Scenes From The Lesmill Office Park

Welcome to the Lesmill Office Park

The Lesmill Office Park is located in the Don Mills neighbourhood of Toronto. While on the surface this post-war collection of industries may be uninspiring, its history and current make-up is interesting.

The Lesmill Office Park, 2021.
Source: Google Maps.

The City of Toronto defines the Office Park’s borders as roughly the East Don River in the north, Leslie Street to the west, Don Mills Road to the east, and Bond Avenue and Canadian National Railway to the south (excluding parkland and residential areas). For the purposes of this article, only the area north of York Mills Road will be explored.

Office Parks and Employment Zones in Toronto.
Source: City of Toronto.

The Lesmill Office Park mixes light industry, offices, courier companies, and some retail to make for an eclectic combination of enterprises. In modern terms, it is an important employment area for the City of Toronto. Historically, it is an overlooked part of the post-war development and growth of Don Mills. Moreover, the fascinating part of the Office Park is its evolution from farms lot and how they continue to play into the modern fabric of the district.

The Lesmill Office Park with historic farm lots. The circles denote the locations of farmhouses.
Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou.

The Duncan Plot & York Mills Road

Beginning in the 1800s, the Duncan family owned 200 acres at Lot 11, Third Concession East of Yonge in the historic community of Oriole. In modern references, this was the north side of York Mills Road between Leslie Street and Highway 404. David Duncan in 1865 constructed a farmhouse which would be named “Moatfield”.

1860 Tremaine’s Map of York County.
Source: Old Toronto Maps.
Duncan, David, ”Moatfield”, York Mills Road, north side, west of Don Mills Road, 1905.
Source: Toronto Public Library
1956 North York Pioneers and Landmarks c. 1878, by Ted Chirnside.
Source: North York Historical Society

By the end of the 1950s, changes came to York Mills Road and the Duncan family lot. At Leslie Street, a British American (B/A) Oil Company service centre opened at 800 York Mills.  By 1960, the gas station expanded to occupy more of the corner. B/A was defunct by 1970; today there is a PetroCanada on site.

1947 Aerial of the future site of the Lesmill Business Park.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
House and service station on the northeast corner of Leslie Street and York Mills Road, 1957. Note the B/A gasoline sign in front of the house.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

In 1960, industry came to this part of Don Mills. The Imperial Tobacco Sales Company of Canada and the Canadian Westinghouse Company opened on either side of the CNR tracks on York Mills Road. The coming of the railway to Don Mills in the late 19th century and early 20th-century was important in the future arrival of the Office Park. A siding served the former factory. Today, both factories no longer exist, being replaced in the 21st century by the York Mills Gardens mall and an empty lot seemingly ready for redevelopment, respectively.

1960 Aerial of York Mills Road, east of Leslie Street.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
1969 Toronto City Directory showing York Mills, north side between Leslie Street and Don Mills Road.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

At 860 York Mills, a second gas station – Harry’s Shell Service – stood at the southern entrance of the Business Park at Lesmill Rd. In 1998, the land was rezoned from industrial to commercial use to accommodate a one-storey building. A City of Toronto report stated the properties in the Business Park were “under-utilized” and the proposed building was “to facilitate the articulation of this important intersection and serve to enhance the general appearance of the area” and “provided increased amenities to the area”. The adjacent Don Mills Car Wash at 862 York Mills was another early business of the Business Park. The structure still operates in its original use and used the Don Mills Car Wash name until about 2014!

The Moatfield House at 866 York Mills Road itself was impacted directly by redevelopment. In Don Mills: From Forest and Farms to Forces of Change, Scott Kennedy wrote by 1962, the Duncan farm was reduced to sixteen acres near the farm house. By this point, the property belonged to Kate Duncan, the widow of Gordon Duncan, son of David Duncan, the house’s builder. In 1972, Kate Duncan passed away. The Prince Hotel (later the Westin Prince, now the Pan Pacific) opened on the former Moatfield property on June 1, 1974.

The empty, derelict farmhouse was moved closer to York Mills Road to accommodate the development, but its survival was not secure. With the future of the Moatfield house in jeopardy, the Tzioumis brothers rescued the property in 1986 and moved it 300 metres north, where it operates as the the David Duncan House. The steakhouse still stands on the original Duncan plot from the 1800s. Both Moatfield and The Prince Hotel are Toronto heritage properties.

