Pop-Up Goes the Museum

Originally published on Torontoist on August 29, 2014.


Advertising Card for Massey-Harris Co. Ltd, Head Office Toronto, Canada, 1895. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.

The term “pop-up” conjures images of hip retailers and restaurants occupying temporary storefronts. But the concept is spreading to other fields, too. Among those jumping on the bandwagon is Toronto Museum Services, which is involved in two kinds of pop-up program.

The first, a collaborative effort between Museum Services and Heritage Toronto, will open Saturday in conjunction with the unveiling of a historical plaque commemorating the Massey-Harris plant that once stood at King Street West and Strachan Avenue. The pop-up will feature ephemera related to the plant, which was the largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment in the British Empire.

For Heritage Toronto plaques and markers co-ordinator Kaitlin Wainwright, display items such as anniversary pins and colour advertising cards show what it was like to work for Massey-Harris years ago. “We can learn about a company not only from what it did in the past, but how it remembers and celebrates itself,” she says. “Given that the presentation is taking place where much of the facility stood, it makes sense to bring artifacts to a place where there is a geographical connection.”

The display may prompt visitors with connections to Massey-Harris to share their personal stories. The potential for that kind of public participation and knowledge sharing is the driving force behind the second kind of pop-up program in which Museum Services is involved, which offers visitors the opportunity to display artifacts of their own. As Museum Services defines it, a pop-up museum is “a temporary exhibit created by the people who show up to participate. It works by choosing a theme and location, and inviting people to bring something on the topic to share.” Cities across Europe and the United States have already taken to this concept—the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has posted a video that explains how it works. Interactive events, often held in public spaces, allow institutions to bring out items long unseen by the public. Ilena Aldini-Messina, supervisor of program design and development for Museum Services, says pop-ups foster public engagement with local history and “make it a participatory experience rather than doing an exhibit from a curator’s perspective.”

A pilot pop-up, “Toronto Treasures,” ran at the Market Gallery on June 6. Alongside displays of City-owned artifacts such as subway-related buttons, 15 people set up tables to share their own treasures. Show-and-tell items ranged from decades’-worth of local baseball memorabilia to a jar of marmalade made in Toronto that shaped one woman’s view of the city as an industrial powerhouse during her childhood in Alberta. The experience was educational for the displayers and visitors: a man who brought a scrapbook commemorating a 1978 Blue Jays game where singer Ruth Ann Wallace was booed for singing “O Canada” in French learned that Wallace later married Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.

For the upcoming holiday season, there are plans for a toy-centric pop-up. Though a location hasn’t been confirmed, Spadina Museum seems a likely choice, as it houses a large collection of toys. Beyond that, ideas include marking Valentine’s Day and other occasions ripe with objects and stories to share.

The AGO Expands Its Horizons With New First Nations Exhibit

Originally published on Torontoist on July 23, 2014.


Patrick DesJarlait, Maple Sugar Time, 1946. Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Toronto has increasingly strived to honour the region’s First Nations—whether by acknowledging the historical presence of the Mississaugas of the New Credit on current City land or commemorating pre-European communities and trade routes. Now the Art Gallery of Ontario is following suit, staging an exhibition that highlights Anishinaabe artists from the Great Lakes region and making a greater effort to include indigenous art in its Canadian galleries.

“Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes” is a collaborative effort of the AGO and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in New York City, where the exhibition recently wrapped up after a one-year run. The displays are organized by themes relating to Anishinaabe concepts of place and spirituality, and how they interact with the outside world. One of the most intriguing themes is “cottager colonialism,” which suggests that the colonization of indigenous land continues by way of vacationing tourists. Political statements are scattered throughout the exhibition, from Nadia Myre’s bead-covered pages of the Indian Act to the use of historical indigenous status documents in Robert Houle’s “Premises” series. Floral beaded bags and leggings, meanwhile, provide inspiration for the contemporary paintings of Christi Belcourt, an Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award recipient.

For AGO curator Andrew Hunter, “Before and After the Horizon” serves as a “bold catalyst for rethinking parts of our permanent collection space.” The gallery is focused on acquiring and commissioning more First Nations art, contextualizing that art with displays of First Nations artifacts, and labelling Anishinaabe works throughout the institution with a thunderbird symbol. Hunter says these moves will encourage “thinking about how a certain history is represented, how certain communities are present within an institution whose history is largely a Western European model.”

Regular visitors can see the effects of these changes in the Canadian galleries. In the 19th-century salon room, a display of bandolier bags and a Chester Brown drawing of Louis Riel are nods to First Nations history. Norval Morrisseau’s six-piece Man Changing into Thunderbird has moved from a hallway to a prominent space across from Group of Seven works. Another Morrisseau work, the colourful Psychic Space, may be the first to catch your eye when walking into “Before and After the Horizon”—or perhaps it will be Michael Belmore’s Shorelines, a map of North America hammered out in copper, a metal sacred to the Anishinaabe.


Robert Houle, Parfleche for Norval Morrisseau, 1999. National Museum of the American Indian. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

The Toronto incarnation of “Before and After the Horizon” features artists active in the city. Among them is photographer Keesic Douglas, who contributed his work Lifestyles, a quartet of photos depicting a contemporary urban First Nations couple living in a hipsterish apartment filled with stereotypical cultural artifacts. Interested in concepts of indigenous identity and representation, Douglas used historical paintings for reference when composing the shots.

Douglas was on hand for yesterday’s press preview, as was Bonnie Devine, who contributed two works to the exhibition. Inspired by the Canadian Shield landscape where she grew up as part of the Serpent River First Nation near Blind River, Devine’s contributions mix photos of rocks with “letters” drawing on the era of the Robinson Treaties of 1850, documents that turned her ancestors’ land over to the British.

