At Connaught: Ashbridge Estate
Preserved by the Ontario Heritage Foundation and housing the offices of four different community groups, Ashbridge Estate stands majestically across from the Connaught streetcar yard as a reminder of one family's — and our city's — rich history.
PAUL HUNTER/TORONTO STAR
It was, in the memory of a 43-year-old recalling his early teen years, a pastoral haven in the big city, a refuge from the bustle, a Dickens-like slice of life in an unlikely corner of Toronto.
In many ways, the Ashbridge Estate remains just that. Preserved now by the Ontario Heritage Foundation and housing the offices of four different community groups, it stands majestically across from the Connaught streetcar yard as a reminder of one family's — and our city's — rich history.
"It was almost like a little oasis in the middle of the city," says Matt Pickett, recalling his visits to spend time with his step-grandmother, Dorothy Shaver Ashbridge Bullen, some three decades earlier. "You'd be going down Queen Street and there were some rougher parts — the racetrack used to be just up the road — and some seedier parts, but you'd pull up on the streetcar and there was just a calmness in that place when you'd walk in."
Bullen was of the third, and last, generation of the Ashbridges to occupy the house, which was built in 1854. The property — once a vast expanse of 600 acres stretching from Danforth Ave. to Ashbridge's Bay — had been in the family for two centuries. The widow Sarah Ashbridge, with her five children, began clearing the land in 1794 after she had fled Philadelphia to escape religious (she was a Quaker) and political prosecution.
The family thrived in farming, but as Toronto began to grow and the next generations of Ashbridges became professionals, the land was parcelled off until, in the 1920s, it was just the two acres on which the house still sits. It was designed by a local architect named Joseph Sheard, who would go on to become mayor of Toronto in the late 1800s.
That's the kind of stuff you can read on a historic plaque. Pickett, whose grandfather married Dorothy Ashbridge after having a family of his own, has a history he holds in his heart.
His memories are of a house full of welcoming love and happiness. The smell of roasts that would be served on Indian Tree china, the colourful bursts of floral wallpaper, the chimes of a grandfather clock that stood guard at the top of the stairs, gorgeous 19th century furniture, beautiful art — including a Group of Seven piece — on the walls, a collection of Japanese netsuke carvings and a garden that seemed to go forever and had more nooks and crannies than any child could every possibly explore.
Mostly, though, he remembers Dorothy, the grande dame of the house, who valued history and archeology — she encouraged digs on the property while she lived there — kept the feeders stocked so she could watch the birds, cherished exotic plants and trees, and loved nothing more than a house full of laughter and music. She employed a full-time gardener, and the property was pristine during her lifetime.
"It really was a home," recalls Pickett, a high school principal in Owen Sound. "She was just a regular person . . . such a nice lady.
"She had a gentleman who looked after the grounds and he would drive her everywhere. I describe it as a Driving Miss Daisy situation. Dorothy was a woman ahead of her time, very independent. You'd never know that she had a penny or that her family had anything.
She would give the shirt off her back to someone in need."
She also gave away her home. In 1972, in recognition of the property's historical value, Dorothy and her sister Betty donated the home to the Ontario Heritage Foundation with the condition that they be allowed to live in the house as long as they desired. It was turned over in 1997 when Dorothy died at 91.
Now it is occupied by offices of the Ontario Archaeological Society, the Ontario Society of Artists, Fusion: The Ontario Clay and Glass Association, and Camp Quality, which operates camps for kids with cancer and their families. The public is free to wander the grounds.
Pickett is certain his step-grandmother, a supporter of the arts and various charities, would appreciate how the place is being used today.
"I think she left it to the city because she knew it was significant," he says. "I think she saw the value in public property. It's valuable park space and green space. In that area there isn't a ton — it's pretty congested."
Dorothy Shaver Ashbridge Bullen was of the third, and last, generation of the Ashbridges to occupy the house, which was built in 1854. In recognition of the property's historical value, she and her sister Betty donated the home to the Ontario Heritage Foundation.
PAUL HUNTER/TORONTO STAR
Ashbridge Estate was designed by a local architect named Joseph Sheard, who would go on to become mayor of Toronto in the late 1800s.
PAUL HUNTER/TORONTO STAR
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