A key figure within the Canadian Arts and Crafts movement, and well-connected to the cultural elite, Toronto architect Eden Smith made a lasting impact on the urban fabric of the city.
Born in Birmingham, England, at the epicentre of the Second Industrial Revolution in 1859, Eden Smith was brought up as the son of a successful craftsman. He showed a strong affinity early on for art, architecture, and design, and he attended the Birmingham School of Art. Smith’s middle-class education placed him in line with many of the prevailing ideas about art, socialism, and modernity that pervaded the time and place in which he grew up.
While he was in school, he admired the teachings of William Morris, the father of the British Arts and Crafts movement and himself a frequent speaker at the Birmingham School of Art during Smith’s tutelage. The young architect carried throughout his illustrious career in Canada a reverence for the idealism inherent to the movement’s founding principles. Bolstered thus by a deep respect for truth and authenticity through craft, Smith brought with him to his new home in Canada a desire to create a method and style of domestic architecture worthy of and inspired by the young nation which had beckoned he and countless others to start life anew.
Following a brief stint as a rancher in Manitoba, Smith and his young family moved to Toronto in 1888. His career as an architect returned Smith to the modern comforts of city living. Quick to make a name for himself among fellow architects and the city’s then-burgeoning circle of artists, architects, and like-minded socialites, Smith became a member of the Ontario Association of Architects in 1889, shortly after his arrival in Toronto. He later formed his own group, the Toronto Architectural Eighteen Club, a decade later in 1899, followed by a lifetime membership within the Arts and Letters Club that began with its founding in 1908.
While Smith’s professional affiliation with the Ontario Association of Architects served him well during his early years, helping the young architect forge a host of industry contacts and colleagues, it would be his later allegiances—first to his rabble-rousing Architectural Eighteen Club and then within the comparatively gentile confines of the Arts and Letters Club—that Smith would find his closest allies in the quest to bring a dose of modern culture to 20th-century Canada.
Formed by Smith in 1899 as a splinter cell organization operating under the umbrella of the much larger Ontario Association of Architects, the Eighteen Club as it was best known, was joined by several among Canada’s leading architects, Henry Sproatt and Ernest A. Rolph among them. Publicly opposed to the Ontario Association of Architect’s mandate to professionalize, and thus close architecture behind a system of regulation and formal training, the Eighteen Club preferred to view architecture as an art and its practitioners as ordained by merit alone.
Though unsuccessful in their aims, the Eighteen Club put a spotlight on the creative idealism inherent to the larger Arts and Crafts movement, placing Smith and his ilk at the centre of a much more significant, albeit abstract, debate within the art community about what it meant to be an artist, architect, and craftsperson.
(Right: Eden Smith c. 1910)
Moving into the early 20th century, Smith’s rise to fame began to approach its zenith. He was Toronto’s architect to the wealthy, powerful, and artistically inclined, and by the end of his career in 1925, he had been responsible for the design and construction of no less than 250 private and public commissions (this figure correlates to the most recent scholarship on Smith which has sought to correct an earlier estimate of 2,500, the larger figure the result of a mistake linked to the architect’s obituary in the Toronto Star) across the city, from High Park to the Beaches, from the Annex to Rosedale, and everywhere in between.
Smith was a dedicated adherent to the anti-modernist principles of the Arts and Crafts movement as originally laid down by the likes of William Morris, namely to build simply and honestly, using only the best natural materials and local craftsmanship available. Taking inspiration from nature and building from the inside out with an eye towards working with, rather than against, the local geography, climate, and materiality, Smith and his fellow practitioners in the Arts and Crafts movement adhered to a distinct set of principles, and they were guided by a firm belief in the inherent aesthetic value of a simplified life achieved through good design.
Starting in the mid-1890s, Smith began building homes, including his own (pictured below) along the eastern edge of High Park. The bucolic setting was the ideal location to begin what would go on to become a highly productive career. Located at 267 Indian Road, the 1896-built Smith family home stands today as the first of two homes designed by and for the architect for himself and his family.
Designed in the “English Cottage” style that eventually came to define much of the architect’s work, Smith’s High Park home is constructed almost entirely of red brick, with the obvious exception of the front and side gables, which have been faced in cedar shingles and Tudor half-timbering and stucco respectively, thus completing the Arts and Crafts aesthetic familiar to the majority of Smith’s vast body of work. Featuring a beautiful, oak-wrapped inglenook fireplace, another key cultural touchstone of the Arts and Crafts tradition, the Smith home has survived today very much in its original configuration, and the craftsmanship and attention to detail are observable from virtually every vantage point, inside and out.
