Historicist: Toronto Street
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Historicist: Toronto Street

The evolution of the city's once most elegant streetscape.

William James family's photo looking north on Toronto Street from King Street East, 1907  From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1176A

William James family’s photo looking north on Toronto Street from King Street East, 1907. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1176A.

Toronto Street was once, “the finest street in Toronto,” architectural historian Eric Arthur asserts in his seminal Toronto No Mean City. “It had all the charm of a street in some capital city in Europe. People unknowingly sensed its quality—businessmen were unhurried, motor cars hardly exceeded the pace of the carriages of half a century ago, and the buildings on both sides of the street had about them that dignified venerability that commands immediate respect.” Although a handful of examples remain of Toronto Street’s 19th century architecture and streetscape, much of its former elegance has been lost in the name of progress. This fate prompted Arthur to conclude that “Toronto Street is ‘the street that died.'”

Toronto Street and vicinity, 1858  Detail from W S  Boulton's Atlas of the City of Toronto and Vicinity (1858)  From Old Toronto Maps

Toronto Street and vicinity, 1858. Detail from W.S. Boulton’s Atlas of the City of Toronto and Vicinity (1858). From Old Toronto Maps.

Although an earlier roadway first bore the name, the Toronto Street we know today came into being in the 1830s, after Yonge Street was extended south of Lot (Queen) Street, historian Mike Filey notes in Toronto Sketches 9, and affected property owners were compensated by lots on Toronto Street. Only running between King Street East to the south and Adelaide Street East to the north, the short roadway “was a street that goes nowhere,” historian William Dendy asserts in Lost Toronto, “and yet provides great architectural opportunities.”

John George Howard watercolour of Jail (1827 1840), northeast corner of King Street East and Toronto Street, 1835  From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

John George Howard watercolour of Jail (1827-1840), northeast corner of King Street East and Toronto Street, 1835. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

Toronto Street was not always such an auspicious address. The two-storey brick jail, designed by John George Howard and built in 1824, stood on the northeast corner of King Street—though set some distance back from the thoroughfare—and Toronto Street. It was the site where thousands gathered to see Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, participants in William Lyon Mackenzie’s abortive rebellion, hanged on April 12, 1838.

At about the same time as it ceased to operate as a jail in 1840, the structure was obscured by the construction of the Wellington Buildings, which stretched along the north side of King Street from Toronto Street nearly to Church Street. At the Toronto Street end, the building was home for many years to the Rice Lewis & Company hardware store, which was dubbed The Padlock for its lock-shaped signage. Eventually, the jail itself was incorporated into another structure, York Chambers, erected on the southeast corner of Toronto and Court streets, though its original brick and stone detailing was still visible from Toronto Street.

Federic Victor Poole's watercolour of the Post Office (1852 1873) on the west side of Toronto Street, 1912. From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

Federic Victor Poole’s watercolour of the Post Office (1852-1873) on the west side of Toronto Street, 1912. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

The burgeoning city was outgrowing its public buildings by mid-century, resulting in the construction of Toronto’s seventh post office on a 48-foot-wide lot on the west side of Toronto Street. The stately ionic portico—inspired by the Erechtheum on the Acropolis—and fine stonework detailing marked “a departure from the unadorned Georgian Style” then common, historian Bruce Bell notes, and ushered in an era of Greek Revival architecture in Toronto.

Post Office (1852 1873), on west side of Toronto Street, 1930. From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

Post Office (1852-1873), on west side of Toronto Street, 1930. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

Designed by Frederic W. Cumberland and Thomas Ridout in 1851 and built at a cost of £3,500, the post office at 10 Toronto Street opened in 1853. On the main floor was the large public hall—with separate entrance for women. Above were the living quarters for the postmaster and his family, accessed through a door from the lane on the south side of the building. Called “[o]ne of the most interesting buildings left to us of the nineteenth century” by architect and historian Eric Arthur, 10 Toronto Street set a high architectural standard that was matched by its neighbours.

