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Toronto’s Characteristic Bay-and-Gable Houses are Modestly Opulent

​In her 1985 classic Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, the late Patricia McHugh coined a name for one of her city’s most iconic house types: the bay-and-gable. Beginning in the late 19th century, “they became the dominant style south of Bloor Street,” says Catherine Nasmith, a Toronto architect who specializes in heritage buildings. The earliest known examples date from 1875.

The bay-and-gables were an answer to Toronto’s long, narrow residential lots. “You find them in widths as narrow as 12 feet up to about 25,” says Nasmith. “There are stylistic variations.” As the name suggests, they feature a large bay window all the way up the front façade, topped by a gable. Very often, the gable is ornamented with decorative bargeboards (the wooden trim along the bottom edges).

“Their proportions make sense on narrow residential streets and provide an occasion for the sort of public display that can make a neighbourhood and a city so engaging,” wrote architecture critic Christopher Hume in a 2011 Toronto Star article.

Cunning tricks were employed to bring light inside these comfortable family homes, including the generous bay windows—made possible by technological advances in the Victorian period—high ceilings and transoms over the main doors. “Usually there’s a narrower kitchen at the back, so a bedroom and the living room get a window,” Nasmith says.

“Most of them have at least a brick façade and a little bit of decoration: a little bit of grace like a stained glass window; often you got plaster moulding. Many of the builders had their own workshops and produced their own woodworking: windows, bargeboards, interior trim,” she says.

“They’re very interesting: they’re very small and modest, but they have a lot of features. In the winter, you get daylight penetration, but they have less wall area per square foot, so they’re more efficient to heat, compared to a bungalow that has a lot of perimeter area,” says Nasmith. “It’s a wonderful Toronto type, and it has a lot of advantages.”

Takeaway: With the right touches, even a small footprint can be airy and gracious.