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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.