Historicist: A Monument to His Dreams
Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Panoramic view of Humber River. No date. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 163.
It is a quirk of fate that Robert Home Smith merited almost three pages in the Canada’s Who Was Who—for his activities as a lawyer, businessman, financier, civic planner, and real estate developer—during the 1930s, but that he is virtually unknown in the present day. Perhaps the only memorial of his substantial impact on the city’s early twentieth century development is the park named in his honour along the Humber River.
A young man of vision, Home Smith’s greatest legacy was a carefully planned real estate development, catering to businessmen and their families with luxurious homes set in park-like surroundings. The Humber Valley Surveys, as the massive development was known, stretched northward from the lake to Eglinton Avenue along both banks of the Humber River, and it included all or portions of the present-day neighbourhoods of Swansea, The Kingsway, Baby Point, Old Mill, and the Humber Valley Village.
Some observers at the time (and since) painted him as a heartless businessman who unscrupulously used his political connections and position on the Toronto Harbour Commission (THC) for his own ends. From another perspective, he was a heartfelt civic booster who thought Toronto could be among the foremost cities in the world. He was determined to see his long term vision for the city come to fruition, and seemed to make little distinction between pursuing this goal through public institutions or private developments.
Humber River and Old Mill, 1907. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1239.
Born in Stratford, Ontario, in 1877, Home Smith demonstrated a keen interest in arts and architecture as a youth. But under pressure from his mother, he studied law at Osgoode Hall. After articling in Stratford and being called to the bar in 1899, he joined James J. Foy’s Toronto firm. Any “[d]reams of a spectacular courtroom career, debate in the public forum, and high political office,” as James H. Gunn put it in a biographical chapter in Carol Wilton, ed., Essays in the History of Canadian Law (The Osgoode Society, 1990), were dashed in 1901. He suffered an illness thought to be meningitis, which left him with impaired hearing—a disability he apparently thought made pursuing these public careers impossible.
Like many lawyers in the early twentieth century economic boom, he found his knowledge of legal intricacies and courtroom skills of negotiating and bargaining to be in hot demand in the business community. Dapper and personable, Home Smith was destined to be a success in business. In 1902, he was hired to manage the National Trust’s estates department, and also gained a reputation for ability and integrity in doing the company’s bankruptcy work. Through his work, he began to hobnob with leading businessmen like E.R. Peacock, James Dunn, Joseph Flavelle, and William Mackenzie. With his powerful behind-the-scenes role as a campaigner, fundraiser, and bagman for the Conservative Party, he counted prime ministers, premiers, and federal and provincial members among his friends.
In addition to varied investments in railways, mills, shipping, and real estate, Home Smith was an early investor in northern Ontario mining since the turn of the century. It was Home Smith’s shrewd speculation in mining investments—rather than his own real estate companies—that provided his wealth and the leisure to engage in his other interests. Tall and handsome in appearance, Home Smith also solidified his social and professional connections through membership in the Canadian Club, Albany Club, York Club, and National Club.
Over the years, he would be offered positions on numerous public commissions, such as the city’s Board of Trade, and usually assumed such civic duties for little or no financial compensation. Home Smith always seemed ready to serve the public good.
Lake Shore Rd. – Sunnyside to Humber, September 8, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 311.
Smith was also a leading member of the community of architects, local politicians, businessmen, and artists known as the Guild of Civic Art. Adherents to the City Beautiful movement, the Civic Guild developed and released a comprehensive plan for the city in the first decade of the twentieth century, which promoted a park system, landscaped parkways, thoroughfares cutting across the city at diagonals, and public squares surrounded by grandiose buildings. The plan’s loftiest proposals were not built, but this membership seems to have reinvigorated Home Smith’s childhood love of architecture and design.
He was determined to transform Toronto for the better. “I am absolutely certain this city has a great future before it,” he exclaimed in a speech to the Canadian Club on November 27, 1913. His heartfelt passion was evident as he called for the Guild’s ideas to be more fully implemented. “We [have] talked much, but done little,” he stated, having had enough of words without action. He advocated for government reform to strengthen the bureaucracy and to grant greater financial powers to city-appointed commissions.
Humber Valley, July 31, 1913. Toronto City Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 65.
An implicit undercurrent of his speech was a call to arms for business leaders in attendance to take action themselves. He clearly thought Toronto had an opportunity to be among the foremost cities in the world. Are you going to have a Birmingham or a Pittsburgh, Home Smith asked rhetorically, or a London or Paris? For Home Smith and others of the day, large scale, deliberate city planning was, Gunn argues, a means of balancing public and private interests. In Home Smith’s case, his private developments fit within the comprehensive plan of the Civic Guild.
