City’s history comes alive under Marta’s tutelage

Marta O’Brien, with her cat named Mozart climbing a bookcase in the background, and her husband are happily renting a compact two-storey house in Toronto’s east end. She isn’t bothered by the reaction of people who learn that she doesn’t own property.June 10, 2011

The history of apartment buildings in Toronto is a complicated one, explains Marta O’Brien, an architectural historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of Toronto’s past.

The first building permit for one was issued in 1899, but at the turn of the century many people associated apartment buildings with tenements; they worried about property values and safety. A bylaw was passed in 1912 prohibiting the building of apartments in residential areas, although by the early 1920s they were appearing everywhere.

O’Brien teaches courses in architectural history at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and George Brown College. She also gives presentations to historical societies and cultural organizations and produces heritage reports. But she’s best known for her year-round Citywalks tours (, where she takes groups as small as two or three to one of 11 different areas of the city, from the Financial District and Corktown to Cabbagetown and the Annex.

In her blog on the Heritage Toronto web site (, she has written about the grand apartment buildings that were built on Avenue Rd. between Davenport Rd. and St. Clair Ave. W. — The Clarendon, Balmoral, Claridge and others.

“As a lifelong renter, I enjoy pointing out the wonderful three-to-five storey apartment buildings, built in the early 1920s, that are still standing around the city,” says O’Brien. “Many are on corners along King West, the Danforth, St. Clair and other streets served by streetcars.”

O’Brien grew up in apartments. Her mother was a bookkeeper who worked when she wasn’t home raising her four children. Her father was a draftsman who had worked for Orenda Engines Ltd., the subsidiary of A.V. Roe Canada Ltd. that produced the engines for the Avro Arrow, a supersonic fighter plane that was Canada’s pride until the federal government killed the project in 1959. After that, O’Brien recalls, her dad never found a really good job in his field; instead he worked as a salesman for a variety of products.

At one time, the family lived in an apartment over a store on Sheppard Ave and later on the sixth floor of a highrise at Bayview Ave. and Sheppard Ave. E. “There were no rent controls in those days,” says O’Brien. “Sometimes we had to move quickly because our rent was going up.”

Her happiest memory is of a ground floor unit in a complex of two-storey, red brick apartments called The Bayview Courts. There was a playground and lots of other families living there. But societal attitudes are powerful. One day, when O’Brien was in Grade 4 at a Willowdale elementary school, the students in her class were asked to identify themselves if they lived in an apartment. O’Brien was the only one to raise her hand. Later she felt ashamed when her classmates laughed at her and mocked her. Today, though, in her 50s and, with her husband Scott and their cat, Mozart, happily renting a compact two-storey house in Toronto’s east end, she isn’t bothered by the reaction of people who learn that she doesn’t own property.

When O’Brien explains to people that she rents, she says they’re shocked at first, often followed by an embarrassed silence. “They think there must have been an illness or a bad divorce or someone lost their job.” Laughing, she adds, “some tragedy must have happened for middle-aged people to find themselves in this pathetic state.”

Long ago, O’Brien worked for an insurance company, was fast-tracked for senior management. But she was unsatisfied with that life and had always been interested in architecture so she got a bachelor of technology (architecture) at Ryerson. She held a few junior positions in architects’ offices and often paid the bills working in retail. Meanwhile, she was studying the city, attending public lectures, taking and cataloguing photographs of buildings. In the late ’90s, she got her masters in environmental studies at York University and began giving the occasional lecture for local historical societies. This led to her part-time career teaching architectural history courses.

In June 2006, she launched Citywalks. Today it’s a thriving business, in part because O’Brien is engaging and utterly passionate about the city, but also because few guides who run city tours have anything approaching her deep knowledge of architectural history. Sometimes people whose parents are visiting from abroad will hire her to take them around the city. She does two walks a year with a group called Newcomers, made up of women whose executive husbands have been transferred to Toronto. Every April, a group of women from St. Catharines who charter a bus and visit Toronto for a couple of days, book a walking tour. Architects and architectural students have taken her walks.

Sitting in the living room of her $1,300-a-month, 900-square-foot house, with its hardwood floors and trim, O’Brien reflects on renting. “I owned a house briefly, in my 30s when I was in a previous relationship. But we lived outside the city because we couldn’t afford a house in the city, where I wanted to live. When Scott and I met, nine years ago, we had too much stuff to move into either of our apartments so we found this house.”

She admits they could probably have cobbled together a down payment for a house or condo, but it wasn’t a priority for either of them. “By renting,” she says, “we can be in Toronto, on the subway line, without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars and being house poor.”

On the mantelpiece above the old brick fireplace there is an antique clock that belonged to one of O’Brien’s great aunts. “Look at the columns, the arches” she says. “It’s meant to be architectural. I think the columns are meant to be Corinthian but they’re not academically correct.” Peering more closely, she says, “Actually, I think it’s the composite order, which was more ornamental than Corinthian. Anyway, it’s incorrect, architecturally, to have classical columns supporting a pointed arch. But I don’t care. It’s just a cool, old piece.”

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