Walk through the doors of this Victorian mansion and you will encounter a place where history mingles with modern urban living. Explore this heritage building’s journey through the years and learn about all it has to offer today.
This digital tour was developed by Emerging Historian Heather Kingdon, supported by our Emerging Historians sponsor, Tricon Residential. Learn more about our Emerging Historians program and how Heritage Toronto is supporting the next generation of heritage professionals.
The shift of our 2020 tour season to a digital platform was made possible by the generous support of our Tours Program Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank and The Ready Commitment.
Until recently, the Victorian mansion – originally a residence to Charles H. Gooderham of the well-known Gooderham family – represented a malnourished piece of Toronto’s heritage. Against the backdrop of St. James Town, The Selby has stood the test of time, experiencing many changes over the years.
The grand house was built for Henry Folwell Gooderham by renowned architect David Roberts Junior circa 1882–1883. In 1885, H. F. Gooderham sold the house to his brother, Charles, who lived there until he passed away in 1904. It became the prestigious all-girls school Branksome Hall in 1910, which taught, among others, Margaret Eaton of the wealthy Eaton family. The school occupied the space until 1912 when the building famously became The Selby Hotel and was expanded to include a wing housing the hotel’s suites. The hotel was first intended as private lodging for elderly women, but by World War II, The Selby was opened to allow for the care of Canadian and Allied soldiers.
During the 1920s, the hotel hosted renowned writer Ernest Hemingway while he was working as a journalist for the Toronto Star. It has been suggested that The Selby is where he wrote his novel, A Farewell to Arms. The mansion continued to serve as The Selby Hotel until 1997 when it became a Howard Johnson hotel and subsequently a Clarion hotel from 2000 to 2014.
The property was home to numerous bars and public spaces in its history. During the 1940s and 50s The Selby became a hotspot for urban nightlife, drawing sports fans from across Toronto to its bars. In the 1940s, a bar opened at The Selby called The Skyway Lounge, which was known to host a number of sports stars such as Canadian hockey players Turk Broda and Rocket Richard, as well as wrestlers Bulldog Brower and Whipper Billy Watson. In the 1950s, the popular sports bar, The Men’s Beverage Room, opened at the mansion – which at one time served Canadian actor, William Shatner.
Throughout the 1980s, the Selby provided a welcoming space for gathering. In 1980, the LGBTQ2+ dance club Boots opened in the basement of The Selby, which was later joined by the bar The Courtyard. Boots became one of the largest gay bars in Toronto and was a popular meeting place for Toronto’s LGBTQ2+ community during the 1980s and 90s. In 1989, the building received official recognition under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The Selby has been an integral part of the St. James Town community, just east of Toronto’s downtown core, for over 135 years. Tricon Residential and ERA Architects purchased the property in 2014 with an aim of restoring the grand residence as part of a larger redevelopment project. Along with an attached fifty-storey, upscale, purpose-built rental development that opened in November 2018, portions of the mansion were converted to retail space, including Maison Selby, a French bistro by Oliver & Bonacini, as well as Sous Sol, a cocktail bar. The restoration project was nominated for the 2019 Heritage Toronto Awards.
A History of St. James Town’s Cultural Centrepiece
In the late-Victorian period, Toronto experienced an increase in architectural development, with buildings of various styles quickly populating the city. David Roberts Junior, the architect of The Selby, was a key figure in this movement. Son of civil engineer David Roberts Senior, Roberts was influenced by his father’s work and his connections to the prominent Gooderham family. By the time Roberts became an architect, he was already well acquainted with the Gooderhams, designing several buildings for the family during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s.
Roberts Jr. built many buildings in what is now the Distillery District and designed residential houses for many members of the Gooderham family, along with several offices for the Gooderham and Worts company. He is perhaps most famous for his iconic Gooderham Flatiron Building at 49 Wellington Street. The Flatiron Building has become an iconic piece of Toronto’s downtown landscape, gracing the social media pages of tourists and residents alike.
Architect Eric Ross Arthur notes of Roberts in his book, Toronto, No Mean City (2003), “The Gooderhams’ commissions gave him exceptional scope to enrich Toronto’s streetscapes, which he did with considerable skill.” Roberts Jr. is known today as one of the most influential Toronto architects of the late-nineteenth century.
The late-Victorian mansion emerged amongst the backdrop of a residential boom in Toronto, and is one of many houses that sprouted up across the city near the end of the nineteenth century. The Selby harkens back to a time when St. James Town was home to some of Toronto’s most noteworthy families. In the mansion’s early days, many grand Victorian structures sat on Sherbourne Street – few of which remain in good condition today. The Selby’s neighbour, James Cooper House, built in 1882, is also from this era in St. James Town’s development.
Each house that appeared during this period maintains its own unique features and historical significance, and The Selby is no exception. Unlike Roberts Jr.’s design for the Gooderham Flatiron Building, which reflects a mix of Romanesque Revival and French Gothic Revival architecture, The Selby pays homage to the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries with its Queen Anne Revival style. Queen Anne Revival architecture is characterized by a number of different attributes, including the use of different materials in its construction, as well as its many ornate details and asymmetrical features.
The restoration of The Selby represents saving a piece of Toronto’s history – not just in terms of the building itself – but an era where architects like David Roberts Jr. were inspired to build Toronto and leave their mark on the city. The mansion also reminds us of a time when St. James Town was the place to be if you were a wealthy family or individual in the late-Victorian period looking to build a grand imposing home.
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Adaptive reuse in the context of preservation transforms heritage buildings so that they meet the needs of a twenty-first century community. When looking to restore and reuse a heritage structure, one must consider the value of a building to the public. What does this building provide for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood? What was its role for the past community that lived there, and how is the building regarded by the neighbourhood today?
