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Historicist: Palmerston Boulevard

Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
2008_04_26Palmerston.jpg
Palmerston Boulevard, looking south from Harbord Street, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7200.
Palmerston Boulevard is one of the best examples of an intact turn-of-the-century residential street in the city. Stone gates at College and Bloor mark not only a name change—where Palmerston Avenue becomes Palmerston Boulevard—but also a complete change in the character of the street compared with the rest of the neighbourhood. The impressive streetscape is characterized by homes with peaked roofs and angular gables stretching along a roadway that is significantly wider than any other in the area—24 metres instead of the usual 20 metres. Iconic street lamps and the trees that line the street in pairs also define the boulevard today. None of these distinctive features happened by accident: they are the result of a highly formal plan. Their importance is even more evident in an early photograph of the street, like the one above, when, lacking the grandeur of its current tree canopy, the street looks like any cookie-cutter suburban subdivision.


Palmerston Boulevard was originally part of the Seaton Square subdivision laid out by James M. Strachan and W. J. Fitzgerald on the outskirts of the city in the 1850s, running from College to Bloor between Lippincott and Manning. Development began first on neighbouring streets in a very haphazard way. With little planning or control, properties were bought and houses were erected sporadically according to the whims of the market. Many area streets became crammed with working-class homes by the 1880s, packed tightly together on subdivided lots.
2008_04_26PalmerstonBaptist1.jpgEven as institutions such as the College Street Baptist Church (1889) and Harbord Street Collegiate Institute (1892) were built to serve the growing community, Palmerston Boulevard remained totally undeveloped until 1903. Then, in a flurry of rapid but highly coordinated development, the street was completely built up by 1910.
Intended as an upper-middle-class enclave, Palmerston’s stone gates were meant to give the effect of entering a private country estate. The street’s much larger lots would accommodate larger single-family detached homes with spacious yards. They were therefore more expensive and attracted wealthier buyers looking to erect posh houses reflecting their wealth and social standing. Demand was high, but supply was low because the lots weren’t sold all at once. Instead, they were sold block-by-block from College towards Bloor—a system which also made it easier to install municipal services progressively. A northern extension of the original scheme was intended at Palmerston Square, but the roadways north of Bloor do not align perfectly with their southern counterparts—a quirk from when the area developed independently as Seaton Village before its annexation to the city in 1888—and the Square was cut off from realizing its full potential as a public park befitting the boulevard below.
The gated street quickly attracted prominent citizens like former mayors Horatio Hocken (#340) and Sam McBride (#351), as well as bread tycoon George Weston (#469), whose house was the grandest on the street (but has since been converted to apartments). Owners used elaborate detailing on doors, windows, and gables, and constructed grandiose porches projecting their status and individual taste. Yet, as E.K. Storey and James K. Brown noted in their 1982 architectural analysis of the unique street, common features—such as the uniform distance they were set back from the street—ensured that they all fit together to form a clearly defined boulevard character.
2008_04_25Lamppost2.jpgAdding to this character are the cast iron and glass-globe topped lamps that line Palmerston Boulevard’s sidewalks. Not merely quaint decorations, the lampposts ensure the street maintains a very pedestrian-friendly atmosphere to this day. At the time of their erection between 1905 and 1910, their modest height (only 9.5 feet tall), placement on the lawn side of the sidewalk rather than the curbside, and close spacing between pedestals were design features intended to light the way for pedestrians, not cars. By the 1920s, streetlights designed to better light the way for motorists began towering over city streets and left pedestrians in the shadows of the sidewalk. Palmerston Boulevard is one of the only streets in the city to retain these pre-automobile lamps.
Changes over the course of a century are, of course, inevitable. The demands of densification have caused once single-family homes to be converted to apartments, and individual owners have undertaken extensive interior renovations. But apart from the addition of fire escapes or the closing in of porches, the façades have been little affected. Most external changes occur at the rear of the houses, where the haphazardness of additions and coach houses match the rest of the neighbourhood. To this day, the streetscape of Palmerston Boulevard remains much the same as it was a century ago.
Photo of College Street Baptist Church and Palmerston Boulevard, 1910, from the Toronto Public Library website. Photo of a lamp by Kevin Plummer.

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