Historicist: What To Do With the Don Jail?
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Historicist: What To Do With the Don Jail?

Had a provincial minister had his way in the 1970s, the historic prison would have been wiped from the landscape.

Cartoon of Ontario Premier William Davis and Frank Drea by Andy Donato  The Toronto Sun, November 13, 1977

Cartoon of Ontario Premier William Davis and Frank Drea by Andy Donato. The Toronto Sun (November 13, 1977).

Should a building’s past condemn its future regardless of the historic worth of its architecture? This was a question which faced Torontonians during the mid-1970s, when two notorious 19th century provincial institutions faced the wrecking ball in attempts to wipe their sordid pasts from the landscape. The demolition of the old Provincial Lunatic Asylum building at 999 Queen Street West in 1975 demonstrated that the pain of past mental health treatment methods outweighed the possibilities of reusing John Howard’s 1850-era structure.

As the old asylum came down, calls grew louder to do something about an institution of a similar vintage across the Don River. From the time construction began in 1859, the old Don Jail seemed like it hovered under a curse. Its initial contractors were fired for incompetency. Architect William Thomas died a year into construction. A fire delayed its completion. The end result fit into an era of penal buildings where the architecture was intended to reflect both the punishment prisoners faced and the redemption they hoped to achieve. For years, the jail was criticized for barbaric conditions such as tiny overcrowded cells and open buckets of human excrement. An addition that was made in the 1950s did not alleviate most of the issues, prompting frequent excuses to keep the old section open. The fire department tallied a long list of safety issues. A royal commission launched in 1974 investigated brutality claims against the guards. Grand juries had declared it unsanitary—as one put in May 1977, “surely there is some authority in this community that has the power to demolish this archaic building.”

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The old Don Jail, 1970s. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 13.

That authority soon arose. On November 10, 1977, Ontario Minister of Correctional Services Frank Drea announced that the old jail would shut at year’s end. The former newspaper reporter declared the building “a monument to human degradation and misery” and felt it had no historical value. Any notion of preserving the building offended him, especially the execution area. “If the city wants to save the gallows,” he noted, “let them remove it and put it up in Nathan Phillips Square.” Drea envisioned immediate demolition, followed by a prisoner-maintained garden to benefit patients at the neighbouring Riverdale Hospital.

One of Drea’s loudest allies in wanting to wipe the old jail off the face of the earth was the Toronto Star. A series of editorials urged demolition of a blight on the city:

The old Don Jail was never intended to be a bright, warm, inviting building. The architect who designed it knew his business. He wanted the façade to be so grim and forbidding that it would strike fear in the hearts of all who passed it. In this he succeeded.

Many old buildings are worth preserving. But the stench of misery will never disappear from the Don. Over 70 people have died on its gallows. Hundreds have died on its narrow cots in cramped, rat-infested cells as a result of beatings, illness, alcohol, and despair. At least 20 grand juries have condemned its bleak corridors, its poor hospital, badly trained guards, hellish idleness and inadequate psychiatric care.

Cartoon, the Globe and Mail, November 11, 1977

Cartoon, the Globe and Mail (November 11, 1977).

Also backing Drea was a former colleague, Toronto Sun columnist Paul Rimstead. Several years earlier, Rimstead attempted to organize fellow members of the local media to persuade the government to shut the jail. His group was told that once new jails in Etobicoke and Scarborough were finished, the Don would go, but that promise showed no signs of fruition before Drea stepped into office. “Frank, I don’t know if it was your idea,” Rimstead wrote in his November 13, 1977 column, “but dammit, there are a lot of us who applaud your announcement.”

Some preservationists and their allies were not clapping. Drea immediately had a spat with local aldermen Janet Howard and John Sewell. While Sewell noted that nobody was happy about the past use of the site, he believed the building was architecturally significant and should be preserved despite the high costs of heating and renovation. While the Star’s editorial page raged against the building, its history columnist Donald Jones argued that it should remain as a reminder of the terrible treatment inflicted on its prisoners and show how humanity had progressed. In a letter to the Globe and Mail, Ontario Historical Society president F.H. Armstrong observed that “if we are going to preserve only those structures that give evidence of the more happy aspects of our past, we are going to end up with very little idea of what our past was really like. The arguments presented for demolition so far have been based on emotion rather than any rational reasons; this is the last way we should go about making decisions on either preserving, or demolishing historical buildings.” A Sun editorial suggested it could become a museum, as historic prisons elsewhere (Bastille, Tower of London) had survived their grim pasts.

Cartoon, the Toronto Star, November 11, 1977

Cartoon, the Toronto Star (November 11, 1977).

The uproar persuaded city council to request a six-month delay from the province to study alternative uses for the site. Drea reiterated his wish to destroy the building. On December 7, 1977 he told a Queen’s Park committee that historians could take away parts of the façade and keep the gargoyles, but he owned elements like the cell doors and the gallows. He intended to smash the old execution equipment in front of the public on New Year’s Eve, inviting those who had been prominent in opposing the death penalty to witness the destruction. To proponents of keeping the building open, he noted that it would cost up to $4 million to replace flooring and wiring, and to take care of the rats. “If the architects think that place is so great,” he observed, “let them pay for its restoration themselves. Don’t ask the taxpayers to pay for it.” He feared that if the cells remained intact, the facility could be used to ease overcrowding elsewhere. With emotion trickling into his voice, Drea indicated that he would “not have a good night’s sleep until the Don Jail is levelled and a flower garden is planted there.”

