When Phase 1 of the National Ballet School was completed just north of Jarvis and Carlton Streets, the “Grand Jeté” project was lauded for its modern but neighbourhood-appropriate design, as well as its restoration of incorporated heritage structures like the former Havergal Ladies’ College and Northfield House. Once the flagship school was complete, a less ostentatious but just as impressive renovation was quietly conducted on another property owned by the NBS at Maitland and Mutual.
Along this block of residential street sits a row of six heritage buildings: five Victorian houses built in the late 1800s, and the Quaker Meeting House (1911), which was a former church and served as the school’s first dance instruction studio, underfoot NBS alumni like Karen Kain, Rex Harrington, Frank Augustyn, and Neve Campbell. The Quaker facility is the strip’s most identifiable landmark, boasting large, arched windows and four impressive Roman columns. Its lack of air conditioning meant that, until recently, Maitland Street pedestrians could observe sweltering summer dance classes in progress under the hum of industrial fans through the open doors.
Prior to the $15 million renovation of the 50,000-square-foot Maitland site, which the school acquired in 1959, the houses were used as cramped student residences, with the last significant renovation taking place in the 1970s. After the $85 million Jarvis Street studios and classrooms were finished, the challenge for the school’s founding site just up the street was to maintain an effective, connected place for students to live, yet retain the historical value of the streetfront.
To look at it today, it’s not easy to discern the scale of the Maitland renovation, which is part of what makes it so successful. Helmed by Goldsmith Borgal and Company Architects (Don Valley Brickworks), the interiors of the old homes and a concourse in the back were gutted, and then connected together along the block into a series of student apartments, common rooms, and an enormous central kitchen. The Quaker auditorium was renamed Currie Hall and now serves as a student dining room and rental event venue.
Remarkably, the exterior still presents the illusion of independent residential homes, save for relatively unobtrusive metal railings and concrete planters. There is much care and subtlety taken with modern elements like metal and glass, which are seen in slivers connecting the buildings and in an appealing main entrance. Around the utilitarian rear extension, which backs onto an apartment building parking lot, the architecture is rather generic and hardly spectacular, but hidden unobtrusively and inoffensively. The east rear façade is set back from the sidewalk as not to loom over Mutual Street, and tucked behind a wooden fence is a small, treed yard.
It’s also in the small exterior details where the project shines. The choice to forego the obvious grassy lawn with a series of grade-level planters instead is appealing (even though the foliage was only just planted and hasn’t yet had time to fill out). A flagstone base around the central element incorporates areas for people to sit, and grey paving brick adds a nice touch in place of plain sidewalk cement. The gingerbread-style house at the northeast corner has been painted a terra cotta orange, and all the houses have a dark, greenish-grey trim—a modern colour scheme beautifully complementing the newly sandblasted brick.
Because it’s often unusual outside of Cabbagetown to see a row of such consistent-looking and well-maintained Victorian townhomes, the school’s Maitland site now looks a bit like a movie set or an architectural model, especially since it hasn’t had time to develop a new patina from the grime of downtown. Interestingly, the facility is completely free of any identifying markings—there is no signage to indicate what these buildings are or who they belong to.
Anyone who’s experienced the National Ballet School’s Jarvis Street facility during last year’s Doors Open Toronto will realize that Maitland’s big brother deserves the accolades bestowed upon it, but the Phase 2 restoration of the original historic site can’t be ignored. As nearby historic architecture is being allowed to fall into neglect and subsequent demolition, the National Ballet School’s student residence revamp is a perfect example of how these properties can be enhanced, contemporized, and properly preserved without simply resorting to half-assed façadism.
Photos by Marc Lostracco.