A Quick Early History of Toronto’s First Traffic Signals and The ‘Right on Red’ Rule

In the first half of the twentieth century, automobiles had quite an impact on the streets of Toronto. In 1913, there were 17,000 cars in Toronto; by 1923, the number grew to about 50,000 cars. New rules and technologies were adopted to better manage and regulate how motorists behaved, especially concerning the other users of the road and their safety.

Traffic conditions, Adelaide and Bay, 12:10, (Executive Department), 1927.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Traffic Lights: A Most Beneficial System

On August 8, 1925, Torontonians were introduced to their first set of automated traffic signals. The new ‘semaphores’ were set up at the busy intersection of Yonge Street and Bloor Street on a trial basis and changed the history of Toronto’s streets forever. It was at least three years in the making, with Toronto Chief of Police Samuel J. Dickson advocating for and finally receiving the system in that time.

“Traffic Control by Lighting System” The Toronto Daily Star, August 8, 1925.
Source: Toronto Star Archives
“Traffic Control by Lighting System” The Toronto Daily Star, August 8, 1925.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Before traffic lights, intersections were regulated by traffic policemen. In the 1910s, this was done largely through hand signals, whistles, and yelling. In 1920, a new ‘semaphore’ was piloted (again at Yonge and Bloor) which consisted of the officer controlling a staffed sign with the words “STOP” and “GO” written on them. The officer rotated the sign to control the flow of traffic. If one peruses archival photos of highly trafficked Toronto intersections, it is common to see a police officer amid the action.

Southwest corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, 1923.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
“Semaphore on Trial”, The Toronto Daily Star, June 6, 1920.
Source: Toronto Star Archives.

The new traffic lights were an overall success. Automated signals were installed on major junctions along Yonge Street, Bloor Street, and Danforth Avenue, and in suburbs such as East York within the next few years after their introduction. As an example of the new semaphores’ impact, The Globe reported in December 1929, the intersection of Bloor Street and Keele Street had an average of 4 or 5 accidents a day before automated signals were installed there in 1927; there were no accidents after that point.

Police Chief Dickson even dreamed of a master tower at Yonge and Queen to control all the lights in the city. The idea became a reality at the end of 1926. There was even synchronicity within the lights: a motorist travelling straight on Danforth Avenue between Main Street and Broadview Avenue in 1928 was able to meet all green lights if he travelled at 19 or 20 miles per hour; any slower or faster, the driver would hit a red light (the speed was 18 miles per hour downtown).

Automatic traffic signal, King and Yonge, 1927. Traffic Lights were switched to a vertical orientation and a yellow/amber ‘warning’ light was formalized several years after 1925.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Of course, several early reports indicated that the new lights were not all good. Even the Mayor weighed in, saying to the Police Chief in October 1925 that officers were still stationed at the Yonge and Bloor ‘experiment’, seemingly defeating the Chief’s goal of having the technology free up more policemen from traffic duty. Sometimes they did not function properly or at all, as The Globe reported in July 1928 of the new, often “stuck” Dundas Street East signals. But despite these complaints, the lights were there to stay; 96 signals were installed in Toronto by the end of the 1920s.

Queen and Yonge, looking west, traffic, noon – 1 p.m., (Executive Department), 1929. Despite the functioning green light, an officer monitors the traffic.
Source: City of Toronto Archives
Bloor and Yonge streets, southwest corner, 1928. One compare the crossing to the earlier 1923 image.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The ‘Right on Red’ Rule

One of the most interesting impacts of the rise and success of traffic lights was a ‘new’ law that permitted a motorist to make a right-hand turn against a signal that would otherwise make him wait at the intersection. This is the ‘right on red’ rule. On March 22, 1927, Police Chief Dickson announced the reinstatement of the permission, indicating that it was actually in effect “some time ago” and the success of the new lights could now allow for it once more. It is unclear what period the rule was previously in place or why it disappeared, although reckless driving at unmanned intersections is a theory for its removal.

Corner of King and Yonge streets, 1910. Note the right-turning vehicle.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The ‘right on red’ permission was not without controversy, even with the police itself. The organization vowed to watch right-turning drivers and warned them to prioritize the safety of pedestrians who had the right of way to cross the street.

In July 1928, new Police Chief D.C. Draper reiterated motorists were allowed to turn right at a “hostile” light, having “regard” of other cars and pedestrians who have the right of way. However, in March 1929, Draper advocated against the rule. In a report by the Traffic Committee, which monitored Toronto streets for more than a month for traffic improvements, the Chief suggested, among other items, the discontinuance of “the present practice of motorists making a right-hand turn against the red light” or “otherwise give them a warning that the pedestrians have the right of way, and that right-hand turns against a red signal are only allowed when care is exercised”. The Board of Control ultimately went against the Chief and retained the rule while reiterated motorists were responsible for pedestrian safety.

King and Yonge streets, northwest corner, looking west, 1912.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Interestingly, in Hamilton, which was the setting of Canada’s first traffic lights just two months before Toronto’s semaphores were installed, the Traffic Committee wanted to abolish the rule which allowed right-hand turns on red lights in 1933. Oddly, it was met with disapproval from the Ontario Department of Highways. The by-law ultimately remained.

Despite many calls in Toronto in the decades since to remove the permission for good, the Highway Traffic Act currently upholds it in Ontario:

s. 144 (19) Despite subsection (18) and subject to subsection (14) [Green Arrows], a driver, after stopping his or her vehicle and yielding the right of way to traffic lawfully approaching so closely that to proceed would constitute an immediate hazard, may,

(a) turn to the right; or

(b) turn to the left from a one-way street into a one-way street,

without a green indication being shown.

Traffic conditions, Adelaide and Bay, 1210, (Executive Department), 1927. Note the traffic light and police officer on horseback.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

To Stop or Not?

Another interesting question arose on the requirement to stop before turning right. In November 1927, a person writing into The Toronto Daily Star‘s “Voice of The People” section was puzzled by the different standards of when there was a stop sign at an intersection (which he interpreted as ‘stop means stop’) and when there was a policeman with a semaphore (which he interpreted as ‘stop means stop sometimes‘). The editor replied that when an officer was holding the semaphore, he supervises traffic and allows right turns without stopping. When there is no officer, all cars must stop.

Southeast corner of Bloor and Yonge streets (Imperial Bank of Canada), 1924.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Within Toronto City Hall, the issue of drivers legally passing through a red light to turn right was debated for several years. In July 1929, Toronto’s Traffic Committee suggested an amendment of certain by-laws to protect pedestrians, including motorists were to come to a stop before making a right-hand turn against the red light. It did not seem to have made an impact. In December 1933, the idea was raised again, this time proving more successful. The Board of Control favoured a change to the by-law so that every driver must come to a full stop before making a right turn at an intersection controlled by automatic traffic signals. The change seemed to be spurred by complaints that motorists were not heeding the way to pedestrians and “showing no consideration for the pedestrian”. City Council adopted the change on December 12th of the year, subject to approval by the Department of Highways.

“City of Toronto Traffice By-Laws”, The Toronto Daily Star, March 2, 1933.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Inexplicably, the rule was changed back only four months later. In April 1934, the by-law requiring motorists to make a complete stop before a right turn at a red light was rescinded. The Board of Police Commissioners instructed police officers to safeguard the rights of pedestrians once more.

It is unclear when exactly the law reverted once again, but it seems the matter was not closed. The idea seemed to be backed in other circles, too. In a February 1934 meeting of the Ontario Motor League, a suggestion was advanced that those turning right in the province should come to a full stop at both a red land green light. In 1938, a reader of The Globe and Mail expressed his displeasure in the lack of pedestrian rights in motorists not having to stop before right turns. A decade later, in July 1948, the same newspaper rode along with Toronto Traffic Safety Council Inspector Vernon H. Page in a motor car as he pointed out traffic infractions, including those failing to come to a full stop before a right turn, meaning by this point the law was reinstated.