Gordon (son of David) Duncan House, 1961.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

Don Mills Road goes north

An important event in the creation of the Business Park was the northward extension of Don Mills Road from its terminus at York Mills Road. The latter road curved through the intersection. The idea was first proposed in 1961 at a cost of $3.75 million and was meant to accommodate the loss of Woodbine Avenue, which was absorbed into the new Don Valley Parkway. Land acquisition took place between 1962, with construction on the road, including new bridges over the East Don River and Highway 401 taking place in the following years. The Don Mills Road extension opened by 1966.

York Mills Road And Don Mills Road, 1963.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
1963 Aerial of York Mills Road and Don Mills Road.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
“New Bridge Takes Shape Over No. 401 Highway Where Don Mills Road Crosses”, The Globe and Mail, August 6, 1964.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

The Toronto Transit Commission’s Don Mills bus route began servicing York Mills Road in 1954. With the extension of the street, the 25 route also grew, even taking on an “A” branch in 1971 which serviced the business park. The 122 Graydon Hall bus took over in 1985.

1971 TTC Route Map.
Source: Transit Toronto.

Layers and layers on Lesmill Road

Lesmill Road was the first street to go up in the Business Park, being built north only to the Duncan property line in 1963. Warehouses, factories, and offices lined both sides of the streets, hinting at was to come.

1969 Toronto City Directory showing Lesmill Road, east side north of Leslie Street.
Source: Toronto Public Library

The origins of the Business Park lay in 1964 when the North York Planning approved a plan by Wretham Estates Ltd to develop 120 acres of land east of Leslie Street between York Mills Road and Highway 401 for industry. Wrentham Estates Ltd. seems to have been a real estate company spearheaded by industrialist E.P. Taylor which managed residential, commercial, and industrial properties. Taylor initiated the Don Mills project in the 1950s. It might be fair to say in this period “Oriole” as a descriptor for the area fell out of use as the community’s farms slowly started to disappear; it would be supplanted by Don Mills. The Wrentham Estates themselves was a residential and commercial project in York Mills around Bayview Avenue; the York Mills Shopping Centre was one of the by-products.

1957 Aerial of the area which would become the Lesmill Office Park.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

For this reason, the Lesmill Business Park is/was also known as the Wretham Estates Business/Industrial/Office Park, although use of the name seems to have dwindled this century. The 1966 Annual Report of the Canadian Equity & Development Company (later owners of the Wrentham Estates Ltd) cited that 23.6 acres of the industrial park had been sold at $40,000 to $50,000 per acre. Some remaining 43 acres were expected to be sold over the next few years and all services had been installed.

Lesmill Road, seemingly a portmanteau of Leslie and (York) Mill(s), was constructed between 1965 and 1969. It was laid out mostly over the 19th century plots 12 and 13, mostly belonging to the Elliot and Hunter families (and as others as ownership changed).

1965 The Lesmill Business Park starts to take form.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Lesmill is lined with many factories on either side. As it curves towards the CNR tracks, a long-removed siding served a former Johnson and Johnson plant at 66 Lesmill. As one moves up the street, there is an interesting mix of businesses.

1969 Toronto City Directory showing Lesmill Road, east side.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

At the road’s northern end, Moatfield Park edges on a branch of the East Don and has a couple of neat tidbits. Although it named after Moatfield, the farm did not actually extend this far north. In 1985, a recommendation was made by the North York Historical Board to move and restore the derelict Duncan/Oriole Station on York Mills Road, which was ultimately rejected by the city (the old station was sadly and ultimately demolished). More interesting, the park’s soccer field was the site of a 14th-century Huron-Wendat ossuary, discovered in 1997. It is a reminder that before the Business Park and the European settlers before it, there was human settlement here.

Lesmill Road once terminated at Moatfield Park, at the line which divided the north and south halves of Lot 13, another Hunter family plot. In 1983, a Metro Transportation study recommended its northward extension to Leslie Street, one of several suggestions to alleviate road congestion in Toronto. In 1988, an Environment Assessment Study was conducted and the street was extended. The move provided another entrance to the office park, access to and from the highway, and alleviated congestion along Leslie Street.

1983 Aerial showing Lesmill Road
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
“Lesmill Road Extension”, Toronto Star, January 13, 1988.
Source: Toronto Star Archives.
1991 Aerial showing Lesmill Road.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Out of Place? The Locke and Goodwin Houses

At the north end of Lesmill Road off a driveway, two historic houses stand next to the on-ramp for the eastbound 401. They look out of place, and rightfully so: their contexts have shifted.