Toronto Street and vicinity, 1862  Detail from H J  Browne's Plan of the City of Toronto (1862)  From Old Toronto Maps

Toronto Street and vicinity, 1862. Detail from H.J. Browne’s Plan of the City of Toronto (1862). From Old Toronto Maps.

Across the street, the Consumers’ Gas Company opened its first head office in 1852. The site, at 17 Toronto, had been chosen in 1850, and designs selected in 1851, but a bad winter delayed most construction work until 1852. The basic brick-and-stone structure was much like other Late-Georgian commercial buildings in Toronto, Dendy writes, except that it featured “expensive stone detailing” and ornamentation in Renaissance-Revival and Rococo-Revival styles. In addition to offices, a workshop, and public showroom, the small building also featured living quarters on the top floor.

Masonic Hall, looking south on Toronto Street, 1867. Detail from photo by Octavius Thompson from the Archives of Ontario (F 4356-0-0-0-22).

In 1858, A & S Nordheimer Co. erected an imposing Ohio freestone and iron structure on the west side of the street, beside the post office. Originally intended to house a concert hall in addition to the expected offices and street-level shops, Albert Nordheimer’s involvement with the Masonic Order led him to alter the concert hall and meeting rooms of the top two floors to for the masons’ use. The Masonic Hall, as the five-storey building at 18-20 Toronto Street became known, opened in May 1858. “With its pronounced and repeated vertical detail, and its stepped roof line,” William Dendy writes, “the building struck Torontonians as rather strange in style, used as they were to fairly standard exercises in the Classical and Gothic.” Its architect, William Kauffman, referred to it as “Modern Munich.” Eric Arthur called it “rather hard Gothic.”

Illustration of the Union Block on Toronto Street from C P  Mulvany, Toronto: Past and Present (W E  Caiger, 1884)

Illustration of the Union Block on Toronto Street from C.P. Mulvany, Toronto: Past and Present (W.E. Caiger, 1884)

In 1873, the Union Block, a Second Empire-style building designed by Henry James and George Lalor, was built on the southwest corner of Toronto and Adelaide streets to become the headquarters of the Union Loan and Savings Company. The building, built of white pressed brick and topped with a mansard roof, was “one of the handsomest buildings in the city devoted to business purposes,” according to an observer in 1877. Its tower, he added, “gives a somewhat imposing appearance to the structure—surrounded as it is with some of the finest examples of street architecture to be found in the city.”

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(Right: Postcard showing Trust And Loan Company Building, southeast corner of Toronto Street and Adelaide Street East, 1907. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.)

On the opposite corner, the plain brick Methodist Church, which had stood at the southeast corner of Adelaide since 1832-33 was knocked down. The Trust and Loan Building, built on the north half of the lot in 1871, was described by a contemporary as being “in the style of Italian domestic architecture and…a plain handsome building, without any outward carving or much ornamentation.” Designed by Henry Macdougall in the Renaissance-Revival style, the well-proportioned building was built of grey-buff sandstone. Calling it “Toronto’s Victorian version of a dignified 16th-century Florentine palazzo,” architectural historian Patricia McHugh, has said that the Trust and Loan Building at 25 Toronto Street, which survives today without its cornice and parapet, “is truly one of the city’s most refined buildings,” though it rarely gets the attention it deserves. On the south portion of the church site, at 21-23 Toronto Street, Henry Langley, a local architect best known for his churches, designed Temple Chambers. Built in 1873, this building provided an elaborate Renaissance-style facade.

