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Researching Historic Buildings in Toronto

March 26, 2014 | Katherine | Comments (0) Facebook Twitter More...

TO Built

Researching old buildings in Toronto can be extremely interesting but also extremely frustrating. Often people come to the library to begin their research. Here are some online sites to use before you come to the Toronto Reference Library. You will be amazed at what is available online in a digital format.

Let's start with our own website . It's not just a catalogue of books. You will find print books and journals, online magazines, pictures, digital books, directories and maps, blogs, audio-visual materials, programs and events as well as links to outside sources. Here are some quick tips:

Once on our site, you will see FIND YOUR WAY in big letters near the top of the page. Go to History and Genealogy. Then go to the Local History and Genealogy section. Don't miss it! Check each section of every page carefully so you don't miss any of the many leads to other sources.

Click on the Local History section. You will see Toronto History listed along the left side of the page.

Toronto Neighbourhoods leads to an interactive map:

Toronto Neighbourhood Map

Toronto City Directories;

Toronto Buildings and Architecture;

Toronto Geography and Maps.

Outside Sources: 

Toronto City MapDo not miss the City of Toronto site. You can find the Inventory of Heritage Properties which lists historically designated properties.

Try the City's Archives for records and photographs of buildings.


There are some terrific sites put up by individuals but beware! These could change or be removed at any time:

Put together by J. Robert Hill, try the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950. This site lists the work of individual architects by address and building name and more.

E.J. LennoxHave a look at Nathan Ng's Historical Maps of Toronto which aims to improve digital access to fire insurance plans and other maps found at the Toronto Reference Library and City Archives.

And last, but not least, a wonderful site lovingly put together by Bob Krawczyk : TOBuilt. Enjoy the blue skies and sharp images of our Toronto. You'll find information on historical buildings, ordinary buildings, new and old, residential and commercial - even some demolished sites are included.

1851 Fleming maps-r-19








Oh Dear! Art that Pushes the Boundaries

July 23, 2013 | Stacey | Comments (0) Facebook Twitter More...

This July and August, a project involving seven art installations located in and around North York Central Library celebrates North York and invites participation from local residents. Oh dear: public art that unhinges North York’s sense of modesty features works based on the artists’ lives growing up, living, and/or working in the North York area, specifically in the the area of Yonge Street between Sheppard Avenue and Finch Avenue that constitutes Willowdale.


In addition to North York Central Library, participating venues in the exhibit include the Toronto Centre for the Arts, North York Civic Centre, Mel Lastman Square, Gibson House Museum, and the Ontario Historical Society’s historic John McKenzie House.

John McKenzie House: Celebrating 100 Years

John McKenzie House, a Willowdale landmark designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, has served as headquarters for the Ontario Historical Society since 1994. Construction on John McKenzie House dates back to 1913, so they are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. However, the house and the land on which it was built has passed through a number of hands over the last two centuries.

The home was built on land that predates the McKenzie family. The land (Lot 18, Concession 1, East of Yonge, to be exact) had been deeded to Jacob Cummer in 1801. Jacob Cummer, a major figure in North York History, became a devout Methodist and built a log church to serve the developing community in Willowdale. This was replaced in 1856, after Jacob Cummer’s death, by a brick church, pictured here:


In 1884, Philip McKenzie, a carpenter and cabinet maker, purchased part of the Cummer property and moved into the old Cummer farmhouse. Farm operations were taken over by his son, John, when Philip died in 1901, and John continued keeping Holstein cattle, pigs, and poultry until the farm was subdivided for residential development in 1912. In 1913, construction began on a new house to replace the existing farmhouse with its current iteration. After John’s death in 1941, his eldest daughter Florence retained occupancy of the home with her husband, Frank H. Brown, Treasurer of North York during the 1930s to 1960s. In 1975, the house was sold; in the 1980s, the city of North York acquired the house; and, in April 1994, the Ontario Historical Society moved in and began work on restoring the house.

Here is the house as it appears today:

McKenzie House
Photo source: Ontario Historical Society.