“Camera Catches Motorists, Pedestrians Breaking Rules”, The Globe and Mail, July 20, 1948.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

Today, of course, a red light does indeed mean ‘stop’ in all contexts, as the Highway Traffic Act so states:

s. 144 (18) Every driver approaching a traffic control signal showing a circular red indication and facing the indication shall stop his or her vehicle and shall not proceed until a green indication is shown. 

Yonge Street and Queen Street, southeast corner, 1915.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Works Referenced

“24-Hour Operation Of Traffic Signals Proves Successful.” The Globe, 28 July 1928, p. 13.

“24-Hour Police Service, East York, Authorized; Other Changes Urged.” The Globe, 18 Jan. 1929, p. 13.

“Allow Right Turn Against Red Light.” The Toronto Daily Star, 22 Mar. 1927, p. 3.

“Automatic Control Of Central Traffic Assured InToronto.” The Globe, 20 Mar. 1926, p. 14.

“Automatic Control Of Toronto Traffic To Be Inaugurated.” The Globe, 5 Nov. 1926, p. 11.

“Automatic Signals To Be Installed At Fifty-Five More Intersections Controlling All Main Street Traffic.” The Globe, 10 Mar. 1928, p. 8.

“Automatic Signals Will Operate Today At Bloor And Yonge.” The Globe, 8 Aug. 1925, p. 13.

Bateman, Chris. “A Brief History of the First Traffic Lights in Toronto.” BlogTO, BlogTO, 3 Aug. 2013, https://www.blogto.com/city/2013/08/a_brief_history_of_the_first_traffic_lights_in_toronto/.

“Canada’s First Traffic Lights at Hamilton’s Delta.” Thespec.com, 8 May 2021, https://www.thespec.com/life/local-history/spec175/2021/05/08/canadas-frist-traffic-lights-at-hamiltons-delta.html#:~:text=On%20June%2011%2C%201925%2C%20the,lights%20was%20meant%20for%20them.

“Car May Turn Right Against Red Signal.” The Globe, 20 May 1933, p. 2.

“Cars In Toronto Now Number 50,000.” The Globe, 1923 Sept. 1AD, p. 8.

“Chief Draper Asks Co-Operation of Pedestrian And Motorist Of Solving Local Traffic Problem.” The Globe, 10 May 1929, p. 15.

“Chief’s Suggestions In Tabloid Form.” The Globe, 5 Mar. 1929, p. 15.

“City of Toronto Traffic By-Law.” The Toronto Daily Star, 2 Mar. 1933, p. 12.

“Civic Police Force To Be Augmented With Hundred Men.” The Globe, 9 Feb. 1928, p. 13.

“Flashing Lights Operate Traffic Bloor And Yonge.” The Toronto Daily Star, 8 Aug. 1925, p. 1.

Guillet, Edwin C. “Teeth in Traffic Laws.” The Globe and Mail, 13 Oct. 1938, p. 6.

“Highway Traffic Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8.” Ontario.ca, 19 Nov. 2018, https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90h08.

“More Semaphores Soon.” The Toronto Daily Star, 14 July 1920, p. 19.

“More Traffic Signals.” The Globe, 8 June 1928, p. 17.

“Needs Larger Force, Says Chief of Police.” The Globe, 5 Nov. 1925, p. 12.

“New Traffic Signals Are Very Effective.” The Globe, 5 June 1920, p. 16.

“Of Interest to Motorists.” The Globe, 24 Oct. 1925, p. 9.

“Operate Semaphores.” The Toronto Daily Star, 31 May 1920, p. 2.

“Over 100,000 Ontario Cars.” The Globe, 22 July 1919, p. 9.

“Planning Scheme Will Be Discussed By Central Body.” The Globe, 5 Dec. 1929, p. 15.

“Police Chief Wants Automatic Control In Downtown Areas.” The Globe, 24 June 1925, p. 13.

“Police to Safeguard Against Right Turns.” The Globe, 26 Apr. 1934, p. 4.

“Police Traffic Squad Readjust Signal Systems.” The Globe, 10 Aug. 1928, p. 13.

“Remembering Toronto’s First Automated Traffic Lights: August 8: Snapshots in History.” Local History & Genealogy, https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/local-history-genealogy/2019/08/remembering-torontos-first-automated-traffic-lights-august-8-snapshots-in-history.html.

“Return To Old Rule Of Right-Hand Turn.” The Globe, 22 Mar. 1927, p. 11.

“Says Light System As Traffic Signal Is Toronto’s Need.” The Globe, 10 July 1925, p. 9.

Schrag, Lex. “Camera Catches Motorists, Pedestrians Breaking Rules.” The Globe and Mail, 20 July 1948, p. 13.

“Semaphore On Trial.” The Toronto Daily Star, 1 June 1920, p. 1.

“Signal Set Against Police Chief By Board Of Control.” The Globe, 16 Mar. 1929, p. 18.

“Speed Limit Stays Unchanged At Present.” The Globe, 27 Feb. 1934, p. 4.

“Stop Before Right Turn.” The Toronto Daily Star, 12 Dec. 1933, p. 5.

“Stop Before Turn Against Red Light Urged In Report.” The Globe, 29 July 1929, p. 16.

“Stop Recommended Before Right Turn.” The Globe, 7 Dec. 1933, p. 11.

“Traffic Report By Chief Draper Goes To Control Board.” The Globe, 5 Mar. 1929, p. 15.

“Traffic Signal Urged For Danforth And Victoria Park.” The Globe, 16 Oct. 1928, p. 13.

“Traffic Signals Called Obsolete.” The Globe, 15 Feb. 1935, p. 11.

“Voice Of The People.” The Toronto Daily Star, 29 Nov. 1927, p. 6.

“When Lights Get Stuck.” The Globe, 7 July 1928, p. 6.

“Old” Streets of Toronto

Across the map of Toronto, there are several “Old” versions of major streets: Old Yonge Street, Old Leslie Street, et cetera. These are smaller and certainly older streets that predate yet still exist alongside their longer, newer counterparts.

How old are these “old” streets anyways? Why were they built as they were in the first place? Why were they replaced?

Tremaine’s Map showing old courses of Toronto’s streets.
Source: Old Toronto Maps

Here are five examples of “Old” Toronto Streets and their histories:


1. Old Yonge Street

Year rerouted: 1835

When Yonge Street was laid out in the 1790s, it was not the continuous straight path we think of today. The sheer length of the street almost welcomed obstacles. At York Mills, the challenging topography around the West Don River caused it to divert east just south of York Mills Road. It curved north and back west to join the original course. In 1835, the street was realigned and straightened. It seems in the 1920s, Yonge Street was re-routed again slightly to the west to allow for better automobile navigation.

1851 JO Browne Map of the Township of York.
Source: Old Toronto Maps
1950 Aerial showing Old Yonge Street and “new” Yonge Street.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
“Yonge Street, at York Mills, Again Takes Altered Course” The Globe, February 26, 1921.
Source: Globe & Mail Archives.

Today, the old, “orphaned” course remains as part of Mill Street and Old Yonge Street. Old Yonge’s narrow, curvy course in parts maintains a rural quality. While at one time Yonge and Old Yonge once connected at its north end, this connection is now a roundabout. Finally, because of its length in the province, there are other Old Yonge Streets in Thornhill and Aurora.

Old Yonge Street, 2021
Source: Google Maps
Yonge Street, 2021.
Source: Google Maps.
Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou


2. Old Sheppard Avenue

Year rerouted: ~1934

Sheppard Avenue once existed in two separate sections on either side of the Scarborough-North York border. A traveller wishing to travel east or west through the two streets had to jog about 300 metres on Victoria Park to reach the other section. In 1934, the two roads were joined through a curving road running from just past Woodbine Avenue to the lower street in Scarborough. The move was the idea of Ontario Premier George S. Henry whose estate stood where the new Sheppard Avenue connection ran.

