The house Maclean’s built

Residents battle a developer over the fate of J.B. Maclean’s home

The neighbours are furious, but their protests can barely be heard over the sound of contractors shattering glass and pummelling concrete at 7 Austin Terrace, the former home of Lt.-Col. J.B. Maclean, the founder of Maclean’s magazine. By the time they’re done, gone will be some of the century-old Toronto home’s most distinctive architectural features—windows, wood frames, columns, and the portico are already mostly destroyed.

Robert Levy, the president of the local housing association in Casa Loma, the northwest Toronto neighbourhood where Maclean House is located, stopped by the home earlier this week. The workers, he says, “were trying do as much damage as they possibly could. This basically had every characteristic of vandals going to town.” According to Levy and members of the housing association, John Todd, the local developer who purchased Maclean House in 2008, is scrambling to prevent it from being designated as a historical site by the city. Should it be recognized as such, Todd’s plans to demolish the $2.3-million residence and replace it with a new housing development would grind to a halt.

Todd declined to be interviewed, but his lawyer, Adam Brown, insists his client is acting entirely within his rights. Due to the residence being considered for designation by the city, building or demolition permits are indeed out of the question. But Brown says Todd is still allowed to winterize the home and make other minor changes to its structure, pointing out a building inspector has approved the work. The housing association counters that the sheer amount of destruction constitutes demolition, but they’ve been unable to secure a stop work order from the city.

Brown thinks Levy and company are wasting their time. The building has already been gutted inside, he says, and it no longer holds any historical significance. “It would be a shame to use the heritage process to get in the way of development,” he says. According to Brown, the history of the home isn’t really important to the residents—they’re just holding it hostage to avoid having townhouses built in their neighbourhood.

Joe Mihevc, the local city councillor, suggests Brown may be doing some manipulation of his own. “Shame on Adam Brown for destroying a part of Toronto’s history for the sake of a developer who’s trying to basically sidestep a heritage designation,” he says. City council plans to consider the fate of the house in January, though Mihevc suspects Todd “may have done enough damage” to get his way. The councillor for St. Paul’s West still hopes the fact Maclean spent the most influential years of his life within the home’s walls will be enough to save it.

John Bayne Maclean was a successful reporter and editor of the Toronto Daily Mail before he created his first magazine, the Canadian Grocer, in 1887. That kicked off a publishing career that eventually led to the founding of Maclean’s in 1905, as well as the Financial Post, Chatelaine and Mayfair. The house on Austin Terrace was built in 1910 by John Lyle, the Canadian architect behind Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Much of Lyle’s work has been torn down, and the Maclean House is one of only a handful of Lyle buildings still standing in Toronto. Maclean died inside the home in 1950, at the age of 87.

Like Mihevc, Levy hopes the home’s unique history will be enough to save it. City council’s intervention, he says, would set an important precedent in a city where history has often been cast aside in the name of development. “We have so little heritage left,” he says. “Where does it stop? A city without heritage is a city without a soul.”