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Detail of a beautiful red brick building with fine details on the windows and roofline

The Selby: Celebrating a Unique Heritage

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.

The Selby’s Legacy

A 2019 Heritage Toronto Awards nominee, this heritage house boasts a long history as a vibrant and dynamic space.

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.

This 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 house the hotel’s public suites. Initially intended as private lodging for elderly women, by World War II The Selby was opened to care for Canadian and Allied soldiers. 

During the 1920s, the hotel hosted famous figures including renowned writer Ernest Hemingway, who stayed at The Selby 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.

Sepia-toned postcard with a photograph of a nineteenth-century Queen Anne Revival-style house. The house is large with many windows. In front of the house is a fence and a sidewalk. Trees of various sizes are around the house. Text at the bottom of the photograph reads, "Selby Hotel, 592 Sherbourne Street, Toronto, Canada".

A Public and Community Space

In addition to being hotel, the mansion had an important place in the St. James Town community as a place of gathering.

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. The building received official recognition under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1989.

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 the goal 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 lively cocktail bar. The restoration project was nominated for the 2019 Heritage Toronto Awards.

Maison Selby
A History of St. James Town’s Cultural Centrepiece
Porch entrance to a red-brick residence with the words "Maison Selby" above the steps.

David Roberts Jr.

Head architect to the Gooderham family, David Roberts Junior was highly influential in Toronto’s architectural boom in the late-nineteenth century.

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-1890s.

Roberts Jr. designed many buildings in what is now the Distillery District, along with residential houses and office buildings for the Gooderham family and 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.

Street scene showing a historic red-brick building at an intersection where people are crossing.

Victorian Architecture and St. James Town

What does this mean for The Selby?

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 looking to build a grand imposing home. 

National Trust for Historic Preservation
City-Scale Preservation

Adaptive Reuse and Heritage Preservation

Across Toronto, many heritage buildings have been re-imagined, preserved, and restored to retain some of their original elements.

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 assess 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.

Ian Chadikoff East/West: A Guide to Where People Live in Downtown Toronto (1994)

The Beginnings of Restoration

The Selby had some help over the years, but no attempts were as ambitious as its most recent restoration.

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, 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.

Photo of a large red-brick house under construction. A blue tarp covers one wall and large yellow metal beams surround the building with the words, "LAURIE McCULLOCH BUILDING MOVING" on them.

Exterior Restorations

Many efforts were undertaken to return this Queen Anne Revival mansion to its original look.

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, then it was moved slightly to allow excavation and for proper supports to be put in place. The second move ensured 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 houses 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 craftspeople 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, a much-needed new slate roof was added alongside repairs to the front staircase.

Roof details of a residential red-brick building.

Interior Restorations

The redevelopment of heritage properties relies on historical features supporting modern use.

As for the interior of The Selby, extensive work was 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 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.

Photograph of a room with dark wood window frames, green and white botanical wallpaper, and an elegantly tiled fireplace. In the room there are two tables with green velvet chairs and on one wall is silverware displayed on five shelves. There are three windows and in the window sill of one is a painting of a woman with painting supplies beside it.

Designing Maison Selby

While the overall purpose of the house has evolved since its birth, elements of the past remain within its walls, adding charm, atmosphere, and nostalgia to the space.

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, exoticism 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 décor.

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 modern use.

Photo of a room with tables paired with pink velvet chairs and white wallpaper with pink and purple roses on it. The photo is taken through an open door and the far wall has shelving built into it with various items on display.
Tricon Residential Conservation Strategy Objectives & Challenges – Heritage Toronto Awards 2019 Nomination Package
Photo of a room with many windows on the wall and five small tables sitting side by side with wicker chairs. The wallpaper is green with yellow, orange, and blue, and features monkeys and botanical patterns. There are many plants in the room, some of which are hanging from the ceiling.
National Trust for Historic Preservation City-Scale Preservation
Photo of a bar with a marble counter top, green cushioned bar stools, teal walls, and brass accents.

Preserving the Past for the Future

Heritage needs to remain relevant to be preserved for years to come; it needs to adapt.

The Selby is a place that is both private and public, historic 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

Sally Gibson
592 Sherbourne Street Heritage Interpretation Strategy Plan
Aerial view of high rise towers, including two in the foreground that are fronted by heritage houses.

Sources

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