Devine also contributed a piece installed in a regular gallery—one of several First Nations works that will continue to be displayed after the exhibition closes. For this piece, she took a wall map of Upper and Lower Canada, and transformed it into Battle for the Woodlands, where the Great Lakes are represented by animals, the St. Lawrence River runs red, and treaty boundaries are outlined. Accompanying the map is Treaty Robe for Tecumseh, a tribute to the War of 1812 hero.

Meanwhile, in the Walker Court, Robert Houle’s Seven Grandfathers transforms the roundels that encircle the space into ceremonial drums. This installation will provide the backdrop for the exhibition’s official public opening on July 30.

The Great Hall Warns It’s in Danger of Shutting Down

Originally published on Torontoist on July 16, 2014.


Postcard of Toronto West End YMCA, issued between 1908 and 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 70, Series 330, File 345.

A building that’s served as a gathering space since 1890 needs your help.

In a petition currently posted on change.org, The Great Hall is asking for public support for the application it’s made to the Gaming Commission of Ontario to raise its liquor capacity for arts performances, banquets, and other events from 303 to 1,553. “Due to low capacity,” the petition declares, playing on fears regarding the common fate of the city’s old buildings, “The Great Hall is in danger of going the route of the condo … We have a bad habit in Toronto of allowing all our landmarks to go the way of development, commerce & condos.” The appeal highlights the venue’s flexibility—it’s a venue for local music nights, international touring acts, the Summerworks theatre festival, and charity events.

The building opened as the second permanent home of the West End branch of the YMCA. Originally established a few doors east along Queen Street in 1883, the YMCA quickly found the space insufficient for its growing membership. Several sites were scouted while a fundraising campaign was undertaken. West End YMCA chairman Samuel J. Moore, a businessman who built a fortune by developing the carbon paper receipt form and later served as president and chairman of the Bank of Nova Scotia, laid the cornerstone at Queen and Dovercourt on November 13, 1899. The building was designed by the firm of Gordon and Helliwell, whose other surviving works include the Bathurst Street Methodist Church (now the Randolph Theatre) and the Avenue Road Presbyterian Church (now the Hare Krishna temple). The main assembly hall was located on the upper level, while amenities on lower levels included a library, a bowling alley, and a running track.

The new West End YMCA opened on October 9, 1890. During the dedication service, Moore discussed the history of the organization, while lawyer and social reformer Samuel Hume Blake praised the organization’s efforts to keep youth on the straight and narrow. No doubt Blake approved of the YMCA’s “rescue brigade,” which brought men into the fold to impress upon them the importance of becoming a Christian.

The following evening, a concert featuring local talent was held. The Mail praised this decision, as “the result makes kindred effort in this section of the city no longer tentative. That so much real ability in these the opening days of the new building was proffered is in itself a matter of profound congratulation.”

The spotlight on local musical talent long outlived the YMCA, which moved to its present West End branch at College Street and Dovercourt Road in 1912. The building was purchased by the Royal Templars of Temperance, a fraternal organization dedicated to combating liquor and its evils. Renamed Royal Templar Hall, the venue was used for political speeches, lectures, and entertainment. The hall was one of the battlegrounds in the fight between Sam McBride and Bert Wemp for the mayoralty in December 1929, when Wemp refused to dignify with a response McBride’s charges during a debate that he was a stooge for the Telegram.

The hall’s offerings also reflected period fads. In 1920, author A.D. Watson promoted his book on spiritualism, The Twentieth Plane, with a Boxing Day “psychic meeting” featuring a “trance address” on the topic of “What and Where Is Heaven?” One author not impressed by Watson’s work was Lucy Maud Montgomery, who noted that all of the spirits contacted in the book were famous in life: “There don’t seem to be any grocers or butchers or carpenters on the Twentieth Plane.”


Well-baby clinic, 1089 Queen Street West, March 26, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 563.

By the Second World War, the building was owned by the Polish National Union, which used it as a community hall, and as a headquarters for its weekly Polish Voice newspaper. During the war, it presented a “New Canadians’ Bazaar,” a cultural showcase for the local Polish and Slavic communities that raised money for the Canadian Aid to Russia Fund. During the 1970s, it hosted the Polish pavilion for the Caravan multicultural festival. Its 1972 entry, “Gdynia,” offered a seaport setting for cabaret shows and culinary specialties like pickled herrings and beef a la Polonaise. In 1973, the City bestowed a heritage designation on the site.

Since the mid-1980s the site has housed numerous artistic organizations. The building itself was known as the Ceilidh Arts Centre for a time in the 1990s before becoming the Great Hall. Tenants with long residencies offered experimental music (Music Gallery), staged works (Theatre Centre) and visual arts (YYZ Gallery). A 1993 Globe and Mail guide to local galleries declared the site the western limit of the city’s art scene as the paper waited for trendy boutiques and restaurants to push out to Parkdale.

Those fears regarding potential condo conversion? Well, such a transformation might be tricky. As the Globe and Mail observed when the building was up for sale in 2006, the building’s longstanding heritage designation and the positioning of its assembly room would make converting the Great Hall a challenge. As for roadblocks in gaining its liquor license expansion, a recent Now article suggests that councillor Mike Layton wants potential noise concerns addressed, which could be achieved through additional sound-proofing.

The Great Hall’s application will be heard on July 30.

Additional material from the December 13, 1890 and December 20, 1929 editions of the Globe; the February 26, 1943, April 24, 1993, and January 21, 2006 editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 10, 1890 and October 11, 1890 editions of the Mail; and the December 24, 1920 and June 23, 1972 editions of the Toronto Star.


As of 2018, the Great Hall has been restored and is operating as an event space.