Post Office (1873 1960) on north side of Adelaide Street East, at the head of Toronto Street, 1880  From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

Post Office (1873-1960) on north side of Adelaide Street East, at the head of Toronto Street, 1880. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

By the 1870s, the bustling city was once again in need of a larger post office. A site with 80-foot frontage on Adelaide Street East, at the head of Toronto Street, was selected in March 1870, though construction wasn’t completed until October 1873. The planned replacement for 10 Toronto Street would be the first and most expensive public building commissioned by the new federal government after Confederation. Langley’s Second Empire design took advantage of the way the Trust and Loan Building and the Union Block framed the north end of Toronto Street, and “established standards for fine design and materials and for sheer grandeur of effect that were a point of comparison for many later nineteenth-century buildings,” Dendy writes.

Inspired by elements from the Louvre and its additions, the city’s eighth post office featured a centre pediment and corner pavilions—each with a mansard roof—and elaborately ornamented stone detailing including a carved coat of arms above the door and a frieze across the third storey facade.

James Victor Salmon's photo of the Post Office (1873 1960) on the north side of Adelaide Street East, at the head of Toronto Street, 1955  From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

James Victor Salmon’s photo of the Post Office (1873-1960) on the north side of Adelaide Street East, at the head of Toronto Street, 1955. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

“The compositional forms,” Dendy judged, “gave the building more than a touch of Parisian grandeur.” With its spacious hall, accessed by separate men’s and women’s entrances, the General Post Office was Toronto’s principal federal building for over 50 years. Upon its opening, the federal government used 10 Toronto Street to first house the Inland Revenue Services and later the Bank of Canada.

Looking north on Toronto Street towards Adelaide Street East, 1890s. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 121, Item 8.

With the General Post Office’s opening, Toronto Street was “no longer a street but an elongated square with all the feeling of enclosure and calm that a ‘square’ implies,” Eric Arthur wrote in the Globe and Mail (January 9, 1959). While open-ended roads, like Yonge Street, seemed endless and “chaotic architecturally,” he suggested Toronto Street was closed visually by the fashionable shopping district of King Street East to the south, and the General Post Office to the north. “Toronto St…has always given me the impression of a very ancient civilization,” Arthur added, “of good manners and an orderly way of life.” Others, from C.P. Mulvany in the 1880s to William Dendy in the 1990s, have likened the diminutive street to “the dramatic boulevard vistas of Second Empire Paris.”

Toronto Street and vicinity, 1886  Detail from Wesbroom's Bird's Eye View of Toronto (1886)  From Old Toronto Maps

Toronto Street and vicinity, 1886. Detail from Wesbroom’s Bird’s Eye View of Toronto (1886). From Old Toronto Maps.

As the streetscape filled in, new structures were added in eclectic architectural styles, but maintained the street’s cohesive character and three-to-five storey scale. “In spite of the differences,” Dendy argued, “the overall appreciation of historical style created a sense of coordination in the fine materials and craftsmanship, and in the regularity of alignment to the street.” For the street’s buildings “were more important to the streetscape as elements of a group than they were individually,” the historian added.

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(Left: Watercolour of Building and Loan Association Chambers, northeast corner of Toronto Street and Court Street, 1900. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.)

Next to the Consumers’ Gas headquarters, and on the northeast corner of Toronto and Court streets, the Building and Loan Association Chambers, a Gothic Revival design by Langley, Langley & Burke and built in 1878-79, featured a mix of red brick and beige Ohio stone. It was later home to the Toronto Mortgage Company. When the Union Loan and Savings Company outgrew the Union Block in the mid-1870s, the organization commissioned Langley, Langley & Burke to erect a Gothic Revival building next door, at 26-30 Toronto Street.

Also needing additional space, Consumers’ Gas bought the neighbouring structure, 19 Toronto Street, in 1876, knocked down the former York County Registry Office occupying the site, and built a new edifice containing offices, board rooms, and a public showroom to complement the existing space at 17 Toronto. David B. Dick designed “a capacious and handsome building,” as a contemporary put it, with Renaissance and French inspirations.