The house is described as a blend of both Queen Anne Revival and Edwardian Classical architectural styles:

The simple classical details combined with vernacular elements and overall asymmetry are evidence of McKenzie House’s debt to the Queen Anne style, while the regular pyramid roof, the massiveness, the regularity of the main part of the house, the very large verandah and the impression of home comfort confirm it as Edwardian (Brown, 2005).

Visit the Ontario Historical Society website to see more pictures of McKenzie house.To learn more about McKenzie house and North York history in general, please visit the Gladys Allison Canadiana Room at North York Central Library to view materials from the North York History Collection, including books, photographs, scrapbooks, vertical files, maps, and pamphlets, as well as newspapers, both in print and on microfilm. When you visit the library, check out the nearby art installations that are part of the Oh dear exhibit.

Oh dear: The Exhibit—Get Involved

Interested in participating? Share what you like about North York, why you think North York is unique, and where you think the neighborhood will be headed in a few years or even a hundred years into the future. Fill out one of the postcards available throughout North York Central Library, and drop off your postcard in the library or at Gibson House Museum.

Or, participate in one of the artist-led tours: On Friday July 26, Mark Warrack, Senior Heritage Coordinator for the city of Mississauga and Heritage Toronto board member—as well as a former Willowdale resident—will lead a one-hour walking tour alongside two of the participating artists: Otino Corsano and Teresa Casas. Meet by the Mel Lastman Square reflecting pool at 8:00 p.m. on Friday July 26 if you’d like to join. No pre-registration necessary.

To find out more about the art installations, visit the project website at

Note: Sources consulted include: OHS Bulletin (1998), Issue 114 and The Genealogy of John McKenzie House by Douglas Brown, in Ontario History (2005), Vol. 97(1). (Note: all sources available in the Gladys Allison Canadiana Room, North York Central Library).


Jane's walks this weekend!

May 2, 2013 | Barbara Myrvold | Comments (0) Facebook Twitter More...

Jane’s Walks will be held on May 4 and 5 in almost every neighbourhood in Toronto, as well as in many other Canadian centres and countries around the world. 

Named to honour writer and civic activist Jane Jacobs, several Toronto walks feature Toronto Public Library branches, including:

Toronto’s Jane’s Walks are promoted thematically, and there are walks to suit a variety of interests: the history buff, the nature lover, the athlete, to name just a few. With so much to choose from, it will be difficult for me to decide which walks to take. Should I get a different perspective on the neighbourhoods that I know, or explore ones that are less familiar to me?  Either way, I am bound to learn a lot, and, as a bonus, get out and enjoy what promises to be wonderful weather with a group of kindred spirits.

For those who prefer a more sedentary approach to discover the city, check out our Toronto Neighbourhoods Map to easily locate hisroric maps, pictures, and other library resources.

Toronto Public Library helps celebrate Leaside 100

April 22, 2013 | Canadiana Staff | Comments (0) Facebook Twitter More...


The Leaside neighbourhood is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It was incorporated as a town by an act of the provincial legislature passed on April 23, 1913.

The centennial festivities include an archival exhibit, the Layers of Leaside, that explores the area’s cultural landscape over many years.

The exhibit will be on display at Toronto Public Library's Leaside Branch from Tuesday April 23 to Sunday April 28, 2013. (The branch will be open for regular service, 1:30 to 5, on that Sunday only.)

Jane Pitfield and Geoff Kettel will lead several historical walking tours in connection with the exhibit, including one on Sunday April 28 from 1:30 to 3:30 starting and ending at Leaside Library.

Thorncliffe Park plan

Thorncliffe Park proposed plan, 1956?

The Leaside 100 committee used some materials for its exhibit from the collections of the Toronto Public Library.  Geoff Kettel found the Toronto neighbourhoods map on the library’s website especially helpful to locate materials quickly.  “The library has the most accessible collections of all of the resources we used,” he claimed.  The neighbourood map links users to library records about Leaside and neighbouring Thorncliffe Park, which became part of the town in 1954. 

These include digital pictures and photographs of Leaside from the Special Collections Department, Toronto Reference Library. Dating back to 1900, the majority of the images were created in the 1940s and 1950s by James Victor Salmon (1911-1958), a gifted amateur photographer who lived in Leaside for part of that time. His images of buildings, streetscapes and events are an invaluable record of the town’s mature phase of development after the Second World War.