1965 Aerial showing Old Sheppard Avenue and “new” Sheppard Avenue.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Today, the orphaned North York section of the old road now exists as residential Old Sheppard, albeit with small parts removed around Highway 404.

Old Sheppard Avenue, 2021
Source: Google Maps
Sheppard Avenue, 2021.
Source: Google Maps
Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou

More reading: Scenes From O’Sullivan’s Corners & Muirhead’s Corners


3. Old Lawrence Avenue

Year rerouted: ~1961

Lawrence Avenue is and was one of many streets which was impact by Toronto’s ravines. West of Victoria Park Avenue, Lawrence once took an interesting route across the East Don River Valley. Like Sheppard Avenue, there were two sections of the street: the Scarborough section which exists today and a North York section. The North York section jogged up Victoria Park over the Canadian Pacific Railway, ran briefly next to the track, and continued west for 1.5 kilometres. From here, it took a rather curvy route south down the East Don Valley, crossed the Don River via a bridge, and curved back north and west before continuing towards Don Mills Road. Presumably, this was easiest way in the 19th century to navigate the valley.

1860 Tremaine’s Map showing Old Lawrence Avenue
Source: Old Toronto Maps
Looking southwest at intersection of Victoria Park Avenue and Old Lawrence Avenue exit, 1958.
Source: Toronto Public Library
1959 Aerial showing Old Lawrence Avenue
Source: City of Toronto Archives
Lawrence Avenue E., bridge over East Don River, looking northwest,1955.
Source: Toronto Public Library

In 1961, Lawrence Avenue was straightened with a road directly connecting Victoria Park and Woodcliff Place, curling northwest from Scarborough with several new bridges to accommodate the Don River and CPR.

1960 Aerial showing Old Lawrence Avenue and “new” Lawrence Avenue under construction.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
Lawrence Avenue East and CPR bridge under construction, circa 1960.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Today, the orphaned old road exists as roughly as part of Roanoke Road and, more famously, a short access road to the East Don Trail named Old Lawrence. The remaining section west of the river along with the old bridge itself have been lost.

Old Lawrence Avenue, 2021
Source: Google Maps
Lawrence Avenue, 2021
Source: Google Maps
Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou

More reading: Scenes From East Don Trail


4. Old Leslie Street

Year rerouted: ~1968

Like Lawrence Avenue, Leslie Street’s course at one time also had to divert around the East Don River. Also of 19th-century origin, a traveller going north on Leslie had to turn west for a short distance and then northwest for about 500 metres to meet with Sheppard Avenue. There was then a jog east on Sheppard, which included a bridge over the river and finally a left turn to travel north again.

1860 Tremaine’s Map showing Old Leslie Street.
Source: Old Toronto Maps
1953 Aerial showing course of Old Leslie Street.
Source: City of Toronto Archives
Sheppard Ave. East bridge near Leslie Street, 1964.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

In the 1950s, with the construction of Highway 401, Leslie Street was altered to curve through the highway, but the course has otherwise remained the same. In 1968, the street was reconfigured again to join with Sheppard more directly. The Don River was also straightened and a new bridge was constructed which spanned the entirety of the new four-way intersection.

1967 Aerial of “new” Leslie Street under construction.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Today, the old course remains as Old Leslie Street, albeit a shorter version of the original route is available today to the public. It joins the new Leslie Street via Esther Shiner Drive. South of that street, there are City facilities. North of Esther Shiner, Old Leslie serves the Leslie Street TTC Station before it crosses over Sheppard via an overpass. It then curls back down to join the street (there is also a parking lot with an entrance to the East Don Parkland trail).

Old Leslie Street, 2021
Source: Google Maps
Leslie Street, 2020.
Source: Google Maps
Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou

More reading: Scenes From East Don Parkland


5. Cummer Avenue

Year rerouted: ~1969

The original course of Cummer Avenue west of Leslie Street was an 1819 construction. The street was laid out as a side road from Yonge Street by the Cummer family to access their holdings (a mill and camp) near the East Don River. When it approached the valley, it curved down to roughly follow the river’s course. It crossed the river via a bridge and eventually the railway tracks at a level crossing. Finally, it terminated at Leslie Street.

1860 Tremaine’s Map showing Old Cummer Avenue
Source: Old Toronto Maps
1968 Aerial showing course of Old Cummer Avenue.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By 1969, the street was rerouted to curve north away from the river (which looks to have been straightened around this time as well). The street passed through a new wider bridge over the Don River and then under a railway overpass before eventually becoming McNiccol Avenue at Leslie Street.

1969 Aerial showing “new” Cummer Avenue under construction and Old Cummer Avenue.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The old, orphaned course still exists in parts. The curved section lives on as part of the East Don Parkland trail, although not all of it follows the old path. The old bridge is in situ as well. The trail travels east through the hydro corridor where it terminates at the railway tracks. On the other side, Old Cummer Go Station and a hundred-metre long Old Cummer Avenue hold the old name.

Old Cummer Avenue, 2020
Source: Google Maps
Cummer Avenue, 2020.
Source: Google Maps
Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou

More reading: Scenes From East Don Parkland

Click here for the map below of “Old” Streets.

Source: Google Maps & Bob Georgiou

For more “Old” Streets, I created a sequel here.

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.

“The Suppression of Intemperance”: 19th Century Coffee Houses in Toronto

Coffee houses are ubiquitous places in Toronto. Tim Horton’s, McCafes, Starbucks, Aroma Espresso Bars, and independent coffee shops seemingly mark every block in its diverse neighbourhoods. While Toronto is in an exciting era of artisanal coffee shops, the locales of the 19th century paint a much different picture in the drink’s social consumption.

Toronto’s First “Coffee Houses”

The first establishment in Toronto to call itself a coffee house was the “Toronto Coffee House”. It was opened in 1801 by William Cooper on the east side of Jarvis Street between King Street and Yonge Street near today’s St. Lawrence Market. Despite the name, historian Chris Bateman writes Cooper’s two-storey establishment was more a tavern than a café, which served liquor, ale, and some food. The name was meant to inspire respectability, drawing on the influence of similarly-named establishments in Great Britain. It also hosted an inn and general store. The coffee house was sold five years after it opened.

In the 1830s, “The (New) British Coffee House” opened in the Chewitt Building at the southeast corner of King Street and York Street. Completed in 1835, the structure was considered Toronto’s first office block. Its ground floor had the Coffee House, which was rented by a Mr. Keating and followed the British tradition in offering a meeting place for influential people. Again, this “Coffee House” likely resembled an establishment serving ale in the British way more than the modern conceptualization of an espresso bar type establishment. 

Chewitt Building, 1835. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In the 1837 directory, the British Coffee House was listed as a “Principal Hotel” as owned by John Cotter. John Grantham’s “Old British Coffee-House” on Front Street was also listed in the category. According to John Ross Robertson, The British Coffee House was closed in 1837 following its role in the meeting of individuals of the rebellion of that year and then seized by the government and used as barracks. By 1843, the Coffee House was listed as a boarding house. By 1850, it had the added moniker of “Club House”, which Robertson stated later developed into today’s “Toronto Club”. The building was torn down for the luxurious Rossin House Hotel in 1862; an office block stands in both their places today.

The City of Toronto and the Home District commercial directory and register with almanack and calendar for 1837. Source: Toronto Public Library.

“Substitutes to Drinking Saloons”

By the mid-19th century, coffee was a known and consumed commodity, albeit there was more to be learned. There seemed to have been some inconsistencies on how the drink was prepared, and apparently a farmer in Scarboro was trying to grow its own specimen of coffee which was conducive to the Canadian climate.