More technical and logistical matters must also be considered, such as the environment and climate in which the building is situated, the state it is in, and how it will be used. These key points help companies to better asses the restoration needs of a heritage building. Ensuring the property has a relevant place in today’s society is an important aspect of heritage preservation and therefore its intended use is something to keep in mind throughout the restoration process.
East/West: A Guide to Where People Live in Downtown Toronto (1994)
Before the 1980s, the St. James Town neighbourhood experienced neglect, and upkeep of grand houses like The Selby started to fall short. Many old houses like The Selby were demolished in the 1960s and 70s to make room for high-rise apartment complexes as St. James Town became one of the most up-and-coming communities for young professionals working downtown. In the 1980s, however, new efforts arose to try and save some of the neighbourhood’s heritage buildings.
Some renovations were carried out on the property under Rick Stenhouse after he purchased the house in 1984, such as returning the original suites to the intended fifteen-foot ceilings, and repairing or replacing mouldings, doorways, and fireplace mantels.
Further restorations were also carried out in the 1990s which included adding a property-lining wrought iron fence that matched the original, and repairing the slate roof. However, the work that The Selby recently underwent was the largest and most comprehensive to date.
Part of the house’s restoration involved moving the entire house north-east of its original location by about 100 feet. The move was done in two separate stages. The house was first stabilized and the west wall was removed. It was then moved slightly to allow excavation and for proper supports to be put in place. The second move saw that the house was transferred to a new permanent home closer to the public sidewalk.
Renovations to the heritage house itself were extensive. Not only was the fifty-storey purpose-built rental complex added behind the building, which housed Tricon Residential’s upscale rental units, but – using salvaged original materials – the west wall of the house was rebuilt to contain a new abridged section connecting to the tower. Those in charge of restoring the look of the house to its original splendour were expert craftsmen such as those from Hunt Heritage, who undertook tuckpointing on the entire exterior of the building, ensuring that the mortar used gave the building a crisp, fine-lined look. Additionally, new windows were provided that matched the mansion’s originals, and a much-needed new slate roof was added alongside repairs to the front staircase.
As for the interior of The Selby, extensive work was also completed to restore the mansion and maintain some of its original elements. The main staircase was renovated, and cornices, window shutters, door hardware, plaster work, and medallions received some much-needed care. In total, six original fireplaces were restored. The three on the main floor are now part of Maison Selby bistro and have been incorporated into the atmosphere of each room of the house. Interior designers matched the colours of each room to complement the original wood, tiling, and metal details of the fireplaces.
The French bistro Maison Selby inhabits four rooms on the main floor of 592 Sherbourne Street. The developers hoped to create a space that, “takes you to a place and tells a story through extensive heritage elements, periodic interior design, and splendor reminiscent of dinner parties hosted by Charles Gooderham that can now be enjoyed by all.”
In the Parlour room, the use of exotic botanical wallpaper and green velvet chairs makes it easy to see the inspiration behind its name. The space reflects a grand Victorian parlour, complete with tall ceilings and an elegantly tiled fireplace – a place suitable for hosting esteemed guests for afternoon tea or cozying up with a good Brontë novel.
In the L’Orangerie Room, the exotic once again plays a part, with its jungle-themed wallpaper depicting monkeys and leaves. The wallpaper is highlighted by the many windows that inhabit the wall opposite. The windows coupled with the room’s generous use of plants, is reminiscent of sunrooms of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when plants from across the globe were seen as trendy interior pieces.
The wallpaper of the Rose Room commands the space. It features a pattern of bright pink and purple roses that accents its dusty rose-coloured velvet chairs. A fireplace with white tiles completes the room, creating a charming atmosphere, again providing a Victorian-parlour feel.
The fourth room of Maison Selby is the Bar. This room is reminiscent of Art Deco splendour of the 1920s and 30s with its marble countertop, subtle floral patterns, off-white tiling, brass accents, and elegant lighting.
Projects such as this remind us of how historic elements can be used to elevate a heritage building’s updated modern use.
Conservation Strategy Objectives & Challenges - Heritage Toronto Awards 2019 Nomination Package
National Trust for Historic Preservation
The Selby is a place that is both private and public, historical and modern, elegant and contemporary. Its versatility over the years reflects its dynamic and ever-evolving nature. Its Queen Anne Revival architecture coupled with twenty-first century style and the use of heritage elements in its design, shows that historic buildings can survive through adaptive reuse. The Selby’s juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern creates a new kind of style or genre – one that is entirely original. With any luck, the house will survive another 137 years, reminding Toronto of a unique era in its history.
592 Sherbourne Street Heritage Interpretation Strategy Plan
Architecture Lab. “Adaptive Reuse Architecture 101 – Evolution, Definition & Examples.” Architecture. August 30, 2017.
Arthur, Eric Ross. Toronto, No Mean City. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 3rd edition, Dec 13 2003.
Byrtus, Nancy, Mark Fram, McClelland, eds. East/West: A Guide to Where People Live in Downtown Toronto. Toronto: Coach House Books, 1994.
Gibson, Sally.592 Sherbourne Street Heritage Interpretation Strategy Plan. May 21, 2015.
National Trust for Historic Preservation. “City-Scale Preservation: Shaping Communities Through Reuse.” Last Modified 2020.
Oliver and Bonacini. “A History of St. James Town’s Cultural Centrepiece.” Maison Selby – About Us. Last modified 2020.
“The Selby, 592 Sherbourne St., Toronto.” Heritage Toronto Awards 2019 – Nomination Package, PDF.
Tricon Residential. “ A Brief History of 592 Sherbourne: From Gooderham Mansion to Toronto’s Newest Dining Hotspot. Toronto Life – Food. Accessed July 2020