From Dingman’s Hall to Jilly’s

Originally published on Torontoist on May 13, 2014.


Broadview Hotel, circa 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 518. 

When it opened nearly 125 years ago, the landmark building at the northwest corner of Queen and Broadview was a community gathering spot. Fraternal brotherhoods, athletic clubs, and other local organizations met there. Political candidates stumped for east-end votes. Music lovers enjoyed the occasional concert. We suspect that dances were held, though few would have involved poles or the intentional removal of clothing.

It’s possible that some or all of these activities could return to the Broadview Hotel now that the current home of Jilly’s strip club has been sold to Streetcar Developments. If, as the new owner has indicated, condos aren’t part of the building’s future, it might make sense to cater to a wide range of interests.

The site was built for $25,000 in 1891 by soap manufacturer Archibald Dingman. The Romanesque Revival building, originally dubbed Dingman’s Hall, was the tallest on the east side of the Don River. In its early years, it featured a the Canadian Bank of Commerce branch on the ground floor, professional offices on middle floors, and grand halls on the upper levels. From the start, politicians used it for community meetings or campaign stops—in July 1891, for example, Mayor Edward Clarke convened a meeting to discuss neighbourhood concerns regarding pollution problems in Ashbridge’s Marsh (part of which became the modern Port Lands).


Looking north up Broadview Avenue from Queen Street East, June 26, 1918. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 750.

For the next 15 years, Dingman’s Hall was a major social gathering spot for the city’s growing east end. Dingman was an absentee landlord during the last few years of his ownership, as he’d decided to pursue his fortunes in the District of Alberta in the Northwest Territories. He ran a natural gas firm which lit Calgary’s streets, and saw his name bestowed on Alberta’s first commercial oil well in 1914.

Dingman sold the property in 1906 to T.J. Elward, proprietor of a hotel near the St. Lawrence Market. Elward’s petitions to transfer his liquor licence and transform Dingman’s Hall into a hotel were opposed by local teetotallers and the Globe, which felt that the three taverns already in the area should be sufficient. In 1907, though, the plan was resubmitted to the City’s licensing department and approved—and the building was soon renamed the Broadview Hotel.

While groups like local athletic clubs continued to meet there, in some ways the building’s downward slide had already begun. Reports of ownership squabbles made it into the papers, as did charges during the mid-1920s that it sold beer that was stronger than advertised. The name evolved over the years: Broadview Hotel, Lincoln Hotel, Broadview House, New Broadview House, etc. By the time the building was purchased by Harold Kamin for under $2 million in 1986, the main floor housed a strip club.


During the 1930s, the site was known as the Lincoln Hotel. Its neighbour was the Teck Theatre. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 641.

Jilly’s earned notoriety for its loud and public promise of “Girls! Girls! Girls!”, but it wasn’t always the dancers who drew attention. Local animal activists were horrified in December 1991 by the “Jane Jones Exotic Circus.” Ms. Jones’s striptease routines were accompanied by a boa constrictor, a python, and a 450-pound defanged Siberian tiger named Qedesh. “She brings out the animal and the tiger just lies there on the stage,” activist Liz White told the Star. “She takes off most of her clothes and kind of lies all over the tiger while a male commentator talks about how this is an endangered species. It’s unreal.” Jilly’s staff noted Qedesh was “just a pussycat.” The complaints reached city council, spurring debate on outlawing the display and ownership of wild animals.

As faded west-end hotels like the Drake and Gladstone revived in the mid-2000s, speculation about the future of the Broadview increased. Drake owner Jeff Stober fended off rumours he was interested in the property. Kamin admitted to speaking with condo developers and architects, but, as he told the National Post in 2006, “I’m at the stage in my life where I don’t want any other problems.” Articles focused on its gritty nature and the fact that it, as well as being a strip club, was home to a number of low-income tenants.


Broadview House, July 11, 1977. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 7, Item 134.

A brief closure in November 2013 for renovations renewed interest in the Broadview’s future. Councillor Paula Fletcher moved a motion at Toronto and East York Community Council to assess the possibility of a heritage designation. (The site was listed in 1975.) Yet the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer felt secure that Jilly’s would serve patrons for years to come: “As long as I live, Toronto will never again grant a licence to a strip club. Grandfathered strip clubs cling jealously to their status.”

The building’s importance may have been summed up best by architect Angus Skene a decade ago: “What is important is that the building still stands.” And as he said more generally of buildings with colourful pasts: “They’re more interesting when they’re debauched, proving that, despite where you start in life, you never know what your future holds.”

Additional material from the July 6, 1891, and May 10, 1907 editions of the Globe; the December 19, 1991 edition of the Globe and Mail; the June 16, 2006 and November 27, 2013 editions of the National Post; and the January 4, 2004 edition of the Toronto Star.

Toronto by Newsreel

Originally published on Torontoist on April 24, 2014.


Newsreel and press photographers, Queen’s Park, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8012.

Before videographers, there were newsreel photographers. Carting their boxy cameras around, they roved the city, covering the top events of the day, racing to disasters, and hunting for oddball human interest stories that would amuse audiences. In their heyday, services like The March of TimeMovietone News, and Pathé News brought the richness of the world to neighbourhood movie theatres.

Last week, British Pathé announced it had uploaded its entire film collection to its YouTube channel. Shot between 1896 and 1976, the 85,000 clips cover a huge range of material dealing with everything from the World Wars to clubs dedicated to waistcoats. Now that they’re easily accessible, you can count on hours of time being gloriously wasted, especially by history buffs.

