Two Amazing Rooftop Views of Toronto’s The Ward

In the early 1900s, St. John’s Ward or familiarly just ‘The Ward’ was a dense, immigrant enclave in the central core of the City of Toronto. The neighbourhood was roughly bound by Queen Street, College Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue, and housed some of the city’s first Black, Jewish, Chinese, Irish, and Italian colonies. Two early 20th-century rooftop photos provide interesting overhead views of the physical makeup of the district.

The first rooftop view was taken in 1920 by iconic Toronto photographer William James from the top of the Alexandra Palace Apartments, formerly located at 184 University Avenue opposite the terminus of Gerrard Street West on the edge of The Ward.

The southeasterly scene below and far beyond the Alexandra Palace Apartments is fascinating. In the foreground is a great visualization of University Avenue’s history as two separate streets. Among the recognizable landmarks are Old City Hall and the T. Eaton Co. factory complex in the background (more on this further down), the Hester How School at centre-left, the Presto-O-Lite factory and the Toronto House of Industry at centre, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church, and Maclean Publishing Co factories at centre-right. Interspersed is a dense grid of low-rise housing and other structures which ultimately came to define The Ward.

Looking southeast from University Avenue, 1920. Source: City of Toronto Archives. Annotations by Bob Georgiou.

There was another photograph also taken by James from the Alexandra Apartments, this one dated to “circa 1920”. Although generally quite similar, noticeable differences exist between this and the 1920 photo, most visibly that the latter is a much broader view of the same general area of The Ward.

Looking southeast from University Avenue, c 1920. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

While the date of the zoomed-in image is approximate, it almost certainly precedes 1920. The main differences between this and the 1920 photo is the lack of the Prest-O-Lite Factory (built 1917) and the northernmost Eaton’s factories (also built 1917). The most important detail, however, is the Eaton’s Annex building, which appears under construction. The store opened in 1913, which likely dates the image to 1912 or 1913.

The Alexandra Palace Apartments (also simply called the ‘Alexandra Apartments’, ‘The Alexandra Palace’, or ‘The Palace’) was a 7-storey, luxury apartment building constructed in 1904 during Toronto’s first apartment building boom, meaning it was one of the first of its kind in the city. The architect was the prolific George W. Gouinlock, who also designed the Temple Building. Famous residents included tycoon E.P. Taylor and Ontario Hydro founder Sir Adam Beck (the old Ontario Hydro Headquarters was directly north of the apartment). It is said that residents moved into the Palace to retire.

Alexandra Palace Apartments, No. 184-188 University Avenue (erected 1909), 1919. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

In the 1920s, the Palace went from apartment house to apartment hotel with a dining room already in its offerings. In the 1940s, the building was slated to become a nurses’ residence for Sick Children’s Hospital. By the 1950s, the building ceased to be a residence and was heavily remodelled to be a modern office building, losing much of its original exterior features. In 1968, the Alexandra Apartments building was demolished.

Postcard of The Alexandra, Queen’s Park Avenue, Toronto, Canada’s Finest Apartment House, 1910. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Alexandra Apartments, University Avenue, west side, between Elm & Orde Streets, 1954. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The second rooftop photograph comes from the top of an Eaton’s factory tower once located adjacent to the Church of the Holy Trinity. Like the Alexandra Apartments picture, it was taken by William James. It is dated “circa 1910.”

The view is looking northwesterly over The Ward and has several common landmarks with the 1920 Alexandra Apartments image, such as Toronto House of Industry, the Hester How School, and the Grace Church. In the foreground along Bay Street (at the time called Terauley Street) and Dundas Street (Agnes Street) are the Terauley Street Synagogue, the Lyric Yiddish Theatre, and Police Station #2 (which appears to have officers in its yard). As with The Palace image, there are also the tightly packed streets of tiny residences, many undoubtedly housing men and women who were employed by Eaton’s. Finally, the distinctive rooflines of Queen’s Park and Toronto General Hospital loom far in the distance (with the Alexandra Apartments somewhere nearby).

Looking north from top of Eaton’s factory, c 1910. Source: City of Toronto Archives. Annotations by Bob Georgiou.

The Eaton’s factory itself where James captured the image was a 12-storey structure located adjacent to the Church of The Holy Trinity. It was built around 1910 in a period when the Eaton’s footprint in the area expanded from a single store at 190 Yonge Street in 1883 to encompass at least half the block between Yonge, Bay, Queen and Dundas Streets by 1920. The factory was demolished in the 1970s when other Eaton’s factories and warehouses were razed in part to make way for the Eaton Centre (The Eaton’s Annex store referenced earlier was destroyed by fire in 1977).

