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What the Old Don Jail Might Have Been

An old proposal found hidden in the stacks at Toronto Reference Library details a long-abandoned plan to turn the jail into a community centre.

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The original part of the Don Jail, built in 1865 and now known as the Old Don Jail, features stunning Renaissance Revival architecture, and is considered one of Toronto’s most iconic buildings. Even though it has been called an “embarrassment to the Canadian criminal justice system,” and even though it was the site of hangings, floggings, and numerous other horrors, it has heritage status, which protects it from demolition. Construction is currently underway to incorporate it into the Bridgepoint Health Centre, a neighbouring hospital. The newer part of the facility will be shuttered for good this year, as the Toronto South Detention Centre, a newly built west-end superjail, takes its place.

But in 1980, the Don Jail Preservation Society had its own plans for the aging building. The non-profit, resident-led organization (now defunct) intended to buy the land and perform repairs and renovations. Their vision is detailed in a document called “The Old Don Jail Tomorrow.” The proposal, now buried in the stacks at the Toronto Reference Library, is a fairly quick read at just 22 pages. It was a little on the kooky side, so it’s no wonder it never came to fruition.

You can click through the image gallery, above, for a look at the society’s vision. Here’s how it’s summarized in the report:

“Restored and put to new uses, the Old Don Jail, located near to the Riverdale Park and easy public access, would provide the City of Toronto with a major new recreational, tourist, and cultural focus.”

The plan went like this: Prison cells would be converted into apartments and retirement residences. 160 separate units in the jail’s rebuilt wings would include bachelor, single-bedroom, and two-bedroom suites. The main rotunda would house the Don Jail Museum of Crime and Penology. The ground level would have a European-style coffee house and a restaurant with an 80-foot-high skylight. The gallows and murderer’s row would be restored to their original condition and maintained as part of the museum.

The basement would have a small community theatre where local groups would perform rehearsals. Residents would also have access to a health club, laundry, archives, and medical services on site. Nurses and personal care workers would be on hand to take care of elderly retirees in their times of need.

The Don Jail Preservation Society wanted to extend the west wing and relocate the St. Matthew’s Lawn Bowling Club’s clubhouse (the City actually ended up moving the clubhouse a few years ago, to allow Bridgepoint to expand). The green space around the jail would be used for “the gentle pursuit of lawn bowling,” as the proposal puts it.

A search through the City of Toronto Archives turned up no record of this proposal in City Council minutes. Even Heritage Toronto and then-Mayor John Sewell couldn’t provide any insight into what became of this bizarre plan. Herbert Spencer Clark, the author of the proposal, passed away in 1986, taking with him any information that could have explained its fate.

Even local history buffs couldn’t offer much in the way of leads. “I would speculate that it was a local initiative by an informal group of possibly local residents,” said Gerald Whyte of the Riverdale Historical Society in an email. “Concern about the use of the Old Jail has been constant since it closed in 1977.”

While it may never be turned into a community centre, and people will never hurl bowling balls across its lawn, the Old Don Jail will remain a reminder of a darker time in Toronto’s past.

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