One of the city’s first streetcar suburbs, with a park gifted to the city in 1873 by John George Howard and his wife, High Park was a natural fit for Smith and his like-minded clients and colleagues. The legacy of his early career is easy to spot there for those familiar with his work, and the Smith homes that dot the neighbourhood are all of a truly remarkable character and artistic quality.
After building homes for fellow craftsman William H. Reid and esteemed painter Gustav Hahn along Boustead Avenue, and a handful of others including his own just around the corner, the architect, along with Hahn and several other local artists, made the move to Wychwood Park, where Smith’s legacy remains the strongest.
Conceived in the 1870s by Toronto artist Marmaduke Matthews as a suitable setting for an artist’s colony, Wychwood Park was incorporated into the City of Toronto in 1909. The hidden enclave of winding streets tucked away behind the intersection of Christie and St. Clair West was the perfect spot to house the city’s most artistically inclined residents. A private neighbourhood to this day, Wychwood Park was built up during the years following annexation, and Smith himself was responsible for nearly a dozen homes in the park, including his own, which were designed and built over a period of 17 years from 1906 to 1923.
An idyllic refuge from the hustle and bustle of the modern city, Wychwood Park grew to become a favourite spot for the city’s artists, craftspeople, and cultural elite. More than this, as a picturesque, natural setting, the enclave of artfully designed homes nestled amongst the trees represented the closest approximation of life in the English countryside as could be hoped for within Toronto’s city limits. The careful placement of dozens of Arts and Crafts–inspired homes built in the English cottage style was a testament to the cultural selection and display at work within the neighbourhood. The simple life was thereby commodified as a product tailor-made for the nation’s cultural elite, helped along by an enthusiastic Smith. Wychwood Park was a place where kindred souls could live comfortably both within and without of the city proper.
Wychwood Park became something of a billboard for Smith’s signature Arts and Crafts style. The collection of cleverly designed, well-crafted homes he built there during the best years of his career helped to market his distinctive brand of elegant modernity wrapped in tradition that was at the heart of the Arts and Crafts movement. Smith’s star was rising within the Canadian architectural profession and among the nation’s artists and wealthy patrons of the arts, and Smith was fated to become, by way of his select network of friends and colleagues, a founding member of the Arts and Letters Club. This was a move that would forever change the trajectory not only of his own life and career but also of the direction of Canadian art and architecture for a generation.
Founded in 1908, the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto was begun by a handful of the city’s cultural elite, including an array of Canadian talent encompassing every variety of art, from conductor and musician A. S. Vogt, architects W. A. Langton and Henry Sproatt, and many accomplished artists, including, most notably, every member of what eventually came known to be the Group of Seven. Smith was a founding member of the club, endowed with a crest of his own, and was honoured with the design and construction of the club’s storied stone hearth and mantle.
Smith’s relationship with the Group of Seven in particular was of note. He built their still-extant Studio Building in the Rosedale Ravine, which served the group throughout their early years, in addition to being a space for many others to come enjoy its ample light and picturesque natural setting.
Architect to the stars, as it were, Smith soon became known as a sort of expert on all things design. A feature-length article he wrote about his work published in the first issue of Maclean’s revealed the height of domestic style and taste to an entire generation of middle-class Canadians.
Outside of his many private residential commissions, Smith enjoyed great deal of success in the design of several public buildings, including a handful of churches, such as Grace Church in Forest Hill and St. Thomas’s Anglican Church in the Annex. He also built no less than three Carnegie libraries for the Toronto Public Library, including the Wychwood, Beaches, and High Park branches, all designed between 1915 and 1916.
Working as he did for many of the city’s premiere craftspeople, artists, and educated, wealthy, men and women of letters, Smith’s instinct for design and most importantly his devotion to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement placed him at the nexus of power, prestige, and popular taste. His affiliation with the Group of Seven, for example, served to ally the architect to a collection of work that virtually overnight became among the most iconic manifestations of modern Canadian art ever to be produced.
Similar to his own meteoric professional trajectory, the fate of the Group of Seven had been largely sealed by their many fruitful connections within the Arts and Letters Club, among them the founders of the Art Gallery of Toronto (later the AGO). These connections were directly responsible for the group’s now legendary 1920 Canadian debut, followed only a few short years later by their absolute triumph as the Canadian darlings of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. although the Group of Seven quickly became household names, Smith, in the business of building households, would see his own fame rise more subtly. His contribution to making modern Canada is, however, not diminished by the difference in notoriety.
