Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo by Metrix X from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
The mid-nineteenth century rise of Toronto as a city of industry and importance brought its citizens increasing wealth, education, and sophistication. No longer content with the amusements of a colonial backwater, Toronto’s culturally maturing society demanded more refined entertainment. So after the Great Fire of 1849, which destroyed much of the Market Block, the rebuilding plans included a new theatre. St. Lawrence Hall was built at the southwest corner of King and Jarvis streets in 1850.
Designed in the Renaissance Revival style by William Thomas, an immigrant from England who made his name as an architect and city engineer in Toronto, the exterior ornamentation included sculpted heads of the deities of the St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers and Lake Ontario, as well as carved fruits and flowers. Its Corinthian pillars and impressive cupola made it one of the most imposing public buildings in Canada. Inside, the Great Hall—with a high-vaulted ceiling, peach-coloured walls, and ivory woodwork—could seat one thousand people. St. Lawrence Hall was, literally and figuratively, the centre of the city.
Photo of St. Lawrence Hall (circa 1860) from Wikimedia Commons.
It was the city’s main public meeting hall. Sir John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, and George Brown addressed Toronto audiences here. In addition to the regular meetings of the Anti-Slavery Society held there, the 1851 North American Convention of Colored Freemen brought some prominent abolitionists to the city including Frederick Douglass and Samuel Ringgold Ward. Beyond politics, St. Lawrence Hall was the main venue for musicians and other performers visiting Toronto. Opera singer Adelina Patti performed there, as did P.T. Barnum’s diminutive star, Tom Thumb. The biggest act to play St. Lawrence Hall, however, was the world-renowned Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.
From Scandinavian roots, Lind’s fame grew across Europe as she performed before royalty and sold-out audiences. She was a muse for Hans Christian Andersen—her many suitors had also included Felix Mendelssohn and Frédéric Chopin—for “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Angel,” and “The Nightingale.” The latter was the source of her nickname, The Swedish Nightingale. Although P.T. Barnum, the American showman and impresario of inventive attractions, had never heard her perform, he saw the money-making potential of a North American tour. In early January 1850, Lind accepted Barnum’s offer of $1,000 per night (plus expenses) for an open-ended engagement of up to 150 concerts in the United States, Cuba, and Canada. To secure the necessary sum of $187,500, which Lind insisted upon being given in advance, Barnum had to mortgage all his commercial and residential properties.
Raising promotion and publicity to the level of “conceptual art,” Barnum advertised Lind, as one historian put it, “more on the basis of her virtue than of her talent.” His press releases reiterated her record of giving benefit concerts for hospitals and orphanages. Although she’d been a complete unknown in North America before Barnum, by the time Lind arrived in New York in September 1850, she was such a household name in North America that forty thousand people greeted her at the pier.
She was mobbed every place she visited on her North American tour between 1850 and 1852. Toronto was no different. Nordheimer’s Music Store, the only place in town to buy tickets, had to call in the police to erect barricades to control the crowd. According to John Goddard and Richard Crouse’s history of the Toronto music scene, all the seats were sold within two hours for her three shows at St. Lawrence Hall on October 21, 22, and 23, 1851. The proceeds from her first appearance were donated to the mayor for a Protestant orphans’ home. Her concerts, which featured a slightly different programme each night, also included supporting performances from Italian baritone Giovanni Belletti and the accompaniment of a young pianist, Otto Goldschmidt, whom she would marry before returning to Europe. The operatic portion of her shows included themes or arias from Handel’s Messiah, Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable. But she always closed her shows with more populist fare, such as Scottish ballads “John Anderson my Foe” and “Comin’ through the Rye,” and “The Echo Song,” a Norwegian melody. Lind was so popular with Canadian audiences that there’s even an island in Nunavut named in her honour.
The Lind concerts represented the St. Lawrence Hall at a peak of its social importance. As the city’s development shifted towards the north and west in the 1870s and it was surpassed by a number of larger and more modern theatres and ballrooms, the St. Lawrence Hall entered a long period of decline. While it was home to the National Ballet, the building became one of the first causes adopted by local preservationists. In 1967, it was restored as a centennial project and designated a National Historic Site. Although its days of hosting the world’s biggest stars, such as Jenny Lind, are behind it, St. Lawrence Hall enjoys new life as the site of countless weddings and as the headquarters of Heritage Toronto.
Concert advertisement from the Globe and Mail on October 21, 1851.