For more than two years, between 1976 and 1978, the fate of the onetime home in North York of Mazo de la Riche, author of the bestselling Jalna books about nineteenth-century Ontario, was fought over by preservationists versus developers.
The struggle was as melodramatic in its way as the soap opera plot of her Jalna books. At issue was whether the 17-room fieldstone and stucco house would be razed to make way for a housing development. The outcome could be viewed as a victory for both sides as some of the nine acres was used for the new houses and at the same time the house, which de la Roche called “Windrush Hill,” was saved.
De la Roche only lived in the 1922 house for six years, between 1939 and 1945. However, she was the one who expanded it from a house into a mansion with the addition of two wings. The east wing she added was an impressive, oak-panelled reproduction of an Elizabethan room. This room, where she did much of her writing, had two fireplaces. The west wing was for garages and servants. In the warm weather de la Roche would sit by a stream that wandered through the property and write.
Born in 1879, de la Roche’s original name was Mazo Roche. When she became a writer, she decided to call herself Mazo de la Roche, and said she was descended from an aristocratic French family with connections to Ireland. In reality she was born in Newmarket, Ontario.
It was not until she was forty-eight that de la Roche, then living in Toronto, became successful. That was the year she won the $10,000 Atlantic Monthly prize for novel of the year. The novel was Jalna. De la Roche moved to England with her cousin, Caroline Clement, where they adopted a girl, Esmée, and a boy, René. Clement was de la Roche’s closest friend throughout her life and had been adopted by the Roches at age seven, when she was orphaned. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, the family returned to Toronto, moving into the Bayview and Steeles house.
The children swam in the stream in the summer and skated on the frozen water in the winter. Esmée told the Willowdale Post’s community news editor, Doreen Whincup, in a June 7, 1972 article that “There were always dogs around to play with and the grounds were like a forest with all kinds of places to hide and dream.” The oil tank was buried in the ground, but not deeply enough, with the result that in very cold weather the oil would solidify and the furnace wouldn’t run. When they were snowed in, the children would put on showshoes to get out.
The problems of getting staff and of transporting the children to schools in the city eventually became too much to handle so in 1945 the family relocated to Forest Hill. De la Roche was at work on her seventeenth Jalna novel when she died in 1961 at the age of 82.
In 1976, the year the uproar began over “Windrush Hill”, more than ten million people around the world had bought her books. She was Canada’s biggest bestselling author after Stephen Leacock.
The 1976-78 turmoil had been preceded by another threat. Metro Toronto had tried to expropriate the land about a decade earlier to straighten Bayview Avenue. The 1976-78 squabble had its origin in the winter of 1976 when JFM Developments bought the nine acre property, including the house, for $1.6 million with plans for 26 to 30 new homes. On April 7, 1976, the North York Planning Board approved demolition of the house. That touched off a storm of protest amongst heritage lovers and so on April 17th, the North York City Council postponed the demolition for six weeks, giving time for a buyer for the house to come forward. The next day a fire broke out on the roof, caused by sparks flying up the chimney from the burning of papers in a fireplace, but the house escaped injury.
On May 25th, the last day of the deadline set by city council, Don Mills developer Harry Winton offered to buy the house for $250,000 plus an adjoining lot for $70,000. His total acreage was 1.3 acres, leaving space on the remaining nearly 8 acres for 25 homes. Winton said he would make part of the house a museum honouring de la Roche and would live in the other part. Heritage lovers breathed a sigh of relief.
One year later, on May 17, 1977, Winton’s enthusiasm had waned. He announced he planned to sell the house. He blamed the new owner of the development, New Style Developments, for destroying the ambiance by tearing down the trees bordering Winton’s property and he blamed city council for allowing it. Mayor Mel Lastman was unsympathetic, saying council could do nothing since the trees were on private property. He said Winton was looking for an “excuse” to abandon the project.
Two weeks later New Style said it would replace the trees, but Winton remained determined to sell the house. On August 12th, he placed a for-sale advertisement in the newspapers, asking for $600,000, nearly double what he had paid, and saying the property was “the former home of Mazo de la Roche.”
Failing to attract a buyer, Winton got a demolition permit the first week of October 1977. North York’s building commissioner and borough solicitor, spurred by heritage lovers, swung immediately into action, cancelling the permit. They said Winton had previously agreed not to pull down the house for twenty years.
In March 1978, Winton sold the house for $515,000 to the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario for use as a place of worship. The Society took possession of the house on April 10, 1978 and still occupies it. It is listed on the City’s Inventory of Heritage Buildings.
Researched and written by Susan Goldenberg, Director, North York Historical Society
Originally published in the March-May 2018 North York Historical Society Newsletter