An Attempt to Give Credit Where It’s Due
I’ve now had the privilege of giving two talks, for the Beach & East Toronto Historical Society, about the Price Brothers and their impact on the development of the Beach. One of the things that most struck me, in preparing for those talks, was the important but virtually forgotten role of Harry Stevens.
It was Harry, a carpenter and grocer with no architectural training whatsoever, who designed all those iconic Price Brothers buildings that grace the streets of the Beach district, south of Queen Street and between Leuty Avenue and Maclean Avenue. Some of those same buildings have since been included in Toronto’s Heritage Register because of their cultural value. In 2012, the city’s Urban Design Guidelines for Queen Street East stressed the importance of protecting them, again because of their cultural value.
With No More Than a “Knack for Designing,” He Created a Lasting Architectural Legacy
In July of 1928, when the Toronto Globe did a two-and-a-half page spread about the development of that part of the Beach, the final page included – almost as an afterthought – a brief article citing Harry’s contribution as the company’s buyer, building superintendent, and architect. As far as I know, that article is the only evidence there is of Harry’s contribution.
So, if it seems that history has forgotten Harry’s astounding architectural achievement, this post is part of my effort to correct that oversight. What I’m going to do is share the Globe article with you, and then tell you pretty much everything I have been able to learn about Harry Stevens.
The Globe Article – July 2, 1928 – p. 12
Here is the article as it appeared in the Globe that day, followed by a transcription.
Price Bros.’ Buyer is Harry Stevens
Superintendent, Architect and Factotum With Company 21 Years
A Competent Official
One of the bulwarks of Price Brothers who are putting up 100 double duplexes in the site of old Scarboro’ Beach Park is Harry Stevens. Harry Stevens is the building superintendent, and the right bower of the Price Brothers in planning, superintending and in anything pertaining to the welfare of the company. For 21 years Mr. Stevens has been with the father and the sons.
He is, as well as the superintendent, the firm architect. He plans the building. Having a knack for designing, he has drawn the plans for the handsome residences that line the streets of that area.
Some of them are built in semi colonial style, with heavy Spanish pillars, while variety is lent to others by the Spanish portico effect. One commendatory thing about this subdivision is that the buildings have not the sameness of a group of miners’ houses built by a coal company. All of them have a certain amount of individuality, that raises the aesthetic tone of the locality and puts the houses in the preferred residence class. The city lines the streets with trees and the building restrictions keep the houses back, thus giving the locality a very handsome appearance.
Mr. Stevens is not only the architect, but he has charge of 250 men. Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of material pass through his hands. He is also the buyer, and a shrewd purchaser he is. He has helped earn the high esteem in which the company holds him by his clever buying, the flair for knowing exactly what a thing is worth, and offering that much, and not one cent more, for it. All these things help make Mr. Stevens very valuable to his firm, and Mr. Price Sr. is not slow in sounding the praises of the man who has spent his working life with that firm.Toronto Globe, July 2, 1928, p 12
Harry’s Early Life
Known throughout his life as “Harry,” his full name was actually James Henry Stevens and he was born in England on October 10, 1882. His father was John Henry Stevens (1852-1929) and his mother was Mary Emily Banks (?-about 1887).
Harry was about three when his parents immigrated to Canada, together with him and his three sisters, Florence (1876-?), Mary (1883-?), and Lillian (1884-1969). The family settled in what is now the east end of Toronto, where Harry’s father worked as a market gardener. One more child, Harry’s younger brother Frederick John “Fred” Stevens (1886-1953), was born on December 30, 1886.
The family’s first home in Canada was on Jones Avenue, probably just south of what is now Gerrard, where there were a number of market gardens, but they would soon move to the village of Todmorden, on the east side of the Don River. The village exists in name only now, as a neighbourhood nestled between the Don Valley Parkway and O’Connor Drive.
Harry’s mother died within a year of little Fred’s birth. In fact, it may be that she died giving him birth. On May 2, 1888, just sixteen months after Fred was born, Harry’s father married his second wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hart (1844-1911) in Toronto.
So, from the time Harry was five, he and his sisters and brother were raised by their stepmother.
By the mid-1890s the family had moved to the town of East Toronto (now the Beach), where John had a market garden on the north side of Queen Street East just west of Lee Avenue.1 Around 1901, they moved to Pickering, where John became a farmer.
We’re not sure exactly when Harry moved back to the Toronto area, but we know that it had happened by 1905. That was that year that he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Theobald (1882-1952), on October 25. She had also been born in England, the daughter of Albert Theobald (1859-1886) and Maria Snooks (1860-1939), and had arrived in Canada as an infant in 1883.
Like Harry, Elizabeth had lost a parent when she was very young, and was raised in the home of a step-parent. Her father died when she was three and, just as Harry’s father had done in the same circumstances, Elizabeth’s mother remarried quickly. In less than a year, Elizabeth and her brother and sister had a new stepfather, William Blackwell.
Working for Joe Price and Starting a Family
It was 1907, more or less, when Joe Price hired Harry to work for him as a carpenter.2 It’s not clear whether Harry worked on Joe’s billboards or on his rental houses on Lee Avenue. It’s likely that he did both.
During the first years of their marriage, Harry and Elizabeth lived in one rented home after another. Between 1908 and 1914, they went from an apartment over the store at 1950 Queen Street East (where Book City is now) to 27 Kenilworth Crescent, to 11½ Spencer Avenue, to a semi-detached at 197 Lee Avenue, to 48 Bellefair Avenue, and then to another house on Bellefair, number 182.
