Spadina House Toronto is the former ancestral home of a powerful Toronto family, the Austins. The house and its gorgeous gardens are now owned by the City of Toronto, which operates it as a museum. Find out more about its features and tours here.
Spadina House may not be as famous as its next-door neighbour Casa Loma, but this handsome historic home, now a museum, is well worth a visit. More than a century old, and occupied for 114 years by three generations of the same family, this “Millionaire’s Row” mansion is full of authentic antique furniture and wonderful artwork.
If you're interested in historic interior design, especially that from the 1920s and 1930s, you shouldn't miss this place. I recently took a guided tour.
A Short History of Spadina House Toronto
The story of Spadina House goes back to 1866, when businessman James Austin bought the land and built a family home upon it. James emigrated from Ireland with his parents when he was only 16 years old, and started out as an apprentice printer, then began a grocery business, and ultimately made his money in banking and natural gas investments. Spadina House was his proof to the city that this son of a farmer had finally “made it”. James lived in his showpiece mansion until his death in 1897 and his children and grandchildren lived there as well. When his granddaughter Anna Kathleen Thompson moved out of the ancestral home in 1982, the family offered the property along with its contents to the city with the stipulation that it be turned into a museum.
The Buildings, Artifacts and Gardens of Spadina House Toronto
Since the building was occupied for more than a century by one family, it naturally contains furniture from a broad range of styles – everything from Victorian to Art Deco. It can be jarring, in fact, to go from room to room and discover the different interior designs, not just from one space to another, but even within a single room. Nevertheless, once you get used to this eclecticism, the house is quite pleasing and even starts to feel homey and cosy the more you see of it.
The tour starts in the gift shop in the basement of the house. This is where you buy your admission ticket. Your guide will come and meet you and take you up to the first floor where she'll stop and give you an introduction to the family and the history of the house in the entrance hall which features an elegant, sweeping staircase.
If she doesn’t mention the two stuffed wolves at the door, ask her about them:
Apparently Mr. Austin was an avid hunter and yes, the family did have two wolves he'd shot stuffed and planted on either side of the door while they were living there. (These two are actually recent replicas of the originals … the guide assured me however that these animals were not killed but were found already dead.) Imagine the shock on the faces of the guests back in the day when the Austins lived here! Talk about "keeping the wolf from the door"! Was this some kind of family joke… because they'd come from modest circumstances to literally living on Millionaire's Row?
Speaking of wealth, the opulence of the house, while it doesn't compare with the monstrous Casa Loma next door, is still quite impressive. The huge billiard room (with a section of elevated seating so guests can watch the game) is an example of extravagance. Most of the rooms are much larger than those in modern middle class homes and certainly most modern apartments. Take a look at the dining room. Note the thickness of that table. Notice that the walls are green … is this a reference to the Irish heritage?
The dining room of of Spadina House Toronto is on the main floor at the front of the house facing the lawn. Behind it you'll find the kitchen which is a great airy and sunny space with a few anterooms (pantry, storage room and scullery). Unlike many 19th century homes where the kitchen was in the basement, this actually looks like a pleasant place to work.
Also on the first floor you'll find a large drawing room that runs the length of the house from front to back (it's like 2 rooms). It's filled with paintings (I actually spotted a Krieghoff) and sculpture and a large piano (one of the Mrs. Austins was a concert pianist and composer). There's also a smaller room, very feminine, similarly crammed with decorative pieces to enjoy. The family members were great collectors of art, and remember, they occupied the home for more than a century, so their walls and shelves are full of interesting pieces, both fine art works and popular culture examples as well. The only objection I have with the guided tour is that I felt a bit rushed and would have preferred more time to examine the home's many small treasures.
The highlight of the first floor is the conservatory or greenhouse.
If you look around the room you'll find many exotic plants (this photo only shows half the room), which even now are expensive, but back then were even rarer and pricier than they are today. Because the family were packrats, they kept records of everything so we know exactly what plants were here just as we know what was in the garden, and everything today is kept as authentic as possible.
Upstairs is another sitting room, the blue room, which appears to have been more of a private space for the family to kick back and relax (as opposed to the more public entertaining spaces downstairs). Think of it as a version of today's family room, minus the big screen tv.
On this second floor of Spadina House Toronto you'll also find the master bedroom, which is quite large. This photograph shows only a corner of it. There is room near the window opposite this section for a small breakfast table if you'd want it (although there are currently a couple of reading chairs and an occasional table instead). There's also a walk-in closet visible to the right of the bed.
The bedroom has an ensuite bathroom. Note the funny little tub-like contraption beside the toilet. This is a sitz bath, which was used for sitting and soaking the lower body and relieving pain caused by menstrual cramps, haemorrhoids etc.
There are other rooms in Spadina House Toronto but these were the only rooms shown on my tour. The family began to add a third floor to the top of the house in the early part of the 20th century. It was going to be a hospital room for their son who had TB. Unfortunately he died, however, and the floor was never completed.
When you're finished touring the house, be sure to have a wander around the garden. There are flowers and fruit trees, a lovely greenhouse (unfortunately not open to the public when I was there) and another small house on site that was used as a garage and housing for a staff member.
Guided Tours of Spadina House Toronto
If you want to view the house you need to take a guided tour. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and comes in three different themes (one is general, one is about the renovations, and one is about children in the house so call ahead if you’re keen on one particular subject). I took the general one. The tour is included in the general admission fee.
The museum operates a small shop in the basement where you can buy books, cards, souvenirs and a few snacks like chocolate bars and ice creams, but there is no café on site. In fact, since this is a residential district, there are no restaurants in the immediate area. The closest one that I could find was a Tim Hortons down the hill (about a 5-10 minute walk) on Davenport Road near Kendal. Casa Loma has one too but you have to pay the admission fee to get to the restaurant.
For current fees and opening hours and events, visit the museum web site at http://www.toronto.ca/culture/museums/spadina.htm
Spadina House Toronto is located on at 285 Spadina Road. Tel: 416-392-6910. This is just beside Casa Loma so you really can't miss it.
You may enjoy
Casa Loma – Spadina House's grand neighbour.
Mackenzie House - James Austin apprenticed as a printer with William Lyon Mackenzie, who got into trouble in the Rebellion of 1837. Even though Austin wasn't that political, his association with Mackenzie meant that he ran into problems too and had to flee the country for several years. You can visit Mackenzie's house in downtown Toronto if you want to learn more.