Outside of a McDonald’s and 7-Eleven at Yonge and Sheppard, there’s a blue plaque. The City of Toronto and TTC marker commemorates the 1860 Joseph Shepard/Dempsey Brothers Store which once stood at this site. The plaque tracks the building’s history as a nexus in the historic Lansing community – from the residence of the pioneering Shepard family (for which Sheppard Avenue is named) and post office which gave birth to Lansing to the long-standing hardware store of the Dempseys.
The funny thing is the building still exists – just not here. The store was transplanted to Dempsey Park on Beecroft Road in 1996.
Nearby, the Joseph Shepard Government Building, built in 1977, also pays tribute to Mr. Shepard (albeit, sometimes spelled with inexplicably added “P”).
Also on Doris: Willowdale Park. In addition to a large central space with tennis courts and playgrounds, a curving path continues north, crossing a few residential streets.
The linear park is a little peculiar to me – until I realize that the indent in the land and the sewer grates probably signify a buried waterway.
As it turns out, Wilket Creek flows under Willowdale! A section of the creek running northwest from York Mills and Bayview was buried and put into storm sewers in the early 1970s.
Another surprise in Willowdale Park: Lee Lifeson Art Park! The soon-to-be art and green space honours founding Rush members and Willowdale natives, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. The park was conceived by the local city councillor and voted on in 2014. Construction began the following year. It – river and all – awaits opening some day.
Across the street, Princess Park looks like a grand courtyard leading up to 1999’s Empress Walk mall and condos. It’s probably my own impression, but something about it seems a little too “planned”.
The focal point is a restored hose tower, part of North York’s First Fire Hall. A plaque dates it to 1941. It was moved here from Yonge & Empress.
A second plaque tells the story of North York’s First Municipal Building, completed in 1923 on the south east corner of Yonge and Empress. The building is largely gone, but its facade was built into the mall’s eastern entrance.
There’s also a floor tile with what looks like a plow. An homage to Willowdale’s farms.
If one thing comes out of Princess Park, it’s that Yonge and Empress was a historic nexus. But you’d never know it. As is the case with Dempsey Store, it’s great that the fire hall and civic building still exist in some capacity, but the transplanting of the buildings and plaques away from Yonge Street literally pushes heritage to the side. Their context is diminished.
The intersection is surrounded on three sides by towers and the mall. On the remaining corner: a much more modest two-storey shop. A cornerstone dates it to 1929. Uptown Yonge has a few of these tiny older stores mixed in with the towers, but the street doesn’t have the character of downtown Yonge, whose history as a retail strip still prevails even among intensification.
The store, a beauty supply shop, was oddly enough the North York Waterworks. Again, you wouldn’t know it. A parking lot surrounds the building; one wonders how long it will last before another condo takes over the corner.
Finally, on Parkview Avenue, there’s the John McKenzie House, a beautiful Queen Anne/Edwardian/Arts and Crafts farmhouse built in 1913. The McKenzies were pioneers in Willowdale who in 1884 purchased a portion of land from the Cummers, the original European settlers of Willowdale in 1797. The McKenzie farm came to amass some 140 acres from Yonge to Bayview.
In 1993, the Ontario Historical Society took the house on as their new headquarters, saving it from demolition. Before moving in, the City of North York agreed to fund the $600,000 restoration of the heritage house. In 2016, the John McKenzie House is getting a new roof.