Though the city won its reprieve, Drea had a surprise in store. On December 20, 1977 he called off the gallows-smashing ceremony, citing protests from preservationists, announcing a symbolic closing event in its place. The real reason for the change in plans emerged the following day: Drea ordered the immediate destruction of the gallows. He justified the move on the grounds that the acetylene torches required to break down the gallows posed a fire risk if the dismantling was performed inside the prison. They were sent elsewhere to meet their fate. The fury was immediate; Sewell thought heritage authorities should have surveyed the jail before anything was removed, while Toronto Historical Board president John McGinnis thought the ministry’s actions were “extremely irrational and paranoid.” The Globe and Mail criticized the move as “grab-and-smash grandstanding that seems to serve nothing but Mr. Drea’s vanity.”

Photo by Hugh Wesley, the Toronto Sun, January 1, 1978

Photo by Hugh Wesley, the Toronto Sun (January 1, 1978).

When closing time came on December 31, 1977, dignitaries received sledgehammers to smash away at the jail for the cameras in an event some criticized as childish. Drea let retiring corrections official Harry Hughes take the first whack. After five tries, he knocked off a five-inch piece of stone. Next was journalist June Callwood, who noted that “for the honour of my gender I hope I can knock something loose.” (Callwood, along with Paul Rimstead, received a ceremonial set of keys for her advocacy to close the jail.) When he experienced difficulties with his blows, Drea admitted that it was going to be a tough demolition job. The minister also led invited guests through the jail, all the time denigrating it and those who built it. “Once we’re out,” he observed, “it’ll be a great place to come and get insects for science labs.” Drea also ensured the locks and cell doors were removed to prevent its reuse as a penal facility.

Following the closure, city council’s executive committee voted to spend $8,000 to study new uses for the prison. Mayor David Crombie, Sewell, and representatives from the province and the Toronto Historical Board formed the study group. By the end of January 1978, Crombie appealed to the public for their suggestions for saving at least the central portion of the old jail. Among the ideas that had already emerged was an informal proposal from the Irwin Toy company to operate a wax museum. That prospect fizzled when company president Arnold Irwin was upset by Drea’s public revelation of it while the minister toured prison facilities in Georgia. We don’t know if they planned a chamber of horrors recreating the awful conditions of the old jail.

One of the most absurd suggestions arose during a student competition at the University of Toronto’s architectural school: turn the old jail into a “fat farm.” “The idea apparently was to have overweight people locked in the building and forced to run up and the ramps to lose weight,” observed architect Eb Zeidler. “It’s a novel thought anyway.”

A few celebrity suggestions on what to do with the old Don Jail  The Toronto Star, December 18, 1977

A few celebrity suggestions on what to do with the old Don Jail. The Toronto Star (December 18, 1977).

Zeidler, along with other architects, developers, and preservationists, sat on an advisory committee to assist Crombie. The suggestions they received included an employment centre, a mosque, a sculpture gallery, an alcohol rehab facility, a combination fire/police station, and every imaginable variety of museum. The front runner was an animal shelter, which piqued the interest of the Toronto Humane Society. Though it had already acquired land across the Don and Queen and River streets for a new home, the opportunity of using the old jail seemed too good to pass up.

The neighbours weren’t happy when conversion plans were released in September 1978. Riverdale Hospital fought the shelter idea, citing potential patient complaints about noise and smell. It was also clear that the hospital had its eye on the old jail to solve problems with parking and office space. In April 1979, the province announced that the building would be used by Correctional Services for a new chapel, library, medical facility, recreational space, and visiting area, with some areas of the property available for future expansion of Riverdale Hospital. The Toronto Humane Society received $1 million from provincial lottery funds to build at the Queen-River site. One wonders how much worse the cruelty charges the organization faced in 2009 would have been perceived had it moved into the jail.

Yet these plans for the old jail didn’t go forward. An update in the Star in December 1981 indicated no final decisions had been made regarding the site’s future. Frank Drea never saw the building’s demolition nor its ultimate reuse; a few months after he passed away in 2003, Bridgepoint Health (the successor to Riverdale Hospital) revealed plans to renovate the building for administrative use.

Additional material from the November 11, 1977, December 8, 1977, December 21. 1977, December 22, 1977, December 23, 1977, January 2, 1978, January 4, 1978, January 12, 1978, January 19, 1978, January 25, 1978, and April 27, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail, the November 11, 1977, November 12, 1977, December 6, 1977, January 1, 1978, January 6, 1978, January 26, 1978, February 7, 1978, September 7, 1978, September 15, 1978, and December 3, 1981 editions of the Toronto Star, and the November 11, 1977, November 13, 1977, and January 1, 1978 editions of the Toronto Sun.

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