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A walk through the storied past of Lee Avenue

Lee Avenue is one of the oldest and most historic streets in the Beach area. Originally it was called Kew Avenue after Kew Gardens, which is on the west side of the street, and which in turn was named after the Williams family, some of the earliest pioneers in the Beach.

Politically, Lee Avenue covered three different jurisdictions 120 years ago. The street from the lakefront to a point about 60 metres north of Queen Street was in the City of Toronto. From this point to a spot just past the present Williamson Road was called the township of York or Norway. From that point north was the town of East Toronto.

Now that I have everybody confused, let’s proceed. In the  early 1880s Walter S. Lee purchased 20 acres  on the east side of Lee  for his summer residence. Lee was a wealthy businessman whose main abode was in the city. He served on the Board of Education for over 40 years and was involved in many charitable causes.

He petitioned the city to name the street Lee Avenue. On the west side of Lee, Joseph Williams, a retired British soldier, purchased a considerable amount of land. Williams wanted to turn his section of land into a duplicate of the famous ‘Kew Gardens’ in London, England. This didn't materialize at the time, because of a lack of funding.

Williams started using his property as a picnic area for the citizens of Toronto. Because of the beautiful grass, water and sand, it soon became a cottage and vacation retreat. Williams, along with others, started to rent areas for weeks at a time. Later on cottages were built on the lakefront and on Lee Avenue.

In 1902, Lee died and his property was subdivided into cottages, later permanent homes. From that time on, both sides of Lee Ave was lined with houses and cottages. One cottage was built for $850, imagine the cost now! In those days the cottages started at the bottom of the street beside the lake, starting with number 1.

The city bought Williams' property for a public beach, and later a park called ‘Al Frescoe Lawn’, which was used as a lawn bowling green, skating rink and featured a clubhouse at the lakefront called Kew Beach Clubhouse, housing boats and social events. The city eventually took over responsibility for lawn bowling, skating, swimming and other activities, and moved these recreation facilities to the west side, where they remain to this day.

Houses on the west side of Lee Avenue in 1930, where the Kew Beach Lawn Bowling Club now exists.

On the west side of the street most of the houses were demolished. The city left only one – the Kew Williams house. It is the only one left standing and was used by the city as a groundskeeper's house.

The intersection of Queen and Lee has always been commercially and financially the heart of the Beach. On the southwest corner is the historic Toronto-Dominion Bank building, which is now a Coles book store. On the southeast corner was the first Tamblyn's drug store; now we have Bell and the Royal Bank. The old Family Theatre was also located there. On the northwest corner stands Foodland, originally a food store, at one time I.G.A. It is one of the few old buildings with a metallic ceiling inside, and there is now a lovely mural on the side of the building depicting the history of the Beach. On the northeast corner stood the Wooden Bell building (later moved up the street). The location became another bank, now TDCanada Trust.

One of the first electric streetcars came to the intersection of Queen and  Lee in the early 1890s. Just to the west is the Beaches Public Library, which has stood for nearly 100 years. This corner will remain the heart of the Beach, as long as we don't allow any repressive development to encroach from other sections of our beloved Beach.

Lee Avenue Houses

Lee Avenue originally started at the lake and in 1902-03, the numbers on the east side started at 1 – they stopped at the new street called Alfresco Lawn, so when the city took over the parks, the numbers started at 9, where the current street begins.

9 - A fine example of a Beach cottage.At one time these could be built and bought for $500-750. The recent sale price for this home was $1,250,000.

11 - Blarney Castle, owned by Edward Martin in 1920. Here is a wonderful example of Beach architecture with its green and yellow colours, quite unique.

31 - Hotel, owned by Wm. Thompson. A fine large example of one of our summer hotels in the Beach which has just been renovated.

37 - Manuel Gebertig was one of the original members of the Beach Synagogue and one of the original owners of the movie theatre.

30 - Kew Williams, the son of original pioneer Joe Williams, built his honeymoon cottage in April of 1902 for his wife with stone and wood from around Kingston. It is one of the last homes of the Williams family and a beauty beyond comparison.

43 - This was the residence of one of our local architects, E.R. Babington, who built many of the cottages in the area. One of his most noted is on the southeast corner of Queen and Leuty.

