Early Hollywood Star Mary Pickford and Her Toronto Houses

October 25, 2021 | Pamela

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As an early Hollywood actress, Mary Pickford (1892–1979) was one of the most famous people in the world. Pickford's introduction to acting can be traced back to the red brick house that she was born in on University Avenue in Toronto. 

This post features digitized postcards and photos related to Pickford from TPL's Baldwin Collection of Canadiana. These historical items — some of which are newly scanned — show Pickford and the Toronto houses she lived in or owned. The houses were important to Pickford either as a source of nostalgia or as a creative way to raise money for victims of war.

Collage of illustrations showing top of house and maple leaf emblem next to woman standing in front of house door
Portion of postcard of Pickford at her birthplace on University Avenue, 1924. View on our Digital Archive.


Who was Mary Pickford?

Mary Pickford was a Toronto-born stage and screen actress, screenwriter, director, producer and philanthropist. Her career paralleled the fledgling art of filmmaking.

Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, “The Girl with the Curls” and “Queen of the Movies”, Pickford starred in 41 short films and 52 features, producing half of them through her own production company. She co-founded United Artists Film Studios in 1919 and was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1929).

Pickford is associated with many firsts in movie-making, including:

  • First Canadian to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. (In 1976 the Academy awarded Pickford her second Oscar for lifetime achievement.)
  • First actress to earn a million dollars.
  • First female star to found her own corporation (in 1915), pioneering the concept of the independent star/producer.

To learn more, read BBC's article Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Shaped Hollywood.

Here are a few images of Pickford from our Digital Archive.

Mary Pickford in elegant drss posing on bench in front of ornate wall
Photograph of Pickford from our Toronto Star Photograph Archive, approximately 1920s. View on our Digital Archive.
Hand colored picture of Mary Pickford in a loose dress.
Picture of Pickford for "Famous Cinema Star Series", approximately 1920. View on our Digital Archive.
Mary Pickford on stage with text reading As Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew and autograph reading Cordially Mary Pickford
Pickford as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, 1929. View on our Digital Archive.
Portrait of Mary Pickford in a black coat and hat with her hands on her hips.
Portrait of Pickford, approximately 1930. View on our Digital Archive.


House on University Avenue

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892, to John Smith and Charlotte Hennessey at their home at 175 University Avenue. It was a small, red brick building. As the city expanded and University Avenue extended southward, the number on the house became 211 and then 561. There was a grassy median separating the houses from the street. The three-bedroom, two-story house had a garden in the backyard and gas lights in all of the rooms.

Along with her two younger siblings Charlotte, “Lottie” (1893–1936) and John Charles, “Jack” (1893–1933) who would also become actors, Mary lived with her parents, aunt and grandmother in this house.

 The house where Mary Pickford was born. which is brick and two stories
Postcard of Pickford's house on University Avenue, 1925. View on our Digital Archive.
An illustration of Mary Pickford's birth place at 211 University Ave
Stylized postcard of the house on University Avenue, approximately 1930. View on our Digital Archive.

In 2017, Toronto Star published an article that quoted a woman who had lived at 211 University Avenue in the 1920s. She remembered tour buses driving by filled with people snapping pictures. She realized she was living in the home of someone quite famous.

A group of people on a bus tour outside of the house where Mary Pickford was born.
Postcard of tour bus at 211 University Avenue, 1925. View on our Digital Archive.

During a CBC interview in 1959, Pickford reminisced about her family’s early years and her life-long love of Toronto. When her father died in 1898, her family members dispersed due to a lack of money. Her mother became determined to restore the family, learning to be a seamstress and taking in boarders. One of the boarders was the stage manager of a company called the Valentine Stock company. He asked Mrs. Smith if her three children could appear in a production. Mary Pickford was five years old and remained in the theatre ever after.

In the same interview, Pickford talks about riding her bicycle down University Avenue from Yonge Street to Queen Street. University Avenue was the same width it is today but it was lined with trees, flowers and houses. She recalled to another reporter how she used to pick the little white flowers there.

Street view of University Avenue looking north.
Postcard reading: "University Avenue, Parliament Buildings at head of Avenue, Toronto", approximately 1910. View on our Digital Archive.

Pickford, her siblings and their now stage mother left Toronto around 1902 to go to live in New York. But she returned several times to visit the house where she was born.

On March 24, 1924, the Toronto Star ran a story about her visit to her birthplace. At the time, she hadn't seen it in twelve years. She was staying with her husband (Douglas Fairbanks Senior) and her mother at the King Edward Hotel. She told reporters her trip was sentimental — she wanted to visit the house on University Avenue., the Christie Street Hospital to meet some of the sick soldiers and go to Mount Pleasant cemetery to see the graves of her father and grandparents.

Mary Pickford in fur coat and hat standing in front of the house where she was born.
Postcard of Pickford in front of 211 University Avenue, 1924. View on our Digital Archive.

On May 10, 1934, the Toronto Star again reported on a visit Pickford was making to Toronto. At the Royal York where she was staying, she reflected on the city of her youth:

“The old belt line is gone isn’t it…it was one of the joys of my youth. There’s still Hanlans’ Point and I can go visit that… We didn’t own the house on University but I own the house my aunt occupies and I also have some property on North Yonge Street so I am still a tax payer.”

On May 3, 1940, Pickford again returned to Toronto with her third husband, Buddy Rogers. Landing at the Island airport, she eagerly asked a reporter about the house on University Avenue:

“Is my old house still standing? You know I am keen of mind to buy that old house and put a tearoom in it with the proceeds going toward the Hospital for Sick Children. I have worked on the idea for so long. I have been told I can buy the house but if I want the ground I will have to buy practically the entire block. And at what a price. I don’t believe the house would be of much interest if moved….. it’s the location that counts. It’s my birthplace and I do want it and I do want to help the mothers and children of Toronto."

