Peter Dickinson was an extremely prolific architect throughout his too-short career. Arriving in Toronto from England in 1950, he proceeded to design more than 100 projects before succumbing to cancer in October 1961 at the age of 35. His output was diverse, ranging from commercial office buildings and public schools to landmarks such as the O’Keefe Centre, the original Four Seasons Motor Hotel, the Inn on the Park, the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, the Workmen’s Compensation Board Rehabilitation Centre campus and innovative, upscale apartment buildings like 561 Avenue Road and One Benvenuto Place.
Despite this whirlwind of activity, Dickinson is officially credited with all of five residential commissions. And as of this spring, only one of his five houses remains: his 1960 house for Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, at 36 Green Valley Road in York Mills.
Like the Sharp residence, the four vanished Dickinson houses were for his clients or business associates: Bernard Staiman at 89 Bayview Ridge, 1953; Sidney Robins at 28 The Bridle Path, 1958; Burle Yolles at 89 The Bridle Path, 1958; and Walter Zwig at 42 The Bridle Path, 1958. All mixed brick, wood, stone and glass in inventive configurations, emphasizing natural light, flowing spaces and access to the outdoors. Of the four, the Zwig house was the last to go, in 2009; the site is currently under construction. The Yolles property has been vacant for several years, while the Staiman and Robins houses were replaced by stucco-and-stone faux chateaux. In the absence of heritage protection or sympathetic owners, the houses’ demise was almost inevitable given sharply rising land values and a market preference for traditional residences of gargantuan scale and ultra-luxurious appointments.
But if only one Dickinson house endures, the Sharp residence is arguably the best of the group. Discreetly set back from the street, the house maintains its privacy behind fieldstone walls and rich, dark-stained timber framing. Tall clerestory windows flood the interiors with indirect light. A double-sided stone fireplace divides the living and dining areas, and all principal rooms overlook the adjacent Rosedale Golf Club through floor-to-ceiling glass. The Sharp house is the sole surviving residence by one of Toronto’s most important architects, commissioned by a Canadian business icon who redefined the luxury hotel experience around the world. Let’s hope this cultural and historical legacy will be enough to ensure its survival.
For an overview of Peter Dickinson’s work, see John Martins-Manteiga’s recent monograph.