“A ‘Little Mexico’ on Lake Ontario”

Rippin' up Beech Avenue too. The El Pueblo apartments are there in all of their splendour.
The El Pueblo townhouses in all of their splendour. Image: Littlest Hobo, Season 2, Episode 2 “Duddleman and the Diamond Ring.” (1980)

Recently, I read a post by historian Richard White on his blog Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning called “Rejected Development.” Perhaps best known for his his recent publication, Planning Toronto: The Planners, The Plans, Their Legacies, 1940-80I read it with interest. In making an argument that planners in the postwar era did not always want to “‘bulldoze’ everything old and replace it with some lifeless, modern, tower-in-the-park sort of structure,” White offers the example of the rejected River Oaks tower development on Beech Avenue in the Beaches neighbourhood. The El Pueblo townhouse complex, which was constructed in its stead, has always stood out to me. Not only have I walked past it on a few occasions, but as a regular watcher of The Littlest Hobo, it was familiar.

El Pueblo from above, 2015. Image: Google Maps.
El Pueblo from above, 2015. Image: Google Maps.

The El Pueblo townhouses featured briefly in a 1980 episode of The Littlest Hobo titled “Duddleman and the Diamond Ring.” The second episode of the second season featured Henry Jones as a bumbling Beaches pawn shop owner who appears to have misplaced the wedding ring of a young couple. The episode was almost entirely filmed in the Beaches and viewers received a fairly extensive tour of the area along Queen Street East between Lee and Neville Park, though much of it takes place around Balmy Beach.1The episode can be watched on YouTube, if you’d like to follow the adventure.

El Pueblo from the front, 35 years after London's exploits. Image: Google Maps, 2015.
El Pueblo from the front, 35 years after London’s exploits. Image: Google Maps, 2015.

Who built El Pueblo (was it River Oaks, or did they sell the land to another developer?), or even more intriguing who designed it – this style had been popular in the American southwest earlier in the century, but was rare in Toronto – seems to have escaped council and planning board records, which is understandable since a building that meets the zoning of its site does not usually require municipal review, and I have not taken the time to investigate further.2Richard White. “Rejected Development,” Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning. July 4, 2016.

This was the question that intrigued me, so naturally, I looked into it.

Aerial photograph of the development, 1973. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Series 12, Image 43.
Aerial photograph of the development, 1973. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Series 12, Image 43.

On August 25, 1971, Mack Parliament of the Toronto Star reported that a developer known as Fidest Holdings had planned a 22-townhouse development on Beech Avenue in the Beaches, an area he characterized as one that had largely escaped development.3Mack Parliament. “Skyscraper boom can be dangerous architect contends,” Toronto Star, August 25, 1971, p. 21. The owner and designer of the project was Les Bachorz, a busy engineer-architect who had clearly learned from the difficulties faced by River Oaks when he designed the El Pueblo. Having demolished the existing six homes in the Spring, Bachorz found himself placed in the uncomfortable position of having the suspend the project for lack of funds. His design, which would be “unlike anything else in Metro,” was considered by lenders to be too premium a design for an area like the Beaches. Suffice to say, neither Bachorz or the real estate agents focused on the neighbourhood felt the same.4Mack Parliament. “Lenders don’t like Beaches,” Toronto Star, November 13, 1971, p. 23. Bachorz would eventually find the money and the project got off the ground shortly thereafter.

Les Bachorz' El Pueblo nearing completion, Winter 1973. Source: Toronto Star, January 6, 1973, p. 49.
Les Bachorz’ El Pueblo nearing completion, Winter 1973. Source: Toronto Star, January 6, 1973, p. 49.

During the winter of 1973, when the project was nearing completion, the Star’s Mack Parliament returned to chat with Bachorz about the project, which was billed as the “alternative to high-rise apartment buildings and an answer to attaining greater density without shooting skyward.”5Mack Parliament. “Beaches houses have Mexican flavour,” Toronto Star, January 6, 1973, p. 49. As far as the chosen Mission style was concerned, Bachorz did not wrap himself in a cloak of innovative wizardry: the compact village theme that he was inspired by was common elsewhere in the world, though he did adapt it to Canadian needs. As was the case with the River Oaks proposal that preceded it, Bachorz did face local opposition, though in this case it was successfully navigated. This was accomplished in no small part due to the design and – more importantly – Bachorz chose to aim the development at a wealthier clientele, which neutralized some of the more common reasons rental units are opposed.6Ibid.

An advertisement run in the Star for the El Pueblo. Source: Toronto Star, February 23, 1973, p. 31.
An advertisement run in the Star for the El Pueblo. Source: Toronto Star, February 23, 1973, p. 31.

