By Deidre Miller…
Cabbagetown and Strathbungo are both Victorian neighbourhoods that saw dark days in the mid-twentieth century. They were adopted by renovators, many of them creative professionals, in the 1970s and 1980s and were returned to their past glory. Now, they are civic-minded, mixed income communities in diverse areas, both around a half hour’s walk from a city centre and well connected to public transit. They’re the kind of medium-density, mixed use neighbourhoods that Jane Jacobs liked, with a higher population density than modern suburbs, but still built to a human scale.
For neighbourhoods on opposite sides of an ocean, Cabbagetown and Strathbungo have quite a bit in common. However, architecturally, they reflect their cities’ histories and the building traditions in their regions.
A Few Definitions
In Glasgow, a tenement is simply a three to six storey multi-residential building. A similar building in Toronto would be called a low-rise apartment building. What Brits call terraced houses (or just terraces) are usually called townhouses in Canada. A semi-detached house is often called a duplex in North America.
Cabbagetown is a neighbourhood of detached and semi-detached houses and apartments built starting in the early 1800s and continuing through the very early twentieth century. Cabbagetown wasn’t rooted in the work of a famous architect or developed by only a few builders. Its architecture is vernacular, and it reflects the residential design trends in nineteenth century Toronto.
From classic Queen Anne and second empire homes to more regional styles like worker’s cottages and bay & gable duplexes and townhouses, Cabbagetown is a paradise of Victorian architecture. Cabbagetown’s newer, late nineteenth and early twentieth century houses are in the arts and crafts tradition.
Wood and clay brick are the most plentiful native building materials in Ontario, and the construction of Cabbagetown’s houses reflects that. In particular, many of them make decorative use of red and white brick, complex coursing and raised patterns. This type of ornamental brickwork is one of the most distinctive characteristics of traditional Toronto architecture.
Many Cabbagetown houses feature steeply pitched roofs with peaked dormers and have a narrow, vertical look and feel. The larger homes often have four floors, including the basement. This higher density, more vertical construction is what distinguishes the houses in Cabbagetown from the Victorian homes that are typical to small towns and rural areas in Ontario and the surrounding Canadian provinces and U.S. states. Cabbagetown architecture is an early example of a specifically urban strand of Canadian design, and many of the forms seen in Cabbagetown have been carried into the twentieth century and beyond in Toronto.
Cabbagetown is also known for its hidden gardens and for the small houses that sometimes front onto its laneways. Unusually for Toronto, its street grid is more of a suggestion than a solid fact. There are narrow roads, roads that aren’t straight, one way streets and cul-de-sacs. On sunny days, it’s full of people walking dogs, jogging and admiring the gardens.
Cabbagetown borders on Riverdale Farm, a working Victorian Farm that’s been preserved for teaching and entertainment, and on the 42 hectare Riverdale Park to the east. The park and farm span the Don Valley and connect Cabbagetown to Riverdale, the neighbourhood on the other side.
Strathbungo’s buildings date to between 1859 and 1930. In 1859, Alexander “Greek” Thompson’s first block of terraces was erected on Moray Place. In the mid to late nineteenth century, more terraces were added to the side streets and tenements were constructed along Pollokshaws Road. In the 1920s, the red sandstone terraces on the southwest side of Strathbungo were built, and that finished it. It was a series of planned developments, and it’s much more architecturally consistent than Cabbagetown.
All of the houses and tenements in Strathbungo are constructed of one to two foot thick load-bearing sandstone masonry, and most have slate roofs. Typical of Glasgow, the older buildings are yellow sandstone and the newer buildings, starting in the 1890s, were built of red sandstone. Glasgow had exhausted its yellow sandstone quarries by the turn of the twentieth century and had to turn to quarries further to the north, where the stone was red. The buildings in Strathbungo are heavy, dignified and for the most part, lightly ornamented on the exterior.
Glasgow was a wealthy and dynamic city when they were built, and Strathbungo’s terraces and tenements reflect that. The interiors are richly detailed with sculptural plaster cornices, woodwork, and ornate fireplaces.
Strathbungo, like Cabbagetown, is known for its laneways. Strathbungo’s lanes still have their original stone cobbles, and brick walls enclose the houses’ private gardens and the tenements’ shared yards. Strathbungo borders on the northern edge of Queen’s Park, a magnificent, 60 hectare example of Victorian landscape architecture. Queen’s Park is in the centre of a vast sea of fully intact Victorian neighbourhoods, including The Shawlands, Battlefield, Langside, Govanhill and Crosshill.
The Old and the New
Currently, Glasgow’s residential highrises bear little resemblance to the exuberant modern skyscrapers that have been spouting up like dandelions along Lake Ontario and the Yonge Street subway line in Toronto. Are shiny, modern highrises the wave of the future in Glasgow too? Perhaps to some extent, but planners, builders and architects would be wise to learn from the long term success of attractive, well constructed medium density neighbourhoods like Strathbungo and Cabbagetown.
Good access to public transport, walkability and easily accessible supermarkets, shops, pubs and restaurants add immeasurably to quality of life. The energy, engagement and diversity of these neighbourhoods makes it clear that they are more than just fragments of the past. They may also be models for the future.
Deidre Miller is an engineer with an architecture degree who has lived in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and worked in building design, evaluation and regulation.