“Pekin Tea Market”, The Globe, November 8, 1858. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.
“Reasons Why Coffee Is So Seldom Well Made”, The Globe, March 20, 1851. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

But finding coffee in a social setting seemed to have been a rare occurrence. In 1860, a reader of The Globe — an Alexander Somerville — lamented the lack of places for a stranger to find a cup of coffee for a fair price. He found “but one place where a passing stranger can obtain small refreshments, such as one or two cups of coffee at a fair price, at any hour in the day.” This was in Montreal for six-pence. Somerville called on the ‘Sons of Temperance’ to make this happen.

In the late 1870s, the temperance movement used the caffeinated beverage to steer people – mostly men – away from the evils of alcohol. It employed eateries to do so. One of the first coffee houses to open with this purpose in January 1878 was the Albert Street Coffee Room. It was based on the ‘coffee taverns’ and ‘coffee palaces’ established in London and other large global cities.

Albert Coffee Rooms in the City Directory 1879. Source: Toronto Public Library

The Albert Coffee Room at 11-13 Albert Street opened in January 1878, and was funded by social reformer and future Toronto mayor W.H. Howland. It was described as “plainly though nicely fitted up” and containing “the bar, or public room, the billiard room, and the reading room”. All were welcome in the public room where coffee, tea, cocoa, or milk were served “with sandwiches, buns, etc, at certain low yet remunerative prices”. Irish stew was a noted dish too. The other two rooms operated with a small fee and subscription. Profane language and intoxicating liquors were forbidden, although smoking was allowed. Its existence was short-lived, however; by 1881, the Albert Coffee Room closed for unknown reasons.

“Our Coffee Room” at 115-117 York Street at Boulton Street (now Pearl Street) opened in 1879. Its owner was S G Noblett. The establishment was described by a visitor as having a billiard table on the ground floor, all the daily city newspapers downstairs, and a large reading room with a valuable collection of books upstairs. All services are free for visitors, except for the billiard table which is available for “the usual price”. The visitor also boasted the “convenience of being able at any moment to supply one with a cup of hot tea or coffee alone for three cents, or with a buttered roll for five cents”.

Toronto directory for 1879. This was the first year coffee houses were listed in directories. Source: Toronto Public Library.
Toronto directory for 1881. A number of other coffee houses sprang up in Toronto after the success of Our Coffee Room, although possibly not affiliated with the temperance movement. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In the following years, a number of changes came to Our Coffee Room. In 1883, it took on the name of its proprietor and seemingly upgraded from a coffee room to a coffee house. Before it closed in 1886, it was listed as a eating house, abandoning the caffeinated drink altogether in its name.

Toronto directory for 1883. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The impact of these two coffee houses were reported by 1879. In a Globe article highlighting the “Sights of Toronto”, Temperance Coffee-Houses were presented as flourishing establishments with the goals of providing “places of entertainment and substitutes for drinking saloons, where the evil associations of the saloons are absent, and where….coffee and other mild drinks, with lunches ma be obtained with moderate prices”. Both “Albert Street Coffee Room” and “Our Coffee Rooms” were named.

Around this time, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union also operated a coffee house beginning in 1877 on Queen Street West near the Occident Hall at Bathurst Street. The Globe noted that the venture depleted the treasury, and by 1880 it was sold. Later in the decade, the Temperance Union had talks of resurrecting the idea, but it is unclear if it came to fruition.

The Toronto Coffee House Association

The impetus behind the Toronto Coffee House Association may have started in December 1878 meeting of the “Coffee House Committee”. It was held at Shaftesbury Hall on Queen Street at James Street, which was the headquarters of the Young Men’s Christian Association from 1873 to 1887. The committee resolved to make open two coffee houses: one in St. John’s Ward arranged by Howland and others, and another near St. Lawrence Market to accommodate farmers and others in the neighbourhood.

In 1881, the temperance movement formally organized a scheme of coffee houses. In May, there was a “well-attended meeting of parties interested in the prevention and suppression of intemperance” at Shaftesbury Hall. The Committee on Coffee-Houses recommended the formation of a joint stock company and 5,000 shares be issued at once at one dollar per share. The object of the company was “to provide public houses of refreshment and entertainment without intoxicating drink.” The committee highlighted that there were 196 licensed taverns and unknown number of unlicensed places that provided the only places of rest and refreshment. It also targeted working populations, particular men employed in the railways, port, and streetcars, and a separate entrance and room for women. The following passage from The Globe summarizes this philanthropic yet investable endeavour:

“We cannot close our report without stating that, while we wish to launch this Company entirely upoin its merits as a business enterprise, our aim is to benefit the city and promote the cause of temperance, and that we desire he help of all who have at heart the true welfare of our citizens in this good work.”

“Suppression of Intemperance – Meeting in Shaftesbury Hall Yesterday Afternoon – Report on Coffee Houses,” The Globe, May 17, 1881

The organization was inspired by coffee houses in Liverpool run by the British Workman Public House Company, which in the year prior were said to have “a decrease of 1500 in cases of drunkenness.” The goals were to have a collection of strategically located coffee houses targeted towards working men. The capital of the Company was 40 thousand pounds divided in one pound shares. It was reportedly paying out at 14 per cent.

In the fall of 1881, the Toronto Coffee House Association took further steps to organize. It opened a booth at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition where it sold tea, coffee, and other temperance drinks and plain refreshments. It also met to elect a permanent board and decide the location of the coffee houses. They would be located “at the Market-square, another at the corner of Bay and Front streets, and the third in the vicinity of Brock-street.” A meeting of the Society for the Prevent and Suppression of Intolerance urged the participation of society members, particularly in canvassing new members and getting subscriptions. It was also reported that the Coffee House Association had done a number of research into coffee houses in Britain and United States, and interestingly, many people who had taken stock in the organization has never engaged in the temperance cause before.

On November 15, 1881, the first annual meeting of the Toronto Coffee House Association was held at the Confederation Life Association Building. Lieutenant Governor Gzowski served as Chairman for the meeting and was also elected President of the Board of Directors (the Association was operating on a Provisional Board prior to the meeting). It was reported the success of the Liverpool coffee house scheme and that the event at the Exhibition grounds showed that the group could sell a cup of coffee and sandwich for five cents and make a profit.

“Meetings to be Held”, The Globe, November 4, 1881. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

St. Lawrence and Shaftesbury Coffee Houses

In February 1882, the Toronto Coffee House Association’s inaugurated its first coffee house, the St. Lawrence Coffee House. It was located in the former Small’s Hotel on Jarvis Street at East Market Square. By year’s end, the St. Lawrence Coffee House moved from Jarvis Street to 118 King Street East next to St. James Cathedral, which was a better location.

The first two locations of the St. Lawrence Coffee House in Goad’s Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto, 1889. Source: Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto.

The next location to open was across the street from Shaftesbury Hall itself at 23 Queen Street West at James Street. Following the initial plans for coffee house locations, it was at the southern edge of St. John’s Ward, also known as just The Ward – a dense, immigrant enclave, looked upon unfavorably during its time by Toronto’s mainstream establishment for its slum conditions and immoral happenings. Like the St. Lawrence Coffee House at 118 King Street, its capacity was 200 patrons. Interestingly, in March 1889, a man fell through Shaftesbury Coffee House’s coal shoot and successfully sued the Toronto Coffee House Association.

Shaftesbury Hall. Source: Canadian Illustrated News, November 23, 1872.
The locations of the Shaftesbury Coffee House, Shaftesbury Hall, and Albert Coffee Room (closed 1881) in Goad’s Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto, 1889. Source: Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto.