Pickford revered the memory of that house on University Avenue. When it was torn down in 1943 she had twenty bricks from it saved and sent to her in California as souvenirs. At the time of demolition, it was reported that the new Mount Sinai Hospital was going to be built on the site where the Pickford house was.

Boarded up brick house
House at 211 University Avenue. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1938. View on our Digital Archive.
Mary Pickford in fur coat looks over fence supported by two men
Pickford looks over fence to see where her birthplace house once stood. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1948. View on our Digital Archive.

In the end, the house was demolished to make way for the new Hospital for Sick Children. There is a plaque and a bust of Mary standing close to where the house was at University Avenue and Elm Street. On May 16, 1983, her widower, Buddy Rogers and Toronto mayor, Art Eggleton dedicated the bust sculpted which was commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation.

Old man kissing statue of Mary Pickford
Buddy Rogers, Pickford's third husband, kissing a statue of the late Mary Pickford. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1983. View on our Digital Archive.


House on Dewson Street

Mary Pickford also owned a home on Dewson Street which may have belonged to her aunt Charlotte Edith Smith who passed away on June 17, 1941. Pickford’s plan was to use the house for fundraising efforts: "I want to donate the house to some Canadian war effort; to bring Canadian cash to the war effort particularly the mothers and children of men serving the empire inactive forces” (Toronto Star, January 9, 1942).

On Saturday, September 18, 1942, the Toronto Star ran an ad in the properties for sale section:

“Mary Pickford of Hollywood California is donating her Toronto home on Dewson Street to provide funds to further a plan to raise a considerable amount for British War Victims. The home is well constructed, solid brick detached. It has 8 rooms, water heating and is tastefully decorated throughout. It is perfect condition. It is to be sold for $5,000 cash in order for a larger undertaking to take place. To be seen by appointment. Eastwood Realty 261a, Coxwell Ave.”

The exact address on Dewson Street was not indicated.


House on Glenwood Crescent

On October 29, 1942, the Globe and Mail newspaper reported that construction of the "Mary Pickford Bungalow" at Glenwood Road had started the day before when Reeve John Warren of East York Township had turned the first sod.

The value of the house and property was given as $15,000. Pickford must have deduced that much more money could be raised by raffling off a new house in the new Woodbine Gardens development, a hidden enclave at the northern end of the massive Woodbine bridge. The bridge was built in 1932 and the Woodbine Gardens neighbourhood is located on the former site of the Woodbine Golf and Country Club which operated there during the 1930s.

Woodbine Gardens houses first sold for between $14,000 and $19,000.The first house built in this neighbourhood was the Mary Pickford War Bungalow at 90 Glenwood Crescent.

New bridge and road in empty subdivision
Woodbine bridge, leading to the Woodbine Gardens neighbourhoods. View on our Digital Archive.

Ontario premier Gordon Daniel Conant laid the cornerstone to the house on December 2, 1942. Pickford sent a telegram and The Globe and Mail reported that the telegram and some other items would probably be deposited in the cornerstone.

In May of 1943, both the Toronto Star and The Globe and mail excitedly reported that Pickford would be coming to dedicate the bungalow at Glenwood Crescent and O’Connor Drive, East York on May 24. Shares(raffle tickets) could be purchased at the information desk of the Simpsons’ department store for $1.

On behalf of the Bungalow project, Mary appeared on several local radio programs.

Two side by side square print ads with just text
Two newspaper ads for Pickford's War Fund Bungalow. Left: Globe & Mail, May 24, 1943; "You are invited to be present to see Mary Pickford in person officially open the Mary Pickford Bungalow. Glenwood Crescent (O'Connor Drive, just east of Woodbine Ave.) Monday, May 24, at 3 p.m. Bus service every few minutes from Danforth and Woodbine." Right: Toronto Star, August 19, 1943: " Only 6 days left until the owner of the Mary Pickford Bungalow will be determined at the Fair for Britain. Shares still on sale $1."

Mary Pickford opened the War Fund Bungalow on May 24 by turning a gold key into the front door lock.

5,000 people gathered to celebrate the completion of the home. It was built under the sponsorship of the Lions International District A and the Gerrard Business Men’s Association. Proceeds were divided between the British Child War Victims Fund, The Evening Telegram British War Victims Fund and the Malta War Victims Fund.

Pickford exclaimed over the compactness of the bungalow, its five rooms and rumpus room in the cellar. The kitchen was fully equipped thanks to a $2,500 donation from General Electric. The lucky shareholder was also to be given a life membership in the Woodbine Golf Course and a year’s supply of Baker’s Bread.

Mary Pickford signing door of house
Pickford signing the entrance to The Mary Pickford War Funds Bungalow, 1943. Photo from Digital Museums Canada.

The lucky ticket was number 196-A. It belonged to George Ellis. He had no idea when he went to an evening baseball game on August 26, 1943, he would return home the winner of the completely furnished Pickford Bungalow. The ticket was drawn out of more than 100,000 by Ontario Premier George Drew at the Fair for Britain. Mr. Ellis, an employee of the Consumer’s Gas Company on Eastern Avenue, told The Globe and Mail the next day that he intended to sell the house which was valued at $17,000 because “It’s too good for me.” He preferred to remain in his home at 30 Robinson Street in Scarborough.

Screenshot 2021-10-06 3.00.05 PM
Mary Pickford Bungalow, 90 Glenwood Crescent. Author's photo, 2021. (Movie trivia: right across from the Pickford bungalow is the home featured in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)

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