Given the vast amount of material needed to fill newsreels each week and our city’s ties to the British Empire, it’s not surprising the collection boasts a few Toronto-centric items. Type “Toronto” into the search field and you’ll find royal visits, salutes to home-grown Nobel Prize winnersparades in old Chinatownentertainment for patients in iron lungs, and beauty parlours for dogs. (Some of the related descriptions are quite amusingly matter-of-fact: footage of Nathan Phillips Square from 1969, for example, is called “two semi-circular office blocks with waterfall in front.”)

Here are just a few of the clips that caught our eye.

The Prince of Wales in Canada (1919)

While this film covers the future King Edward VIII’s cross-Canada visit in August 1919, the last four minutes (starting at the 10:30 mark) highlight his stop in Toronto. The Prince attended the Canadian National Exhibition on August 25 and told a luncheon crowd that he was delighted to visit the city he’d heard such good things about from Canadian soldiers. “It seemed to me that a lot of them came from this great city, and I know no finer soldiers or better friends.” He promised that he would do his best “to be worthy of Canada’s friendship and of Canada’s trust.”

Other stops shown in the clip include Queen’s Park (“the Parliament Buildings”) and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

The Super Test (1924)

At first glance, it might seem as if this footage of motorcycles failing to conquer a steep incline is the 1920s equivalent of a “fail” video. But there was good reason for all the fumbling—the cyclists were dealing with slippery conditions on a 70-per-cent grade.

These early motorsport enthusiasts had gathered at the ravine by Bloor and Parliament streets on April 19, 1924, for the Toronto Motorcycle Club’s annual “hill climb.” That day, Canadian motorcycle champion Morris “Steamer” Moffatt avenged his loss of the previous year, powering up the hill in nine seconds flat. “American riders present claim the hill used is unequalled for this purpose,” observed the Globe. “The course was well roped off and the police gave splendid protection to both spectators and riders. Not an accident marred the day.”

We can only imagine the kind of complaints that would be generated if someone tried to recreate the event today.

Hooray—We Can Win Something! (1926)

The caption writer was on the ball when it came to this story about the April 29, 1926, home opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball squad. The game marked the opening of Maple Leaf Stadium, which took only five months to build. Fans witnessed an exciting last-minute comeback by the home team against the Reading Keystones. Down 5-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and just as patrons were starting to leave, the Leafs suddenly tied the game. Victory came in the bottom of the tenth, when Del Capes’s bunt allowed Herman Layne to run into home.

The 1926 Maple Leafs captured the International League title with 109 wins, then defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. The team actually included more future hockey hall of famers (Lionel Conacher and Babe Dye, though the latter was traded soon after opening day) than baseball stars (New York Giants pitching great Carl Hubbell).

Let’s All Be Young for a Few Moments! (1931)

Some things in Toronto never change. Arguments over the waterfront. Debates over another downtown subway line. Upside-down clowns at the Santa Claus Parade.

The 1931 edition of the holiday staple, held on November 14 that year, was loaded with bizarre floats and balloons that seemed poised to attack onlookers. Among the cartoon celebrities that took part in the procession were Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. The Star also mentioned the presence of “Woofus the Tiger,” but we have no clue who he was. Blackface radio stars Amos ‘n’ Andy were also represented.

Santa’s ride that year began at Geary and Bartlett, then headed down Hallam, Ossington, Bloor, Queen’s Park, and University, before arriving at Toyland at Eaton’s Queen Street. He was scheduled to greet kids at the store from 2 to 4 that afternoon.

Toronto (1939)

The Miss Toronto beauty contest ran from 1926 until 1992, shortly after city council voted to ban the City Hall portion of the event. The year 1939 marked the third year the contest was sponsored by the Amateur Police Athletics Association, which made it part of its annual Police Games at the CNE grounds. During the late 1930s, “real girls” were encouraged to enter, and all makeup other than lipstick was forbidden.

Nan Morris, who won the title on July 8, 1939, fit the bill. A Star headline described her as neither “jitterbug” nor “glamour girl.” Initially, she claimed she was single, but a front-page story a few days later revealed she had been married to her childhood sweetheart for three years. Even though married women were allowed to participate, Morris assumed public knowledge of her status would hurt her chances.

No scandal ensued. “I wondered how long it would be before you chaps would be catching up with me,” her husband Jack joked to the Star. “As long as you don’t start calling me ‘Mr. Toronto,’ though, I don’t mind.” He admitted that he didn’t know she’d entered the contest but said, “I’m mighty glad she won. Those judges and I both know how to pick them.”

By the way—the man draping Nan Morris with her sash? Mayor Ralph Day.

Ice Hockey (1948)

Given the eternal disappointment Toronto hockey fans have grown accustomed to, it’s refreshing to find footage that proves our team was once a contender. As the 1947-48 NHL season wound down, the Maple Leafs had their eye on both first place in the league and the Stanley Cup: they won both.

The game shown here was played in front of 13,874 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 28, 1948. Sportswriters praised both teams for their wide-open, end-to-end play. The game also featured the unusual sight of Leafs centre Syl Apps, known for being a gentlemanly player who served as Ontario Athletic Commissioner on the side, flattening Chicago Black Hawks defenceman Ralph Nattrass. The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond dubbed Apps the “undefeated wrestling champion of the NHL.”

The corniest and most tortured headline—inspired by the play of Black Hawks goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis—came courtesy of the Star: “MUCH ADO-ING ABOUT PUCK WHICH ‘THE CAT’ HAS ‘MOUSED!’”

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); the April 18, 1924 edition of the Globe; the March 1, 1948 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the August 25, 1919, November 14, 1931, July 10, 1939, July 11, 1939, and March 1, 1948 editions of the Toronto Star.

The First Official Victoria Day

Originally published on Torontoist on May 18, 2012.


The News, May 25, 1901.