In the first annual meeting of the Toronto Coffee House Association, both coffee houses were reported philanthropical and financial successes in their first year. At the second annual meeting of the organization, it was reported that receipts from the year were almost three times as large as the previous year — a total net profit of $1,131.22.

Temperance journals regularly highlighted the successes of the Toronto Coffee House Association. Source: The Coffee Public-House News and Temperance Hotel Journal, October 1, 1886.

In August 1895, The Globe toured through the King Street coffee house, which by 1893 moved from 118 King Street East to a building fronted at 78-80 King Street East and the adjoined 15 Court Street behind it. No reason was given for the move, although the increase in floor space is a possibility. The kitchen, broiling room, and bakery were located on the top floor. On the ground level is the lunch counter and a large, bright and airy general dining hall, where one could get a full-course meal of “two kinds of soup, fish, or one of two meats, with potatoes and vegetables, dessert pudding or pie, coffee, tea or milk” for 20 cents (and an “extra selection” for ten cents more. The next floor was the ladies and gentlemen’s dining room and a large waiting-room. A large lavatory for women flanked the waiting-room with the lower level housing the men’s lavatory. The Globe described the entire establishment as clean and well-ventilated.

Citizens of Toronto can with every confidence their friends to either Shaftesbury Coffee House, 23 Queen Street West; or to the St. Lawrence Coffee House, 78-80 King stret east, and have no fear of having to apologize for any dish served. They are equal to any of this class to be found on the continent. Visitors to the fair should make a note of where these two places are to be found.”

“The Toronto Coffee House Association” The Globe, August 31, 1895.
King St west from Church St, 1927. 78-80 King Street East was just out of the frame on the right side in the Wellington Buildings. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

This description of the St. Lawrence Coffee House is notable for the absence of any reference of the temperance. The purpose seems to promote the establishment as a tourist places for the visitors of The Canadian National Exhibition. Even though it refers to the Coffee House Association’s “Famous Coffee”, the menu likens it to a regular eating establishment.

“Coffee House Specials” The Evening Star, May 29, 1897. The Court Street location of the St. Lawrence Coffee House was the third site. Source: Toronto Star Archives.

There are other factoids that support the coffee house as in the same category as restaurants. In 1883, the city directories added “See Eating Houses” under the listings for Coffee Houses; in 1890s, coffee houses were not listed at all and enterprises were listed under “restaurants”. In 1886, The Globe ran an article which stated the main objective of coffee houses was not to provide cheap meals; rather, it was supposed to be an alternative to taverns without the temptation. It boldly asserted:

“They are eating houses, nothing more, nothing less. This is good so as as it goes, but this, we repeat, was not the great and chief idea dwelt upn, when these establishments were projected…

…If these establishments were simply private ventures, we should of course allow no criticisms of their merits or demerits in our columns.”

“Our Coffee Houses” The Globe, April 16, 1886.

By 1899, the Toronto Coffee House Association dissolved and sold the coffee houses. Although the circumstances of the dissolution and sale are scarce, the St. Lawrence Coffee House did not operate again. All three sites of the St. Lawrence location now house modern buildings. Shaftesbury Hall was demolished shortly after for shops which eventually became part of the Eaton’s store complex and later shopping mall. Interestingly, Shaftesbury Coffee House moved to 13-15 Richmond Street West in 1900, under Hayward & Co. Proprietors. It closed once more by 1908 for good.

The Canadian Temperance League

In 1890, several new coffee houses entered the scene alongside The Coffee House Association under the Canadian Temperance League banner, which organized two years before. One opened at Edward and Terauley (Bay) Streets, and was described as having a shop and four rooms. It was open 6am to 10pm Monday to Saturday and sold coffee for two cents and sandwiches for five cents.

In only a year, a new location was needed, possibly as the old one was inadequate in size. The Temperance League Coffee House Company opened another coffee house at Elm and Terauley Streets in 1891, which was aimed at ‘workingmen’. Like Shafesbury Hall, both coffee houses were The Ward – this time in the centre of the district. The scheme was similar to the Toronto Coffee House Association with stocks sold at five dollars a piece. The Temperance League Coffee House Association and Canadian Temperance League were connected in that members of the former had to be members of the latter organization. The Canadian Temperance League held events at the Elm Street coffee house, like a February 1893 concert and a June 1894 meeting supporting Mr. O.A. Howland’s candidature in South Toronto.

“Workingmen’s Coffee House” The Globe, November 28, 1891. Source: Globe and Mail Archives.

The coffee houses looked to have been short-lived ventures, however. The Canadian Temperance League Coffee House at 76 Edward Street closed by 1894. The Toronto Coffee Association Coffee House at 55 Elm Street closed by 1895. The building went on to house Dr. John G.C. Adams, the father of modern public dentistry from 1897-1899.

55 Elm Street, 2021. Source: Google Maps.

The end of temperance coffee houses

The final years of the 1890s saw some additional calls for an alternative to liquor taverns, which were backed by Bishop Sullivan, rector of St. James Cathedral. The bishop passed away in early 1899, however, and nothing ever came of the new scheme. There were even reports to open new coffee houses in first decade of the 1900s.

Although the temperance movement continued into the 20th century and of course influencing the push for prohibition in Toronto, the heyday of coffee houses of the 1880s and 1890s had passed. It is unclear whether the coffee houses of the Toronto Coffee House Assocition and Canadian Temperance League actually succeeded in their philanthropic goal of providing the alternative to saloons. Like the “Coffee Houses” of the first half of 19th century in Toronto, they were borrowed, respected ideas taken from elsewhere, with the added bourgeois goal of turning a profit for its stock-holders. All with a cup of coffee that was never entirely the focus.

For a map of Toronto’s 19th Century Coffee Houses, click here.

Scenes From The Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens

The Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens is a beautiful park in midtown Toronto which dates back almost ninety years. The cause to memorialize its namesake Alexander Muir was so great that he had the gardens dedicated to him twice.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 2020. Source: Google Maps.

The first Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens was located near Lawton Boulevard. It was in a triangular plot of land caused by the unusual eastward veering of Yonge Street near Heath Street. The “correction” was made to directly align Yonge Street in the original Town of York with Lake Simcoe when the street was originally surveyed in the 1790s. Yellow Creek flowed through the park.

Tremaine’s Map of the County of York, Canada West, 1860. Source: Old Toronto Maps.

With construction beginning in 1933, the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens were officially opened on August 6, 1934. It was established 24 years after Muir’s death on June 26, 1906. The Gardens were located directly across Mount Pleasant Cemetery — his final resting spot.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1934. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

“Alexander Muir Memorial Garden Officially Opened”, The Globe August 7, 1934. Source: Globe and Mail Archives & Toronto Public Library.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1947. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The entrance to the gardens featured an ornamental gate at Yonge Street. This led to an impressive stone wall and terrace with a carving of a verse of ‘The Maple Leaf Forever” — Alexander Muir’s best known work. In the garden were 1,000 rose bushes and a well-manicured lawn. In the north of the park was a sunken rockery garden and lily pools below a willow tree. Other ‘Canadian’ trees and Japanese cherry trees were also planted.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens Gates, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens with Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Old Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens ravine or pond, 1935. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Alexander Muir himself was a hero of sorts of old, colonial, British Toronto, so the appetite to pay tribute to him in the 1930s was high, especially with centennial celebration of incorporation of the City of Toronto happening in the decade. Among other identities, Muir was a patriot, educator, and composer. In addition to Yonge Street, Muir’s geographic footprint stretches across Toronto from Scarborough to Leslieville to Little Portugal — all school sites associated with him late 19th century.

Muir, Alexander, 1830-1906, 1855. Source: Toronto Public Library.

