Changing perception of apartments through the years

  • History   Thursday, June 9, 2022   Hayden Bulbrook
The York Apartments, July 1984.

The York Apartments, July 1984.

The 1920s are challenged only by the 1950s as a decade that ushered rapid modernity with amenities that have become common today. After all, vacuums, radios, and hair dryers were accessible consumer items by the 1920s. It brought forth another, more unnoticed phenomenon which, prior to this era, had only a minimal presence in Canadian cities. This was the apartment building. Commonplace now - and ubiquitous, often in the form of drab 1960s and 70s tower complexes - apartments are sometimes looked down upon in a society driven on ownership of detached housing. Aren’t apartments often the homes of the lower strata, the pension-less senior, or the labouring immigrant? Yes, and they provide shelter for these people who deserve to live with dignity.

Early apartments often served a different clientele and were criticized for different reasons. Historian Richard Dennis wrote, apartments “were condemned as insanitary, anti-family, and a threat to established property values, undermining ‘cities of homes’ both morally and economically.” In particular, critics observed that roof gardens, staircases, and elevators were ambiguous spaces that lacked privacy. Living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms on one level were thought to invite promiscuity. 

Yet, apartments in the 1920s symbolized both “modernity and cosmopolitan sophistication” and in other circles, they were “praised for their efficiency and appropriateness for new types of households leading new lifestyles.” Particularly for women, apartments offered a modern lifestyle with less focus on domestic roles to serve a large family and more time spent on consumption and recreation. The presence of apartments in Canadian cities was increasing. By 1928, apartments comprised 26 percent of expenditures for residential construction in Canada. 

The York Apartments was constructed in 1928 by architects Baldwin & Greene of Toronto. This firm was the result of a 1924 partnership between Lawrence Counsell Martin Baldwin and Gerald Elliot Denbigh Greene that lasted until 1933 when the Great Depression removed them to obscurity. Greene was a designer and structural engineer, having worked for William Steele & Sons in Toronto from 1919 to 1924. It is likely that he provided structural engineering expertise for the York Apartments. Baldwin had a more traditional architectural background having studied at the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science between 1909 and 1913. He then worked for leading Toronto architectural firm Sproatt & Rolph before opening his own office in 1921.

Atlas Finance & Development Co. of 1126 Bay St. in Toronto financed and built the apartment with subcontracts for masonry and carpentry awarded to Stratford’s J.L. Young. The York Apartments’ construction came with a price tag of $75,000. This apartment, which would have been quite luxurious for its time, offered 18 suites spread across four storeys. 

In 1928, the Contract Record and Engineering Review announced plans on behalf of Atlas Finance for a number of sibling apartment buildings designed by Baldwin & Greene. These included apartments in Brantford, Kitchener, London, and Peterborough. Only the Brantford and Kitchener apartments were referred to as York Apartments. While it is unclear if all of these were, in fact, constructed and if so, whether or not they are still standing, a larger York Apartments – a big brother, if you will – can be found in downtown Kitchener on the corner of Queen Street South at Church Street.

Although in a small city, Stratford’s York Apartments did seem to serve a sophisticated white collar class. In 1929, dwellers included a doctor, two engineers, two managers, and even an air pilot. Perhaps one can imagine if the lifestyles of the dwellers in Stratford have resembled the characters of a John Cheever story. Did a radio allow a Jim and Irene Westcott to eavesdrop on their neighbours here? Still in use today, the York Apartments are a fine indicator of early 20th century apartments in Stratford.