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Robert Home Smith - "A Man with a Mission"

Seneca Chief

Robert Home Smith was a complex man of high intellect. He was perhaps ambitious to a fault, However, his accomplishments in the area of land development and city planning dramatically expanded and changed the residential face of the City of Toronto.

His epitaph is carved out of the woodlands and land forms of the Humber River valley. The Old Mill, St. Georges Golf Course, Riverside Drive, Baby Point, and the Kingsway all sprang from the fertile drawing board of his gifted imagination. Not only did he plan their development, he had the perseverance and organizational ability to actually put shovels to the ground and hammer to the nail.

Born in Stratford, Ontario, in 1877, Home Smith demonstrated a keen interest in arts and architecture as a youth. But under pressure from his family, he studied law at Osgoode Hall and was called to the bar in 1899, Any "dreams of a spectacular courtroom career, debate in the public forum, and high political office," as James H. Gunn put it were dashed in 1901. He suffered an illness thought to be meningitis, which left him with impaired hearing; a disability he apparently thought made pursuing these public careers impossible.

Dapper and personable, Home Smith was destined to be a success in business. In 1902, he was hired to manage the National Trust's estates department, he began to hobnob with leading businessmen like E.R. Peacock, James Dunn, Joseph Flavelle, and William Mackenzie. With his powerful behind-the-scenes role as a campaigner, fund raiser, and bagman for the Conservative Party, he counted prime ministers, premiers, and federal and provincial members among his friends.

In addition to varied investments in railways, mills, shipping, and real estate, Home Smith was an early investor in northern Ontario mining since the turn of the century. It was Home Smith's shrewd speculation in mining investments, rather than his own real estate companies that provided his wealth and the leisure to engage in his other interests.

Over the years, he would be offered positions on numerous public commissions, such as the city's Board of Trade, and usually assumed such civic duties for little or no financial compensation. Home Smith always seemed ready to serve the public good.

Smith was also a leading member of the community of architects, local politicians, businessmen, and artists known as the Guild of Civic Art. Adherents to the City Beautiful movement, the Civic Guild developed and released a comprehensive plan for the city in the first decade of the twentieth century, which promoted a park system, landscaped parkways, thoroughfares cutting across the city at diagonals, and public squares surrounded by grandiose buildings. The plan's loftiest proposals were not built, but this membership seems to have reinvigorated Home Smith's childhood love of architecture and design.

Home Smith clearly thought Toronto had an opportunity to be among the foremost cities in the world. in a speech to the Canadian Club on November 27, 1913, "Are you going to have a Birmingham or a Pittsburgh, Home Smith asked rhetorically, or a London or Paris"? For Home Smith and others of the day, large scale, deliberate city planning was, a means of balancing public and private interests. In Home Smith's case, his private developments fit within the comprehensive plan of the Civic Guild.

By the time of his speech, Home Smith .. at only thirty-four years of age had already been appointed to the Toronto Harbour Commission (THC). A joint municipal-federal government creation, the THC was tasked with redeveloping the waterfront from Victoria Park to the Humber River. Home Smith remained on the commission from its creation in 1911 until 1923, serving as president from 1921.

The redevelopment plan, presented to city council in 1912, used strict segregation of land uses between industrial and recreational and accounted for every need "from aquatic recreation to factory space, and from bridle paths and boulevard driveways to freight sidings, ship channels and docks," according to Wayne Reeves. In the west end of the waterfront, the plan called for a Lake Shore Drive (an element culled from the Civic Guild) and a new amusement park, Sunnyside, constructed on reclaimed land. Work on the ambitious plan began in 1914, but was delayed until 1919 because of the war. As Reeves noted, "the THC's endeavours represented the pinnacle of large-scale planning in the Toronto region before the City's Master Plan of 1943." , While engaged in bankruptcy work, Home Smith was put in charge of selling off a troubled company's land holdings near High Park to repay shareholders. Although few gave him much chance of recouping the hoped-for $900,000; because the lots, already subdivided for residential use, were isolated and under-served by city services and infrastructure, his hustle had raised $1,500,000 by 1911.

