The art of coach house lodging

Historic outbuilding makes winsome abode for collector at a crossroads in his life

By David Hayes, The Toronto Star, October 20, 2007

In addition to my girlfriend, Jennifer and I, the guest list for a recent Ed Jackson dinner party included a horde of Mickey Mouse dolls, a detachment of plastic Mounties, a dozen or so Fisher Price “Husky Helper” construction workers and Snoopy stretched out on his doghouse.

Among his many charms, Ed is a collector of both art (a Charlie Pachter print; an Edward Burtynsky photograph; a pair of Theo Dimson’s classic theatre posters; a painting by noted local artist Peter Chung) and kitsch. But Ed is also a renter by choice and occupies one of the most beautiful and extraordinary living spaces I’ve ever seen.

Ed lives in a coach house behind a handsome property on a side street near Little Italy. Coach houses were outbuildings attached to grand homes where a horse-and-carriage or motorcar was kept, and often provided accommodation for a chauffeur or other help. Over the decades, many were demolished so those that remain are highly prized.

This building had been constructed around the turn of the 19th century by a prominent dentist, Dr. Walton-Ball. The ground floor had a garage for his car (equipped with a turntable to turn the car around so his wife didn’t have to back down the narrow laneway) and a bedroom for the chauffeur. At 20 by 21 feet, the second floor was the Walton-Ball’s party room. It has a 12-foot ceiling in the centre of which sits a plaster rosette and a huge brass light fixture. The ornately carved fireplace is said to have been taken from the Lieutenant-Governor’s mansion when it was demolished. There’s a rooftop patio with a beautiful view of the city’s urban landscape, where Ed has installed big planters filled with flowers.

In 1985, the property was purchased by Roger Spalding, an old friend of Ed’s, who renovated the main house into three units. By the early ’90s, Spalding co-owned the property with a friend, Gerry Oxford, who lived in the coach house. Roger lived on the ground floor unit of the house, with the rest rented.

Now that Ed has the plates on the table and poured the wine for dinner, he can take over the story.

“I owned a three-storey, three-bedroom townhouse in Cabbagetown with my partner, Sam,” explains Ed. “We’d been together for 20 years but things were deteriorating so we called it quits. At the same time, circumstances at the educational book publisher where I’d been working the past few years had changed and my job looked uncertain.”

In earlier years, Ed had been politically active in the gay movement, part of the collective that formed The Body Politic, Toronto’s pioneering gay alternative paper (the forerunner of Xtra!) and a founder of the Aids Committee of Toronto. “I don’t regret those years of political activism and working for community organizations, but as a result I don’t have the savings that many middle-class people like me would have at my age. Even though I intend to work as long as possible, given my age, I obviously have a shorter horizon for working than a much younger man.

“I got some money out of the house and could have put a down payment on a condominium, but it would have been tiny and I wouldn’t have had a garden. I didn’t like the idea of putting most of what I had into a mortgage and paying the kind of maintenance fees people are paying, all in the name of our obsession with owning.”

As it happened, in 2001, Gerry had taken a job in New York but after several years was tired of struggling to find responsible tenants to sub-let the coach house. At the same time, Roger fell ill with cancer and needed someone nearby to provide some care. “Everything converged,” says Ed. “at my age, and given this situation, renting seemed the perfect solution and it’s hard to imagine finding a place I’d been happier living in than this coach house.”

I know what he means. One summer, Jennifer lived in the coach house when Gerry was between tenants and we both came to love the place as well. It manages to simultaneously be inspiring, invigorating and restful, in that mysterious way that some living spaces do.

As the evening winds down, Jennifer and I bid our host goodbye under the watchful eyes of his plastic, rubber and wooden roommates.