His ‘Maple Leaf Forever’ is an anthem for British Canada. Its original lyrics made a point of celebrating General Wolfe — the man who led the English to victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham — and highlighted scrimmages in the War of 1812 — a conflict used heavily in the construction of  ‘Canadiana’. His funeral in 1906 was “impressive” and attended by “hundreds”, including the many older Toronto organizations Muir was affiliated with — the Loyal Orange Association, the York Pioneers, the Independent Order of Oddfellows, and others.

Muir, Alexander, gravestone, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 1920. Source: Toronto Public Library.

In the 1950s, Toronto’s character was changing — both culturally and physically. The coming of Yonge Street subway almost spelled the disappearance of the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. The Toronto Transit Commission needed to fill in the ravine to make way for the Davisville Yard. The TTC eventually pledged to cover the $100,000 cost of moving the memorial. Proposed new sites for the gardens included on Lawton Boulevard itself which would have removed four houses and on Gladstone Avenue where Muir himself once worked. Eventually, a spot only several blocks north on Yonge Street was chosen.

“Subway Forces Move of Muir Memorial”, The Globe, December 29, 1950. Source: Globe and Mail Archives & Toronto Public Library.

Davisville Yard, 1956. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The new location for the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens was located near St. Edmunds Drive. The Lawrence Park neighbourhood was laid out in 1908 as a garden suburb with winding streets and comfortably sized lots. It also kept a ravine space extending south from the southeast corner of Yonge and Lawrence as parkland. This area would come to house the new Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. In preparation, several hundred trees were cut down. A red maple from the old park was also moved to the new park.

Lawrence Park, 1934. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Lawrence Park, 1947. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The new Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens opened in Lawrence Park on May 28, 1952. Impressively, the wall and terrace were reconstructed in the new location and new trees and gardens were landscaped. A new, maple leaf-ornamented plaque was added to the gates to mark the occasion.

“Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens,”, The Globe, May 23, 1952. Source: Globe and Mail Archives & Toronto Public Library.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1952. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens terrace, 1952. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens, 1956. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

A walk through the Alexander Muir Gardens today is a marvel. Leading from the gates is almost a labyrinth of paths and corners to discover. Well-presented flora and accompanying fauna catch one’s eye at almost every look.

 

Leading off the spacious lawn in the west part of the Alexander Muir Gardens, the park’s contours show themselves on the way up to Dawlish Avenue. This tree-covered topography hides Burke Brook, a Don River tributary. Following Alexander Muir Road past the tennis and lawn bowling courts, the trail continues through several parks ending at Sunnybrook Park.

As it has historically, the central wall and stairs rightfully remain the focal point of the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. In its modern use, the structure is best known as a popular destination for wedding parties. One wonders how much would-be brides and grooms and other park users have a look at the additional words of re-dedication which accompany the poem by Muir and reflect on his legacy and origins of the park. With everything that may come with it, Muir loved his country, and his profession in education is generally a commendable one.

In a current social climate in which the focus of commemorating Toronto history should be on untold stories rather than its colonial figures, these Memorial Gardens likely would not be a priority if they were created today. But alas, their visual beauty is a positive. Alexander Muir and his poem still live on today within the park.

Scenes From Eglinton Avenue West

Eglinton Avenue is Toronto’s east-west midpoint. It is the only street in the city (although took some doing in the 1950s and 60s to make it so) that traverses all six former municipalities. This attribute has made it perfect for a crosstown transit line. Although it was laid out in 1793 as the Third Concession from Lot (Queen) Street, I would argue that Eglinton’s form, at least from Yonge Street to Latimer Avenue, as we know it today does not begin to take shape until 130 years after it was laid out.

Might’s correct city directory map of Greater Toronto, ca. 1940. The extension across the Don River branches were completed by 1956. In 1967, Richview Sideroad in Etobicoke was absorbed into Eglinton Avenue when the two streets were joined via a bridge across the Humber River. Credit: Map and Data Library, University of Toronto.

This stretch of Eglinton Avenue west of Yonge Street and the surrounding area was historically part of the Village of North Toronto. Even though the village was absorbed into the City of Toronto in 1912, allowing it to reap the benefits of better service delivery, the street was still a sparsely populated dirt road. It wasn’t until the coming decades when Eglinton’s fields morphed into a mixed residential and commercial zone. By 1930, the road was paved and possibly widened.

Eglinton Ave, west from Yonge, October 19, 1922. Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 1637.
Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Eglinton Avenue west from Yonge Street, April 23, 1930. Fonds 1231, Item 1646. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

At Duplex and Eglinton stands a power station. The yellow-bricked structure was built in 1920 at a time of rapid expansion in Toronto. With the Toronto Hydro-Electric System (now known as just Toronto Hydro) becoming the only distributor of power in Toronto at the tail end of the 1910s, Toronto was experiencing the pressures of an electrified transit network and a growing population.

The Eglinton sub-station was one of many built in this era to cope with this demand, specifically serving the surrounding residential community and “the Metropolitan radial line on north Yonge Street and subsequently to the TTC Yonge route and Eglinton Carhouse in the area.”

Eglinton Sub-station, August 10, 1925. Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3975. Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Related, a short distance across from the station, there’s a row of mid-rise apartments. The positioning of these 1930s Art-Deco inspired buildings one after the other leads one to conclude that this was by design, although I wonder at their context considering the larger history the Toronto has with this kind of housing stock.

One historical narrative has been that whereas at the time the City of Toronto avoided this housing style, outlying communities like York and Forest Hill including them in their planning. For example, a more prominent row of these decorative lofts exists further west on Eglinton near Bathurst Street in the former Village of Forest Hill. These ones close to Yonge would have existed on land already annexed to the city, though. Curious.

Next, Eglinton Park has a neat past. As Lost Rivers explains, long before its colonial period, Huron peoples occupied its land and the nearby area – notably, the site of Allenby Public School – in the 15th century. In more recent history, the park was a brickyard! Capitalizing on the clay beds created by the now buried Mud Creek, James Pears ran his establishment here beginning in the 1880s.

The Eglinton Hunt Club (foreground) & Pears Brickyard (background), looking southeast,1920. The Pears home (now gone) can be seen at the top of the image at 214 Eglinton Avenue. A water tower stood on Roselawn Avenue near Avenue Road. A communications tower is in its place today. Credit: Toronto Public Libary

The modern geography within the park shows off the layers of time: the ‘dug-in’ escarpment leading up to Oriole Parkway, the hilly topography of Roselawn Avenue. Pears formerly worked out of today’s Ramsden Park in Yorkville before moving up Yonge Street, which has similar rolling features. These are the former lives of our parks.

Later, with North Toronto annexed, the City of Toronto attempted to purchase the yard from Pears before outright expropriating it in 1922 when he refused. The entire exercise came at a time in the 1920s and 30s when the City’s Parks Department was expanding, creating parkland and accompanying infrastructure such as shelters, gazebos, and bandshells. In fact, the Toronto Archives has a wonderful collection of ink & pencil drawings as a part of an Architectural Drawings Scrapbook prepared by the Department of Buildings for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Eglinton Park (Roselawn Avenue) Shelter, August 12, 1930. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 934. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Pears’ legacy did live on for a while as the space was unofficially known as Pears Park for a time (and still might be?). Modern amenities have been added to the park since then of course, including a community centre, playground, and a Cretan maze via the Toronto City of Labyrinths Project!

A final sign of the street’s arrival was the eventual population of the street with commercial activity. The north side of Eglinton east of Avenue was one of the first retail blocks, coming to us around 1930.

CANATCO house index map of Toronto and environs, 1932. Credit: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Eglinton Ave. north side Avenue Rd. looking east, April 23, 1930. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1223. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

With the opening of the Eglinton Theatre in 1936 to serve the growing local community, another commercial dimension was added. Neighbourhood theatres were abundant in Toronto by World War II, but The Eglinton was a benchmark in grandeur.