By the time of his speech, Home Smith—at only thirty-four years of age—had already been appointed to the THC. A joint municipal-federal government creation, the THC was tasked with redeveloping the waterfront from Victoria Park to the Humber River. Home Smith remained on the commission from its creation in 1911 until 1923, serving as president from 1921.
In preparing a redevelopment plan, according to Wayne C. Reeves in Visions for the Metropolitan Toronto Waterfront I (Centre for Urban and Community Studies, U of T, 1992), “[t]he THC aimed at a vision that was comprehensive, coordinated, and large in scale.” Moreover, with broad property holdings and financial powers (of the sort Home Smith advocated), the THC not only had the initiative to prepare large scale plans, but also the financial powers to actually implement them. The plan, presented to city council in 1912, used strict segregation of land uses between industrial and recreational and accounted for every need “from aquatic recreation to factory space, and from bridle paths and boulevard driveways to freight sidings, ship channels and docks,” according to Wayne Reeves.
Humber Valley Surveys, Riverside Subdivision, 1911, created by Speight & Van Nostrand, National Trust Co. Ltd. From the University of Toronto’s Map & Data Library.
In the west end of the waterfront, the plan called for a Lake Shore Drive (an element culled from the Civic Guild) and a new amusement park, Sunnyside, constructed on reclaimed land. Work on the ambitious plan began in 1914, but was delayed until 1919 because of the war. As Reeves noted, “the THC’s endeavours represented the pinnacle of large-scale planning in the Toronto region before the City’s Master Plan of 1943.”
While engaged in bankruptcy work, Home Smith was put in charge of selling off a troubled company’s land holdings near High Park to repay shareholders. Although few gave him much chance of recouping the hoped-for $900,000—because the lots, already subdivided for residential use, were isolated and under-served by city services and infrastructure—his hustle had raised $1,500,000 by 1911. His success gave him an idea and he turned his eyes to the Humber River valley.
At the time, the Humber valley, far beyond the city limits, was a wilderness punctuated by rough-cast farmhouses and mills along the river bank. Home Smith had ambitious plans to transform it into an exclusive neighbourhood catering to the business class. With backing from expatriate Canadian financiers in England, like Peacock, Dunn, and Beaverbrook, Home Smith quietly began purchasing more than three thousand acres along both banks of the river.
Valley of the west branch of the Humber River: proposed park from Islington Avenue to the Indian Line, September 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 213, Series 1464, File 27.
By 1911, Home Smith had worked out plans detailing development on both banks of the river. Collectively known as the Humber Valley Surveys, the plans called for large, luxurious homes on tree-lined roads curving to follow the contours of the land, as well as reserves for church, recreation and commercial uses, including a farmer’s market. In Toronto, a city accustomed to organic expansion of unplanned, ramshackle suburbs, Home Smith undertook—in Gunn’s words—”one of the most ambitious, exclusive residential housing schemes ever devised in North America.”
Although by 1912, the city government’s enthusiasm for annexing the outskirts had waned, Home Smith sought government concession, striking what must have seemed to him a mutually beneficial arrangement. He gave the city 105 acres along the river’s edge for use as parkland. Home Smith clearly thought that he was saving the natural beauty of the Humber ravine from the same fate of the Don River and Garrison Creek. And as a member of the Civic Guild and the THC, he had even campaigned against the private ownership of natural features such as the Scarborough Cliffs.
In exchange for the park, the municipality would construct a roadway that would connect the Humber Valley Surveys with the THC’s new Lake Shore Boulevard. The suburb was also to be connected with an electric radial railway that would travel as far north as Caledon (where Home Smith also had extensive land holdings), a plan that was eventually abandoned with the growing domination of the automobile.
The precedent for the dominant architectural style of the area was set by the Old Mill Tea Room, which was designed in the Elizabethan or Tudor style by architect Alfred Chapman (whom Home Smith knew from mutual involvement with the Civic Guild and the THC). It opened in August 1914 and established the neighbourhood as “A Little Bit of England, Away from England,” according to the company’s Latin motto and advertising copy. To ensure an architecturally harmonious neighbourhood, as a condition of sale, lots included thirty year covenants that required that building plans be vetted by the Home Smith Company’s architects.
The Old Mill Hotel, 27 Old Mill Road, Kingsway Park, circa 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 533.
As an area resident (his own home was at Edenbridge Road and Edenbrook Hill), Home Smith took great personal interest in the aesthetic beauty of the area. “Mrs. Harry Jacob who resided in the second house to be erected on Old Mill Road,” Esther Heyes writes in Etobicoke: From Furrow to Borough (Borough of Etobicoke, 1974), “recalled that Home Smith took a lively interest in [her house’s] building. He had, she remembered, a special love for trees, and would allow as few as possible to be destroyed.” He set up two local nurseries where homeowners could “help themselves to quantities of plants, shrubs and young trees to beautify their grounds and gardens.”
