From an architectural viewpoint,  the design of most public schools built in Canada between c. 1900 and 1950 aren’t really all that inspiring. It would probably be safe to say they pretty much all look the same – solid three or four storey structures in either dark brick or stone with rows of tall windows. An impressive oak door usually served as the main entrance, and this was usually reached by means of a long flight of stairs. Accessibility anyone? In certain schools, boys and girls were even segregated by separate entrances.  Heaven forbid that the two sexes should ever come into contact with each other out on the playground! What were educators and architects thinking at the time? Youngsters could mingle freely in the classroom and in the hallways, but not outside?! Is there logic there somewhere?  In any event, there’s something about these scholastic structures that cries out “academia.” They seem to say to the passer- by: “Caution – this is a place of learning, and these are hallowed walls.”  Perhaps it’s for this reason that I find the Ecole Gabrielle Roy (formerly the Duke of York Public School) so appealing. Yes, it still resembles a school, but instead of being designed in the usual non-nonsense manner, its exterior style is Moorish-revival, with a nod to old Seville or Marrakesh – in Toronto! During the Great Depression!

At 14 Pembroke St., in the Dundas and Sherbourne area, the building is indeed a bit off the beaten track, and unless you knew it’s there, you might easily overlook it. To my mind, it’s another unnoticed building.  When the Duke of York opened its doors to 937 students on September 2, 1930, it was an elementary school for children from the middle-class families who resided nearby. Yet with its brown bricks, horseshoe arches, and rounded windows, the building must have stood in stark contrast to the late Victorian semi-detached houses that proliferate the area.   Its architect, C Y. Dyson, (the Toronto District School Board’s official architect between 1921 and 1949), designed several schools in the city including Jarvis Collegiate in 1924. The style of JCI was much more in keeping with the norm for the period – “collegiate gothic” as it came to be known.  Yet two years after the Duke of York opened, he once again returned to the Moorish style for  Harbord Collegiate Institute at 286 Harbord Street.

We’ll never know why Dyson went out on a limb in his designs for these two schools – maybe it was all those exotic movie palaces of the period – but Moorish influence had actually been around Toronto for quite some time up to that point. Among the earliest examples was a synagogue at 115 Bond St. built in 1895 by architect John Siddal for the Holy Blossom congregation.  The structure boasted twin domes, a wide arched entrance, and a row of smaller arches just below the roofline, and was surely as fine as any being produced in Europe at the time.

Another Moorish-revival building constructed for religious purposes was the Bethany Chapel, built by Henry Simpson in 1893 for a sect with fundamentalist leanings. How Torontonians must have scratched their heads when they first laid eyes on this intriguing little building which stood at 211-213 University Avenue! Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. The congregation quickly dwindled, the building demolished in 1910, and today, the site is occupied by the Hospital for Sick Children. Looking at one of the few photographs, we see a curious square-shaped brick structure with arched entrances at each corner. The first floor had only three round windows per side, while the second storey featured a row of seven arched windows directly underneath the hip roof. We can only speculate as to why the group chose to construct a chapel in this style, but it was very possibly meant to invoke an image of the Holy Land.

Bethany Chapel, Toronto

The only Moorish-style building in Toronto not intended for the public but as a private residence, was the John Miller house at 33 Murray Street, a short street that parallels University Avenue from Elm up to Orde. As the houses in this formerly residential area were all razed in the early 1970s to make room for the construction of Mount Sinai Hospital, we can only surmise that Mr. Miller owned a house very different from those of his neighbours! Miller claimed that he found inspiration for the design during a trip to Brussels, but with its pointed arches over the front door and living- room window, and the fanciful poly-lobed wooden arches over a second- and third-floor balcony, the building was clearly Moorish, rather than central European, in its inspiration.

John Miller House, Toronto

         It would be safe to say that the few examples of Moorish- Revival style architecture in Toronto were constructed during a relatively short time-span starting in the 1890s. By the late 1930s, the style had been long forgotten, as the city looked to the future, embracing the sleek lines of Art Deco and modernism. And what about Toronto in the 21st century?  With the increasing Muslim population, maybe we’ll see something of a revival, but based on religious principles rather than the whims of an architect. And as more and more glass condo towers sprout up on almost every vacant piece of land, maybe we could use a few horseshoe-shaped arches and some fanciful brickwork as a means of softening the urban landscape.

As to the Ecole Gabrielle Roy, it’s now in its 82nd year,  continuing to serve the needs of Toronto students, albeit a very different demographic than it was originally intended for. Children still play in the yard at recess as they did in 1930, perhaps oblivious to the unusual architectural style of their building. Some things don’t change.  But if you happen to be in the Dundas and Sherbourne area, have a look at it and enjoy the fanciful style, an interpretation of scholastic architecture from the late 1920s – another unnoticed building.