5145 Yonge Street (First North York Municipal Building)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on April 16, 2013.

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When North York split off from York Township in 1922, space was required to house the new municipality’s offices. Civic workers played musical buildings during the new township’s first year, for a time settling on two upper floor apartments on Yonge Street north of Sheppard Avenue in the village of Lansing. When a fire destroyed that office and its accompanying council records in February 1923, plans were initiated for a brand new structure at the southeast corner of Yonge and Empress Avenue.

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The Telegram, December 20, 1923.

Designed by Murray Brown, who also designed North York’s official seal, the two-storey structure at 1 Empress Avenue was officially opened on December 19, 1923. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Henry Cockshutt presided over the ceremony, delivering a generic speech about Canada being a country of the future. “Owing to the large gathering which crowded the new hall,” the Telegram reported, “the Lieutenant-Governor was unable to open the door with the golden key, and just declared the hall opened” Local MP William Findlay Maclean used the occasion to stump for better federal representation for the growing municipality.

The building’s main attraction was its second-floor council chamber. Besides serving as a battleground for municipal affairs, the room was rented to groups ranging from the Orange Lodge to the local horticultural society.

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Don Mills Mirror, August 30, 1978.

Though the building was bursting at the seams by the late 1930s, material shortages during World War II delayed expansion plans. An extension doubling the building’s size was completed in time for North York’s 25th anniversary in 1947, but the township’s post-war growth quickly made it inadequate. Rather than build another addition, North York erected a new municipal office to the south at 5000 Yonge Street, whose first phase opened in 1956.

Over the next 30 years the old offices, now addressed as 5145 Yonge Street, housed numerous public and private tenants. During the 1960s it was home to a courthouse handling construction safety cases and the local Emergency Measures Organization. The 1970s brought sitcom possibilities via North York’s parks and recreation department, as well as healthcare courtesy of the Victorian Order of Nurses. When the North York Public Library moved its audio/visual collection from its Fairview branch in 1982, the Star named only one of the over 2,000 titles carried on reels of 8mm and 16mm film: Bambi Meets Godzilla. For six dollars, users could rent projectors and screens for 24 hours to watch full-length film classics or half-hour condensations of recent blockbusters like The Muppet Movie and The Empire Strikes Back. A reading lab and youth theatre school rounded out the 1980s.

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The transformation of Lansing into downtown North York sealed the fate of the old municipal building. In November 1986, North York City Council approved a $10 million deal to sell the site, along with a neighbouring fire hall designed by Brown during World War II, to Menkes Developments. A condition of the sale was that Menkes would preserve the original front façade of the old building and the hose tower of the fire hall. Both buildings were disassembled in 1989 then waited as ever-changing plans, objections from local ratepayers, and mounting interest bills delayed construction of the project that became Empress Walk. Depending on the day, plans included a cinema, condos, office space, and shopping which were built, and a hotel/convention centre which wasn’t.

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Today, the remnant of the municipal building is attached to the mall’s back entrance, surrounded by glass.

Sources: Pioneering in North York by Patricia W. Hart (Don Mills: General Publishing, 1968), the August 30, 1978 edition of the Don Mills Mirror, the July 13, 1982, August 24, 1982, November 7, 1986, and December 16, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star, the December 20, 1923 edition of the Telegram, and the July 24, 1947 edition of the Weston Times and Guide.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, May 13, 1986.

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Don Mills Mirror, August 30, 1978.

The second North York municipal building. Its site is currently occupied by an office tower.

One Fine Toronto Weekend in 1908 (According to the Toronto World)

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on September 20, 2008. This is one of the first examples of Historicist columns I’d write in a hurry if the topic I was working on fell apart or required more research before deadline.

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Queen Street West and James Street, looking northeast. William James Sr., 1908. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the easiest way to grab a snapshot of Toronto’s past is to find the nearest microfilm reader (or online archive) and browse any of the newspapers that have chronicled the daily adventures of the city. For a taste of what was going on a century ago this weekend, we dive into the pages of one of Toronto’s long-defunct morning papers.