His impressive body of work aside—Smith designed no less than 250 commissions over the course of his 30-year career—Toronto’s premiere Arts and Crafts architect never quite reached the dizzying heights of fame gained by his contemporaries. There is no equivalent to Union Station, Old City Hall, or the Royal York Hotel attributed to Smith’s name. For while it is true that Smith’s oeuvre lacks an extraordinary showpiece, his impact on the fabric of the city is a vast, interconnected family of smaller works, which helped set the character and tone of upper-middle-class life at the outset of the 20th century.
Beyond the character-steeped English cottages of High Park, Rosedale, and Wychwood Park, the sturdy stone churches, and elegant Arts and Crafts–inspired libraries, Smith was responsible for a small handful of unusual one-off structures that, despite their innocuous appearance, played a role in shaping the modern city. The first is the aforementioned Studio Building designed and built for the Group of Seven, and the second of Smith’s most culturally significant creations were the twin public housing estates built respectively as Spruce Court and Riverdale Court, still standing today in Toronto’s downtown east end.
The brainchild of the newly formed Toronto Housing Company [THC] in 1913, whose board included a handful of Smith’s acquaintances from the Arts and Letters Club, the concept of building affordable public housing for the working-class poor was a shining moment for the fledgling Progressive Era that would continue to blossom into the 1920s. Smith won the commission equally due to his well-established architectural talents and his wealth of high-society connections, and the well-heeled THC board members needed to look no further than the homes of themselves and their closest friends for proof of Smith’s merit.
Designed in the Arts and Crafts tradition and originally described as “cottage flats,” the well-built apartments and town homes that make up Spruce Court and Riverdale Court (Bain Co-Op as it is known today), feature hardwood floors, fireplaces, efficient layouts, and more than enough room—thanks to the addition of cheery sunrooms and an inviting grassy inner courtyard for all to enjoy—to make living there more than pleasant for the dozens of individuals and families who call the twin developments home. Tucked away between historic Cabbagetown and today’s Regent Park, and adjacent to the sprawling public green space of Riverdale Park, Eden Smith’s pioneering efforts into the noble cause of affordable housing in Toronto are among the architect’s greatest accomplishments. They were designed by to be “homes for the people,” as they were once proudly declared by the newly created THC. Spruce and Riverdale Courts kickstarted a century of discussion and debate over public housing, a topic which owes its roots in this city to the plans put into action by one of Toronto’s most underrated architects.
Smith’s impact on the architectural character and built heritage of Toronto, not to mention his distinctive, multifaceted cultural influence as a shaper of ideas among his luminary colleagues and professional contemporaries in the nation’s nascent arts scene, cannot be overstated. Smith remained true to his Arts and Crafts roots over his bright, 30-year career, and he worked without ostentation or an overabundance of self-promotion. His life’s work beautifully captures the essence of the movement to which Smith had been faithfully allied with since his days as a student in Birmingham, and the words and wisdom of William Morris stayed with Smith to the end. His long life came to a close in 1949 when the long-retired architect, then 90 years of age, passed away surrounded by his extended family on a farmstead outside of Guelph.
From High Park to the Beaches, from the Annex to his beloved Wychwood Park, Smith’s Arts and Crafts legacy has remained a stalwart anchor and marker of taste within every neighbourhood and community graced with one of his architectural creations. Notable for their hidden entrances, unusual floor plans, and elegant use of natural materials arranged for the benefit of those most comfortable in a new land with a modern take on the traditional English cottage, Smith’s homes, once a curiosity worthy of mention on early 20-century tours of the city, soon became a highly coveted designer good. Toronto’s architect to the stars was able to promote his name in the minds of those equipped to forever change the trajectory of Canada during the transformative first decades of the 20th century.
Well-liked, well-connected, and highly sought after for his talents, the enigmatic Smith, despite his reputation as a high-minded stickler and Arts and Crafts idealist, was never too far out of reach to allow his career to suffer. His impressive plethora of private and public commissions is a testament to his broad appeal, and beyond the many private homes he designed and built, Smith’s provision of a permanent home and studio for the Group of Seven, along with his many churches and libraries, allowed the public to experience what in many ways became the de facto national style of Canadian architecture first-hand.
A Tory for life, albeit a compassionate one, and at heart an artist, architect, and designer first and foremost, Smith’s contribution to the architectural heritage of this city is in many ways summed up in his efforts in conjunction with the Toronto Housing Company, his Spruce and Riverdale Courts standing today as a testament to his belief in the power of good design and planning to alleviate the everyday problems of living in the modern world. Through his impressive body of work, those of us living in large cities today can take many lessons from Smith, and his devotion to his craft and to the principles of good design. Craftsmanship and design can easily be lost amidst the dizzying pace of development that cities as vibrant and fortunate as Toronto undergo, but hopefully the city will incorporate them into architecture and planning in the years to come.
Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.