Bachorz passed away in 2013 at 91. Having been in semi-retirement for some years, he was convinced to commit his life’s story to paper.7”Obituary for Les Celestyn Bachorz,” Toronto Star, August 26, 2013; “Obituary for Les Celestyn Bachorz,” Globe and Mail, August 26, 2013. In his resulting autobiography, 5 Nardozin, i Requiem (Five Lives and Requiem), Bachorz outlined the development of his El Pueblo development in more detail. The  chosen design was, in effect, the result of his being captivated by the enclosed village form as he observed it on a vacation to Mexico in 1969. He also regarded it as a considerable refinement on what he had tried to accomplish in Sudbury with his Laurentian Village development insofar that he strove to lend it a stronger and more definite identity.8Les Celestyn Bachorz. 5 Lives and Requiem, trans. Andrew Sozanski. Unedited, Unpublished, March 28, 2012, p. 72.

Advertisement reproduced from an unnamed "trade magazine". Source: L.C. Bachorz. Five
Advertisement reproduced from an unnamed “trade magazine”. Source: L.C. Bachorz. Five Lives and a Requiem. Page 74.

Perhaps just as importantly, Bachorz outlined how he came to own the property and some of the troubles with development its previous owner, who he only identifies as Herzog.

I approached some real estate salesman, specializing in sales of lots in Toronto, to find me a lot of approximately 70m x70m. Charlie Kaplan responded. Later, I found out that he was the father of Robert, who had set up my corporate structure. According to Charlie, his friend Herzog, a Hungarian Jew, had a lot of that size in the Beaches district. It was then an impoverished district on Lake Ontario, in the east part of the city.

Herzog had purchased 6 or 7 ramshackle buildings, some unoccupied, on Beech Street. For some years he had tried to build there a small apartment block, but regulations did not allow it. In order to change the regulations, acquiescence of both the municipality and of the neighbours was required. But neighbours had differing ideas. Some did not like change, even for the better. Others did not like it, or were envious of others, or sought a recompense for their backing.

I liked this lot. A quiet street, close to the lake, the size was right and it had some large oak trees. I perused the regulations and was convinced that they could not be changed. Herzog tried for several years to no avail. Regulations did not permit buildings higher than 9.5m high. They also required each building to have independent access to the street. They did permit, however multiple residences, provided the above criteria were satisfied.

I did not care how tall the building should be. And as for access to the street, I wanted the opposite, in order to be shut out from the noises and smells of the street. It came to me, that instead of building upwards, why not – sideways?… As long as we would build town houses, not apartments. I found the answer in the definition of apartment. It did not specify whether the apartment should stretch upwards or sideways. The basic requirement of this definition was that all apartments of the building must be connected by a corridor with a safe exit.9Ibid, pp. 72-3.

Just as he stated to the Star, according to Bachorz, the reason that he had difficulty securing financing for the project was due to the location. Banks and insurance companies, he claimed, felt that the Beaches was a neighbourhood on the decline and a poor risk. It was only with the help of his bank manager, Charles Leonard, that he was able to secure a small loan to get the project started. Of course, the Beaches have to Beach, and once the finances were cleared and the building permit issued, he had to contend with renewed community opposition. In this case, it was mainly on the basis that the project would come at the cost of seven large oak trees. Additionally, some opposed the project for its design, feeling that the Mission style was a poor fit for the area.10Ibid, p. 73. A year after its completion, in 1974, the El Pueblo won Bachorz an award for the “best project of the year” and its court yard had come to be frequently used as a filming location.11Ibid, p. 74.

The El Pueblo was far from Bachorz’ first project and it was not his last. In  the next instalment, I will outline a number of his projects, both in the GTA and elsewhere in the province.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. The episode can be watched on YouTube, if you’d like to follow the adventure.
2. Richard White. “Rejected Development,” Historical Perspectives on Toronto Planning. July 4, 2016.
3. Mack Parliament. “Skyscraper boom can be dangerous architect contends,” Toronto Star, August 25, 1971, p. 21.
4. Mack Parliament. “Lenders don’t like Beaches,” Toronto Star, November 13, 1971, p. 23.
5. Mack Parliament. “Beaches houses have Mexican flavour,” Toronto Star, January 6, 1973, p. 49.
6. Ibid.
7. ”Obituary for Les Celestyn Bachorz,” Toronto Star, August 26, 2013; “Obituary for Les Celestyn Bachorz,” Globe and Mail, August 26, 2013.
8. Les Celestyn Bachorz. 5 Lives and Requiem, trans. Andrew Sozanski. Unedited, Unpublished, March 28, 2012, p. 72.
9. Ibid, pp. 72-3.
10. Ibid, p. 73.
11. Ibid, p. 74.

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