Quebec Bank built on northwest corner of Toronto and King streets in 1886  From the Globe (May 15, 1886)

Quebec Bank built on northwest corner of Toronto and King streets in 1886. From the Globe (May 15, 1886)

Dick also designed the Quebec Bank, a five-storey structure with ironwork supporting street-level shops and red brick and Ohio stone walls, which sat on the northwest corner of Toronto and King streets. The Whittemore Building, the Joseph Sheard-designed Greek Revival office block that had occupied the site since the mid-1840s, had been demolished in the spring of 1886. The Quebec Bank building, with banking pavilion accessed from King, shops fronting on Toronto Street, and offices above, was built at a cost of $30,000.

(Right: Consumers’ Gas Building on Toronto Street, between August 1973 and October 31, 1979. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 36, Item 2.)

By 1899, Consumers’ Gas demolished its original headquarters at 17 Toronto and replaced it with a Dick-designed structure. Removing the adjoining wall of 19 Toronto, Dick aligned the floors of the old and new buildings, and seamlessly extended 19 Toronto’s Renaissance-style facade across the full width to make the two buildings one. It was, according to the company’s 1899 annual report, “a commodious and handsome office, a large board room and a number of desirable offices for rental.” (Still Consumers’ Gas lacked space. The company repeatedly renovated and reorganized the interior and acquired space in the neighbouring Temple Chambers and York County Courthouse at 57 Adelaide Street East.)

Union Block, southwest corner of Toronto Street and Adelaide Street East, 1876  Detail from the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

Union Block, southwest corner of Toronto Street and Adelaide Street East, 1876. Detail from the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

In 1914, Excelsior Life (later Aetna Life), which had occupied most of the Union Block by 1899, pursued the construction of a new building. Rainy weather and careless excavation work of the former Union Block site on the afternoon of September 1, 1914 caused the north wall of the neighbouring Union Loan and Savings building to collapse with “an ominous crack, which could be heard for some distance,” as the Globe reported. Those working in the building rushed to safety and a large crowd gathered on Toronto Street to witness the building’s seemingly imminent collapse. The next day the staff of the firms occupying the structure returned, trying to remove their property from the premises to temporary quarters as quickly as possible. But the ceilings were sagging considerably, and city staff announced there was little to do but tear the rest of the building down.

The Excelsior Life Building, at the southwest corner of Toronto Street and Adelaide Street East. Photo by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

The new Excelsior Life Building, designed by E.J. Lennox, was an imposing 11-storey skyscraper out of scale with the rest of the street. “Florid Corinthian engaged columns and coupled pilasters at the corners provide the building with a rich appearance,” Marilyn Litvak writes of Lennox’s design, his last before he shut down his architectural practice, in her biography of Lennox. “Arcaded windows in the upper storeys are set well back from the shaft.” The lower levels were granite, but most of the building was of white enamel terracotta, and it was capped by a parapet since removed. Construction magazine dubbed it “one of the finest of Toronto’s many high-class office buildings.” Built at a cost of $500,000, the Excelsior Life Building (at 36 Toronto Street) opened once interior work was completed in May 1915.

Consumers’ Gas Building on Toronto Street, between August 1973 and October 31, 1979. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 36, Item 9.

The Excelsior Life Building illustrated the mode of thinking in Toronto architecture in the first half of the 20th century. The General Post Office had been surpassed in importance and a new federal building had opened at 1 Front Street West in the late 1930s. King and Bay had emerged as the centre of commerce in Toronto. No longer fashionable, older buildings decayed and declined and, by the 1930s, the old city centre east of Yonge was “at [its] worst: a forgotten pocket,” as the Globe and Mail assessed. According to real estate experts in the early 1950s, there seemed little prospect for renewal, with such little demand for space in older buildings. “The redevelopment of the older parts of the city has been characterized by the same land clearing approach that our pioneering ancestors brought to the forest,” architect Howard V. Walker asserted in the Globe and Mail in January 1959. “This time, instead of the bushman’s axe, it is the wrecker’s hammer which is being employed.”