Whereas other ‘nabes‘ were more low-key in aesthetic, the Kaplan and Sprachman-designed Art Deco movie house and its neon-lit tower announced itself on the commercial strip. It’s amazing considering this was also during the Great Depression. It was operational until 2002, remarkably late in the history of comparable theatres. Today it’s the Eglinton Grand.

Useful Links

City of Toronto Archives – “Turning on Toronto: Toronto Hydro-Electric System” Web Exhibit

City of Toronto Planning Department – “Eglinton Connects Planning Study July 2013 Draft”

Historic Toronto – “Memories of Toronto’s Eglinton Theatre” by Doug Taylor

Lost Rivers – “The Eglinton Park Hill”

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From Yorkville”

Silent Toronto

Spacing – “Toronto’s Art Deco district? Take a walk along Eglinton Avenue West” by Daniel Rotsztain 

Torontoist – “Historicist: The ‘Manifest Destiny’ of North Toronto” by David Wencer

Scenes From Lansing & Willowdale

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.

Joseph Shepard House plaque

The funny thing is the building still exists – just not here. The store was transplanted to Dempsey Park on Beecroft Road in 1996.

Yonge looking north at Sheppard 1911
Yonge Street looking north at Sheppard Avenue, 1911. Joseph Shepard House/Dempsey Brothers Store at left. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Nearby, the Joseph Shepard Government Building, built in 1977, also pays tribute to Mr. Shepard (albeit, sometimes  spelled with inexplicably added “P”).

Joseph Shepard Building
Despite running parallel to it only 300 metres to the east, Doris Avenue is noticeably more quiet than Yonge. It offers a great view of its tower-filled skyline.

Yonge Street Doris Avenue

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.

Willowdale Park

Willowdale Park 3              Willowdale Park 2

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.

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek 2

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.

Lansing Willowdale 1916
Lansing & Willowdale from the Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Willowdale 1966
Lansing & Willowdale, 1966. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Willowdale 2016
Lansing & Willowdale, 2016.

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.

Lee Lifeson Art Park 1

Lee Lifeson Art Park 2

Lee Lifeson Art Park 3

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”.

Princess Park
I suppose it functions well for a park, though: things to see, places to sit and linger. No skateboarding, however.

Princess Park 4

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.

Princess Park Hose Tower 1

North York's First Fire Hall plaque

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.

North York's First Municipal Building plaque

There’s also a floor tile with what looks like a plow. An homage to Willowdale’s farms.

Princess Park 2

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.

Yonge and Empress

North York Fire Hall 1957
North York Fire Hall, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

North York Municipal offices 1957
North York Municipal Offices, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

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.

North York Waterworks Yonge Street 1
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.

Waterworks Yonge and Empress
North York Waterworks, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Ontario Historical Society John McKenzie House

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.

Useful Links

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From North York Centre, Gibson House Museum, and Mel Lastman Square”

Scott Kennedy – Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy

Toronto Star – “John McKenzie House a part of North York history” by Shawn Micallef

Vanishing Point – “Wilket Creek Storm Trunk Sewer”

Scenes From Open Streets TO 2015 – Yonge Street

On Sunday August 16, 2015, Open Streets TO ran the first of its car-free street initiatives this year which aim to promote healthy-living and vibrant cities and reimagine public space.

Yonge Street Open Streets
Beyond supporting the awesome event and its cause, I wanted to take advantage of the time and open streets to stroke my historical and urban curiosities, particularly in regards to Yonge Street and the T. Eaton Co.

I’ve embarked on a project to map the history of Eaton’s transformative influence on Toronto. Much of it relates to the Yonge Street we see today. Check it out here.

The streets were open on Bloor from Spadina to Parliament and Yonge from Bloor to Queen, but I elect to walk southwards from College. The intersection’s landmark is, of course, College Park, opened as the ambitious Eaton’s College Street in 1930.

College Park (2)
It was to be the T. Eaton Co.’s headquarters, moving from its flagship store about a 1km to the south. It was also supposed to have a 36-storey tower, but the penny-pinching of the Great Depression scaled it back. Luckily its ornate Art Deco-ness as it exists today hasn’t changed since the 30s.

College Park 1930s
Source: Archives of Ontario. 1930s.

Yonge Street won’t get any emptier than this at noon.

Yonge Street
The College department store was built with many entrances, one of which leads up to the Carlu. The store closed in February 1977 along with seventh floor restaurant and event space, The Round Room and Eaton Auditorium (which opened in 1931). It was locked until 2003, when it was rebranded as the Carlu, after the space’s architect, John Carlu. In 1983, the Round Room and Eaton Auditorium were designated a National Historic Site to prevent demolition.

College Park Carlu

College Park (3)
I had to take a peek inside.

College Park
Passing the store completely, I can’t resist a look back, if only to compare with an dingy looking shot from the 1970s.

College Park 1970s
Source: City of Toronto Archives. 1970s.

College Park Yonge Street
The Downtown Yonge Street strip is next with RyersonU’s towers looming above it all.

Yonge near Gerrard Open Streets
Beyond that, the Eaton Centre, another ambitious Eaton endeavour, is continuing on its perennial makeover of its oldest part from 1977. Nordstrom’s is set to become its third anchoring tenant after the recently closed Sears and the namesake store before it.

Eaton Centre
There are many making use of the free street – walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders, rollerbladers – but it’s a wonder seemingly a bigger majority still are using the sidewalk. It’s intuitive behaviour in any normal circumstance, but so counter-intuitive to the whole purpose of Open Streets.

The Toronto Eaton Centre also redefined the street grid around Yonge. Where Baton Rouge is now, one would’ve been able to turn on Albert Street.

EatonsFactories1919
Source: Archives of Ontario. 1919.

Eaton Centre (2)
Beside the 1905 E.J. Lennox designed Bank of Toronto building is the Massey Tower pit. Fun fact: Heritage Toronto’s former logo is based on the bank. I didn’t know that.

Massey Tower Construction
I wonder if the people manning the table in front of Danier know they’re in front of the site of Timothy Eaton’s  first store at 190-196 Yonge Street, opened in 1883.

Eaton Centre Open Streets

Eatons1884catalogue
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Inaugural Eaton’s catalogue, 1884.

The walk ends at Queen Street with a gaze at the 1896 Robert Simpson Co. building, which housed Eaton’s historic competitor. The irony is the Chicago-style structure occupies the site of T. Eaton’s first dry goods store he opened in 1869.

Simpson Building Queen StreetFinally, turning back up to face Yonge, I ponder another historical bookend. I wonder what our 19th century brethren in the pre-automobile age might have thought about Open Streets.

Open Streets Yonge at Queen

Yonge_Street_north_of_Queen_Street_by_Micklethwaite
Source: Wikimedia Commons. 1890s. The T. Eaton Co. flag flies high above the main store.

Scenes From Yorkville

40. Yorkville Avenue at Hazelton Avenue

Before I can start my stroll, I note the taste for coffee developing in my buds. I opt not for Starbucks and not for Timmies, which hang beside each other in competition, but for the Toronto Reference Library. Yes, it may be closed on this Easter Monday, but Balzac’s isn’t. The customer in front of me in line tries to pronounce the name of the brew she’s ordering; the barista has to correct her. Me, I don’t bother with the given name of my amber roast; I grab it and am on my way.  Now I can start.

1. Toronto Reference Library

Yorkville is about as quintessential a Toronto neighbourhood as you can get. It also has a deeply layered past and an ever evolving future, some of which I am already aware of and eager to see the evidence of. While its borders have expanded and contracted over its long history, it’s my thought that the part east of Yonge doesn’t get a lot of consideration.

And so, that’s what I intend to do to start things off.