Since 1845, Torontonians have been enjoying a holiday to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. Following her death in 1901, a federal act declared May 24 (or May 25 if the 24th fell on a Sunday) would thereafter honour Britain’s longest-serving monarch. While it’s easy to imagine that the decision was made out of the deep veneration that existed for the recently-deceased monarch, we suspect people continued to desire a late May holiday.

Unfortunately Mother Nature spoiled the first official Victoria Day.

As the Telegram observed, Torontonians woke up early, looked out the window, and went back to bed: “They saw wet and muddy streets, pelting rain, black drifting clouds, and they remembered that the good Queen was dead.” People still filled streetcars, but they visited friends at their homes instead of enjoying the traditional holiday picnic. Island ferries reported five per cent of their normal holiday business, which wasn’t helped by the cancellation of most activities at Hanlan’s Point. Over in the Beaches, Munro Park Amusement Park proceeded with its season opener—while a balloon event and band concert were cancelled, a vaudeville-style bill went ahead, and rides like the Ferris wheel weren’t stopped by the rain.

Also affected by the weather were the holiday’s major sporting events. A baseball doubleheader pitting the Maple Leafs against the Syracuse Stars suffered a rain delay; the match was eventually called after five-and-a-half innings, with the home team behind 4–3. Toronto manager Ed Barrow planned to protest umpire “Silk” O’Loughlin’s decision to halt the game, but was rewarded for his decision by five minutes of jeering from the stands at Diamond Park.


Left: tribute to Queen Victoria by cartoonist J.W. Bengough, the Globe, May 24, 1901. Right: cartoon, the Telegram, May 23, 1901.

Also enjoying their holiday at Woodbine were pickpockets and other unsavoury characters. Police arrested 10 Americans at the racetrack on Victoria Day on charges ranging from pickpocketing to vagrancy. The Star noted that the five-fingered discounters “were dressed in the usual flashy style of race track touts. Gaudy coloured shirts vied in effect with flaming neckties, but the loud-checked clothing put both shirts and ties in the shade.”

Police were also involved in a near-fatal incident that evening. Around 9 p.m., Robert Sweezie (alternately spelled “Sweezey” or “Sweezy”) attempted to retrieve bedding he left behind at a boarding house at 118 Adelaide Street West. Management initially claimed they no longer had Sweezie’s stuff before handing it over to him. On his way out, resident Samuel Helpert warned him to never return, which led to a scuffle before the hallway light went out. In the darkness, Sweezie was stabbed three times across his body and staggered away to find help. While Sweezie was taken to hospital, Helpert fled to his father’s home on Pearl Street, where police attacked him after a brief standoff. Helpert tried to slip a pen knife to his father, but officers confiscated it. Despite his severe injuries, Sweezie declined to press charges and the case was dismissed a month later. Magistrate George Taylor Denison offered Helpert some friendly advice: “You can go, but don’t do it again; you might get caught.”

“Don’t do it again” might have also been words 17-year-old Logan Avenue resident Frederick Armstrong heeded after pieces of a Roman candle he set off flew into his right eye; he was expected to recover his sight eventually. Though the poor weather left retailers with enough fireworks to avoid placing reorders for the July 1 holiday, the temptation to set them off led to injuries. Incidents such as Armstrong’s prompted the Telegram to editorialize about the dangers of large fireworks known as “cannon crackers.” The paper believed all firecrackers should be banned in the city and cannon crackers should be outlawed everywhere. “Every man or boy who toyed with a cannon cracker yesterday,” the editorial noted, “can feel that it was good luck, rather than good management, which saved him from the fate of the young man whose right hand was blown off.”

The rain drove people to the dry comforts of Toronto’s entertainment halls. At the Grand Opera House, 400 people were turned away. Every possible piece of seating was utilized—even the doorkeeper had to give up his stool.

We hope no theatre workers have to make that sacrifice this weekend.

Additional material from the May 25, 1901 edition of the Globe; the May 25, 1901 and June 21, 1901 editions of the Toronto Star; the May 25, 1901 edition of the Telegram; and the May 24, 1901 and May 25, 1901 editions of the Toronto World.

Happy Centennial, Royal Ontario Museum!

Originally published on Torontoist on March 19, 2014.


The News, March 19, 1914.

As with any major building preparing for its grand opening, work on the Royal Ontario Museum went down to the wire. “A corps of charwomen polished, scrubbed, and dusted,” the Star observed the day before the museum greeted its first official visitors, “and unfinished exhibits were being rapidly and accurately fitted into their places.” That there were still unopened boxes in the basement didn’t faze anyone.

One hundred years ago this afternoon, just after 3 p.m., around 1,000 dignitaries attended the ROM’s opening ceremony. It was the culmination of years of planning, and of assembling artifacts drawn from private collections, provincial holdings, and the University of Toronto’s museums.

The museum was a joint partnership between the province and the university, which agreed in 1910 to split the $400,000 construction budget. A sense of the new institution’s direction was outlined by archaeology director Charles Trick Currelly the following year:

From the first the material has been gathered together with definite scientific aim, i.e., to show the development of handicraft in the world. It thus becomes a text book of the development of civilization on its mechanical side, and is in no sense a dilettante collection of pretty things or an accumulation of “curios.” There is not a curiosity in the collection, and practically not an object that is isolated, but each thing fits into a place in a series that has been carefully thought out. There are many gaps, but there is reasonable hope that these will be filled up in the future, so that the visitors to and students in the museum will have a continuous picture of the world’s civilization from the rude Palaeolithic implement found on the Libyan desert or deep in European gravels, right down to modern times.


Royal Ontario Museum building, circa 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3046.

