University Avenue and College Street have obvious scholarly connotations. Although the main landmark where these two streets intersect is a political institution, what once stood at the site gives us a fascinating insight into their history, including the lost streets within them.
A New University
In 1827, John Strachan, the archdeacon of the Town of York, was looking for a university for the new colonial settlement. After visiting England, he received a charter for a new school, naming it King’s College, in honour of the monarch of the time. About 150 acres of land was acquired, consisting of park lots 13, 12, and 11 of Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s land division system.
The assembled land came via three prominent men of early colonial Toronto — D’arcy Boulton (lot 13), Justice William Dummer Powell (lot 12), and John Elmsley (lot 11) — and roughly stretched from today’s Beverley Street to Bay Street and College Street to Bloor Street.
The College Avenue
Along with that 150 acres, two private paths were also laid out: one extending from the property to Lot Street (later Queen Street) — known as The Queen Street Avenue in news articles and maps — and the other to Yonge Street — known as The Yonge Street Avenue. Collectively, these were known as The College Avenue.
Famed architect John Howard was charged with the designing the campus for the new King’s College. The palatial-like structure was intended to evoke grandure. Although his design was ultimately not used, Howard contributed to the would-be campus in 1832 with entrance gates and lodges at Queen Street, controlling access to the university property. Gates were also installed at Yonge Street in 1842 but a gatehouse did not go up until 1852. It is unclear if there were barriers on the western end of the Yonge Street Avenue near modern-day Beverley Street.
The End of King’s College & the new University of Toronto
King’s College finally opened in 1843, although Thomas Young rather than John Howard was responsible for the final design. This was the eastern wing of what was intended to be a larger structure. The building was used as a residence with classes being held on Front Street. Much debate plagued the university specifically on whether it should be religiously affiliated.
The only-five-year-old structure shut its doors in 1848. The following year, King’s College was no more, becoming the University of Toronto on January 1st, 1850. In the following decade, the unused residence became a Lunatic Asylum for Women. In a search for a site for the national government, a plan fell through in the 1850s to use the Queen’s Park grounds for Parliament Building and Government House. The King’s College building was not part of the plans.
The University of Toronto established University College in 1853, opening just west of the King’s College site along with a Medical School and Observatory. In 1859, the University of Toronto leased the land around the building to the City of Toronto for 999 years for a public park. This became University Park — or Queen’s Park — as opened by the Prince of Wales in the following year. A provision allowed for a potential future site for the Ontario Parliament, which at the time met at Front Street and Simcoe Street.
Campus Map of area bounded by College, St. George, Bloor and Surrey Place [Plan of the University Park], c. 1859. Credit: Historical Maps of Toronto
A Long, Tree-Lined Avenue
The original laying out College Avenue in 1832 consisted of trees and shrubs were mingled together as a sort of wildwood. Famed American landscape gardener André Parmentier designed the road and grounds. Beginning in the 1840s, maps depict trees lining both College Avenues, creating a grand yet exclusive path to the university. Newspaper publisher John Ross Robertson wrote that a Mark Fitzpatrick, the gatekeeper of the College Avenue gatehouse, was responsible for planting the chestnut trees, which had to be brought in from the United States of America. On his visit to Canada in 1842, author Charles Dickens wrote positively on College Avenue: “a long avenue, which is already planted and made available as a public walk.”
Park Lane, University Street, and Avenue Street
In 1842, Park Lane (named after the scenic London street of the same name) was laid out adjacent to College Avenue on its east side from Queen Street to King’s College. Unlike College Avenue, this parallel road was public and largely residential. Park Lane seems to have also had a small right of way running eastward to opposite Surrey Place. It is renamed at some point to Avenue Street.
By 1861, Park Lane was renamed to University Street. Avenue Street kept its name, however.
In 1873, the Canadian Journal of Science, Literature, and History lamented the change in name from Park Lane to University Street. The journal wrote that the street was originally named ‘Park Lane’ by the donor of the land to make the street and was analogous to the London street of the same name. The street would have invoked thoughts of ‘noble and interesting part’ of Toronto. The naming to University was uncalled for and unfitting, especially as there was a much wider, adjacent street with almost the same name.
In 1881, at least one reader in The Globe was unhappy with the shabby state of the chestnut trees along College Avenue. He also angrily lamented over Toronto Council’s decision to replace the gate between College Avenue and University Street with post and bars.
In the same decade, the Ontario government proposed a new site for the Legislative Buildings on Queen’s Park. A map from 1880 labels the former Lunatic Asylum and King’s College building as an “old building to be demolished”. It was indeed razed in 1886 and the current Ontario Legislature were opened on the site in 1892.
In the same year of King’s College’s destruction, property owners with land abutting onto the Yonge Street Avenue complained of the gate separating their property from the street.
A New University Avenue and College Street
In 1896, the College Avenue was renamed and separated into two differently named streets. The Queen Street Avenue became University Avenue, merging the wider College Avenue and the narrower University Street. A row of trees separated the two former roads.
The Yonge Street Avenue became part of an existing College Street which existed to its west.
There was also a proposal in the 1890s to run electrified streetcar lines up University Avenue, replacing horse-drawn cars on parallel McCaul Street. The scheme did not go through, although rapid transit would come to the street some sixty years later.
Improvements, Loss, and Renewal in the 20th Century
By the first decades of the 20th century, College Street and University Avenue maintain some of their chestnut trees planted many decades ago. The fences that separated the old University Street and College Avenue, along with the barrier blocking properties on the old Yonge Street Avenues, are removed. The gatehouse at Yonge Street disappeared on maps in the 1890s and the gatehouse at Queen Street are removed by 1910. College Street ran a horse-drawn streetcar since 1887, which was electrified in the following decade under a Carlton streetcar route.
In 1930, changes came to both College Street and University Avenue. In the former, College Street from Yonge Street to Queen’s Park was widened to match with the section further west. University Avenue was also extended south of Queen Street to Front Street in that same year.
In an early attempt of commemoration, The Globe remembered Toronto’s past in 1934 by displaying the history of College Street and the gates leading into King’s College.
University Avenue itself was also widened in 1948, particularly the old University Street. Traffic was separated in north-south directions on either side of the median with the old College Avenue taking southbound vehicles and the old University Street taking northbound vehicles. By this point, most of the original trees from the prior century were gone.
By the 1960s, University Avenue was unfortunately reduced to a shabby state. A firm re-landscaped the central median of the boulevard with internal gardens and planters. In 1963, the University Subway line opened under the avenue.
University & College Today
Today, the view up University Avenue from Queen Street presents a great lead-up to the majestic Queen’s Park. In this way, it invokes its past as a grand corridor. Although times have understandably changed, lost are the gatehouses, fences, and trees that marked the 19th century. The busy intersection of College Street at Yonge Street contains fewer signs of its past as a gateway to King’s College.
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5 thoughts on “The History of College Street and University Avenue”
Thanks! It was great to research and write!
Excellent work! Thank you very much. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing all of the information you provided.