This weekend offers Toronto house junkies an opportunity to experience one of the city’s most precious jewels, the quaint, cottage-y neighbourhoods on Algonquin and Ward’s Islands. Dubbed the Toronto Island House and History Tour, the June 13 event has been organized by Grannies in Spirit, a group supporting the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, a project that has so far raised more than $7 million for African grandmothers and the children in their care.
Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to enjoy a preview of three island homes with one of the tour organizers, Paulette Pelletier-Kelly (that’s her house above). The weather was cool and cloudy, which meant that the narrow streets — really more like bike paths and walkways since the Toronto Islands are a car-free zone — were all but deserted. As soon as we were away from the ferry dock and into the neighbourhood I found myself lowering my voice, the charming lanes are so close and intimate.
Paulette says Islanders don’t appreciate it when visitors refer to their homes as cottages because they’re full-time, year-round residences. Yet that’s exactly how many of the dwellings started out, as summer getaways, respites from the city heat. In fact, some of the buildings were actually purchased from the Simpson’s catalogue in the 1930s. One of Paulette’s friends refers to the islands as her “mini Muskoka”, Porter Airlines and the Centre Island midway notwithstanding.
And while most of these rustic dwellings have many modern conveniences, there’s nothing convenient about renovating or updating a home here as I learned from our first host, Bob Bernecky (pictured above with Paulette). The simple act of replacing a refrigerator became an ordeal courtesy of street name confusion and horrendous additional shipping costs.
Designed by Island architect, Jim Belisle, Bob’s house is a marvel of small space planning with every nook and cranny exploited to maximum effect. There’s a tiny triangular desk squeezed into a stairway landing and the dead space beneath those stairs has been co-opted for tool and utility storage. Like the rest of the homes I visited Sunday, Bob’s place isn’t about fancy furnishings and tailored vignettes but the house is brimming with fine artwork, much of it by Island artists like the late potter Matthias Ostermann, sculptor Alastair Dickson and artist/illustrator Barabra Klunder.
Bob has lived in the house since 1975, “pouring money down the drain until I finally got disgusted and started over in 2000.” The result is a small, bright space, carefully carved into task-specific rooms. Bob loves the peace and quiet of Ward’s Island but admits that “living here in the winter is a pain in the butt. The ferries run less frequently, it’s cold, damp and icy.”
Paulette jokes that islanders have longer arms than “mainlanders”, the result of hauling provisions from the city. There are no stores on the islands, not even an ATM. Little wonder locals are known for their gerry-rigged bike carts, which they use to transport goods back and forth. Sure enough, en route to our next stop we run into Paulette’s friend Fran Ford, below, transporting some patio furniture with her bike cart; it’s not pretty but it gets the job done.
Our next stop is the Algonquin Island home of Dawn Brennan and Steve Hills, a spacious — by island standards, anyway — abode with original pine flooring and a wide-open kitchen (below). The house is lovely and comfortable without being showy; there’s a charming second story loft “that we still haven’t figured out what to do with,” says Dawn.
Although it’s smaller than Ward’s Island, Algonquin boasts wider streets and larger lots. Paulette’s house — the third on our tour — is just around the corner with a view of the city skyline. “In the winter we turn the couch toward the fireplace and in the summer it faces the city,” says Paulette, who shares the home with her partner, writer Bill Freeman.
Built in 1938, the house has a vintage, trapped-in-time quality thanks to 1940s-era furnishings, accessories and paint colours. The master bedroom, in particular, feels almost like a movie set with its turquoise walls, vintage quilt and lacy curtains.
The history of this island community will be part of the focus of Sunday’s tour with stops at local community hubs and cafes. The tour runs June 13 from 1 – 4 pm; tickets in support of Toronto Island Grannies in Spirit are $40 each. Visit the Grannies’ website or call 416.203.0942.