By the time the museum was ready to open in 1914, its purpose had been refined into three roles:

The collection and exhibition of objects of every kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of Ontario, and thereby to aid in a knowledge of what is able to contribute to science and industry; Collection and exhibition of objects of any kind calculated to illustrate the natural history of the world, and the history of man in all ages; Such other objects as may be authorized by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council.

The ROM originally served as an umbrella institution for five museums that operated semi-independently until the 1950s. Its components were dedicated to archaeology, geology, mineralogy, natural history, and palaeontology. Collections that had been housed in various locations on the U of T campus and at the Ontario Provincial Museum at the Toronto Normal School (located on the present site of Ryerson University) were brought under one roof, in a building designed by noted architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson.


A pair of early ROM acquisitions. Toronto Star, February 14, 1914.

From the start, the ROM was bursting with artifacts. Preview newspaper articles boasted of the 60,000 specimens held by the palaeontology museum, including ancient trilobites found in New Brunswick and fossils discovered in the Don Valley Brick Works. The papers waxed poetic about “the mystic art of the embalmer in ancient Egypt” and offered photos of items described as “Old German instruments of torture.” Officials admitted it would take another year to finish labelling the displays. Among the early exhibit donors was Sir Henry Pellatt of Casa Loma fame, who could perhaps have used his collection of arms and armour to fend off creditors a decade later.

The official opening ceremony began with a speech by Sir Edmund Walker, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, on the development of the museum. He portrayed its gestation as the result of a labour of love by the directors of its component museums. Walker also observed that because North Americans were generally more concerned with material things, our museums took longer to develop than those in Europe.

After remarks from U of T president Robert Falconer, the podium was turned over to the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. It was a busy day for Queen Victoria’s third son, as his dedication of the ROM was sandwiched between a visit to the Boy Scouts’ provincial headquarters and the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates at High Park. Besides praising the museum, the Duke mentioned two dignitaries unable to attend due to illness—his wife (he thanked the guests for their best wishes), and Premier James Pliny Whitney (who was recovering from exhaustion and a heart attack).


After opening the ROM, the Duke of Connaught spoke at the dedication of the Howard Memorial Gates in High Park. Sir Henry Pellatt is standing at the back. Photo taken March 19, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8092.

The audience applauded the Duke’s concluding remarks:

I conclude by expressing my hope and belief that interest in the museum will not be allowed to flag in the future, but that this institution will ever be a pride to the citizens of Toronto, and will keep pace and size with the growth and development of the city.

That evening, more invitees listened to speeches and toured the building. Within days, Currelly reported to Walker a sharp rise in donations. “Men from all over the province have been coming to see me,” Currelly noted, “to say that this was what they have been waiting for all their lives, and that they are anxious to assist in any way that is possible.”

Such growth made future expansions inevitable, beginning with the additions along Queen’s Park opened in 1932-33. The original building now serves as the ROM’s west wing, housing its Asian collection on the main floor.

Additional material from The Museum Makers: The Story of the Royal Ontario Museum by Lovat Dickson (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1986); the December 7, 1910, March 17, 1914, March 19, 1914, and March 20, 1914 editions of the Globe; the March 20, 1914 edition of the Mail and Empire; the February 14, 1914, March 18, 1914, and March 19, 1914 editions of the Toronto Star; the March 20, 1914 edition of theToronto World; and the March 1911 edition of University of Toronto Monthly.


The next day, I wrote an article on renovations to the museum’s exterior.


The Royal Ontario Museum hopes that you’ll mark its centennial by giving it a little love.

To kick off its new “Love the ROM” fundraising campaign, the museum celebrated its 100th birthday yesterday morning by announcing its plans for the coming year and offering hints of upcoming renovations to its Bloor Street entrance. Dubbed the “Welcome Project,” the plans call for changes to the museum’s lobby and the installation of an “outdoor gallery” running along Bloor Street from Philosopher’s Walk to Queen’s Park.


The outdoor performance space nestled between the Michael lee-Chin Crystal and Philosophers’ Walk. Image: Hariri Pontarini Architects.

Designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, whose other projects include the Shangri-La Hotel and One Bloor, and landscape architect Claude Cormier, the “outdoor gallery” will include more greenery to make the ROM crystal’s gateway seem less sterile. The renderings feature a performance space west of the front door—a space the museum hopes to use for collaborations with nearby institutions like the Royal Conservatory of Music. We suspect the rows of seating will also provide a place for classes and tour groups to gather before they hop back on their buses. The space will be named after one of the new fundraising campaign’s lead donors, ABC Group of Companies CEO Helga Schmidt and her late husband Michael. Work on the lobby is expected to begin later this year, with the outdoor space following in 2015.


An overhead, nighttime conceptual rendering of the ROM’s entrance. Image: Hariri Pontarini Architects.

The ROM also announced plans for a new gallery dedicated to early life on the planet, and an event called “ROM Revealed,” scheduled for first weekend of May, that will allow the public to explore the museum’s labs and other behind-the-scenes spaces rarely open to patrons.



Toronto Is Born

Originally published on Torontoist on March 6, 2014. Note that the title refers to the incorporation and naming of the city, not when it was settled.


Map of Toronto, 1834, drawn by Alpheus Todd, who was 13 years old when he sketched the city’s layout. Toronto Public Library.

Flipping through the pages of the March 6, 1834, edition of the Advocate newspaper gives you few hints a momentous occasion would occur that day. The first two pages feature details of debates in Lower Canada over improving colonial governance—not until the fourth column of page three, after pieces on political reform gatherings and odes to leather tanners, do you encounter a story about the provincial legislation [PDF] that created the City of Toronto on that day 180 years ago.