The first house is a Tudor Revival-style home built in 1933, informally named the Clark Locke House. Now with the modern address of 355 Lesmill Road, the house was called “Birches End”. The house’s namesake married into the family of former Ontario Premier George S. Henry, who held property here north to Sheppard Avenue. Scott Kennedy wrote Birches End was located “on a high point of land near the top of a ravine that contains one of the oldest stands of white pines in Ontario”.

The Locke House was historically accessible from Leslie Street. When Highway 401 was constructed in the 1950s, the Henry farm was split on either side of the motorway, including landing Birches End on the south side. The widening of the highway expropriated the property in the following decade. The house sat derelict and empty until it was saved by the Ontario Nature. The City of Toronto Forestry Department uses the house now. When Lesmill was extended in the 1980s, it became the driveway for the property. Perhaps it is a candidate for a future Doors Open.

1947 aerial of the Locke House.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Easy to miss but sharing the same address, the William Goodwin House stands beside the Locke House. It was built in 1845 and is not original to the property. It stood on Yonge Street in York Mills until the 1980s. Much like the Locke House, it fell into disrepair until it was saved and moved beside the Locke House. Its survival makes it the oldest standing house in North York.

Duncan Mill Road: New and Old

Today, Duncan Mill Road hosts an interesting collection of buildings, including two medical buildings (one of which lights up at night), the headquarters for Herjavec Group, a co-working space, and storage complex.

Duncan Mill Road was laid out in the mid-1960s at the same time as the other streets in the office park. Its naming seems to references the Duncan family, although their plot was not its direct vicinity (the mill part will be explained shortly). Running from Don Mills to Lesmill, its construction necessitated a bridge over the East Don River, which was completed around 1968. It is, however, not the first crossing here.

A former road was situated just north of the present one, which ran between Graydon Hall Manor to the east of the river and the farms to the west. This was on the north half of Lot 12, historically associated by the Elliots, but likely passed through different owners and subdivisions in the mid-twentieth century. The farm had a horse track on the plot.

1963 Aerial showing the Old Duncan Mill Road.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

When one ventures into the valley of the Betty Sutherland Trail, a couple clues point to the old road’s former existence. The first relics are obvious – at least in the sense that they are visible. These are the “Duncan Mill Ruins”: a larger roofless structure containing a boiler and a smaller, square structure which house more elaborate equipment.

The origin of these buildings are unknown. Scott Kennedy speculated the larger building may be the remains of a mill from the Hunter property, which once may or may not be the same one seen in maps to the south of here. He also theorized the smaller “newer” building was connected to the 1930s Graydon Mall manor as its style references the mansion’s architecture (other writers have pinned it as a water pump for the house itself, but Kennedy does not seem to go as far to make that connection). The North York Historical Society speculated it was a water pumping station for the residents of North York.

A lesser known remnant of this old road are some concrete pads located south of the ruins on either side of the river. These look to be leftovers of leftovers: bridge abutments of the former bridge that ran through here! The leftovers were once more pronounced, as seen by these 2004 images. Today, the new Duncan Mill bridge looms over in eyesight of the site of the old bridge and its neighbouring relics.

1970 Aerial showing the new Duncan Mill Road and the old bridge over the East Don River.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Opposite the Betty Sutherland Trail, the Duncan Mill Greenbelt offers some neat surprises. A foot bridge travels over the East Don River. On the east side of the river, there is a baseball diamond, sandy volleyball court, and views of the river. Most oddly yet intriguing of all, some wooden stairs lead up to Duncan Mill Road. Their origin is unknown, but their existence is intriguing.

On the west side, more greenspace offers up a soccer field. There is an ascend up to Moatfield Drive, which is prominent at the Bayview Glen Independent School, whose stairs are built over the topography. The school moved into the Brutalist 1970s-era building in the 1980s. There are currently renovations on the side facing Duncan Mill. Across the street, a Moatfield campus was opened in 2014 using some excess space in a parking lot. The site of the school itself has a history which reaches back many generations.

Scott Kennedy wrote that the Hunters built a home on southern lot of plot 13 west of the Don River in the 1840s. It had a long driveway leading from Leslie Street which straddled the property line with the northern lot. A victim of fire, this house had a survived until 1961 when the property was under the Anderson family. A new house called Green Acres went up in its place and even had an address in the city directory: 85 Valleybrook Road. Much like Moatfield, Green Acres continued to stand even as offices and warehouses went up around it. It survived until the early 1980s.