Despite a lavish marketing campaign—and strong positive public reaction—sales were slow after the interruption of the First World War. Some building occurred on the east bank of the Humber, along Riverside Drive, between Bloor Street and Lake Ontario. But access to building lots on the west bank was encumbered by the only river crossing—an antiquated wooden bridge at Old Mill Road. Calling on social and political connections, Home Smith succeeded in having the Toronto and York Roads Commission build a stone bridge in 1916. A high level bridge connecting Bloor Street to the west bank in 1924 further stimulated sales.
Smith’s dual roles as a member of the THC and as private real estate developer inevitably sparked controversy. “Serving the Commission for more than a decade,” Gunn noted, “Home Smith had repeatedly been subjected to questions by members of City Council over integrity and conflict of interest.” Many thought the THC’s proposal for a Lake Shore Drive rather conveniently fed traffic into Smith’s real estate holdings. Moreover, as Carolyn Whitzman notes in Suburb, Slum, Urban Village (UBC Press, 2009), the new boulevard came at the expense of the expropriation and demolition of almost two hundred Parkdale homes—which Smith and E.L. Cousins, the THC’s consulting engineer, proposed at one time to turn into luxury apartments in the style of Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
While the optics of Home Smith’s entangled public and private involvements were troublesome, it doesn’t appear that he ever actually personally profited. The Home Smith Company (as well its subsidiaries) never paid a dividend in Home Smith’s lifetime. In 1926, a Royal Commission that had been formed under Judge Denton to investigate the dealings of the THC and its commissioners cross-examined Home Smith closely. But, according to Gunn, he was “fully exonerated of any impropriety.”
Death Notice for Robert Home Smith from the Globe, February 5, 1935.
More questionable was Smith’s bungled involvement with the Advisory City Planning Commission, a city-appointed commission that unveiled a far-reaching (but largely unfulfilled) plan for the downtown core in 1929. Knowing the plan would propose the extension of University Avenue beyond Queen Street to Front Street, Smith and other leading businessmen formed a syndicate—Amulet Realty—to buy all the affected property. In an act of selfless public duty, the syndicate proposed to hold the property to prevent speculation and price inflation, then sell it to the city at cost. However, after the downtown plan got bogged down at city council, the syndicate’s offer to sell the land to the city for $190,000 in 1929 was rebuffed by civic authorities. So, when the city was finally ready to purchase the land in 1931, for reasons that remain unclear, Home Smith wanted $350,000, a sum closer to market value. It produced another round of newspaper exposés.
In other instances, he took a hit in the pocket book as a sacrifice to public service. By the mid-1930s, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression and mortgages difficult to obtain, only about 1,200 acres of the Humber Valley Surveys had been sold, and the Home Smith Company owed municipalities a great deal in back taxes. But Home Smith never halted construction. “To provide employment, Home Smith laid out roads far ahead of schedule,” Heyes writes. “The work was performed by local men hired by the Township and paid by Home Smith. To lengthen their hours of employment and put more money in their pay envelopes, most of the work was done by hand, pick and shovel and wheelbarrow.” Such make-work labour was evidently a result of his sense of civic responsibility, a sense that businessmen ought to be good citizens.
Home Smith died of cirrhosis of the liver—a result his inclination towards alcohol, some said—in February 1935. He was fifty-eight years old. “Home Smith was one of the outstanding Canadians of my acquaintance,” former premier George S. Henry told the Globe on February 5, 1935, before praising his contributions as a member of the THC. The Globe called his real estate developments along the Humber River “a monument to his dreams.” Home Smith’s estate, valued at about $400,000, passed to his long-time friend and business associate, Godfrey Pettit. Pettit continued to manage the Home Smith Company and develop the Humber Valley according to Home Smith’s intentions, and the development eventually began to pay dividends.
Shortly before his death, Home Smith was said to have met several times with E.P. Taylor, a colleague from the Moderation League and the Conservative Party, to discuss real estate. It seems then that, apart from the Humber Valley Surveys (which remain a picturesque residential enclave), Home Smith’s planning ideas also impacted Taylor’s own suburban developments (and all the suburban developments that followed).
Other sources consulted: Villages of Etobicoke (Argyle Printing Company, 1985); and Mark Osbaldeston, Unbuilt Toronto (Dundurn Press, 2008).
This article originally mistakenly said that Robert Home Smith was born in 1887, the result of a note-taking error—he was born in 1877.