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At Norris Crescent: Ormscliffe Estate



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The main house at Ormscliffe, a Queen Anne-style beauty built in 1909 for metal manufacturer Albert Benjamin Ormsby, is at the heart of the estate.

Leslie Scrivener Feature Writer

Hidden behind the apartments of the Amedeo Garden Court are remnants of the age of elegance: Ormscliffe, a rare Edwardian-era property that has survived modern development.

"It is the last great Mimico Beach estate," says Michael Harrison, who grew up nearby and argues the site should be preserved intact.

The estate, or parts of it, is now threatened with demolition as the owners redevelop the property that fronts Lake Ontario. The plan is not finalized but will include rental apartments and condos, some mid-rise but some up to 45 storeys.

In the 1950s, Amedeo Longo, the current owners' grandfather, built six brick low-rise apartments on the site, preserving Ormscliffe and other old buildings among the newer ones.

The main house, a Queen Anne-style beauty built in 1909 for metal manufacturer Albert Benjamin Ormsby, is at the heart of the estate. Occupied by tenants, it's now worn down and trailing with vines.

Dino and Larry Longo, the brothers who run Longo Development Corp., say they've had to get their head around the heritage aspects of the property. But they've hired a heritage architect and recognize that the main house and garden are of significance. The other five buildings, less so.

Harrison, who was raised nearby on Symons St. in a house his grandfather built and where his father still lives, rode his bike in the gardens as a child. "It was a secret estate, something hidden from the street," he says. "You wouldn't know it was there."

And it's still that way today, a place that lures you unexpectedly into the past.

As an adult, Harrison never forgot Ormscliffe and other estates, somewhat Gatsby-ish in their grandeur, that once lined Mimico's waterfront. He's been campaigning to save Ormscliffe and have it protected under the Ontario Heritage Act, a cause he pursues on his blog, mimicoestates.blogspot.com.

The site is valuable not only for architectural interest but also social history, says Harrison, a civil servant who lives in Parkdale.

Ormsby's wife, Sarah, was a suffragette, and her guests included feminist Nellie McClung and British activist Emmeline Pankhurst. Ormsby was big-hearted and opened the estate's gardens, parts of which still exist, to the public. He moved to California to make silent movies, a venture that failed, but then prospered as a fruit grower.

James Franceschini, a penniless immigrant who founded Dufferin Construction, bought Ormscliffe in 1925 for $68,000. He added stables and rings for his prized hackney show horses and built a $150,000 central heating system that operated out of shabby buildings that still stand on the east side of the property. The estate was renamed Myrtle Villa, after his daughter. The initials MV can be seen in the iron gates on Lake Shore Blvd. W.

During World War II Franceschini was interned. "I cannot think of a better teachable moment than for people to stand in front of the Franceschini mansion and reflect on the fact that even a man who had obtained such wealth could be arbitrarily denied his human rights, be jailed and have his property seized for no other reason than being Italian," Harrison wrote recently to the Etobicoke York Community Council.

But preserving all the buildings on the property, not just the main house, has been debated. "Is it more important to preserve housing with no architectural significance at all or to build for the community, with public access to the water, which we don't have now?" asks Larry Longo.

The future of the property is in limbo until decisions have been made on a planning and revitalization report known as Mimico 20/20.

"I'm not trying to stop the development of the site, but protect the historic buildings and landscape elements," Harrison says. "It will result in a better project for them and even help in their marketing scheme. It's not just a condo development — it's built on this historic estate and they can use it to enhance their project. I'm hopeful it will come around."

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