Valleybrook Drive has a couple of notable modern landmarks. At 41 Valleybrook, there is the headquarters for SOCAN, an organization founded in 1990 to represent Canadian publishers and songwriters. When the structure was first built, it hosted BMI Music. Beside it at 1 Valleybrook, an interestingly-designed office building houses Parkin Architects, which seems to be the firm of famed Canadian modernist architect John C. Parkin. It also hosted a IBM plant too at one point.

1969 Toronto City Directory showing Valleybrook Drive.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

By the early-1980s, Moatfield Drive was added to the business park, running between Valleywood Drive and Don Mills Road and effectively completing the layout we see today. Interestingly, although it seems to be named after the Duncan farm, only a small portion actually runs through the old Duncan lot. In the 1980s, the first buildings went up on the street: the current Kraft Heinz office and Thales Group structures. Green Acres once stood in a parking lot adjacent to these buildings before the Bayview Glen School was built.

Aerial of The Lesmill Office Park, 1991
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

One newer structure is the headquarters for the Ontario Association of Architects at 111 Moatfield Drive. Although this building looks like a 21st-century construction, it opened in 1992 and was designed by Toronto architect Ruth Cawker. It is an interesting two-storey building with many windows and natural light. It too may be a good candidate for a future Doors Open.

Finally, the David Duncan House is situated at 125 Moatfield Drive. As mentioned, it was moved here in 1986, still on the original Moatfield lot, although facing Don Mills instead of York Mills. It is one of a few visible links of the Lesmill Business Park’s former life.

Toronto’s Lost Streets: Tate & Water Streets

In the compelling theme of ‘Lost Toronto’, the area bordered by Eastern Avenue, Cherry Street, the Don River, and Mill Street in the West Don Lands has had a transformative history. Two intersecting streets, Tate Street and Water Street, were at the figurative and geographic centre of this intriguing district.

Aerial, 2020.
Source: Google Maps.

In his Landmarks, John Ross Robertson wrote Water Street was named after the Don River, which the street once ran along. Before 1876, Water Street was East Street after its location in the city of Toronto. In its longest version, Water Street ran from Eastern Avenue to the railway tracks. The street looks to date from the 1830s when the marshy area of the east end of Toronto was added to the street grid.

1833 Bonnycastle: No.1 Plan of the Town and Harbour of York Upper Canada. South is at the top of the map.
Credit: Old Toronto Maps

Robertson wrote Tate Street was named after Mr Tate, the contractor for the Grand Trunk Railway (the right of way ran south of the street). In its longest version, Tate Street ran from Cherry Street to the Don River. Don Loucks and Leslie Valpy wrote in their Modest Hopes: Homes and Stories of Toronto’s Workers from the 1820s to 1920s that Tate Street first appeared on maps in the 1850s.

1858 WS Boulton: Atlas of the City of Toronto and Vicinity.
Source: Old Toronto Maps.

Several details are available about life on Tate and Water Streets. Loucks and Valpy describe the area around and including the streets as a “bustling neighbourhood, with rows and rows of workers’ cottages as well as large and small factories”. The detailed Fire Insurance Map of 1889 tells us these were mostly tiny, one-storey, wooden structures, some of which (mostly on Water Street) had rough cast or plastered finishes. It also shows a relatively populous district with several pockets of empty lots, notably on Water Street north of Front Street and the south side of Tate Street near Cherry Street.

1889 Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto.
Source: Goads Toronto

The Toronto Directory for 1880 offers a snapshot into the working-class identity of Tate and Water Streets. Professions are listed as mostly labourers. This is not surprising considering the proximity of industries: Gooderham and Worts distillery to the west, the Toronto Rolling Mills (until 1914) and Grand Trunk Railroad to the south, and the William Davies Co. giant meatpacking operation to the east.

Toronto Rolling Mills, Mill St., south side, between Cherry St. and Overend St. (at southwest corner of former Water St.); Interior, 1864.
Source: Toronto Public Library
Front St. east of Overend St., 1925. Source: City of Toronto Archives. The William Davies Co. is on the right; a sign adorns the top.

At the close of the 19th century, several developments altered the course of history for Tate and Water. By the early 1890s, the Canadian Pacific Railway opened a branch through the east end of Toronto and up through the Don Valley. The track ran south of the western side of Tate Street, crossed Water Street at a level crossing, and then curved northeast adjacent to the Don.