55 - Here is a monument to averted disaster. A 22-storey apartment building was to be built here in the 1960s, but common sense prevailed. Beachers stopped it, and now we have this little apartment building.

59 & 71 - The Clayton family, original Beach butchers. This is a tribute to one of our pioneer families who were some of the original ‘purveyors on Queen’.

75 - Hooley Smith house. Reginal “Hooley” Smith was the Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe of the days after the First World War, said to be one of the greatest of all time, and also a Beacher.

Kew Gardens - Wm. D. Young memorial fountain. The fountain is a tribute to a doctor who treated the sick and infirm and in many cases never charged them. He died helping a young soldier during the First World War, after contracting a disease from him. He is the epitome of a doctor who helped all Beachers, the sick and the poor.

97 - Bell Telephone building, St. Michael's College. In this location over 100 years ago the Beaches Exchange was built, and remained for many years. It became St. Michael's College during the 1930s. Both moved, but the building still stands as an apartment building.

114 - Farm house. This site was the location of one of the original farm houses on Lee, when the area was still farmland.

120 - G.W.V.A. On this part of Lee, the original Great War Veterans Association in the Beach was formed, later moving to the Kingston Road and Woodbine branch. Both buildings have since been demolished.

126 - Joe Price was one of the leading developers in the Beach, building the Price development between Leuty and MacLean. This house is the most stately example of Beach architecture. More will be written on Price.

125 - An original house on Lee, altered with its verandah.

141 - Another century house distinct in its appearance.

147-9 - These two houses are unique, showcasing a Californian style of architecture

144-6 - These two houses were originally one.

150 - William and Edna Houston house. William (Bill) Houston was a sports legend in the Beach, married to Edna. Bill was the last general manager of The Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team, and was a lifelong friend of the owner.

168-80  - Allendale. Anthony Allens was a wealthy manufacturer who built the ‘brick cottage’ with its own lawn bowling area on Lee. Alas it was razed and a few other homes were built in its place.

207 - Another early example of the oldest homes on Lee in the former village of East Toronto.

235 - Albert Flowers was the gatekeeper to the Ames estate. Much of the land at the north end on the east side of Lee belonged to A.E. Ames, until the building of new homes after the second world war.

304 - This is one of the most elegant houses on Lee. Originally it belonged to John Ward. It later became Victoria Hospital, a private facility where many Beachers were born. It was run by nurse Zelak Ward. Today it has not lost any of its historic lustre. It has a little private/public library in the front and a sun dial on the side.

The following houses are typical individual homes over 100 years old. Each one has its own style and is in the vicinity of what was called ‘Norway’, which was  part of East York Township:

172 - Garnet Galloway house

174 - Bernard Kerr House

178 - Henry Williams house

180 - Loftus Starke house

184 - Geo Kay house

214 - Walter Hudson house (originally a small cottage sitting on a ridge, later enlarged)

Lee Avenue wouldn't be as historic if it wasn't for two people: Rev. Walter Stewart Darling, a minister who first had a summer place at Kingston Road and Lee; and later A.E. Ames, a wealthy stockbroker who made this his summer home, one of the most picturesque homes in the area. Ames would entertain the Governor General of Canada for the week of the Queen's Plate at his estate named ‘Glen Stewart’ a hundred years ago. He would open the Queen's Plate with the Governor General and the horse guards – they would deploy from his estate down to the Woodbine Race Track for the regal event.

Mr. Ames was also a fitness buff on his estate. He opened up a golf course called ‘Glen Stewart’ which he allowed to become the first public golf course in the city of Toronto. On his estate he also had a large pond filled with fish and fowl. Many old-timers referred to his property as ‘Ames Bush’ and ‘Ames Pond’.

I could write for another 20 pages on Lee Avenue, but that's for another column.