I don’t get very far on Asquith before I see my first discovery. Although I’m hugging (not literally) the Bell building on the opposite side of the street, my eyes spot a pathway beyond the library across the way. The street sign reads ‘Sherlock Holmes Walk’. Literary giants next to one another! Having read Mr. Conan Doyle’s biography years ago, I imagine he would approve of the tribute – he loved Toronto and Canada (and hated the States).

3. Bell Canada Asquith Avenue

4. Sherlock Holmes Walk Toronto Reference Library 5. Sherlock Holmes Walk Toronto Reference Library

At the end of the way is Church Street, whose curvy route between Bloor and Yonge Streets is the result of a project to relieve traffic congestion in the 1920s. Even without this knowledge, the odd meeting of Church, Collier, and Park streets and the island it forms in the middle just looks unnatural. I look towards Davenport, spotting the famed Masonic Temple, 1917, but opt to head in the opposite direction.

Goads Atlas 1884, Yorkville east of Yonge
Yorkville, east of Yonge Street. Source: Goads Atlas, 1884.

My next stop, situated beside a singular Victorian house (no doubt once part of a row), is Asquith Green, which sadly is more muggy brown than green. Still though, I remind myself of the parkette’s potential in the summer and give it points for the animal cutouts and accenting structure in the middle. I don’t know the source of what I think is a quote, but subsequent Googling has produced ‘We Rise Again’, an Eastern Canadian music classic. Here’s a  moving version with the great Maritme songstresses, Anne Murray and the late Rita MacNeil.

7. Victorian house beside Asquith Green Park

8. Asquith Green Park

9. Asquith Green Park

Following Park Road up, I come to Rosedale Valley Road. This quiet throughway marks the border between Yorkville and its upscale residential sister, Rosedale.

It is also built on top of the now completely buried Castle Frank Brook. It is particularly important in shaping the modern geography of Yorkville, but also to its history – particularly in its brewing and brick making past. Located southwest of me near Sherbourne Street, for example, was Joseph Bloore’s brewery. Bloor Street, of course, is his namesake. (Mr. Bloore also holds the distinction of having the freakiest portrait of any figure in Toronto’s history.) Parkland marks the intersection, and trudge through it to arrive at Severn Street.

Joseph Bloor Brewery, 1865
Joseph Bloor Brewery, 1865. Source: Toronto Public Library.

12. Lawren Harris Park

14. Lawren Harris Park

The tiny dead end street is anything but inconsequential. For one, it’s named after John Severn, another 19th century brewer. His establishment stood at Yonge and Church. Moreover, Castle Frank Brook’s alternate name is Severn/Brewery Creek.

Severn's Brewery, 1870s
Severn’s Brewery, 1870s. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Severn's Brewery, 1912
Severn’s Brewery, 1912. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Perhaps even more notable to the street is that one can find the Studio Building. On the way here, I passed through Lawren Harris Park; Mr. Harris  lived and worked in the  Studio Building, 1914, along with other members of the Group of Seven.

16. Severn Street 17. Studio Building Severn Street

The Studio Building holds double distinction as a National Historic Site and a Toronto heritage property. The Toronto Historical Board plaque in particular informs me that the Harris in Lawren Harris is of the Massey-Harris industrial empire. Learn something everyday. The Studio Building was designed to be a secluded quiet spot where artists can work their creative process. As I move around the building I hear the periodic screeching of the Yonge subway and somehow I think that doesn’t completely hold true today (although the surrounding parkland does help a bit).

18. Studio Building Toronto plaque

19. Studio Building National Historic Site plaque

I continue on my way, this time following Aylmer up. I stop for a moment to watch the trains roll in and out of Rosedale Station and then cross Yonge. The street becomes Belmont and I’m liking the streetscape on either side of me. Other than admiring the charm, however, I do have another purpose for being here.

22. Rosedale Station from Aylmer

23. Belmont Street Toronto

24. Belmont Street

25. Belmont Street

Belmont House is a retirement home and long term care centre built in the 60s. More interesting to its story is that it is built on the site of an Aged Men’s Home, Aged Women’s Home, and Magdalen Asylum & Industrial House of Refuge.

The latter establishment is most fascinating. On first glance at the name, it doesn’t sound like a particularly good place – asylums generally don’t provoke the best connotations and the Biblical character it’s named for isn’t always portrayed in the best light either. The ever trustworthy Wikipedia tells that Magdalen Asylums are not just a Toronto thing. Its history, however, promotes it as a place of care for homeless women and I suppose I will take it as such.

26. Belmont House Toronto

27. Belmost House

This detour completed, I circle back to Yonge Street and walk north. I turn onto Ramsden Park, the former site of 19th century brickyards. Castle Frank Brook ran through here too, the riverbed making for rich clay deposits. The park’s uneven, dug-in landscape is the only remnant of its industrial past. (And here I’ll shamelessly plug my Industrial Heritage Map). There’s also a few stubborn remnants of winter in a file snow piles that refuse to acknowledge the existence of spring.

Yorkville Brickyards Goad's, 1884 - Copy
Yorkville Brickyards. Source: Goad’s Atlas, 1884.

Yorkville Brickyards, 1880s
Yorkville Brickyards, 1880s. Source: Toronto Public Library.

29. Ramsden Park

30. Ramsden Park

Pears Street, which runs adjacent, is named for one of the brick makers. A cat lounges on the sidewalk and soaks up the sun. He has the right idea. I eventually hit Avenue Road. Across the way is 174 Avenue, otherwise known as the Village Corner in the 1960s Yorkville folk scene. The Village Corner gave the first break to Ian & Silvia and a young Gordon Lightfoot in 1962. For more on Gordon Lightfoot’s Toronto, look here please.

31. Pears Avenue Cat

32. 174 Avenue Village Corner

With a skip down the street and a turn onto Hazelton Avenue, I’m onto more familiar settings when it comes to the neighbourhood of Yorkville. Hazelton is considered part of the heart of the Village and is pretty much an architecture lover’s dream. Bay and Gable, Gothic, Worker’s Cottage…it’s hard not to dream while being here. Alas, I stop myself from getting too ‘in the clouds’.

33. Hazelton Avenue

34. Hazelton Avenue

The southern end of the street has a more commercial character. It features Heliconian Hall, the second National Historic Site of the day (and, like the Studio Building, also holds dual heritage recognition). The Hall is the counterpart to a place like the Arts & Letters Club on Elm Street in that it was originally a professional association for women when they were excluded from Arts & Letter Clubs. Today it is an event space.

Across the way are a line of boutiques and neat little street art. I lament at the sight of one characters wearing a Leaf jerseys. Somehow the ‘maybe next year’ saying isn’t appropriate. They are also the lead in to Hazelton Lanes, the premiere mall of the Village.

36. Hazelton Avenue street art 38. Hazelton Lanes

39. Hazelton Lanes street art

Yorkville Avenue marks the end of the street. At the corner is the Hazelton Hotel, which represents everything Yorkville is today – fashionable, luxurious, and expensive. The Hotel replaced a series of rowhouses after the heyday of the bohemian village, one of which housed the Riverboat Coffee House. This was the most famous of all coffee houses and another venue Mr. Lightfoot got his ‘chops.’

41. Hazelton Hotel

Yorkville Avenue Riverboat

I follow the street east, passing the first Mount Sinai Hospital (1922) and the Sheriff’s House (1837) on either side of the street. I peek down Bellair and inwardly judge the patio-ers. I know it’s a sunny day and there’s a certain desperation for more welcoming climates, but it is still very chilly and not quite patio weather. Moving on, the wideness of Bay Street to me breaks apart the neat, quiet street vibe. It’s no wonder that, like Church Street, it didn’t always run through Yorkville. Bay was extended north to Davenport in 1922.

42. Sheriff's House Yorkville Avenue

43. Yorkville Avenue and Bellair

44. Bay Street Yorkville