James Victor Salmons's photo of York Chambers, the former Jail (1827 1840), on the southeast corner of Toronto Street and Court Street, during demolition on August 25, 1957  From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

James Victor Salmons’s photo of York Chambers, the former Jail (1827-1840), on the southeast corner of Toronto Street and Court Street, during demolition on August 25, 1957. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

The Wellington Buildings on King Street, and the York Chambers were demolished in 1957, the latter taking with it the remains of the old Gaol—two dungeons in the basement and architectural detailing visible in the exterior walls. The block eventually comprised an office building constructed in 1989.

Post Office at 10 Toronto Street, between the Quebec Bank and the Masonic Hall, ca. 1920. Photo from the Archives of Ontario (RG 2-71, COT-36).

In the late 1950s, the federal government had ambitions to demolish its two properties in the district. The grand, but tiny, Bank of Canada at 10 Toronto Street, seemed to have more value if demolished and sold as a development site than if maintained as office space. And the government intended to replace its Adelaide Street property with a new office block. John F. Bassett, publisher of the Telegram, led the campaign to save 10 Toronto. The city’s Board of Control, local organizations—like the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto—and the head of the Art Gallery of Toronto joined in. A professor of architecture declared 10 Toronto Street to be one of only three buildings—along with The Grange and Osgoode Hall—to be worthy of preservation in Toronto. The federal finance minister, Donald Fleming, however, was unmoved.

Taking notice of these pleas, businessman E.P. Taylor stepped in to buy 10 Toronto in late 1958 to serve as head office for his business empire. The purchase price was $500,000 and the company invested another $700,000 in historically sensitive renovations of the building, which was designated a National Historic Site in 1958. As head of Argus Corporation—the preeminent business firm in Canada—Taylor “could afford the luxury of lowness in a skyscraper age,” in Arthur’s words.

James Victor Salmon's photo of the Masonic Hall Buildings, west side of Toronto Street, 1957  From the Toronto Public Library's digital collection

James Victor Salmon’s photo of the Masonic Hall Buildings, west side of Toronto Street, 1957. From the Toronto Public Library’s digital collection.

“You get the feeling of opulence when you push against the heavy, solid black doors and enter the reception room,” a Toronto Star reporter said of the renovated building in the late 1950s. “It’s like stepping into an 18th century French villa. The boardroom for Argus directors off the entrance hall looks like a baronial dining room. It has ivory painted walls, a chandelier like the one in the entrance foyer, a highly polished table twelve feet long, silk curtains, brocade drapes and broadloom.”

This was, to be certain, an iconic symbol of the commercial power and wealth for Taylor and his successors as head of Argus, J.A. “Bud” McDougald and Conrad Black. When Black’s Hollinger Inc. listed the property for sale in 2006, there were 70 expressions of interest before its purchase was secured by Morgan Meighen & Associates for $14 million—three times Toronto’s usual per-square-foot rate.

Detail from advertisement in the Globe and Mail (April 8, 1960)

Detail from advertisement in the Globe and Mail (April 8, 1960)

There were no such happy endings for the Adelaide Street Post Office, which the government was determined to demolish to make room for an office tower. Leonard Eldon Shore and Robert R. Moffat designed Modernist towers of 12- and 15-storeys, joined by a four-storey pavilion and arranged on an open courtyard with a bronze fountain. Built at a cost of $13 million, the William Lyon Mackenzie Building (30 Adelaide Street East) was, at the time, the largest federal government complex outside Ottawa and housed offices for public servants working in a large number of portfolios. The ground floor housed a new post office, fitted with marble and tile finishes.

The view on Toronto Street, looking north, since the construction of the Mackenzie Building. Photo by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

“It is a striking building, both inside and out,” the Globe and Mail praised upon its opening in April 1960. “The dark green tiles, anodized aluminum trim and vast expanses of glass mark it from the outside as one of the newest conceptions in office building architecture.” It is indeed a fine modernist building. On the other hand, Dendy has characterized its construction as “monumental insensitivity” on the part of the federal government. He criticized the resulting complex “not simply because the new building was ‘modern’, and not just because it replaced Langley’s impressive building, but because the new building showed a complete disregard for the dramatic and scenic possibilities of the site. The connected towers of the new building do not terminate the vista: they simply block it.”