1893 Barclay, Clark & Co. Bird’s Eye View.
Source: Old Toronto Maps

In 1900, the William Davies Co. successfully applied for some changes to the street grid to accommodate an expansion:

  • The closure of Beachall Street from Front to Mill;
  • The closure of Tate Street from the west limit of Beachall Street to the east limit of Vine Street
  • The southern extension of Vine from Front to Mill

The eastern closure of Tate Street from the new Vine Street (which was later renamed to Overend) razed structures across nearly thirty lots on and around Tate.

1903 Toronto Fire Insurance Map.
Source: Goads Toronto

In 1905, the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway acquired the lands east of Cherry Street between Eastern Avenue and Front Street. The company built freight yards on the property, which would later serve the Canadian National Railway from the 1910s onwards. Water Street lost about eighteen residences north of Front Street.

1913 Toronto Fire Insurance Map.
Source: Goads Toronto

Archival images of the area are limited, but two images in 1907 offer a good insight into the physical look of the area. The photos look up and down Water Street from north and south of the CPR crossing and Tate Street. Most notable are the wet, muddy, wagon-tracked streets. Tate and Water, along with Mill, Cherry, and Overend Streets were not paved.

Water St., looking n. from s. of Tate St., across C.P.R. tracks & Tate St. to Eastern Ave. at head of street., 1907.
Source: Toronto Public Library
1907 Water St., looking south from Tate St., across C.P.R. tracks to Mill St.
Source: Toronto Public Library

The foot of Water Street had a row of houses (numbered 2 to 14) on the west side. The corner property was a grocery run by the McSherrys. The archives label these homes as “old”. While not condemned like others that are photographed, the age and condition of the structures likely made the area more primed for redevelopment.

Cherry St., looking s. from Tate St., across C.P.R. tracks towards Mill St., 1907.
Source: Toronto Public Library

A few newspaper articles may have further pointed to the shabby nature of the residences. In 1904, a Mrs O’Brien was severely burned by an exploding lamp in her home at 12 Tate Street. In an odd tale from 1908, an 18-year old girl was turned away by her step-father and mother at 22 Tate Street after giving birth. The girl was taken in by a George Davis at 44 Tate Street where she slept downstairs in a low, mouldy room where water had been creeping in. Davis had four rooms in the house and he sublet two rooms to another family. While these events may have been one-offs or coincidental, they do fit the narrative of what was about to happen.

In 1911, The Canadian Pacific Railway expanded again. In April, the company served notice to all “tenants of the district bounded by Cherry, Water, Overend, Tate, and Front Streets to vacate their premises by the end of the month”. Freight yards and sheds were to go in their place. The Globe noted the properties occupying the area were “shacks” and would be torn down. Tenders to tear down or remove sixty houses were awarded by the company at the end of the month, although residents stayed until June.

“TENDERS ARE IN FOR CLEARING YARDS”, The Globe, April 29, 1911. Source: Globe & Mail Archives
“Fires From Crackers” Toronto Daily Star, May 25, 1911.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

In May, the City granted permission to the CPR to close Tate and Water. The company had already acquired 90% of the property in the area. In June, there seemed to have been an impasse with Thomas O’Connor’s property. The CPR needed the property to build a railway viaduct. The company stated they would expropriate if no price was agreed and they differed on price. Loucks and Valpy wrote William O’Connor was a champion oarsman whose family moved to Tate Street in the 1860s; it is unclear if Thomas O’Connor was related, as the authors wrote the O’Connors left Tate Street in 1891. The final house on Tate Street was demolished in 1913. The streets continued to exist in the city directories and real-life, albeit as shortened versions of their former selves without anything except CPR and CNR structures built upon them.

1924 Toronto Fire Insurance Map.
Source: Goads Toronto
Aerial, 1965.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

Industry in the West Don Lands area continued for the next seventy years. In the 1990s, the former William Davies Co buildings along with the CPR and CNR tracks were gradually removed. A failed project in the 1990s entitled ‘Ataratiri’ aimed to redevelop the land for residential use, a goal which was eventually fulfilled by the Corktown Commons parkland and the rebranded Canary District in the 2010s.

Aerial, 1992.
Source: Toronto Public Library
Ataratiri site plan, 1990. Source: City of Toronto Archives

Although Mill Street, Front Street, Cherry Street, and Eastern Avenue remain today and there is a new Rolling Mills Road, traces of Water Street and Tate Street and the bustling residential district once contained within them are essentially non-existent. Tannery Street roughly lays where Water Street once stood.

Tannery Road, 2020.
Source: Google Maps.