The Evolving Landscape of St. James Park

Originally published on Torontoist on November 24, 2011.

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A man enjoys two forms of sunshine in St. James Park during the late 1970s. The park was partly conceived to provide a spot for office workers to relax during their lunch hour. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 302, Item 4.

With the eviction of Occupy Toronto, St. James Park will gradually return to its former, emptier condition. But the temporary landscaping changes the protesters created with their signs, tents, and yurts did not constitute the first physical redesign of the park. Over the course of the past 50 years, as this gallery shows, the site has gone from housing 19th-century commercial buildings to Victorian-inspired landscaping.

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Section of Toronto survey map, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives.

St. James Park began to take its modern shape when St. James Cathedral sold the land to its east to the City of Toronto around 1960, not long after this survey map was prepared. Both Commercial Street and the northern stretch of Market Street disappeared as the park developed.

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Exterior of St. James Cathedral, northeast corner of King and Church Streets, 1923. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 83.

Though a condition of the sale was that the property should become a park, the city toyed with using the site as part of a civic project that evolved into the St. Lawrence Centre over objections from the church. Instead, over the next decade, the city demolished the buildings on the former church property, along with purchasing those within the park’s present boundary, and replaced them with benches and basic landscaping. In this photo from 1923, you can see some of the buildings that were demolished.

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Looking west at St. James Park from Jarvis Street, circa 1978-1979, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 302, Item 10.

St. James Park was seen as a final opportunity to create a large public green space downtown; in a 1970 interview with the Toronto Star, Toronto Parks Commissioner Ivan Forrest believed that due to the prohibitive cost of assembling land, any future parks in the core would depend on the generosity of developers.

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Looking south toward St. Lawrence Hall and CIBC branch, circa 1978-1979. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 302, Item 9.

By the mid-1970s, the park assumed the entire eastern end of the block except for a holdout on the northwest corner of King and Jarvis whose tenant wouldn’t shock the Occupy crowd: a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch.

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Sketch of the St. James Park Bandshell, circa 1977-1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 27, Item 8.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with renovations to St. James Cathedral, plans went ahead to make the park look less spartan. The new landscaping was inspired by surrounding Victorian-era buildings like the church and St. Lawrence Hall.

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Sketch of the proposed Victorian Garden, circa 1977-1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 27, Item 7.

The Garden Club of Toronto spent two years researching a proper Victorian garden for the park, though their work was sabotaged by the theft of 22 antique rose bulbs from the site in November 1980. As garden convenor Nancy Colquhoun noted at the end of a letter to the Globe and Mail, “it is discouraging that such a generous gift to the city is treated so maliciously.”

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A model of a gateway to St. James Park. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 27, Item 10.

 

 

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