History of Summerhill

Historic Summerhill - Photos and Stories

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Summer Hill

1842 - 1913

Charles Thompson was, in the 1830's, a popular driver of four-horse stagecoaches on the Toronto-Newmarket line. At the same time he operated two steamboats on­ regular service among ports on Lake Simcoe. His Holland Landing Cruises were so popular that in 1840, he bought William Weller's stage-line and operated his stages on a schedule to meet his lake steamers. Yonge Street south of Yorkville was so swampy at the time that Thompson's lumbering stages had to detour east from his Church Street office to Parliament Street, then north to the gates of Necropolis Cemetery, by a farm lane to the head of Jarvis Street, then along Bloor Street to Yonge, finally turning north. They left at twelve noon and arrived at Holland Landing at seven in the evening, having changed horses every fifteen miles. The springless coach, slung on leather straps, was jolted so violently by the ruts and stones in the road that passengers were advised to keep their hats on to avoid bruising when they hit the roof! If not bruised, they were likely to be seasick.

With the freight and mail contract, Thompson's line prospered and he invested in land on the east side of Yonge Street north of St. Clair Avenue. He also bought lot 17, a two hundred acre lot also on the east side of Yonge but immediately south of Walter Rose's land Rosehill , which was the first lot south of St. Clair. Thompson's lots extended a mile and a quarter east to the concession line, now Bayview Avenue, and had a quarter mile frontage on Yonge Street. He had been living in Holland Landing, but when his house burned down, Thompson decided to move to the Toronto area.

The house was designed in 1842 by John George Howard, the architect best known today for Colborne Lodge. It faced west and was built some distance back from Yonge Street on a hill towards the north end of the property. A deep ravine cut through  the land just east of the house. The house itself was a large brick block, almost square, of two storeys with a shallow roof, massive chimneys and a modest gable in the centre of the front elevation. There were three large windows across the front of the second storey, and three on each side. The only unusual feature was the way in which the front corners of the house appeared to have been cut off, leaving a diagonal wall with an extra window at each corner, in both storeys.The eaves were wide and bracketed. The interior of the house was a centre hall plan, with an extremely large drawing room with a fireplace at each end.

The coming of the Northern Railway in 1853 ruined Thompson's stage line - the railway now carried the passengers, mail, and freight upon which Thompson's line had depended. But Thompson retained his lake steamers, and turned to various other enterprises. Although he had to sell off large sections of his land, he established an amusement park on his home property, which people began to call Thompson's Park.

Thompson used his stagecoaches to transport his customers from the end of the city line at Yorkville to his park, charging twenty-five cents a person for the ride and admission to the pavilion. Many people considered this charge excessive, but the park was popular and well patronized by picnickers and young people. One amusement was a long swing in the shape of a boat, which could hold two or three people at each end, and which rocked back and forth, suspended from heavy chains between two giant oak trees. Attractive paths led down to the clear running stream spanned by a narrow wooden footbridge at the bottom of the ravine. But the main attraction of the park was the dance pavilion - the long drawing room of Thompson 's house had been converted into a dance hall, where various entertainments were held for the public's enjoyment. Thompson soon changed the name of the park to Summer Hill Spring Park and Pleasure Grounds, and the road leading into the park, known for a while as Thompson Avenue, was later changed to Summerhill Avenue.

In 1866 the Summer Hill property, now consisting of about seventy-five acres, was bought by Larratt William Smith, a witty barrister, who had been born in 1820 in Devonshire , England. His father had taken the family to Richmond Hill in the 1820s, and Larratt had been a boarder at Upper Canada College, later attend­ ing King's College, the forerunner of the University of Toronto. He became a prominent lawyer, a militia officer, president of Consumers' Gas Comp8,ny, director of numerous companies and vice chancellor of the University. Larratt married twice, the first time in 1845 to Eliza Caroline, daughter of Staff Surgeon Thom of Perth , Ontario. There were two children, one of whom died in infancy, and a son who died from exposure during the Fenian Raids. Eliza died in 1851. Then in 1858 Larratt married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of James F. Smith, a Toronto merchant . Elizabeth  had nursed both Larratt and his first wife through severe illnesses . This second marriage resulted in eleven children, ten of whom lived to maturity.

Larratt Smith, Q.C., LL.D., enlarged and greatly improved Summer Hill, which had a splendid view over the lake from its vantage point on the hill. The white lodge house and gate were built south and east of the house, near modern Summerhill Avenue. The gravelled driveway was laid to the front of the house and around to the back, making a complete circle. The property now consisted of about fifty acres, part of which was under cultivation, on the west side of the ravine, the ravine itself, and twenty-five acres on the east side. The dance pavilion of Summer Hill was given its original role as drawing room. Of noble proportions (more than sixty feet long and nearly thirty feet wide), the room's floor was covered by a rich and colourful Persian carpet. Tall mirrors in ornate gilded frames hung above the twin fireplaces at the east and west ends of the room . The dining room, with adjoining pantry, and a small morning room were behind the library, which was at the front of the house on the north side. The kitchen was probably in the basement.