Coat of Arms from General Post Office, on Lombard Street, behind the State Street Financial Centre. Photo by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

One relic of Langley’s grand post office still exists, as Toronto Modern notes. The carved coat of arms that once loomed over its doorway can be found, a little worse for wear, in the bushes along the Lombard Street frontage of the Mackenzie Building—known as the State Street Financial Centre since a 2001 facelift.

The Excelsior Life building which replaced the Masonic Hall, as seen from its Victoria Street frontage  Detail of advertisement from the Globe and Mail (April 14, 1964)

The Excelsior Life building which replaced the Masonic Hall, as seen from its Victoria Street frontage. Detail of advertisement from the Globe and Mail (April 14, 1964)

In the late 1950s, Temple Chambers was knocked down by Consumers’ Gas and replaced with a one-storey showroom, known as the Blue Flame Room, with displays and demonstrations to entice the public into adopting natural gas. This newer building, now with a mirror facade, still stands. The Masonic Hall survived a little longer. When the masons had vacated the premises in about 1900, the building had been entirely converted into offices—most of them occupied by the Canada Permanent Mortgage Corporation. Excelsior Life took over the building in 1930 and razed it in 1964-65. The replacement (20 Toronto Street) built by Excelsior Life was large, with frontages on Toronto and Victoria streets, but has been dismissed by Dendy as “an expensively ordinary office tower.” Dendy similarly dubbed the replacement for the Building and Loan Chambers, demolished in 1961, as “one of the most forgettable contributions of modern architecture to the city.”

William James family's photo looking north on Toronto Street from King Street East, between 1908 and 1909  From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1176

William James family’s photo looking north on Toronto Street from King Street East, between 1908 and 1909. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1176.

The Consumers’ Gas headquarters—”Toronto’s flamboyant Renaissance Revival palace par excellence,” in McHugh’s estimation—survives in all its 19th century charm as the exclusive high-end Rosewater restaurant. The stately structure, along with 10 Toronto Street and the Trust and Loan Building at the northeast end, provide isolated hints of Toronto Street’s former grandeur. Its picture postcard quality lost, Toronto Street now feels like a stubby roadway instead of the public square Arthur envisioned as late as 1960.

Sources consulted include: A Tradition of Service: The Story of Consumers Gas (The Consumers’ Gas Company Limited, 1993); Eric Arthur, Toronto No Mean City, Third Edition, revised by Stephen A. Otto (University of Toronto Press, 1986 [1964]); William Dendy, Lost Toronto: Images of the City’s Past (McClelland & Stewart, 1993); Linda Denesiuk, “Keys to ‘The Padlock’: WG. Storm’s Cast-Iron Façade for Rice Lewis & Son, Hardware Merchants,” in Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada Bulletin (June 1995); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 9 (Dundurn, 2006); Marilyn M. Litvak, Edward James Lennox: ‘Builder of Toronto’ (Dundurn Press, 1995); Patricia McHugh, Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, 2nd Edition (McClelland & Stewart, 1989 [1985]); C.P. Mulvany, Toronto: Past and Present (W.E. Caiger, 1884); John Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto (1894); Richard Rohmer, E.P. Taylor: The Biography of Edward Plunket Taylor (McClelland and Stewart, 1978); J. Timperlake, Illustrated Toronto: Past and Present (Peter A. Gross, 1877); and articles from the Toronto Globe (May 15, 1886; September 2, 1914); the Globe and Mail (January 11, 1950; October 3, 1957; January 9, 1959; April 5, 8 & 9, October 6, 1960; August 11, 1964; and the Star (September 2, 1914; January 9, 1959).

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

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