By the dawn of 1834, York was growing fast. Its population had quadrupled in six years, going from around 2,200 residents in 1828 to 9,200. Such growth, unfortunately, magnified the flaws of the existing governance structure: the Town of York was part of the larger Home District, which by 1834 consisted of portions of present-day Durham, Peel, and York Regions. The district was governed by an appointed committee of part-time magistrates known as the Courts of Quarter Sessions of the Peace. Becoming a magistrate was a reflection of one’s social status, which meant the ranks were dominated by the Family Compact and its allies.

As York grew, the magistrates found they couldn’t keep up with its infrastructure demands. Unable to raise tax rates above absurdly low levels, they borrowed money to build courthouses, jails, and markets. Police funding was scant, and volunteers were recruited to provide fire service. Inadequate attempts to build a sewer system contributed to several outbreaks of cholera during the 1830s.

York needed help.


A sense of what the sharp-dressed Torontonian may have looked like in 1834. Illustration by C.W. Jefferys, Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934).

By 1830, provincial attorney-general Henry John Boulton had proposed that York be incorporated as a city with an elected municipal government possessing increased powers of taxation. The usual unproductive partisan bickering between Reformers and Tories delayed the process until a committee drafted a bill in 1833. The bill’s preamble contained a significant change to York’s identity:

And whereas the name of York is common to so many towns and places that it is desirable for avoiding inconvenience and confusion to designate the capital of the Province by a name which will better distinguish it, and none appears more eligible than that by which the site of the present town was known before the name York was assigned to it.

Renaming York as Toronto angered some provincial legislators. During a March 1, 1834 debate in the assembly, detractors like William Jarvis claimed the change would cause confusion. John Willison felt it disrespected the memory of the most recent Duke of York, and pointed out that neither the state nor the city of New York had changed its name. Proponents of Toronto pointed out the name’s aboriginal origins and its meaning, which was then believed to be “meeting place,” and so was well suited to the seat of provincial government. Some legislators, such as William Berczy, felt Toronto rolled off the tongue better than York (“the sound is in every respect better”).

The new city was split into five wards, each of which elected two aldermen and two councilmen. The difference between the two positions was that aldermen possessed more personal property, and could sit on a new city court. The mayor would be chosen by city council from the aldermanic pool. General voting rights were given to male property holders.


Illustration of William Lyon Mackenzie by Charles Comfort. Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934).

The local Reformer press attacked the new bill. Among its harshest critics was the ever-volatile William Lyon Mackenzie, who saw it as a Tory scheme to raise taxes and restrict who sat on city council. “We oppose it because on a careful consideration of its bearings,” Mackenzie wrote 180 years ago today in the Advocate. “We are convinced that it will be injurious to the peace and prosperity of our fellow townsmen.” The Canadian Correspondent observed that “one would scarcely imagine that things could be so disposed of on the continent of North America … that a man’s poverty should be decisive of his despicability, whilst rascality with a few paltry pounds [the currency of the time] may exercise the municipal franchise and be installed LORD MAYOR.”


Anti-Mackenzie election broadside, 1834. Toronto Public Library.

When it was clear incorporation was going to come to pass, Mackenzie adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. Along with other prominent Reformers, Mackenzie ran for city council when the first municipal election was held on March 27, 1834, and he was among the 12 Reformers who gained the majority of seats. This victory may have seemed like sweet revenge against the Tories to Mackenzie, who had spent the previous year repeatedly being escorted out of the provincial assembly whenever he tried to take his seat. Historian Jesse Edgar Middleton summed up the mood of the electorate:

These voters were not a miscellaneous lot. They were all householders, mostly heads of families, and might be counted as the solid citizens of the community. For the time being they were red-hot because, obviously Mackenzie had been bilked of his constitutional rights. They knew him to be an able man. He had given proof a hundred times of his knowledge of public finance, parliamentary practice, and constitutional law. He had courage to no end. He was sincere, he was incorruptible. While he was inclined to allow his criticism to trail off into coarse abuse, the people remembered that the provocation had been great, and made allowances.


Toronto’s first year was rocky—another cholera epidemic, deadly political riots, Mackenzie alienating people galore—but it was because of the framework established during that time that Toronto grew into the city we celebrate today.

Addition material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); The City of York 1815-1834, edited by Edith G. Firth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966); The Story of Toronto by G.P. deT. Glazebrook (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971); The Firebrand by William Kilbourn (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1956); Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934); Toronto of Old by Henry Scadding, edited by Frederick H. Armstrong (Toronto: Dundurn, 1987); the March 6, 1834 edition of the Advocate; and the February 8, 1834 edition of the Canadian Correspondent.

Freedom to Read and Reconsider at the Toronto Public Library

Originally published on Torontoist on February 25, 2014.


Freedom to Read Week display at the Maria A. Shchuka branch.

Although the Toronto Public Library possesses a number of controversial holdings, few people are outraged enough to demand that items be withdrawn from its collection: it’s reassuring to consider, especially during this Freedom to Read Week, that on the whole, Torontonians support the public’s right to access materials considered offensive, and to do so via a local TPL branch.

The TPL outlines its position on contentious items and the importance of free debate in its Materials Selection Policy:

The Library believes that a vital society encourages members of its community to actively participate in an open exchange of ideas and opinions. Material selectors consequently strive to provide the widest possible range of resources within Toronto Public Library collections.

The content or manner of expressing ideas in material that is purposely selected to fill the needs of some library users, may, on occasion, be considered to be offensive by other library users. The library recognizes the right of any individual or group to reject library material for personal use, but does not accord to any individual or group the right to restrict the freedom of others to make use of that same material.

Yet there are, inevitably, patrons who wish to restrict that freedom, or to prevent items containing inaccurate or outdated information from circulating freely. And for such patrons, the TPL has developed a formal process. So what do these patrons do if they want the library to take a book off the shelf?