As his family grew, Larratt continually made additions to the house until there were nearly thirty rooms extending almost to the stables at the east end. A large new wing added to the back of the house contained an enormous kitchen, with two large stoves, a sculler, storerooms, maids' sitting room and summer kitchen . A wide baize door opened from the old part to the new wing. The front part of the second storey contained five family bedrooms, including the huge master bedroom which had a dressing room and bathroom en suite. The new wing in the rear contained the nursery, childrens' rooms and maids' quarters. In effect, Summer Hill was two houses joined together. Each part had its own furnace in its own cellar, consuming a total of thirty-five tons of coal every winter. A large verandah extended across the front and along the sides of the house. Since it stood on the side of a hill, there was a high space beneath the verandah on the south side, where the children played on rainy days. Long French windows opened to the verandah from the library and drawing room.

Summer Hill had no architectural pretentions, but it was an attractive house, noted for its warm hospitality. There were never fewer than fifteen adults seated at the huge dining room table on a Sunday, while numerous children and grand­ children sat at a separate table in the window. Larratt Smith, though a busy man, was a genial host who always had time for family entertainment. His grand­ children still remember how he delighted to dress as Santa Claus, handing out Christmas presents (and terrifying the younger children). Summer Hill was an idyllic place for children. The boys all became boarders at Upper Canada College on King Street, but had plenty of time to enjoy the former amusement park . Birds of all kinds abounded, as Larratt forbade shooting even of partridges. Large fruit orchards stood in front of the house, while butternut trees and gardens containing every vegetable and fruit grew on the property. A wooden barn stood north of the house along with a brick coach house and stable containing horses and ponies . The coachman had his own comfortable house across the ravine.

Best of all was the ravine . In winter there was glorious coasting down the long hills, and in summer there was fishing and swimming in the clear stream which was a branch of the Don River. The boys built a stone dam across a small waterfall in the stream to form a good swimming pool. They caught fish and made bonfires beneath the willows beside the stream, where they cooked and ate their catch. Farther up the stream, a more solid stone dam had been built over a waterfall, forming a pond to supply water to Summer Hill. A hydraulic pump, called a "ram,"pumped the water up the hill to a large tank at the top of the house, making a great racket. However, it was much worse when all was peaceful and quiet, for it meant that either the dam had burst, emptying the pool, or that the pump had broken down again. A good supply of water on a hill was always a problem, and in the spring the water tended to be muddy. The Smith family tried a well, a spring, and in later years a leak from the reservoir, but frequently had to buy water carted from the city in barrels. In 1872 the City of Toronto bought a large piece of land in the north-west section of Summer Hill for a reservoir. When Larratt Smith sold the land, he stipulated that it must always be maintained as a public park. An entrance to Reservoir Park was pened some years later from Summerhill Avenue, west of the house.

Originally the address of Summer Hill was York Township, then it was Yorkville. After the annexation of Yorkville in 1883, it was known as the "north side of  Summerhill Avenue.'' In  1890 it became 94 Summerhill  Avenue which was finally changed three years later to 96. The east side of Yonge Street up to St.Clair Avenue was annexed to the city in 1903.

Larratt  Smith died  in  1905. His widow  and  a  number  of  his  large  family remained at Summer Hill until 1911. When they went to Europe, the house remained vacant for a time. Donald J. Sellers, of Sellers-Gough furriers, bought the property,  but  the  house  was  not  occupied. About  1913 J. J. Vaughan, an ex-sergeant of police who had already subdivided other property in the St. Clair Avenue area to the west, bought Summer Hill. He demolished the old house, built houses and small apartment buildings, and sold off the land, piece by piece. Some of the houses which Larratt Smith had built near the lodge gate as rentals were now sold, including the white, clapboarded lodge house which had been occupied for many years. It was demolished around 1952.

The picturesque yellow brick coach house with stone facing still survives in the rear of 38 Summerhill Gardens. George Scroggie has owned the house and coach house since 1928, using the lower part of the coach house as a double garage. The upper part has been converted into a spacious office for an architect, and a studio for a sculptor. Summerhill Gardens, winding in a crescent south and east of the old house, is like a little village, many of its occupants having been there since its early days. Summerhill now means a subway station, as well as a new luxury apartment tower over the subway, but it once referred to a hospitable house in a delightful park. Today a large part of David A. Balfour Park lies on Summer Hill land, and a wide busy thoroughfare, Mount Pleasant Road, cuts through the old Summer Hill Spring Park and Pleasure Grounds.