Friday, November 01, 2013

past pieces of toronto: yorkville town hall/st. paul's hall

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on July 8, 2012. 

This installment marked the end of the column - what was originally a summer hiatus turned permanent when the entire site wound down a few months later. A placeholder page still exists, optimistically claiming that the site is still on hiatus, but all of the content was pulled down. Fear of such a move resulted in this series of reprints. And yes, I was among those who were owed money for a time, though I eventually received it via dogged persistence. Apart from that ending, OpenFile was a good experience, providing another outlet for my writing.

When word came that the column would be suspended for two months, it was a relief. I figured I would take a breather, wand direct my energy toward other projects I was working on. When I took over "Ghost City" at The Grid soon after, it was clear that if the column came back, it required a new focus. A proposal to switch to a series focusing on people whose names graced neighbourhood streets, buildings and institutions was accepted, pending a review of OpenFile's freelance budget.

Two posts await revisiting, each bearing lessons I learned after they were published. Expect annoying forwards when they surface. But enough blabbing...on with the show!

St. Paul's Hall, formerly Yorkville Town Hall, 1907. Toronto Public Library.
Perhaps Yorkville has always had a taste for luxury. When presented with two designs by architect William Hay for its town hall in 1859, the councillors of what was then a separate suburban village picked the pricier plans. Was the extra money worth it? Probably, since the building they approved at the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Yorkville Avenue served the community well until its fiery demise during World War II.

Hay’s design for Yorkville Town Hall combined English Gothic and continental influences. Elements such as a large rose-shaped stained glass window were inspired by religious edifices, reflecting a style that historian William Dendy felt “implied the earnest and serious attitude to civic responsibilities, and to life in general, that was considered appropriate in municipal affairs.” The central four-storey portion of the buff- and red-brick building contained a police station on the ground floor, the councll chamber and municipal offices on the second, and a grand public hall on the third. A central arch was intended to lead to a shopping arcade and marketplace in the rear. Wings on each side of the central block were rented out to businesses to help pay the mortgage.

Among the special touches added to the fa├žade was a crest designed to honour the five councillors who comprised the first Yorkville village council in 1853. Topped by a beaver, the five sections of the crest paid tribute to butcher Peter Hutty (a sheep’s head), brewer John Severn (a beer barrel), brickmaker Thomas Atkinson (a brick mould), blacksmith James Wallace (an anvil) and carpenter James Dobson (a jackplane).
Though it wasn’t finished, the first major event held at Yorkville Town Hall was the York Township Agricultural Society’s annual exhibition in October 1860. The back market never materialized; instead, in 1861 the central arch became a gateway to stables housing the horses which pulled streetcars for the Toronto Street Railway’s first route, which ran down Yonge Street to St. Lawrence Hall. The building served as a community centre where residents listened to Sir John A. Macdonald plead the case for Confederation or watched travelling music shows which promised “the latest gems of Ethiopian Minstrelsy.”

Source: Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto Fifth Series (Toronto: John Ross Robertson, 1908).
 Following Yorkville’s annexation by the City of Toronto in 1883, the building was renamed St. Paul’s Hall. The Toronto Public Library operated its Northern Branch on the premises from 1884 until a Carnegie-funded building opened around the corner in 1907. A clock tower installed in 1889 provided the neighbourhood with a new landmark. The last horses passed through when the streetcar route was electrified in 1892. Also electrifying were endless political gatherings ranging from municipal nomination meetings to federal election stump speeches. During World War I, the Queen’s York Rangers used the site for barracks and continued to do so for several years after the conflict ended. From January 1935, the hall was home to the Naval Club of Toronto.

Around 5:30 p.m. on November 12, 1941, a fire broke out and swiftly gutted the interior. While Naval Club steward George Godsmark was not on the premises at the time, his wife and six children were about to sit for dinner at their apartment within the hall when the blaze began. They didn’t sense anything was amiss until they heard the fire reels. By the time firefighters escorted the Godsmarks out, the building was flooded with water sprayed from Yonge Street and neighbouring buildings. The clock on the tower continued to run for an hour after being enveloped in flames, but fire and police officials feared that wooden chunks falling to the ground heralded a total collapse. Thousands of spectators were pushed further and further back, especially after the fire flared up for a second time around 7 p.m. The blaze provided real-life practice for civil defence volunteers scheduled for drills that evening at the Yorkville fire hall.

Source: the Toronto Star, November 13, 1941.
 The outside walls and roof survived the fire, but were demolished the following year. The site was converted to a Pickering Farms grocery store (later Loblaws and Ziggy’s) and parking lot around 1949. Today, the site is home to the businesses and condos of 18 Yorkville. One piece of the building remains in the neighbourhood: the crest was preserved and presented to the Queen’s York Rangers. It was eventually placed on the Yorkville fire hall, where it still pays tribute to the founding fathers of the old village.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), the October 1, 1860 and September 24, 1862 editions of the Globe, the November 13, 1941 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the November 13, 1941, November 14, 1941, and May 27, 1942 editions of the Toronto Star.

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