Historicist: Campbell House on the Move
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Historicist: Campbell House on the Move

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

The procession following Campbell House, March 31, 1972. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 146.

Anyone crossing Adelaide Street between Jarvis and University on the morning of March 31, 1972, would have noticed a slow procession moving in the opposite direction of the street’s normal traffic flow. A crowd had gathered to follow the move of Campbell House, a century-and-a-half-old building that was spared a date with a wrecking ball that other historic buildings in Toronto had experienced during the preceding decade. The relocation was due, as Joni Mitchell might have said, to one company’s desire to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Coutts Hallmark bids Campbell House adieu, March 31, 1972. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 147.

When jurist Sir William Campbell built his Georgian-style home overlooking the intersection of Frederick Street and Duke (now Adelaide) Street in 1822, it was said that he had a clear view of the peninsula across the harbour. Following Campbell’s death in 1834, growth of the city obscured that view from a building that served at various times as a home, factory, office space, and warehouse. By the dawn of the 1970s the property owner, greeting-card maker Coutts Hallmark, was eager to demolish the building to make way for an expanded parking lot. When the Advocates’ Society purchased Campbell House, it was on the condition that the building had to be uprooted. Negotiations with the city’s planning department to find a new home were underway by July 1970. The Advocates’ Society’s original choice on Simcoe Street south of Dundas was rejected by the city due to development plans for the area. The law group didn’t have to look far for a suitable alternative: the south end of Canada Life’s property at Queen and University.

A long-distance view of Campbell House being moved, March 31, 1972. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 144.

In August 1971, the city approved a request by a trustee of the Sir William Campbell Foundation to designate the chosen site as a tax-free zone, which would save the operators forty-three thousand dollars a year. Within a month, tax-free status was granted. A further request for the city to pitch in over fifty thousand dollars a year to maintain Campbell House drew the ire of several councillors, especially Aldermen David Rotenberg and John Sewell. As the plans called for half the building to open to the public as a museum and the rest to be used as space for the Advocates’ Society, Sewell noted “it’s a perfect place to have a private club, particularly for lawyers, but I question whether that club should be subsidized in any way, shape or form.” Rotenberg, then the city budget chief, called the proposal “a new curve that has been thrown at us.” These reservations did not prevent Rotenberg from attending a party held in Moss Park in December to celebrate the preservation attempt, which now included local architecture expert Eric Arthur among its consultants.

Almost there! University Avenue south of Queen Street, March 31, 1972. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 148.

Plans for the move went ahead. Envisioned for fall 1971, it wasn’t until mid-February that preparations were undertaken for the route. To ensure a clear ride for the three-hundred-ton, forty-one-foot-high building, streetcar power lines and traffic lights were removed and manhole covers were shored up. The move took six-and-a-half hours, with the house arriving at its new site only five minutes later than anticipated. A city council meeting on moving day endorsed a resolution to push for a stronger policy on building preservation from the federal government. The lone dissenter was Sewell, still miffed about Campbell House’s “obscene” tax-free status and uprooting. He felt it was “hypocritical” for the city to seek federal aid when it rarely made motions on its own to preserve historic sites. Mayor William Dennison felt the resolution would increase preservation and dismissed Sewell’s comments as “whining.”
Stronger heritage regulations eventually came into effect that saved all or portions of similarly threatened structures. As for the parking lot that prompted the move? It proved to be a less permanent element of the city than Campbell House, as the site is now occupied by George Brown College’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts.
Additional material from the August 5, 1971 and February 16, 1972 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the July 18, 1970, September 23, 1971, December 3, 1971, and April 1, 1972 editions of the Toronto Star.