Catalogue records for books about Leaside and Thorncliffe Park also are provided on the library's website.  Most titles are available for reference in the Leaside Branch Local History Collection.  Housed in the Leaside Room, the collection also includes pictures, maps and scrapbooks that library staff has gathered from a variety of sources over the years.  

Toronto's community newspapers are an important but often overlooked source of local information. Leaside Branch has several local papers. The Leaside Advertiser, published from 1941 until about 1999, claimed to be "Leaside's home newspaper - the ONLY published and printed in the town" in 1960 when our holdings begin. Current papers in the collection include Leaside-Rosedale Town Crier, which started in 1981 as the Leaside Villager, and Leaside Life News.  Microfilm copies of some titles are available at the Toronto Reference Library. There are some gaps in the library's holdings, and we would appreciate hearing from anyone who could help us fill them.  


First Leaside Library, 1946

Not surprisingly, the history of library service in Leaside is well documented at Leaside Branch. Key resources are photographs of library services and facilities, and annual reports of the Leaside Public Library Board, which operated from 1944 to 1967 when the Town of Leaside joined with the Township of East York to form the Borough of East York.

A selection of materials from the Leaside Branch Local History Collection will be added to Toronto Public Library’s Digital Archive later this year. 





Historical Walking Tour of North York Centre, Saturday, September 15, 2012, 10:30 to noon

September 12, 2012 | Barbara Myrvold | Comments (0) Facebook Twitter More...

You are invited to join me and other library staff, along with our partners in the North York Historical Society, the North York Community Preservation Panel and Gibson House Museum, for an historical walking tour of the North York Centre neighbourhood.

North York Central Library, 1987

Meet us at 10:30 in the first floor atrium of North York Central Library this Saturday, September 15 to start the tour.  The walk is part of the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of North York Central Library, 1987-2012, and participants will be provided with a commemorative walking tour booklet.  The booklet will also be available electronically on the Toronto Public Library website following the tour.

I have worked at North York Central Library for the past 14 years, and have come not only to rely on its extensive collections (638,893 items in 2011) and expert staff, but also to appreciate the neighbourhood where the library is located.

Here can be found a cluster of Modernist buildings designed by some of the country's most prominent architectural firms: Moriyama and Teshima (North York City Centre including the North York Central Library); Adamson Associates (North York Civic Centre); Zeidler Roberts (Toronto Centre for the Arts) and Mathers & Haldenby (Toronto District School Board).

Joseph Sheppard II (Dempsey Bros.) store, 1921
Here too, amazingly, are three Georgian Revival buildings – a store and two houses – survivors from the Willowdale and Lansing farming communities of the 1850s and 1860s. The trio all were built after their first owners, David Gibson, Joseph Shepard II and Michael Shepard, returned from exile in the United States, where they had escaped following the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

The neighbourhood also boasts extensive public spaces – parks, a huge cemetery and an attractive square - where I often relax and sometimes exercise during lunch breaks.  

I must admit that I am a convert to the charms of the neighbourhood. When I was sent, figuratively kicking and screaming, to North York Central Library following library (and municipal) amalgamation in 1998, as far as I was concerned the city ended at Yonge and Lawrence and the idea of a North York “downtown” was ludicrous. 

My opinion of North York Public Library was slightly more favourable.  I grudgingly acknowledged that, although it was such a newbie compared to Toronto Public Library (it began in 1883) where I had worked for many years, its achievements were impressive.  In less than half a century since 1950, North York's public library had grown from having 2,740 items in a room in a community centre to housing several hundred thousand volumes in a seven-storey Central Library (officially opened on June 4, 1987), which also provided support to five regional branches, 13 community branches and various deposit collections.

In the subsequent years, my respect for North York Central Library has grown and my feelings about the local area have changed radically. Join us on Saturday, and discover, as I did, that North York Centre is one of Toronto’s most interesting and surprising neighbourhoods. 

Discover the history of your family, your Toronto neighbourhood, or places in Ontario and across Canada.

Research online or at Toronto Reference Library and North York Central Library.

Learn about exciting programs and events.