His success gave him an idea and he turned his eyes to the Humber River valley. At the time, the Humber valley, far beyond the city limits, was a wilderness punctuated by rough-cast farmhouses and mills along the river bank. Home Smith had ambitious plans to transform it into an exclusive neighbourhood catering to the business class. With backing from expatriate Canadian financiers in England, like Peacock, Dunn, and Beaverbrook, Home Smith quietly began purchasing more than three thousand acres along both banks of the river.

By 1911, Home Smith had worked out plans detailing development on both banks of the river. Collectively known as the Humber Valley Surveys, the plans called for large, luxurious homes on tree-lined roads curving to follow the contours of the land, as well as reserves for church, recreation and commercial uses, including a farmer's market. In Toronto, a city accustomed to organic expansion of unplanned, ramshackle suburbs, Home Smith undertook - in Gunn's words, "one of the most ambitious, exclusive residential housing schemes ever devised in North America."

Although by 1912, the city government's enthusiasm for annexing the outskirts had waned, Home Smith sought government concession, striking what must have seemed to him a mutually beneficial arrangement. He gave the city 105 acres along the river's edge for use as parkland. Home Smith clearly thought that he was saving the natural beauty of the Humber ravine from the same fate of the Don River and Garrison Creek. In exchange for the park, the municipality would construct a roadway that would connect the Humber Valley Surveys with the THC's new Lake Shore Boulevard. The suburb was also to be connected with an electric radial railway that would travel as far north as Caledon (where Home Smith also had extensive land holdings), a plan that was eventually abandoned with the growing domination of the automobile.

The precedent for the dominant architectural style of the area was set by the Old Mill Tea Room, which was designed in the Elizabethan or Tudor style by architect Alfred Chapman (whom Home Smith knew from mutual involvement with the Civic Guild and the THC). It opened in August 1914 and established the neighbourhood as "A Little Bit of England, Away from England," according to the company's Latin motto and advertising copy.

To ensure an architecturally harmonious neighbourhood, as a condition of sale, lots included thirty year covenants that required that building plans be vetted by the Home Smith Company's architects.

As an area resident (his own home was at Edenbridge Road and Edenbrook Hill), Home Smith took great personal interest in the aesthetic beauty of the area. "Mrs. Harry Jacob who resided in the second house to be erected on Old Mill Road," Esther Heyes writes in Etobicoke: From Furrow to Borough (Borough of Etobicoke, 1974), "recalled that Home Smith took a lively interest in [her house's] building. He had, she remembered, a special love for trees, and would allow as few as possible to be destroyed." He set up two local nurseries where homeowners could "help themselves to quantities of plants, shrubs and young trees to beautify their grounds and gardens."

Despite a lavish marketing campaign -and strong positive public reaction - sales were slow after the interruption of the First World War. Some building occurred on the east bank of the Humber, along Riverside Drive, between Bloor Street and Lake Ontario. But access to building lots on the west bank was encumbered by the only river crossing - an antiquated wooden bridge at Old Mill Road. Calling on social and political connections, Home Smith succeeded in having the Toronto and York Roads Commission build a stone bridge in 1916. A high level bridge connecting Bloor Street to the west bank in 1924 further stimulated sales.

Smith's dual roles as a member of the THC and as private real estate developer inevitably sparked controversy. "Serving the Commission for more than a decade," Gunn noted, "Home Smith had repeatedly been subjected to questions by members of City Council over integrity and conflict of interest." Many thought the THC's proposal for a Lake Shore Drive rather conveniently fed traffic into Smith's real estate holdings.

While the optics of Home Smith's entangled public and private involvements were troublesome, it doesn't appear that he ever actually personally profited. The Home Smith Company (as well its subsidiaries) never paid a dividend in Home Smith's lifetime. In 1926, a Royal Commission that had been formed under Judge Denton to investigate the dealings of the THC and its commissioners cross-examined Home Smith closely. But, according to Gunn, he was "fully exonerated of any impropriety."

To-day we see the evidence of his astute land use planning and the integration of a wide variety of residential architectural designs manifested in a pleasing harmony of home and nature in over a dozen residential communities associated with the Humber Valley Surveys.

Such communities or places as Riverside Drive, Baby Point Estates, Humber Valley Village, Kingsway Village, The Old Mill, St Georges Golf Course are among the several headstones that mark his passage through the roads and streets of the west end of Toronto.

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