First, they ask their local librarian for a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Material” form. Once they’ve filled it out, it goes to the Collection Development department, where the manager reviews the request and contacts them if any clarification is needed. Then, the request is sent on to a librarian committee for review, and a response is issued within 12 weeks.

Since 2000, around 100 requests for reconsideration have been filed—and only nine items have been removed. The most recent title to be pulled, Date Rape: A Violation of Trust, was withdrawn from the video collection in 2012 because it, “while well-intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and lacks diversity and is, therefore, not appropriate as an educational tool in Toronto’s multiracial and multicultural environment.” Other titles have vanished for reasons including libel threats, unreliable accounts of Romanian history, bad advice on passing business accreditation exams, outdated information on dairy farming—and being poorly produced knockoffs of Pixar films made by the highly esteemed Video Brinquedo studio (What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue).

Other reconsidered titles find new homes within the library system. Tintin in the Congo, for example, which features controversial depictions of Africans, was moved from the children’s collection to the adult graphic novel section in 2010. Not all suggestions from complainants can be acted upon: one 2003 complaint about eye weekly urged the library to provide copies sans escort ads. And in 2006, a patron requested that a rabbi review the content of Sarah Silverman’s film Jesus is Magic.


Front page of the Toronto Public Library’s “Request for Reconsideration of Library Material” form.

The most popular requests for consideration between 2000 and 2013? It’s a tie between Maxim magazine (2005 and 2006; one request suggested users be IDed lest it fall into the hands of innocent youth) and Robert Kaplow’s The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun, a raunchy parody of The Cat Who… mystery series (2005 and 2007).

Library staff have not noticed trends in the complaints, and are proud of how few requests for reconsideration come in. Vickery Bowles, director of Collections Management and City-Wide Services, feels this reflects Torontonians’ “appreciation for the breadth and depth of our collections and the fact we are living in a large urban setting.” She believes that the public senses that “intellectual freedom in the public library setting is very important” and that the widest variety of available materials should be offered.

Richview librarian Kara Miley notes that discussion with staff can calm angry patrons. “Half the time they just want to rant at somebody—they want to think that you’re listening to them. If you let them just rant, they tend to lose steam.” Miley’s interest in censorship issues led her to put together a presentation as part of the library’s Freedom to Read Week activities. In “How to Ban a Book in 10 Easy Steps,” Miley focuses on the challenges libraries face elsewhere in North America, especially in the United States, where the merest hint of controversy damages an item’s acquisition chances. If you tackle topics like sex, racism, evolution, magic, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, be prepared.

What spares the TPL from many of the battles American librarians face are stronger protections via the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the anti-censorship policies of professional bodies like the Canadian Library Association. Plus, as Miley puts it, “I’d like to think we’re open and tolerant in Toronto.”

No Whining at the Toronto Park Summit

Originally published on Torontoist on February 24, 2014.

Nobody likes a whiner. Complaining is part of activism, but advocates for causes like public parks must ensure that their words are supported by concrete actions and a positive, constructive approach to problems before bureaucrats will take them seriously. This was one of the points discussed during Saturday’s Toronto Park Summit organized by Park People.

“Telling a city what to do all the time is a certain amount of use, but unless you’re actually helping, you’re taking up their valuable time,” observed keynote speaker Adrian Benepe during a Q&A session. The former New York City parks commissioner often tells parks activists to “advocate all you like, but stand up and show us what you’re actually doing. What are you doing to actually help this park? It’s easy to complain, but do something substantive rather than complaints to show what you can do.”

Substance was the key to the presentations shown to the 400 attendees at the Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park for the fourth edition of the summit. Instead of presenting imaginative sketches of pie-in-the-sky proposals, both Benepe and representatives of four local parks advocacy groups discussed achievable aesthetic and operational improvements for urban parkland.

For dense city cores like Toronto’s, Benepe promoted recycling existing abandoned infrastructure such as brownfields, old factories, and rail lines into parks. While Benepe discussed New York projects such as reclaiming the Brooklyn waterfront, it’s easy to see Toronto spaces like Evergreen Brick Works, Corktown Common, and Waterfront Toronto’s system of parks filling this model. “These marginal spaces are the parks of the future,” Benepe noted.

He also stressed the need for a range of partnerships spanning the public/private spectrum. In cities like New York, this has meant establishing non-profit conservancy groups to manage some parks. Benepe believes that employing outreach coordinators, which was done as part of a project between the New York City parks department and a local advocacy group, was vital to nurturing parks advocacy groups and their volunteers. When an audience member raised the spectre of a two-tiered park system where some spaces would be better funded and maintained than others, Benepe discussed “sweat equity”—parks advocacy groups not rolling in money could rely on volunteers to aid with planting and general maintenance. He feels that those who invest their time in a particular park shouldn’t be charged event fees.

The importance of partnerships and volunteers was evident during short presentations on four local advocacy groups. Friends of the York Beltline, a group dedicated to promoting a linear park along the Beltline trail west of Allen Road, has developed its membership through a Facebook group and its local city councillor’s mailing list. Friends of Earl Bales Park evolved from local Filipino and church groups into an organization that has coordinated a local arts festival. In Etobicoke, a community health centre and the Panorama Community Garden teamed up to promote the first Rexdale Foodie Fest last year, bringing the neighbourhood together for free, healthy food.

At the opposite end of the city, Friends of the Guild Park and Gardens are working to revive the Scarborough landmark, which has suffered from “demolition by neglect.” President John Mason discussed that the group wants to be part of a strategic plan, noting doing so would be far more effective than just complaining.

Echoing many of the other participants, he said, “We’ve got to take a positive approach, in taking the best practices [of other large city parks] and seeing what can happen.”