In 1911, according to the census taken that year, Joe Price was paying Harry 38 cents an hour. A year’s work earned Harry 700 dollars. It was enough for Harry and Elizabeth to start a family. They would have three sons, James Frederick (known as “Fred”), John Henry (known as “Jack”), and Theo (maybe short for Theobald?). Fred was born in Toronto on October 26, 1909. James was born on February 6, 1912, also in Toronto. I don’t know when Theo was born, but it appears he was the youngest.3
By 1915, Harry’s wages had risen enough to let him buy a house. It was a quaint little single-family wood-frame house at 239 Kenilworth Avenue.4
By 1921, again according to the census, Harry was earning 1,250 a year, still working as a carpenter. But then his career would take an unexpected turn.
He Tries His Hand at the Grocery Business
In order to understand what Harry does next, you need to let me backtrack and tell you what Harry’s father and stepmother(s) had been doing in the meantime.
About 1907, when Harry first went to work for the Price family, his father and stepmother, John and Lizzie, moved back to the Beach area and opened a grocery store at 109 Main Street.5 They lived on the premises and, while Lizzie was minding the store, John would peddle their produce door-to-door from the back of his horse-drawn wagon.
Lizzie died on December 21, 1911, leaving John a widower for the second time. As he had done before, he wasted no time in remarrying. This time it was to Georgina Cumming (1868-1933), a Scotswoman, 16 years his junior, who had come to live in Canada just three years earlier. The wedding was on December 26, 1912, a year and five days after Lizzie’s death. John was 60 and Georgina was 44.
John kept on running his grocery store on Main Street and would do so until 1921 when, at the age of 69, he must have found it to be too much for him, even with Georgina’s help.
That was when Harry stepped in.
In 1922, Harry took over the running of his father’s business. He sold the house on Kenilworth and moved with his family, five in all, into the residence attached to the store. That, and not carpentry or architecture, would be his primary occupation for the next four or five years.
Back to Work for the Prices
It was sometime in 1925 or 1926 that Harry went back to working for the Prices.6 That was just when Joe needed him most, as the old Scarboro’ Beach Amusement Park site was coming onto the market and Joe was perfecting his plan to populate that land with the fourplexes and duplexes that Harry would soon design and build.
I’ve been unable to find out where Harry and his family were living after 1924. There’s no trace of them in Toronto.
Given that Harry had lived part of his youth east of Toronto in Pickering, that two of his children would later live in Myrtle and Port Perry, and that Harry and Elizabeth would live in Ajax later in life, my best guess is that the family moved somewhere out that way, in the mid 1920s, and that Harry commuted in to work daily.
Elizabeth died in Ajax, at their home at 7 Elgin Street, on February 8, 1952. She was 69 years old and a grandmother of five.
Harry died at the hospital in Port Perry on September 22, 1958, six years after his beloved Elizabeth. He was 75.
They are buried together at Pine Hills Cemetery in Scarborough.
Harry and Elizabeth’s Descendants
To the best of my knowledge, Harry and Elizabeth have at least two living grandchildren, at least four living great grandchildren, and a number of great great grandchildren. They almost certainly have more, but I have been unable to trace the others.
I hope Harry’s descendants see this post and that it helps them to understand what an extraordinary man their ancestor was. I also hope that they’ll join me in my campaign to have his achievement recognized.
Here’s what I can tell you about those living descendants, taking care to respect their privacy.
The ones I know of are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of Harry and Elizabeth’s son, James Frederick “Fred” Stevens (1909-?). He married Elizabeth Gilroy (1912-2005) in 1935 and had three children.
One of those children, Donald Frederick “Don” Stevens, died in Oshawa on January 12, 2013 at the age of 76. According to his obituary, he was survived by his brother and sister (who would also be Harry and Elizabeth’s grandchildren), and by three nephews and a niece (who would be four of their great grandchildren).
These are the living descendants I’m talking about.
According to Elizabeth’s 1952 obituary, she and Harry had two other grandchildren (sons of Jack or Theo) for a total of five. Unfortunately I have yet to find anything about these other two.
I started researching and writing about the story of Joe Price and his sons because they are my family. Harry Stevens isn’t my family but I find that I am just as moved by his story; maybe even more so because he has been so overlooked by history.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about him, and that you feel the same way about him and his achievements.
1 The Toronto city directories for 1896 through 1901 show Harry’s family living at 2200 Queen Street East, but it appears that the numbering of that part of the street has changed since then. The directories from that time show 2200 as being west of Hammersmith, but the 2200 range is now east of Hammersmith.
2 The July 1928 article in the Toronto Globe says that Harry had worked for the Price Family for 21 years by that time.
3 When the children are listed in Harry and Elizabeth’s obituary, the order is alway Fred, then Jack, then Theo, suggesting that Theo is the youngest.
4 That house has recently been demolished and a strikingly modern building has replaced it. Images available on Google Street View show that the old building was standing in May 2014 but the new building had replaced it by July 2017.
5 The store was on the east side of Main, between Swanwick and Gerrard, where Kimberley Junior Public School is now.
6 It may be that Harry did some part-time work for Joe and his sons during the four or five years he ran the grocery store. The 1928 article in the Globe certainly gives the impression that Harry had spent all of 21 years working for the Prices.
In my two talks for the Beach & East Toronto Historical Society in 2019 and 2021, I said that Harry and his wife Lizzie were living in a modest apartment at 1911 Queen Street East in 1946. That is incorrect. Another man named Harry Stevens was living in that apartment with his wife, but it was not this Harry Stevens. I apologize for the error.
For the sources for what I claim to be true in this post, please feel free to contact me using the reply feature below or the contact page.