T. Eaton Company factory from Louisa Street, 1910. Source: City of Toronto Archives.
The Eaton’s store, the Eaton’s Annex, mail order facilities and factories in Toronto, at Yonge and Queen Streets, in 1920. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Eaton’s image is dated “circa 1910”, which is likely accurate as it is very comparable to the “circa 1920, but likely 1912-3” Alexandra Apartments photo. The Prest-O-Lite factory does not appear in the image, thus 1910-1917 is a fair timeframe.

T. Eaton factory from Louisa Street, c 1920. Note the addition of the north tower (1920). Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Today, if the two William James rooftop photos were recreated, they would be taken from Mount Sanai Hospital and the Bell Trinity Square office building, respectively. Ironically, the Alexandra Apartments and the Eaton’s factory were both constructed and demolished in similar periods: the 1900s to 1910s and 1960s to 1970s. The dwellings, houses of worship, and businesses of The Ward also largely disappeared by the 1950s as lands were expropriated for various projects. The district continued to change since then until the present-day, making these century-old views a far cry to today’s world.

A modern view of the area formerly known as The Ward, 2021. The sites of The Alexandra Apartments and Eaton’s factory are circled. Source: Google Maps.

When Toronto renamed a street – twice

As Toronto City Council looks at renaming Dundas Street over its namesake’s support of slavery within the British empire, it is a reminder that it is not the first time the city has grappled with such an exercise.

Asquith Avenue runs about 350 metres east from Yonge Street just north of Bloor Street in Yorkville. Today, it is most known for being the home of the Toronto Reference Library. Hidden within its history is Asquith is not its original name; in fact, it was renamed twice before.

Asquith Avenue in 2021. Source: Google Maps.

Annexation & Duplication

The origins of Asquith Avenue lay in the 1830s with the independent village of Yorkville. The street was originally known as Jarvis Street, named after one of the village’s builders Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis.

Map of The Incorporated Village of Yorkville in the County of York and Province of Canada, 1852. Source: Historic Maps of Toronto.

When Yorkville was absorbed into the larger City of Toronto in 1883, the annexation created duplication in some street names between the two entities. There was already a Jarvis Street in Toronto (ironically, it is a candidate for renaming today for its own slave-owning connections). Named for Samuel P. Jarvis, it ran from the lake to its head at Bloor Street – and was only short distance away from the Jarvis Street in Yorkville. To avoid confusion, the smaller street was renamed.

“The names of the following streets in St. Paul’s Ward, which conflicted with the names of other streets in Toronto were changed: – William-street to Hawthorn-avenue, Jarvis-street to Bismarck-avenue, Sydenham-street to Cumberland-street, York-street to McMurrich-street, Beverley-street to Boswell-street, Grange-street to Baker-street, Emma-street to Baxter-street, John-street to Roden-place, Balwin-street to Crown-street, Dufferin-street to Bernard-avenue, Victoria-avenue to Dobson-avenue, and Chestnut-avenue to Turner-avenue. The accounts were passed, and the meeting adjourned.”

“Civic Committees”, The Globe, March 7, 1883, pg. 3
Plan of the city of Toronto, 1882: Source: Historic Maps of Toronto

The new name chosen for the former Jarvis Street was Bismarck Avenue. It was named for Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman and later German chancellor who was best known for unifying Germany in the 1870s. The change was proposed by German-born Alderman Newman Leopold Steiner, Toronto’s first Jewish Alderman. In May 1883, Steiner read a communication from Prince Bismarck thanking Council for the naming honour.

Source: Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, 1894
22-24 Bismarck (Asquith) Avenue, 1890. Source: Toronto Public Library.
16-20 Bismarck (Asquith) Avenue, Parker’s Dye Works, side entrance, 1910. Source: Toronto Public Library.

“Lose all traces of Prussian Plutocracy”

Bismarck Avenue remained for another thirty years until World War I. Canada joined Great Britain in the Great War against Germany. As result, in 1915, the street name’s relevance came into question.