11 Responses »

  1. I lived with my family at #51 Lee Ave then #65 Lee Ave during the 40/50/60/70/and Mom sold the house at 65 in 1988. These homes were build by my Great Grandfather Wm. Forbes who also built the Fire Hall on Queen and Woodbine. A friend of mine sent me this e-mail and I am very glad. I lived at ther Beach until I was married in 1965...the Beach will always be my "heart" home.
    Thanks for all the information
    Penny Hyman (File)
    My great grandfather build #65 the turn of the century

  2. Gene - your knowledge and research materials on The Beach always astound me!

  3. The Joe Price who lived at 126 Lee was my great grandfather. I'm dying to learn more about him.

  4. Walter Sutherland Lee was my 3rd great uncle. The next street over was named after his wife, Emma Mary Leuty, as was the life saving station. Lesser known is the origin of Violet Ave. between Lee and Leuty. It was named after their grand daughter, Violet Gooderham Lee. I' m not as certain of Alfresco, but I suspect it was a play on the name Alfred, which appears in that branch of the Lee and Gooderham families.

    Cheers.

  5. I am interested in the store on the northwest corner of
    Queen and Lee that is presently the Foodland store. I have
    been told that my great grandfather Albert S.Smith in partnership with
    a Mr. Pisor (or Piser) operated a general store Pisor and Smith on that corner prior
    to my great grandfather's unfortunate death on Nov.28,1898, but I cannot
    find any notation of this. Additionally he helped build the lintel over the main
    entrance of St.John's Norway church. If anyone can give me any information
    on this store I would greatly appreciate it.l. Thanks

    Ed Russell

    • Ed - I think that the Foodland store dates from the 1930s or 40s - it is an Art Deco supermarket and obviously any store from before 1898 was smaller and has been demolished. I am sure Gene has knowledge of this if you contact him directly.

  6. Took my first steps at 176 Lee Ave. in 1957. Left in 1959

  7. RE: 117 lee Ave. This house was purchased by my parents in 1956 from the Russell family for $16,000.00. I believe it was built in 1905 as when I was doing some renovations we found a dime dated 1095 on the rough 2x4 framing. My family lived there till 2005. I believe it just sold for 1 miilion dollars. I would sure like to know the name of the original owner and others up to when we purchased it. In 1956 at the four corners (Lee and Queen) on the SW corner the TD bank, the NW corner was Kresge's, the NE corner was F.W. Woolworth's and the SW corner was The Cut-Rite Store. Beside The Woolworth store going east was Loblaws then Drug store, then United Cigar Store etc. If you should have any info on 117 lee please contact me. Thank you. James S. Wickes

  8. I lived at 55 Lee Ave. from 1977-1984. The heating was abysmal.
    the rent was way over priced. The maintenance was non- existent . The only thing that made the rent worth while was the neighborhood and all the characters that lived in the building and on the block.
    I'm not kidding when I say that I could write a probable best seller
    comedy book on all that took place in and around that building.
    We finally moved after the fuse box inside the front closet went on fire.
    I now wonder how this building ever got a pass by inspectors to open.
    We enjoyed the beach, walks on b/walk, Centre 55, Littlefairs butcher
    Nova Fish. The Beach Theatre, Concerts every Sunday in the Bandshell
    I still miss it. Thanks Gene.

  9. I remember I was looking for a house back in 77 and it was located on Lee Ave. the lady's husband had passed away suddenly and she could no longer afford it, I forget what number, it was near Williamson rd. and on the west side it was a semi detach and had no parking, now as for the north east side of queen there was Woolworths on the corner and Kresge's was right next door to it, where shoppers drug mart now stands, Kresge's went belly up first then Woolworths closed up.

    the north west side was always a IGA and since Sobeys now owns IGA, it's a now a Foodland

    as for al fresco I was told it was his idea so they named it after him, I took tennis lessons from Mrs. Davis back in the 60's

    also on the south side there was at one time a movie theatre there and a pool hall upstairs above it I used to play pool there and some lady ran it, I always remembered it as a bank down stairs.

    I don't remember too much of that part of the beach as I grew up around Neville park

  10. This Al Fresco guy I believe lived on that street al fresco lawn, he lived on the north side, right across from the shuffle board court, I remember on the way to getting my tennis lesson there was a rain storm, there was a older gentleman that also took refuge in the area of where the shuffle board court is I asked about the shuffle board court and I was told by this older gentleman that it was named after this al fresco guy, he always wanted to play shuffle board so when he died in honour of him they named this shuffle board court after him. also they named the street after him too. that's the big area where it's covered with a large green roof, as to how accurate this story is, is anybody's guess, this would be back in 64 or 65,
    I don't know who that older gentleman was and I never saw him again.

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