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In the Market for a Birthday?

If you’re interested in Toronto’s history and architecture then you could be eating a lot of birthday cake this year. That’s because no fewer than seven significant sites in the city’s historic market area are celebrating milestone birthdays in 2003. The largest (and youngest) of these birthday buildings is the opulent Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel, but it’s sharing the spotlight with a fascinating array of churches, houses and public buildings. The sites are easily visited on foot or by public transit and are a terrific way to acquaint yourself with the history of Canada’s largest city.

ST. LAWRENCE MARKET
Jarvis and Front streets
Proclaimed 1803-200 years old

The British government founded Toronto in 1793 with the intent of securing the wild forests of Upper Canada from the quickly expanding American republic to the south. The original town plan was a military grid of streets but before long local administrators endeavoured to bring some urbanity to the frontier village by laying out three large blocks of land for important institutions. These blocks were northeast of the original settlement and later were divided to contain a church, a courthouse and a market. Reality took a few years to catch up with the paper plans and it was 1803 before a Royal Proclamation established a public market on the land bounded today by Front, Jarvis and King Streets. In those days Front Street was bordered by the edge of the lake and people gathered by the water to trade, talk politics and administer an informal kind of justice. The public stocks survived until the 1830s and around the same time politics moved into a proper market building containing the town’s first council chambers. In 1834 Toronto officially became a city and within a few years erected a proper City Hall with a market arcade on the sloping waterfront land. Today, it is this second building that continues the tradition of a Saturday food market while the original market site to the north is home to a weekly antique sale.

CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST. JAMES
King and Church streets
Completed 1853-150 years old

The church envisioned in the 1797 plan arrived a few years after the St. Lawrence Market was established. A simple structure, the first St. James opened in 1807, replacing the tents that had reportedly been used from the earliest days of the settlement. During the next 50 years the building became increasingly grand, finally taking shape as the completed Cathedral Church of St. James in 1853. The Cathedral replaced the previous church, which had been destroyed in an 1849 fire. This fire levelled much of the market area and signalled the start of one of the city’s first great building booms. Interestingly, this boom was largely presided over by a single man: architect, railway magnate, militia leader and society fixture Frederick Cumberland.

Arriving from England in 1847, Cumberland was connected to Toronto society by marriage and was the first emigrant to bring real design talent and all the latest architectural styles to the thriving but provincial, colonial outpost. He had the further advantage of arriving at a momentous time in the history of Toronto. The great fire cleaned away the flimsy wood shacks of the early settlement, the expanding network of steam railways was centralizing power and bringing astonishing new wealth to the city and the English government was slowly, but surely, bestowing more political power to her North American colony. The city was redesigning itself and over the next 10 years Cumberland and various partners would complete almost all the major public commissions including four of the seven buildings celebrating anniversaries this year. What’s more is that as quickly as he came Cumberland left to pursue his railway interests and muster his local regiment of militia troops. Despite his departure from architecture in the early 1860s, his legacy endures throughout the city. With seeming ease, Cumberland won the open competition to design the Cathedral Church of St. James, executing it in the then-fashionable English Gothic-style. Unfortunately, the congregation’s pockets fell short of their intentions and it would be 20 years before the spire was finally added in 1873-130 years ago.

LITTLE TRINITY HOUSE
417 King St. E.
Completed 1853-150 years old

Farther east and much more diminutive, Little Trinity Church went up in 1845 to the design of local architect Henry Bower Lane. (Little Trinity’s builders claimed they could not afford the pew rents at St. James). A charming building, the church demonstrates the contrast between the local talent and Frederick Cumberland. While only a few years separate the design of the two buildings, Lane’s church exhibits the somewhat clunky appearance of early Gothic Revival buildings. Cumberland’s St. James, however, is fresh from the mother country where better designers had made a more complete study of the original medieval precedents. Lane had left town when the time came to build the rectory-Little Trinity House-so Cumberland added this project to his busy drawing board. Here he deploys an elegant Georgian touch, incorporating wisps of Gothic detail in deference to the adjacent church.

