger than Sybil. There were three more older Austin children, as well.

Our tour of the home began with the viewing of a short film, which beautifully described the history house, family, the city and political and economic times. I’m pleased to be able to share this interesting video with you here, as it is loading up on YouTube. It’s 10 minutes long and you can watch it here if you’d like.

The two “roaring-twenties” girls, Esmé and Patricia, mentioned in the film, who had their coming-out parties at Spadina House, were Kathleen’s daughters. If you don’t find it overly morbid, Esmé’s obituary found here is quite interesting.

While inside, visitors to The Spadina House Museum are shown around with a guide, as part of a group tour. It’s a very big place, so there’s lots to see. I’ll admit that I wasn’t able to listen to everything that the tour guide said, as I was busy taking all the photos that I could. Wow, the place was a picture-taker’s dream spot with so many gorgeous nooks and crannies!

Access to the gardens outside was at our leisure and, if I understand correctly, is granted to anyone who’d like to look around during times of operating, without paying an entrance fee.

As for the fee, Andrea and I used a “Museum and Arts” pass that I got at the library. (Note, that this program, offered by Sunlife Financial, granting free admission to a number of museums and galleries in Toronto, is ending at the end of the year, so check a pass out from your branch of the Toronto Library soon. They get fresh batches of passes on Saturday mornings, and it is first come first served.)

Yes, I took a lot of photos, and while I’ve tried to edit, I realize there are still a lot to see. I thank you for taking the time and hope you enjoy them!

We met at the Dupont Subway station and walked north on Spadina Road, up to Davenport.

Something I hadn’t realized before now was that Spadina Road, and Spadina Avenue which the street becomes south of Bloor Street, were named after the residence atop the hill, and not the other way around, although it was the previous owner, Baldwin, who had first named his house Spadina. Mr. Austin kept the name after he purchased the property.

↑ Crossing Davenport Road ↑

↑ Then we climbed the “Baldwin Steps” — they were built in 1913 to connect two sections of Spadina Road, over a section of the escarpment which was too steep to build a road on. Interestingly, the cliff is the edge of an ancient shoreline. Baldwin was the fellow who Austin purchased the land from. ↑

↑ The path at the top runs through a bit of parkland up to Spadina House. ↑

Casa Loma on the west side of the path is also a very interesting place, which I’ll visit and write about another time. You can see why, as a child, I thought is was called “Castle Oma”. ↑

↑ A historic shot of Spadina House, taken from the turret at Casa Loma. ↑

↑ A first peek of Spadina House, seen from the path. ↑

↑ The front door. (We went through the back, though.) ↑

↑ The formal living room to the left of the door. ↑

↑ There’s a fireplace at each end of it. ↑

↑ The sunroom was an addition to the original house. It opens out from the living room and when they had big parties, the band would set up in there. ↑

↑ See the latch on the floor? That opens a hidden trap door that the gardener could use to tend the plants without bothering the family. ↑

↑ Hallway decor. Calling cards were left on that table. ↑

↑ A lounge area that was used for more casual entertaining and relaxing. You can see the formal living room beyond. ↑

You’ll get used to seeing “lounge areas” as this home was filled with them. I didn’t spot any near the staff-rooms, though, which is kind of sad.

Into the kitchen – Unlike many kitchens of the time, which would have only been used by staff and were usually situated in the dark basement of homes, the Austin’s was on the main floor and was filled with natural light from the many windows, which makes the staff’s lack of a lounge less sad. I imagine they sat around the big table in there to relax.

↑ There were two sinks, one for food prep and one for washing dishes. Both seemed to be extremely low but we’re, on average, three inches taller today than in the 20s so I guess they were fine. ↑

↑ The second sink ↑

↑ The icebox had another large section behind it, which is where I think the ice went, or it may have gone overhead. ↑

↑ The pantry contained examples of original food packaging of that era, and some reproduced items. ↑

↑ This door led to the back staircase which was used by the house staff, which included a cook, an assistant, a housemaid (and a gardener and chauffeur who lived in buildings outside).↑

↑ The dining room. A peddle contraption below the lady of the house’s chair was discovered when they did the restorations. She would have used it to signal to the staff in the kitchen, to let them know when to serve dinner, etc. See the door through which they would have come, there on the right? ↑

↑ A little breakfast nook in the dining room. ↑

↑ Beside the dining room was the library/study, however, it was less of a study and more of a place to gather around and listen to the radio, which would have been a brand new invention at the time. ↑

↑ That’s the radio there, in the dark under the lamp. ↑

↑ While we’re on the subject of new technology, the telephone had its own little cubby booth, located in the hallway. Many of the lamps were set up to be powered by both gas and electricity. ↑

↑ A pool table in the man-cave, I mean Billiard Room. ↑

↑ The chair was a one-of-a-kind creation, designed by Mr. Austin to his specifications. The sides open up on a hinge so he could get into it easily. ↑

↑ Check out the fantastic art-deco installation that went all the way around the room. ↑

↑ Oh, deer me ↑

Up the main staircase, to the bedrooms and family lounges …

↑ off the landing was another lounge area decorated with many souvenirs from the family’s extensive travels. ↑

↑ A detail overhead, on the way into a bedroom. ↑

↑ The master bedroom, which was the only bedroom on display, had a narrow enclosed sitting area just beyond the door, which would have been handy if one person wanted to read while the other wanted to sleep. ↑

↑ The closet contained examples of clothes that the teenage granddaughters would have worn in the twenties, made from original vintage patterns. ↑

↑ The washroom was connected to the master bedroom by one door and to the hallway by another. It may have been used by the whole family, but I didn’t get that detail. ↑

↑ There was a gas powered contraption on the wall, specifically meant to heat up the gentleman’s shaving cream. ↑

↑ Up some more stairs to the third floor. ↑

There were some doors up there, leading to a big room with a wall of windows (that you can see in the photo above of the front of the house). It had been build around 1912, specifically for one of the sons, Kathleen’s older brother Bertie, who had tuberculosis. It was believed that his illness would have been helped with plenty of sunlight, however, he never got to move into his sun-filled room, dying in 1913 at the age of 24.

If I understood the guide correctly, the room was never used as a living space, but rather was relegated to a storage space.

The female staff bedrooms were found up there, as well.

↑ Going down the back stairs, which led us right through that door I mentioned in the kitchen. ↑

That marked the end of the tour inside, and we headed out to look at the gardens.

↑ The extensive restored Victorian garden. ↑

↑ An orchard including fruit trees descending from the originals that were there. ↑

↑ The chauffeur’s residence built in 1909. ↑

↑ The greenhouse was built in 1913. ↑

↑ The gardener’s cottage, the oldest structure there, dating back to 1850. It came before the house was built, installed by the Baldwins, from whom the Austins purchased the property. ↑

And that wraps up the tour of Spadina House!

I hope you have a great weekend,
xo loulou