Living the High Life
Behind the Victorian façades above Broadway lives a lofty community devoted to the many delights of downtown living.
Pale blue above, pastel clouds at the horizon, from my back deck I see Venus, the morning star, keeping company with Jupiter and a sliver of moon in the early sky. Out front, across Broadway, works crews have already set out orange cones to stop cars turning up Second Street as the first vendors arrive at the Orangeville farmers’ market.
This morning early arrivers hold steaming coffees close to their chests, cupped to warm both hands. They shiver and shake off lingering sleepiness as they arrange tents and tables. By eight o’clock it looks like a carnival has set up beside Town Hall. And from my second-storey window I have a ringside view.
When Susan and I decided to move onto Broadway, we considered it a temporary step, but soon settled into a warm and growing community. Four years later, we’re still here, and have no plans to move on.
One of our new neighbours, Barb McDiarmid, an artist with a studio at Alton Mill, moved into a two-storey condominium on the north side of Broadway five years ago. She and her partner Rae Brown are thrilled to be living where almost everything they need is so close at hand. “I can walk anywhere,” Barb says, “the library, the bank … sometimes I take my dog Magoo to Canadian Tire because they let me take her in. Inevitably I run into someone I know. The shopkeepers are all very friendly and welcoming.”
And in spite of living downtown, Barb says, when she looks out to Broadway from her lofty windows, “I see trees and leaves and flowers.”
You have no doubt walked right by our homes, but you’ve got to look up to see them – up to the second and third floors above the storefronts. The skillful work of the early tradesmen is still evident in the intricate brickwork of the Victorian façades, but today, behind those façades are comfortable apartments, well suited to contemporary living.
Another of our Broadway neighbours, real estate agent David Maguire was instrumental in recreating some of the living space above Broadway. He now lives in a spacious loft over a store east of the Town Hall. Forty years ago a major fire gutted the building that encompasses 117 to 123 Broadway. What saved the adjacent buildings was thick, triple-brick walls. The owners at the time replaced roofs and installed false ceilings to get the stores back in business quickly. But above them, they left things much as the fire had – a gaping emptiness – no floors, only exterior walls supporting the roofs.
Years later, when the building came up for sale, David encouraged a group of Toronto investors to rebuild the upper floors as condominium apartments. The same group renovated another building on the south side that had also been empty for a long time. In fact, scrawled on one wall was graffito signed by the Island brothers who lived on the farm that is now under Island Lake. It was dated 1897. “We were leaving our footprints in decades of dust,” David says.
Some of Broadway’s apartments, like Barb’s, have two full storeys. David’s has a cathedral ceiling and sleeping loft. And some, like ours, have decks or accessible rooftops, green oases above the bustle of downtown.
You might think living above Broadway harkens back to a time when merchants lived above their stores, but Wayne Townsend, curator at Dufferin County Museum and Archives, says that was not always the case. Often the upper floors housed offices for lawyers and other professionals or businesses, such as photography studios or stationery stores. “The merchants themselves,” he says, “lived just off Broadway in the houses along First Avenue, Zina and York.”
Not so Kathleen Henning, owner of Henning Salon. She started her business in her home in an Orangeville subdivision, later moving it to a storefront on Zina Street. But, she says, “I had a vision of my dream salon downstairs and living upstairs.” So when the space at 193 Broadway came up for rent, she leapt at the opportunity. A year later she bought the building and she and her husband Jeff Brown moved into the second floor apartment.
A heritage gem, their apartment still had its original, highly ornate trim, but it was dark and heavily lacquered in the style of its period, and though the ceilings were high, the rooms were small. This year Kathleen and Jeff opened up the space, preserving the architectural details, but painting all the trim a gleaming white, with the exception of a built-in, glass-front dining cabinet. The result is a bright and airy contemporary space that sweeps the length of the building.
Nathan Hathaway and Brenda Gray used the same design strategy for their place in one of the condominiums David Maguire had helped bring back. “We wanted a bigger place to entertain,” says Nathan. “So I took down a wall and really opened it up. We had 18 here for a family dinner.”
Even so, many of us who have moved to new urban quarters above Broadway have had to do some serious downsizing. Susan and I had difficult decisions about which of our art and crafts to keep or give away. Barb McDiarmid had the added challenge of closing her antique business when she moved. “I tried to get rid of as much as I could,” she says. “Still, there are so many things that you think are special.” When the dust settled, one of her bedrooms was piled to the ceiling. It took her another year and a half to get rid of it.
David Maguire kept all his special things. Or so it seems. His loft is filled with collections of toys, books, pinball machines and other items he has been buying, trading and selling for decades. Still, the process of moving was “brutal,” he says. “I sold about half my collection at auctions and toy shows. I still have two storage units.”
However, it wasn’t just years of accumulation we all left behind. We no longer have lawns to mow, driveways to shovel, or gardens to weed – though I still have a garden of sorts – pots on the deck where we grow tomatoes, herbs, salad greens and flowers. (In fact, our large back deck really serves as another room, where we can sit quietly with our morning coffee, read in the afternoon, dine and entertain in the evening.)
And the best part? We don’t have to drive. We walk everywhere, whatever the weather.
When we’re hungry, we can step out to enjoy the tastes of Japan, Jamaica, or an English pub. We can linger over a fine meal at one of several downtown restaurants or grab a quick bite, such as a healthy smoothie from Euphoria or a sweet treat with fresh coffee from Mochaberry. On Saturdays we can be first in line at the Farmers’ Market, and come back with a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, artisanal cheeses, breads and cakes.
One winter Susan and I had planned a family get-together at One99 on Broadway, but a blizzard blew in and we ended up being the only two in the restaurant. We enjoyed it immensely, and trudged home along the silent street through hip-deep drifts as the snow made halos around the street lamps.
We’re also an easy walk to all kinds of arts and entertainment, including the paintings and craftwork at Dragonfly Arts (and the art supplies at Maggiolly), the plays at Theatre Orangeville, and the live music on Thursday nights at Mochaberry (and the music lessons at Aardvark). During this summer’s Blues and Jazz Festival, Susan and I sat under the canopy on our deck in the drizzling rain with glasses of wine and listened to the music from the main stage. Indeed, when any parade or festival comes to town, we have front row seats.
“It’s a simple life,” said Kathleen Henning, “Everything you need is right here.” David Maguire concurs. “It’s a unique lifestyle, not for a family really, but a single person or couple. My brother lives near Waterloo and has been coming down for years. He says it’s one of the nicest downtowns in Ontario.”
In the dark of early morning, the cars drive east along Broadway, heading toward the cities and work. At night the same parade heads west. I can’t help but wonder if the drivers know how much they’re missing.
Editor’s error: In the print version, Brenda Gray was misidentified in the caption to the photo of the kitchen she renovated with Nathan Hathaway. Her name has been corrected on this site.