The Mark of Edward VIII

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 3, 2008.

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The southwest corner of Yonge Street and Montgomery Avenue is rich with history. Montgomery’s Tavern, the spot where William Lyon Mackenzie and his followers launched the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, is honoured with a plaque. Oulcott’s Hotel served customers and community groups in the late 19th century. The current occupant, Postal Station K, threw open its doors a century after Mackenzie’s march under a royal insignia that would prove unique to the city’s government buildings.

Welcome to one of the few buildings in the British Empire to bear the mark of the brief reign of King Edward VIII (1894-1972). His 11-month reign ended in December 1936 when he resigned from the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, “the woman I love.” Outrage over the abdication crisis led to a proposal to replace the insignia on Station K with that of Edward’s successor George VI, which never came to pass. Edward soon assumed the title of the Duke of Windsor, was suspected of pro-Nazi leanings, briefly served as governor of the Bahamas, and spent his remaining days in retirement in France.

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Edward had better press during his quarter-century as Prince of Wales, to the extent that his two visits to Toronto resulted in a pair of local landmarks being named in his honour.

His first tour began on August 25, 1919 with a quick visit to Queen’s Park, followed by the formal opening of that year’s Canadian National Exhibition. The editors of The Globe welcomed the prince in that day’s edition:

Prince Edward is doubly welcome to a Dominion which has cast off the fetters of colonialism and boasts of a freedom as wide as that exercised by a sovereign nation. He is welcome as the heir to a Throne to which we yield voluntary allegiance because it is based on the will of the people, and is a link which binds us to other Dominions and the Mother Country in a common purchase and destiny. We welcome him also because he is a Prince worthy of the lofty station and solemn responsibilities which he will inherit…all reports agree that he is a clean, wholesome youth with courage, industry and a high sense of duty. Elastic spirits and a winning manner add to his personal attractiveness. May he find much in Canada to interest and entertain him as a reward for the ceremonial fatigue inseparable from his tour.

Mobbed by crowds in his public appearances, much of Edward’s trip was spent visiting wounded World War I veterans (those who “did the dirty work in war,” screamed a Globe headline). On August 27, he was driven around the city in Sir John Craig Eaton’s Rolls Royce to mingle with Torontonians, which led The Globe to proclaim that “he must have felt at home here…it was no mere mechanical performance with him; there was nothing stiff or formal about it. He stood up on the seat of his motor car and waved his hat with the abandon of a schoolboy in acknowledgement of the cheers of the citizens.”

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Traffic on Bloor Viaduct opening, October 18, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Item 0872.

The route included a trek over the bridge connecting Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue, open to vehicular traffic for less than a year. The week after Edward’s visit, the span was officially proclaimed the Prince Edward Viaduct.

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Edward, Prince of Wales, at the Canadian National Exhibition, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 8140.

Edward returned to Toronto eight years later, this time with his brother George (later the Duke of Kent). Despite morning rain, Edward cut the ribbon for the new eastern entrance to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds on August 30, 1927, which was named the Princes’ Gates in honour of the visitors. Memories of the war lingered on, as over 13,000 veterans marched behind the royal motorcade.

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Material excerpted from the August 25, 1919 and August 28, 1919 editions of The Globe. Photos of Postal Station K and Princes’ Gates by Jamie Bradburn.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Four years after this story was published, I covered a protest regarding plans to turn the Postal Station K site into a condo. Originally posted on Torontoist on July 31, 2012, here’s “Rebelling Over Postal Station K”

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One hundred and seventy-five years after William Lyon Mackenzie assembled his rebels at Montgomery’s Tavern, another group of angry citizens seems ready to rise up against the government on the same site, or at least let a crown corporation know they are unhappy about the possible fallout from its sale—especially if that fallout proves to involve a high-rise condo, as at least one commercial realtor has predicted.

Monday night, a crowd cried things like, “No more condos!” and, “Our history is not for sale!” at a rally in front of Postal Station K, which is what stands on the Montgomery’s Tavern site today. The protest was organized by Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle. As a modest crowd listened to speeches about the history of the site and its value to the community, a steady stream of passers-by lined up to sign a petition to save the building.

“There’s really not much going on right now,” noted Canada Post spokesperson John Caines in a phone interview yesterday. An RFP (request for proposals) was made in April for Postal Station K, along with Canada Post properties at 50 Charles Street East and 1780 Avenue Road. “We’re considering selling them, but only if the purchaser provides a suitable replacement property or properties in return. We’re not looking to leave the area but upgrade and modernize our network.”

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Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle (centre) leads rally in cry of “No More Condos!”

While the property is a national historic site, because of its role in the rebellion of 1837, Postal Station K is listed but not historically designated by the City of Toronto, affording it few protections under the law. Designed in art-deco style by Murray Brown, whose other works include the nearby Belsize Theatre (now the Regent) on Mount Pleasant Road and the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, Postal Station K is one of the few buildings in the British Empire to bear the insignia of King Edward VIII. Built in 1936, it replaced a structure originally known as Oulcott’s Tavern, which had been used as a post office from 1912 onward. Besides sorting neighbourhood mail, the building has also, at times, provided space for businesses and a halfway house.

Colle first heard rumblings about a potential sale while on a Heritage Toronto walk through the neighbourhood several weeks ago. He decided to mobilize the community before any clashes with developers could occur. “It’s a great place to take a stand,” Colle noted in a phone interview, referring to the property’s symbolic value. During the fight against amalgamation in 1997, Colle participated in a march that stopped at the site. He believes Canada Post is “totally remote from the public” and he will do his “darndest to make sure they realize that the taxpayers of Toronto paid for that building and they can’t just sell it off willy-nilly without listening to us.” Beyond the building, Colle stressed the property’s role as a public gathering place, especially for wheelchair users who find its lack of barriers ideal for relaxing and meeting others.

Anti-high rise sentiments in the neighbourhood should not be discounted, especially when a high number of condos are underway or being proposed. Though community efforts failed to stop the Minto towers south of Eglinton Avenue, anger at former city councillor Anne Johnston’s role in brokering the deal that allowed the project to proceed led to her defeat in Ward 16 by Karen Stintz in 2004. Though Stintz was unable to attend the rally because she was on vacation, neighbouring councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) was on hand to lend his support.

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If a condo doesn’t become part of the site’s future, what could the building be used for? Colle said that the Anne Johnston Health Centre, located across the street, had expressed interest in additional space for their programs. Eglinton Park Residents’ Association chair Tom Cohen imagined a commercial tavern paired with a museum celebrating the rebellion of 1837. Whatever happens, it’s likely that a creative solution that utilizes most or all of Postal Station K (which seems to be a condition of any sale) will be better received than a high-rise that does little to acknowledge the site’s history. Otherwise, any march down Yonge Street to mark the anniversary of Mackenzie’s rebellion this December might not be a mere re-enactment.

UPDATE

The front and forecourt of Postal Station K was integrated into the base of the Montgomery Square retail/condo project. The surrounding neighbourhood is in the midst of a condo tower boom, building up density as Yonge and Eglinton prepares to grow into even more of a transit hub with the construction of the Crosstown LRT.