James Murray’s model for modern living

James Murray house 1A LR

Modernism had a very slow start in Toronto’s residential neighbourhoods. In contrast to the rapid acceptance of new design in many North American centres after World War II, by the early 1950s Toronto could claim only a handful of truly Modernist houses.

One brave pioneer was architect James A. Murray, designer of his own residence at 6 Heathbridge Park in the Bennington Heights neighbourhood. Built in 1947 and still in largely original condition, the Murray house paralleled the leading design currents of the time and foreshadowed what would emerge several years later in Toronto-area developments such as Don Mills and Thorncrest Village.

Particularly innovative was Murray’s use of a split-level plan, a new hybrid that combined the convenience and low-slung profile of a single-storey house with the space efficiencies and spatial separation of a two-storey design. The main entrance to the Murray house is at ground level, as are the open-plan living and dining areas; all open onto the surrounding garden. A short flight of stairs leads to the bedrooms on the upper level. On the lower level, a half-storey below grade, are the utility areas and the former garage. Also originally on the lower level was Murray’s studio, which visitors could access directly from the street through a small sunken court with a reflective pool, flagstone steps and a wood sunscreen trellis.

James Murray house 2 LR

New thinking continued throughout the home. The flat roofs could be flooded with up to an inch-and-a-half of water to reflect sunlight and cool the house in summer, aided by the roof overhang shielding the south-facing living room windows. At the rear terrace a planting bed extended under floor-to-ceiling glass into the dining area, bringing nature indoors and blurring the distinction between inside and outside. Built-in seating and storage units promoted orderliness and maximized space efficiency. Radiant heating pipes under the short, steep driveway, now filled in, prevented accumulations of ice and snow. These and other ideas were continued in the numerous other residences Murray designed in Bennington Heights, including the neighbouring Lang house at 21 Evergreen Gardens, now demolished, the much-altered Markon house at 17 Evergreen Gardens and the Daly house at 1 Brendan Road.

James A. Murray (1919-2008) was a significant figure in Canada’s postwar architectural scene. He influenced architectural design, practice and education across Canada for decades as the founding editor of Canadian Architect magazine, a frequent juror of awards and competitions and a professor of architecture at the University of Toronto. In addition to his writing, teaching and public advocacy, Murray also maintained an accomplished architectural and planning practice. Notable projects include the Anglo Canadian Insurance Building at 76 St. Clair Avenue West (demolished), the Spaulding house at 111 Park Road, Rosedale (demolished), the Shoichet house at 21 Park Lane Circle and The Donway United Church at 230 The Donway West. Murray also collaborated with architect Henry Fliess on the innovative rowhouse developments South Hills Village and The Cloisters of the Don, both in Don Mills, and The Towne mixed-use complex at 77-79 St. Clair Avenue East.

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