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News 3 months ago

Portia White: The Legacy of a Singing Sensation

Think of the historic houses in your neighbourhood – perhaps the old Snider House in Lytton Park, the Lamb House in Cabbagetown, or Jane Jacobs’ house in the Annex. In recalling these historic homes – often recognizable thanks to their trademark plaques standing guard out front – we often think of those designed for prominent families, or ones that were inhabited for a long period of time by a person of textbook-affirmed historical significance. And, whether we mean to or not, we ascribe value to our city’s historic homes based on the length of a particularly notable occupant’s tenure, or whether they were the first to inhabit the house.

Alex Corey

In a city as dynamic and transient as Toronto, however, the idea that a house can only gain historic value by being the birthplace or long-time residence of someone of conventional historic importance, or perhaps by having been built for a family of prestige, may lead us to overlook some of the more interesting stories and people that inhabited the walls of these remarkable homes – equally remarkable people, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

Take, for example, the contralto, concert singer and teacher, Portia White (1911-1968), the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim, and whose short-but-no-less-significant history here in Toronto can be told through two homes she lived in ¬– the first in South Rosedale, and the second on Upper Jarvis.

Born in Truro, Nova Scotia, Portia was the daughter of a pastor, and learned to sing at church in Halifax under her mother’s direction. During the depression in the 1930s, she took voice lessons at the Halifax Conservatory of Music, while also teaching in the historically Black communities of Africvile and Lucasville.

In 1941, Portia was invited to perform at the Eaton Auditorium (now known as the Carlu, after Jacques Carlu, the architect responsible for its striking Art Deco design) by Edith Read, then principal of the prestigious Branksome Hall all-girls private school, after Read had heard Portia sing in Halifax.

Portia White’s concert in Toronto received high acclaim and was the subject of rave reviews in both The Globe and Mail and The Evening Telegram. Word of her enchanting voice – described as a “coloured and beautifully shaded contralto…a natural voice, a gift from heaven” – quickly spread, and ultimately led to cross-country and international tours, where she sang a mix of European classical music and African American spirituals.

Just a few years later, in 1944, Portia was the first Canadian to be invited to perform at New York City’s Town Hall, a performance that was described as “remarkable” by The New York Times, and one that spurred additional tours through the United States, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Europe.

In 1952 Portia made what must have been a difficult decision to leave her home in Nova Scotia and move permanently to Toronto to begin studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music, which she helped to finance by teaching voice lessons.

Through city directories, we know that when she arrived Portia moved to a second-floor apartment at 100 Carlton Street, a house that formerly stood just west of Jarvis. Soon after, however, she moved in with her good friend, Edith Read – the Principal of Branksome Hall who had invited her to sing at the Eaton Auditorium a decade earlier – at the Principal’s Residence at 16 Elm Avenue, in Rosedale. Built in 1898, the house was designed in the “Annex Style,” a blend of Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne Revival that features prominently in the Annex neighbourhood, but certainly wasn’t limited to its boundaries.

Portia White performing with the Ron Collier Quintet (CBC Archives)

Branksome Hall occupies a collection of architecturally significant late-19th-century houses – stitched together along with the addition of newer buildings. I like to think of Portia walking out the arched front door of 16 Elm Avenue and into the neighbouring homes that housed the prestigious girls’ school to teach her vocal classes, before returning to 16 Elm for private lessons. It was during this period while living at 16 Elm Avenue that Portia passed her knowledge and expertise in vocalization and singing to a new generation of Canadian artists, including the actress Dinah Christie, the jazz-vocalist Anne Marie Moss, and the performers Lorne Greene, Don Francks and Robert Goulet, laying the foundation for a musical legacy that would live on for generations to come.

Despite having enjoyed international acclaim, Portia undoubtedly faced racism and discrimination here in Toronto, as well as on tour. According to her niece and historian, Sheila White, the challenges Portia faced as a Black singer did not impede her, though. According to the younger White, she was “used to it, or didn’t acknowledge it, or didn’t recognize it. She always carried herself with great dignity and never once complained about racism.” Through sheer tenacity and perseverance, Portia created an independent life for herself in Toronto. By 1959, she had moved out of Ms. Read’s house and into her own apartment, a one-bedroom unit in the newly constructed “Bloorville Square” complex, on the west side of Jarvis Street between Isabella and Charles.

Alex Corey

Bloorville Square is a complex of three yellow brick apartment “houses” built in 1958, each one named after an old Toronto family: Massey, Mulock and Cawthra – a bit of a paradox, given that many of its residents would have been newly arrived residents to the city. The complex was designed in the International Style by Bregman + Hamann Architects and was touted as offering “the ultimate in convenience and gracious living” (The Globe and Mail, Apr 11, 1958) during a period when many of the large mansions that lined Jarvis were being replaced by apartment buildings.

As a single Black woman living alone in downtown Toronto, Portia was part of a wave of independent, often unmarried, professionals to whom buildings like this were catering at the time – a shift reflective of changing societal attitudes, and Toronto’s growing metropolitan status. Although retired from performing at this stage in her life, in 1964, while living at the Massey Apartments, Portia briefly came out of retirement when she was invited to sing for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in Charlottetown. Portia’s final performance, in 1967 at the World Baptist Federation in Ottawa, came shortly before her passing away from cancer, in 1968.

The Eaton Auditorium (later, The Carlu) in 1931

 

From her initial arrival in this city landing in a second-floor apartment on Carlton, to her position as a teacher living in the principal’s residence at 16 Elm Avenue, to her final years settled into her own apartment at Bloorville Square, Portia White’s story here in Toronto traces a path so many others have traversed. Perhaps never living in anyone place for too long, moving through the city as life changes, but, like so many Torontonians, the houses that Portia called home reflect her personal story and are the stage from which we can try to understand her life here in Toronto.

Portia never produced any studio recordings; however, her voice can be heard in several concert recordings, including this one, digitized by the National Archives of Canada and released by her family in the early 2000’s:

 

 

Author’s Note
The author gratefully acknowledges that research for this post came from a number of sources, including Black Past, an online resource dedicated to African American history and that of other people of African ancestry, as well as the Canadian Encyclopedia, the CBC Archives, and the Portia White Exhibit website.

Black Past: https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/white-portia-1911-1968/
Portia White Exhibit: http://www.portiawhite.ca/
Canadian Encyclopedia: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/portia-white-emc

SOURCES
The portrait of Portia White is from the Canadian Encyclopedia:
Portia White, Contralto, teacher, 15 January 1946. Photo by Yousuf Karsh, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-192783
The photo of the foyer of the Eaton Auditorium, in 1931 (the year Portia performed there) is from the Archives of Ontario: F 229-308-0-61
The photo of Portia performing is from the CBC Archives as she performed with the Ron Collier Quintet

 


About the Author

Alex Corey’s passion for real estate is grounded in an appreciation for home, history and community. He brings 10 years of experience in architecture and heritage conservation to his current position in real estate with the Heaps Estrin Team, and holds a master’s degree from Columbia University in historic preservation.

Growing up in Rosedale and Moore Park, Alex developed a fascination with the area’s houses and streets, a passion and admiration that has since extended to neighbourhoods across Toronto. He can often be found exploring Toronto’s ravines, walking with his dog, Billie, in his neighbourhood of Cabbagetown or seeking out the city’s hidden historic gems.

 

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