Historicist: Remaking St. Lawrence Market
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Historicist: Remaking St. Lawrence Market

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.

Buying fresh meat at the north building of St. Lawrence Market, early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 33.

Five o’ clock on a Saturday morning and one small corner of the city is alive with the sound of friendly chatter, the smell of smoked hams and the colo[u]rs of the harvest. A steadily increasing trickle of shoppers emerges from the still-dark morning for the first pick of lettuces so fresh the dew still drips from them and cabbages so clean they shine.

Though the smell is more grilled sausage than ham and some of the lettuce may be shipped in from faraway destinations, the atmosphere evoked by this description of St. Lawrence Market from a 1976 Toronto Star profile still rings true. At the time those words were written, the market neared the end of a decade of rehabilitation that reflected changes in attitude towards historic properties in the city. The north side saw the old knock-it-down attitude at play, while the south was spared a date with a wrecking ball in favour of renovation. Otherwise, you might have enjoyed this morning’s mustard sample or peameal bacon sandwich in a building that lacked more than 150 years of history.

Parking lot next to north building of St. Lawrence Market (with St. Lawrence Hall in the background), early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 31.

Weak historical architecture regulations and grand plans for a massive arts-related complex (which eventually shrank to today’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts) led one historic building after another to arrange dates with demolition crews around the time the old north building of St. Lawrence Market met its demise in 1968. This was fine by some of its tenants, who felt the building had not stood the test of time as well as its older sibling on the opposite side of Front Street. As the Telegram noted, “gone was the dirt and the dust. Gone was the roof which sometimes leaked. The cold and the gloom, the shabby walls and uneven floors had departed. Instead there is brightness under-floor heating and colo[u]r everywhere. The farmers have never had it so good.”

Cheese vendors at north building of St. Lawrence Market, early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 1 (left), Item 27 (right).

Completed in the fall of 1968, the new north market was officially opened with an evening of square dancing in February 1969. Initial reviews were mixed—regular shoppers like Globe and Mail columnist Bruce West were grateful for the improved amenities, even if “some old hands…will miss the occasional whiff of kerosene heaters which used to drift out from behind the baskets of potatoes or arrays of pigs’ heads.” As time passed, West found the space too sterile—in a column two years after the building was finished, he expressed hope that “some day in the future, no doubt—if there are still farms and still farmers who care to get up hours before dawn to take their produce to town on Saturday mornings—the present St. Lawrence Market may get seedy enough and littered enough to have developed a mellow character of its own.”

Flowers for sale at the north building of St. Lawrence Market, early 1970s. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 11.

Architecture and design critics, like the Star’s Harvey Cowan, were unimpressed. “It is the walls of the market space,” Cowan noted, “that reveal the frustrating lack of empathy for the character of a market place. Most walls are concrete block, painted a ghastly salmon colo[u]r that is reminiscent of basement walls in a speculative apartment building.” Cowan summed up the complex as “mundane” and “a most disappointing building” that lacked a sense of history or the “finesse and organization” offered by supermarkets of the era.
With the north side taken care of, developers and preservationists turned their eyes toward the south market. When city planners suggested in 1971 that the one-time city hall could be demolished and the tenants moved elsewhere in a scheme that also included a plan to build a new Massey Hall next to the north market, a citizens’ committee formed to stand against any hint of demolition. The city backed off and turned to the federal and provincial governments for assistance to renovate the south market.

Nick’s Meat, south building of St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1977 and 1989. Photo by F. Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 42.

For over two years, workers cleaned the exterior and ripped up the ceilings, floors, and walls. At times half of the building was closed off while business carried on in the rest of the facility. The renovations created more space for vendors, who could take advantage of new refrigerated glass display cases and fluorescent lighting. Reaction was favourable when the building officially reopened in June 1977, though some veteran vendors lamented the loss of certain grittier aspects. As butcher Nick Smolka told the Star, the market was “clean and better than ever.”

I think the renovations have been the best thing for the market, the city and the public. You will find that the meat will be protected behind showcases and it will keep longer and look better than when people could handle it all day long. What we have now is a modern market. I don’t know about this cleanliness, though. I think people want to look at the meat closely and they want to handle it. What’s wrong with that? Nobody ever got poisoned from it.

Scouting out vegetables at St. Lawrence Market, sometime between 1977 and 1989. Photo by F. Eliis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 12, Item 38.

Two more years passed before one of the last elements of the renovations was unveiled to the public. The second floor of the old city hall section of the market proved suitable for a proposed gallery to show off the city’s art and archival collections. It was appropriate that the first exhibition at the Market Gallery after it officially opened in March 1979 featured paintings and sketches by John Howard, who had proposed the first set of renovations to the building when it served as Toronto’s city hall in the 1850s. It also seemed appropriate that the opening ceremony was presided over by Mayor John Sewell, who had been one of leaders in the preservation effort at the start of the decade.
The surroundings changed, but one element remained a key part of the St. Lawrence Market experience. As Bruce West described while the new north building was under construction, “nowhere…will you see such an interesting cross-section of the Toronto populace. Observing the patrons of the market is almost as interesting as examining the ware and I hope this institution continues for a long time because it has a lot of soul in it.”
Additional material from the June 14, 1968, February 17, 1969, November 23, 1970 and September 15, 1971 editions of the Globe and Mail, the February 1, 1969 edition of the Telegram; and the February 15, 1969, January 18, 1971, October 11, 1976, June 3, 1977, and March 3, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star.