At Home With Jim Murray

jim murray's former coach house in the annex neighbourhood of toronto
Jim Murray’s former coach house in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Photo from City of Toronto archives, Fonds 1670, Series 450, File 13

TEXT Ingrid Leman Stefanovic

Locals know it as “The White House of the Annex.” When we purchased 6A Kendal Avenue in Toronto almost four years ago, my husband and I had no idea of its true legacy. Only later did we learn that it had once been home to Canadian Architect founding editor Jim Murray.

For me, a philosopher raised in a family of architects, Murray had been my father’s valued colleague. Even as a child, I knew Murray as a Canadian star. So to have stumbled into what was his last home prior to his passing was both auspicious and humbling. The fact that it reflected a sense of place of my Don Mills childhood house, also designed by Murray, made it particularly meaningful. Certainly, his Modernist inspiration is reflected in the stairway’s clean lines and the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque sliding doors.

Eventually befriending his daughters who had handled the estate sale, I learned that Jim Murray had, in fact, been an intensely private man. This house was a perfect oasis for such a personality. The interior—to use phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard’s words—“bespeaks intimacy.” Opening onto a private garden, Murray’s design of a wooden pergola over the patio provides a unique sense of enclosure, while simultaneously drawing the eye to a sheltered garden that stretches to the end of the 90-foot-wide property.

Not only was he a private man, but Jim Murray was also an uncharacteristically modest architect. Ruskin may have believed that architecture is a “conqueror of forgetfulness” but Murray, I am told, felt that buildings were inherently transitory.

On the one hand, Murray was quite right: a number of his Toronto buildings have indeed been demolished, much as he prophesied. Examples include the Anglo Canada Insurance Building at 76 St. Clair Avenue West and the Spaulding House at 111 Park Road in Rosedale.

But numerous other designs persevere in the form of private homes, housing developments, churches, schools, industrial projects and shopping malls, such as Sherway Gardens in Etobicoke.

Jim Murray’s White House of the Annex similarly shelters far-reaching memories. Interested to learn more, I asked University of Toronto architecture student Ramsey Leung to undertake archival research on Jim Murray’s home. Designated on a mid-1800s map as “wilderness,” the site eventually came to form part of the estate of lawyer and politician Robert Baldwin. By 1905, the property was formally annexed to 55 Walmer Road, passing through a number of owners, including Charles D. Warren, whose profession is noted in Toronto’s archives simply as “capitalist.”

A structure—probably a carriage house—on the site of the current home appears in city documents in 1913. From 1921 to 1961, the property was held by the family of Henry T. Ross, Assistant Deputy Minister of Finance. To our amusement, we find that in 1952, the building is valued at $2,000. An advertising firm’s vice president, Robert M. Campbell, eventually transforms the coach house into a dwelling that is purchased and renovated by Jim Murray in 1975.

A neighbourhood myth recounts that the house was once part of the Toronto Lawn Bowling Club, but there is no evidence that we uncovered to justify that story. Still, as Bachelard reminds us, every house “shelters daydreaming” and as “a living value, it must integrate an element of unreality.”

In her book The Art of Memory, Frances Yates laments: “We Moderns have no memories at all.” Yet, our buildings tell rich stories, if we listen. Through this home, no less than through his other designs, Jim Murray’s legacy lives on.

Ingrid Leman Stefanovic is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Environment at Simon Fraser University. She is the daughter of the late Alexander B. Leman, former President of the Ontario Association of Architects.