THE COUNTY COURTHOUSE
57 Adelaide St. E.
Completed 1853-150 years old

In 1853, Cumberland not only completed St. James and Little Trinity House but also two other major public buildings: the Seventh Post Office and the York County Courthouse. As per the 1797 plan, the courthouse went up in the block of land west of St. James. Here Cumberland demonstrates his familiarity with another of the styles of the day, Greek Revival. With its stern, silent classicism, the courthouse perfectly realized the Victorian vision of unimpeachable, ancient justice. Originally a central building with two dignified wings, the courts moved out in the 1890s and the wings themselves were unceremoniously lopped off in 1903, which makes for a kind of unfortunate centenary this year. After decades of decline, it was restored to its original grandeur by Liberty Entertainment in 1998 and now houses the Courthouse Market Grille. You can have a drink in The Cell Bar, the original courthouse jail cells, which held Toronto’s most infamous criminals awaiting trial.

THE SEVENTH POST OFFICE
10 Toronto St.
Completed 1853-150 years old

Around the corner from the Courthouse, Cumberland brought this same Greek Revival sobriety to the Seventh Post Office built in the city. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of mail in a pre-telephone world and here Cumberland created a self-conscious monument to an important public institution. In fact, this was the first Toronto post office designed as a public monument and it appeared solely because of changing politics. Until 1851, the British Government controlled the postal service and the penny-pinching and far-removed colonial administrators in London compelled the local Postmaster to foot the bill for any postal facilities. They had no interest in architecture as a public symbol in a colonial outpost. The coat of arms of Upper Canada sits proudly atop this stern little temple because it was only when local government took over that Toronto post offices came to represent the stability and dignity of a growing community.

THE FIRST POST OFFICE
60 Adelaide St. E.
Completed 1833 -170 years old

An interesting contrast with Cumberland’s postal monument is also celebrating an anniversary this year. Toronto’s First Post Office is still a post office but it is also a living museum telling the story of early communications in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire. In 1833 (a year before Toronto’s incorporation as a city), Postmaster G. S. Howard spent £1,600 to erect this post office and residence for himself and his family. Apparently on the wrong side of politics, Howard lost his job following an anti-monarchy rebellion in 1837 and eventually sold this pleasant Georgian townhouse at a loss. For the next 130 years, the building housed another family, a boys’ school, a war munitions board, and dozens of well-cooled farm fresh eggs before being rescued and restored in the early 1980s. It is only one of three downtown buildings older than the city itself and is a nationally recognized Historic Site.

LE ROYAL MERIDIEN
KING EDWARD HOTEL

37 King St. E.
Opened 1903-100 years old

If Frederick Cumberland’s work marks one great expansion of the city then Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel certainly stands as another. Hatched in the minds of several local businessmen, the King Edward was Toronto’s foray into the world of the ‘palace hotel,’ a local version of London’s Savoy or New York’s Waldorf Astoria. These hotels were the product of the railway and steamship lines that, in the latter half of the 1800s, extended their reliably scheduled reach around the western world. The Victorians virtually invented tourism, business travel, grand restaurants and ballrooms as we know them, and these immense hotel buildings satisfied those new demands. To design its palace the Toronto Hotel Company hired American architect Henry Ives Cobb, best known for his design of the University of Chicago campus. Cobb produced an evocative perspective drawing but by 1900 his career had faltered and E. J. Lennox, a prominent local architect, quickly took over the project. The taste of the day called for palatial and the King Edward is replete with marble columns, terra-cotta cartouches and some of the finest decorative plasterwork in the country. When King Edward ascended to the throne in 1901, the Toronto Hotel Company quickly renamed itself and locals have lovingly referred to the ‘King Eddy’ ever since. The grand doors opened in 1903 and with its two-storey skylit Rotunda lobby, Palm Room, Gentleman’s Café and European Restaurant, the King Edward brought the Age of Elegance to Toronto. Extensively renovated in recent years, the 100-year-old King Edward continues to offer the dignity, grace and sophistication of the world’s great hotels.—Angus Skeen is an architect, historian and freelance writer living and working in Toronto

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