Alderman J. George Ramsden — the local representative of St. Paul’s Ward where Bismarck Avenue was located and the individual for which Ramsden Park is named for today — was an adamant champion for the street’s renaming. In May 1915, Ramsden presented a petition of 400 signatures of local residents around Bismarck and moved to approve the change. Among the signatories was the Central Methodist Church on Bloor Street, which backed onto Bismarck. According to the Toronto Daily Star, the site of the church was given by the grandfather of one of the victims of the sinking of the Lusitania – an event that stirred great resentment against Germany and its people, even at home. The council meeting went as follows:

“For that reason it was the desire of the petitioners that Bismarck avenue should lose all trace of the German Chancellor and of Prussian plutocracy. (Applause).”

“Refuse to appoint Smith as Head of Fire Department”, Toronto Daily Star, May 18, 1915, pg. 2

The Toronto Daily Star noted the Street Naming Committee normally only met in the fall, but given the circumstances, greater haste was needed. North Toronto previously had a street named for Kaiser Wilhelm, which was renamed by the the committee. Among the new possibilities for Bismarck were “Asquith”, “Kitchener”, and WWI battles in which Canadians prevailed such as “Ypres” and “Neuve Chapelle” (although newspaper also noted Torontonians may have trouble with their pronunciations).

Toronto City Council in its inaugural meeting of 1915. Alderman Ramsden is numbered 14. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Controller Ramsden in 1934. He retired from politics a few years later. Source: Toronto Archives.

At risk of change was more than just Bismarck Avenue, however. “If we change one or two German names, we might as well change all of them,” Alderman Ramsden commented. There were 16 “Teuton” names across the city of Toronto and the goal was to erase any reference to Germany in the city.

An interesting exchange during a Board of Works meeting. “Strachan Ave. Bridge is all a Bungle”, The Globe, July 31, 1915. Source: Globe & Mail Archives

Finally, in August 1915, along with a collection of German-origin names, Bismarck Avenue was formally changed to Asquith Avenue. The Globe explained the move in strong terms:

“No longer will the memory of Bismarck be perpepuated by the nameplate of a Toronto thoroughfare. The memory of the man of iron will be replaced by that of Great Britain’s incomparable statesman, Premier Asquith.”

“Bismarck gives way to British Premier,” The Globe, August 11, 1915, pg. 7
Asquith Avenue’s two former names are noted in the Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto, 1924. Source: Goad’s Toronto.

The Power of Names

The history of Asquith Avenue is a great summary of how and why streets are named and/or renamed. In many cases, it is out of necessity to avoid duplication and confusion, often following municipal consolidation. In other situations, they are motivated by the idea of elimination an undesired connotation surrounding that street – that is, either as a re-branding or as a politically-motivated exercise.

In the 1880s, the idea of honouring a German statesman may have made sense. Toronto had a historic community of German settlers and at least one decision-maker of German descent. During World War I, with Toronto and Canada in a conflict with universal ramifications, honouring German ties was perhaps not as obvious. Strengthening the British character of the city — as Toronto often did in other ways, sometimes to very racist outcomes — became a priority. It turned into a deliberate attempt to “erase” all German connections in the city (at least, on the surface).

Names, statues, and monuments reflect the dominant values of the society and people who at the time have the power — both socially and politically — to make those commemorations. The kinds of places that are marked change or should change as that society evolves – or, at least, be afforded the opportunity to hold fair and serious discourse on the possibility of doing so.

Names do not necessarily create, ‘erase’, or ‘sterilize‘ history. They do, however, emphasize and prioritize the types of stories that are told or not told. The history of the naming of Asquith Avenue certainly shows that.

Asquith Avenue in 2019. Source: Google Maps.

Further Reading

“Bismarck Avenue Entrance of Parker’s Dye Works. 791 Yonge Street, Toronto.” Toronto Public Library. Accessed July 12, 2021.

“Bismarck Gives Way To British Premier.” The Globe, August 11, 1915.

“City Council.” The Globe, May 22, 1883.

“City Fathers Favor Fire Commissioner.” The Globe, May 18, 1915.

“Civic Committees.” The Globe, March 7, 1883.

“German Names for 16 Toronto Streets.” The Toronto Daily Star, May 19, 1915.

Lorinc, | By John. “LORINC: What’s in a Street Name? Dundas and Other Uncomfortable Truths about Our City.” Spacing Toronto, June 12, 2020.

“Refuse to Appoint Smith Head of Fire Department.” The Toronto Daily Star, May 18, 1915.

“Strachan Ave. Bridge Is Still A Bungle.” The Globe, July 31, 1915.

“Toronto Reference Library at 40: The Evolution of Its Site. Part 1. Site and Street Name Changes.” Toronto Reference Library Blog. Accessed July 12, 2021.