The Toronto World was launched in August 1880 by reporters William Findlay Maclean and Albert Horton to support a Liberal candidate in a by-election. Maclean (1854–1929, pictured on the right) bought out Horton a year later and ran the paper as a populist daily, specializing in exposing civic corruption. Among the causes the paper successfully backed were Sunday streetcar service and municipal ownership of the hydro utility. The World served as a training ground for influential editors like Joseph Atkinson (Toronto Star) and Hector Charlesworth (Saturday Night). Maclean served as a local MP from 1892 to 1926, sitting as a Conservative or “independent Conservative” depending on how well his maverick nature meshed with party brass—usually it didn’t. Perennially on the brink of bankruptcy, Maclean sold the paper to the Mail and Empire in 1921.

The most scandalous front page story involved allegations in a rival paper (likely the Star or the Telegram) that city aldermen had abused their free pass privileges at the Canadian National Exhibition and performers at the CNE Grandstand were blackmailed into purchasing clothing from fair officials. An investigation was launched by the city into a number of complaints instigated by disgruntled former employees of the fair, who claimed that one official allowed 30 to 40 friends in for free on a single day.

The World’s reporter lashed out at the paper’s rivals, noting, “This sort of thing only gives outside newspapers to knock Toronto, and there is no sense and reason in it. Why do the evening newspapers try to stir up trouble so as to make it impossible for men to act on the exhibition board?” Alderman (and future mayor) Samuel McBride felt that gate staff had exercised proper strictness, noting that he had seen a director turned away for not wearing his badge.

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R. Simpson Building under construction, Richmond Street West, looking northeast, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, item 7037.

In an editorial titled “Perceive the Larger Toronto,” The World praised the Robert Simpson department store for expanding its building at Yonge and Queen. The structure was seen as one of many recently built or in the planning stages that bode well for the city’s future, despite a recent economic depression:

Take your stand on the corner of James and Queen [S]treets. Look southeast and you will see the magnificent new building of the Robert Simpson Co. Limited, a structure not yet fully completed, but beautiful in design and ornamentation, immense in size, and boldly suggesting not only a Greater Toronto, but also the Greater Canada to be. Now turn and look northwest, where stands the city hall, which, architecturally viewed, is one of the most beautiful and imposing municipal buildings on the continent, and of which the citizens of Toronto should be justly proud.

When you thus observe these magnificent structures from the vantage point mentioned…there must dawn on you the thought that they stand and call “Plan with the wider vision; build boldly after the progressive spirit which gave us being; and build with the expansive, unerring faith that a great city, as ours shall be, must have noble, imposing structures, commensurate with its greatness.”

We have used these reflections only because we learned from their coursings thru our mind that a duty lies on Toronto’s citizens positively to realize that to build as if the city was to have no future, no greater extent, and no larger place in the development of Canada, is to be untrue to both the municipality and to the Dominion.

Physical expansion of the city was also in the news, as a hearing was announced for September 29 to listen to the town of East Toronto’s push to be annexed by Toronto. The town’s main reservation was that the proposed terms did not include the formation of a separate ward for the area, as West Toronto had received during its negotiations earlier in the year.

Other notes from the paper:

  • The city’s board of control produced a report with “rather important recommendations” on hiring and salaries of civic employees. New qualifications for positions above junior clerk were laid out, which included an exam if applicants did not hold a junior matriculation certificate or were unable to prove that they were taking classes at the Toronto Normal School. Among the new recommended maximum annual salaries were $780 for a jail guard, $900 for a fireman, and $2,200 for a chief accountant.
  • A meeting was held in North Toronto’s town hall to discuss the town’s overcrowded schools. The proposals put forward eventually led to the establishment of North Toronto Collegiate Institute and Bedford Park Public School.
  • Federal Conservative leader Robert Borden announced his itinerary for a tour around the province, including a stop in Toronto on September 23.
  • Officials of the Ontario Rugby Football Union gathered to celebrate its silver anniversary and organize its upcoming season. One of the first organized football leagues, the ORFU sent senior-level teams to the Grey Cup through the early 1950s.
  • A touch of marital discord in the classified section: “My wife, Elizabeth Stephen, having left my bed and board, I will not be responsible for any debts incurred by her. John Stephen, Deer Park P.O.”
  • From the dissatisfied customer department: “Patrick McIntyre, 32 years, married, 96 Shuter Street, strolled into Arthur Bellman’s quick lunch at 34 East Queen Street. He had ordered beef, but when it was served he was displeased and refused to pay. At the Agnes Street police station his clothes contained $6.13, but he still refused to pay and was held for theft of a meal.”

Photo of William Findlay Maclean, owner of Toronto World , c. 1909, from City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, Item 1296. All quotes from the September 19, 1908 edition of The Toronto World.