The Dorchester Apartments may not immediately catch your eye. The somewhat unassuming, mid-century, yellow-brick building tucked away behind a majestic row of oak trees along Farnham Avenue may in fact appear somewhat ordinary as compared with some of its more ornate architectural counterparts that line this stretch of Avenue Road – an area known for being home to some of Toronto’s best examples of 20th century apartment houses. However, looks can be deceiving.
Constructed in 1940 by an enterprising architectural duo, The Dorchester was one of the first residential apartments in Toronto designed in a modernist style, making it an architectural pioneer in this city. It was also once home to two sisters from a legendary Canadian family –Evlyn and Florence were heiresses of the famed Eatons. For many reasons – some related to their legacy, but many others that were not – the sisters led remarkable lives, set against the backdrop of some equally remarkable homes. Here, we will take look at their stories, as well as some of the residences they called home, paying particular attention to the deceptively unassuming Dorchester Apartments.
Florence Mary Eaton was born in Toronto in 1919 to Lady Flora and Sir John Craig Eaton. She was the youngest of five children and the only girl born to the couple. Already well-established as one of Canada’s most influential – and wealthiest – families, the Eatons had under John and Flora established strong ties to Europe, primarily through business connections in England and frequent vacations to Florence and Cannes during the winter. Following John’s untimely death in 1921, Flora continued the tradition of traveling to France with her children in tow. It was during their winter vacation in 1924 that Flora adopted Evlyn Beatrice Eaton, a four-year-old girl whose background is presently unknown, and who was adopted into the family in part to serve as a companion for five year old Florence.
Returning to Toronto, the two girls were raised at Lady Eaton’s Georgian-style mansion, Ardwold, located just east of Casa Loma atop the Davenport escarpment and overlooking the city to the south. Built in 1910 and designed by the architectural firm of Wickson & Gregg, the property spanned eleven acres, with the main house containing 50 rooms, 14 bathrooms, a conservatory, pool and its very own hospital, an homage to Flora’s early history as a nurse. When built, Ardwold was arguably the most luxurious private residence in Canada, and served as much as a home as it did an event venue for dignitaries, business, social events and fundraisers.
When not in residence at Ardwold or traveling to Europe, Florence and Evlyn spent summers at Kawandag, an opulent cottage residence on the shores of Lake Rosseau in Muskoka. Taken from the Ojibway language and translated to “the meeting place of the pines,” the cottage, like their city house Ardwold, was designed by Wickson & Gregg, and was built in similar Georgian Revival style, complete with towering columns, elegant French doors that swung open to bring the outside in, rows of balusters and long colonnades. Sold by the Eaton’s in the 1940s, Kawandag was later converted to a private school, the building unfortunately falling victim to fire and destroyed in 1972.
The constant travel between Ardwold, Kawandag, and winters in Cannes was undoubtedly trying on the family, leading to the decision by Lady Eaton in the early 1930s to leave Canada and take up full-time residence at the Villa
Natalia in Florence, Italy, while the six children attended boarding school in Europe. Florence and Evlyn were first enrolled at Moira House in Eastbourne, England, followed by a year spent at Villa Malatesta, a finishing school for young women in Florence. The sisters’ time in Europe culminated with their presentation at the Royal Court of King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1938, an event that was no doubt hard-won by Lady Flora who determinedly sought to entrench her six children in what was then a quickly fading British aristocratic milieu.
While on the surface this lifestyle and upbringing – one defined by opulent homes, private tutors, and first-class ocean liner travel – might suggest Evlyn and Florence were detached from the realities of life back home in Canada during the Great Depression, their actions suggest otherwise. Following their return to Canada at the outset of World War II, Florence attempted to enlist in the war effort and return to Europe, a plan thwarted by her disapproving mother-in-law, according to sources, however she would still serve as a volunteer truck driver for the Canadian Red Cross, a passion and association that continued throughout her adult life.
In 1936, after all of her children had reached adulthood and no longer in need of such an extravagant house, Flora Eaton sold the sprawling Ardwold estate and relocated to her new country home, the equally-impressive Eaton Hall, located the small community of King City. Without their childhood house to call home, Evlyn and Florence took up residence upon their return to Toronto in a spacious apartment at The Dorchester at 150 Farnham Avenue, on the corner of Avenue Road. The Dorchester had just been completed and was one of the first apartment houses in Toronto built in the new Moderne Style. It was designed by the newly established architectural collaboration of Henry Morgan and J.E. Asheton Smith, both of whom had graduated from the University of Toronto’s architecture school in 1936. Interestingly, the property already had strong connections to the Eaton family – it was previously home to Robert Wellington Eaton, a cousin-in-law of Flora’s, who had constructed a grand mansion on the property, later sold in by his widow in the 1930s, following his death and demolished.
Such an avant-garde style of architecture was unusual in Toronto at the time, which was much more comfortable in the revivalist styles that define many of our early 20th century neighbourhoods (Queen Anne, Georgian, and Tudor, namely). Comprising two wings that embrace a deep central courtyard, The Dorchester contains none of the trappings of these historic revival architectural styles. The exterior is minimally embellished, with the striking yellow brick serving as the prevailing material. The façade is articulated by subtle windowsills and lintels, stitched together to emphasize the building’s horizontality, recessed corner bays with striking corner windows – a relatively new and modern technology – and the playful porthole windows stacked above the courtyard entrance. These subtle and ahistorical elements suggest the architects wanted to inject some fun into the building’s design, using small details that elicit a longer look and that spark your imagination, whether it be wondering how those corner windows support the weight above, or noting the ocean liner aesthetic so characteristic of the roaring 1920s and Deco architecture but that was quickly fading as the century progressed.
I’d like to think their brief stay at The Dorchester was a moment of freedom for 20-year-old Evlyn and Florence, and a capstone to a life largely spent under the watchful eye of Lady Flora and their instructors. From growing up at Ardwold, Kawandag and Villa Natalia, through their years at finishing schools in Europe and being presented together at the Royal Court, Evlyn and Florence had been in lockstep, living the same but different lives. In one account Florence is quoted as saying “We had our private language. I really don’t think anyone could understand us. We developed our own language between English, French, and Italian. It was a protection against the adults.” Whether real or implied, the private language shared by siblings transcends bloodlines, spans hardships and stitches together individuals who might, from an outside perspective, be very different from one another.
In 1940 Florence married Frank Flavelle McEachren, a grandson of the industrialist Sir Joseph Flavelle, and in 1943 Evlyn would marry Russell Talbot Payton, of Ottawa. Both Evlyn and Florence individually accomplished so much after marriage – Evlyn became a well-known if under-recognized painter, depicting scenes of rural life and displayed in shows here in Toronto and New York. Florence remained deeply involved with the Red Cross and continued to serve as a transport driver, along with various other charitable organizations. As the two sisters took vastly different paths and formed their own perspectives and opinions, it’s hard to believe that they weren’t still both guided by their shared experiences growing up and that culminated in their brief stay together at The Dorchester. Having had a somewhat similar experience – although far less glamorous! – living with my sister while we both attended university, I’d like to think I can somewhat understand how Evlyn and Florence’s shared home at The Dorchester, and their first step into their independent adult lives, might have marked an important milestone for both sisters as they each embarked on their own unique journeys.
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.