Revisiting the Past Lives of St. Lawrence Market

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2015.

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Part of the foundation pier from the 1831 St. Lawrence Market.

In the November 5, 1803 edition of the Upper Canada Gazette, a notice from Lieutenant-Governor Peter Hunter addressed an irritant for the early inhabitants of York: “no place or day having been set apart or appointed for exposing publicly for Sale, Cattle, Sheep, Poultry, and other Provisions, Goods and Merchandise, brought by Merchants, Farmers, and others, for the necessary supply of the said Town of York.”

The solution: starting that day, a public open market would operate every Saturday at the northwest corner of present-day Front and Jarvis. Nearly 30 years later, in 1831, the first permanent brick building opened on the site, a structure which ringed an open courtyard. Elements of that incarnation of north St. Lawrence Market, along with its successors, have been uncovered through archaeological work carried out as part of the preparations for the fifth market building to stand on the site.

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Model of the 1831 St. Lawrence Market, looking south from King Street, prepared by Ryerson students for the “Meeting Places: Toronto’s City Halls” exhibit at the Market Gallery in 1985.

Beyond its role as a trading centre, the north end of the 1831 marketplace housed Toronto’s first city council chambers after the city’s incorporation in 1834. But the complex had its problems, especially for butchers: the height of the gallery exposed their meat to the sun; damp and poorly ventilated cellars also provided lousy storage. Space was so tight that farmers were turned away, forcing them to sell to grocers, causing a loss of civic revenue. Part of the balcony collapsed in July 1834 during a tax riot. The solution was the construction of a new south market building, which politicians and produce vendors moved into in 1845.

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St. Lawrence Market. North Market (1850-1904), Front Street East, north side, between Market & Jarvis Streets, showing east side, before alterations of 1898. Toronto Public Library.

The original north market complex was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1849, and was replaced within two years in a project that also created St. Lawrence Hall. That structure met its end in 1904, replaced by one designed to match recent renovations to the south market. For 50 years a canopy above Front Street linked the two markets, as the north side settled into its role as a Saturday-only farmers market. Construction was a bureaucratic nightmare, from cost overruns to the firing of the architects; as a Star editorial put it, “the city’s interests were being looked after by too many men, so that among them all nobody gave the work the determined attention it deserved.”

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Bricks from the 1904 incarnation of the market.

When the next version of the north market was completed in 1968, some tenants were happy to see the demise of the poorly aging 1904 building. “Gone was the dirt and dust,” the Telegram observed. “Gone was the roof which sometimes leaked. The cold and the gloom, the shabby walls and uneven floors had departed. Instead there is brightness under-floor heating and colour everywhere. The farmers have never had it so good.” Opening reviews were mixed, with architectural critics giving the space thumbs down for being too mundane.

Dirt and dust is what you’ll find in the 1968 building as it awaits its end. Its placement atop a thin concrete pad made finding its earlier incarnations easier for archaeologists. Based on the three trenches made in the floor, you don’t have to dig deep to find the foundation piers from the 1831 complex. “Nobody had popped the lid to have a look at the what the preservation was like under the site,” archaeologist Dr. Peter Popkin noted during a media tour of the site on Wednesday.

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Part of the 1851 sewer system.

Popkin and Golder Associates Ltd. conducted the current stage of the archaeological assessment over the past few weeks, and found elements of all pre-1968 structures within the trenches. Besides the original foundation piers, other uncovered features include the 1851 sewer system, and bricks, concrete foundations, and a box drain from 1904. Evidence points toward the existence of the cellars which irritated butchers during the 1830s. While items like animal bones and ceramics have been found, their volume is less than would be discovered at a residential site. The holes in the ground also show evidence of “robber trenches” where fill was dumped during each construction project, especially from 1904.

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Showing the different surfaces over time – the darker area is believed to be the outdoor courtyard surface of the 1831 market.

One interesting find was the discolouration of levels of dirt, especially in the second trench. The darker stained soil was the original surface of the 1831 interior courtyard. While paving stones were contemplated, according to Popkin, visitors reported it was covered with gravel. The evidence points to a sandy material with plenty of pebbles sitting atop a clay capping.

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At the media tour, Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) referred to the discoveries not as “surprises,” but as “prizes” which will help tell the story of the city from their respective eras. Up to 18 months of historical assessment work was built into the timeline for the new market structure, leaving plenty of time for further investigation and a mitigation study. It is expected that some of the material found will be displayed in the new building. It shall be seen how the discoveries affect plans for a 250-space underground parking lot.

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City of Toronto coat of arms, installed 1968.

As it awaits the wrecking ball, the 1968 building feels like an archaeological relic. The tour provided one of the last opportunities to survey it, to notice touches easily overlooked on a busy Saturday morning like the old City coat of arms mounted above the stage. The waterlogged floor of the space which housed the snack bar. A floor painting honouring BuskerFest. The banner inviting visitors to check out the temporary farmers market to the south. Time will tell if this incarnation of the north market will be the least mourned.

Additional material from the September 19, 1904 edition of the Toronto Star and the February 1, 1969 edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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St. Lawrence Market, north market (1850-1904), Front St. E., north side, between Market & Jarvis Sts.; interior, main corridor, looking north, before alterations of 1898. Toronto Public Library.

The construction of the 1904 incarnation of the north market was anything but a smooth process. Mind you, if you changed the few specific details, the following Star editorial could apply to many projects which go off the rails.

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Toronto Star, September 19, 1904.

A few weeks later, the Globe offered further details on what was going wrong.

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The Globe, October 4, 1904.

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Looking north along Jarvis Street. The canopy connecting both sides of the market, installed with the new 1904 north market building, is visible. Photo taken October 26, 1904. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 4, Item 93.

From the 1904 incarnation, we move on to pictures I took of the now-demolished 1968 version of the north market.

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This plaque was installed to mark the official opening of the north side in February 1969. This was among the last ceremonial markers to mention Toronto’s Board of Control, which met for the last time later than year. Elected by the city at large, it was replaced by an executive committee chosen from incoming councillors. The 1969 incarnation included one former mayor (Lamport), one future interim mayor (Beavis), one unsuccessful candidate in that year’s mayoral race (Campbell), and one who never ran for mayor (Marks).

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The neighbouring plaque honoured the establishment of St. Lawrence Market in 1803.

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The shell of the snack bar looked a little worse for wear. I’ll admit that I never ate there (the temptations of Buster’s, Uno Mustachio, and Yianni’s filled my tummy on Saturday trips), but it’s nice to see that a positive, legit-looking review was left on Yelp.

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Upon closer inspection, wading boots may have been required to explore the snack bar’s remains.

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On the main floor, a painted tribute to Buskerfest remains, reflecting the event’s previous connection to the St. Lawrence neighbourhood.