Eleven Great Books About Toronto's Architecture

March 20, 2018 | Bill V.

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A  glass of wine, a loaf of bread and a stack of good books on Toronto.

What more could a librarian want?

The other day this new and visually stunning book, Lost Toronto, came into the library and I thought to myself why not write a blog about Toronto's architectural history? So I did.

Lost Toronto by Doug Taylor

Lost Toronto by Doug Taylor:  As well as celebrating forgotten architectural treasures, Lost Toronto looks at buildings that have changed use, vanished under a wave of new construction, or been drastically transformed. Beautiful archival photographs and informative text allow the reader to take a nostalgic journey back in time to visit some of the lost treasures that the city let slip through its grasp. Organized chronologically, starting with the earliest losses and ending with the latest, the book features much-loved Toronto institutions that have been consigned to history. Losses include ... Hotel Hanlan, St. Patrick's Market, The Grand Opera House, Metropolitan Methodist Church, Old Union Station, St. Andrew's Market, Yonge Street Arcade, Sunnyside Beach Amusement Park, Shea's Hippodrome, High Park Mineral Baths, Tivoli Theatre, Riverdale Zoo, Odeon Carlton, Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, Colonial Tavern, Sam the Record Man, and The World's Biggest Book Store. Doug Taylor writes a masterful blog, Historic Toronto, on local history, with great images and wonderful stories about Toronto.


Lost Toronto by William Dendy

Lost Toronto: Then and Now by William Dendy, first published in 1978 and since revised, was an inspiration for Taylor's work. At the time of its publication it certainly inspired a great deal of interest in Toronto's history and I don't think it's a total coincidence that in 1981 we saw the first of The City of Toronto's inventory of buildings of architectural and historical importance.

In some cases we have specific books on historically important architects like E.J. Lennox (City Hall and Casa Loma), Fred Cumberland (University College), John Lyle (Runnymede Library) or Eden Smith (Wychwood Park). There is also the amazing online resource Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950.


 Toronto Then and Now by Doug Taylor

Toronto Then and Now by Doug Taylor: "Toronto has long been a financial powerhouse in North America, and this is represented by its many grand bank buildings. Canada's capital may be Ottawa, but the financial power emanates from this thriving city, the fourth most populous in North America. Sites include: Toronto Harbour, Fort York, Queen's Quay Lighthouse, Toronto Island Ferries, Queen's Quay Terminal, CNE, Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, Princes' Gates, Royal York Hotel, Union Station, City Hall, St. Lawrence Market, St. James Cathedral, Dineen Building, Elgin Theatre, Arts and Letters Club, Old Bank of Nova Scotia, Ryrie Building, Masonic Temple, Osgoode Hall, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Gurney Iron Works, Boer War Monument, CN Tower, Old Knox  College, Victory Burlesque Theatre, Maple Leaf Gardens, U of T and much more." 

I also want to give a shout out to local author and historian Mike Filey, who has written many photographic and historical books on Toronto including Toronto: The Way We Were and his Toronto Sketches series.


Unbuilt Toronto  a history of the city that might have been  by Mark Osbaldeston

Unbuilt Toronto: A History of the City that Might Have Been by Mark Osbaldeston: "Unbuilt Toronto explores never-realized building projects in and around Toronto, from the citys founding to the twenty-first century. Delving into unfulfilled and largely forgotten visions for grand public buildings, landmark skyscrapers, highways, subways, and arts and recreation venues, it outlines such ambitious schemes as St. Alban's Cathedral, the Queen subway line and early city plans that would have resulted in a Paris-by-the-Lake." Unbuilt Toronto was so popular that Osbaldeston wrote a second book Unbuilt Toronto 2.


Toronto  no mean city by Eric Arthur
The classic title No Mean City by Eric Arthur was first published in 1964 and has been revised and reprinted multiple times as recently as 2003. Visually beautiful (esp in the earlier larger scale 1960s versions) it is chockablock full of wonderful photos and fascinating information with a deeply personal tone and imprint by the author. It also has a very useful and handy biographical section on architects and builders at the back.


Toronto observed : its architecture, patrons, and history by Denby and Kilboure

Toronto Observed: Its Architecture, Patrons, and History by William Denby and William Kilbourne is the other venerable classic on Toronto buildings. You may also be tempted by Kilbourne's earlier title Toronto Remembered: A Celebration of the City.

There's also a new interactive website Old Toronto – Mapping Historical Photos: "an open-source map tool created by Sidewalk Labs that provides block-by-block browsing of historic Toronto photographs. This tool maps more than 30,000 (and growing!) historic city photographs from the City of Toronto Archives, which holds more than 1.7 million photographs dating back to 1856." 


I wouldn't want anyone to think I have a bias only for old architecture so ...

Concrete Toronto : a guide to concrete architecture from the fifties to the seventies

Concrete Toronto: A Guide to Concrete Architecture from the Fifties to the Seventies: "takes readers on a guided tour of Toronto's concrete architecture. Editors Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart have assembled a diverse group of industry experts – architects, university faculty, local practitioners, city planners, historians and journalists –     to examine the unique and important qualities and the past and future of Toronto's concrete buildings in interviews, articles, archival photos, drawings and case studies." Even the cover is concrete gray!

If you like this type of architecture then you would also be interested in the work of my colleague Katherine who was heavily involved in a project with the new Toronto City Hall design competition. There are in fact two books (!!) written just on the new City Hall:


If you like more modern architecture you will likely enjoy these titles:


Design City Toronto

Design City Toronto by Sean Stanwick and Jennifer Flores: "showcases over thirty exemplary contemporary interior and architectural projects, both complete and underway. These range from hip restaurants and bars by Toronto-based practices to major institutional buildings completed by the likes of Will Alsop, Behnisch, Behnisch & Partners, Foster and Partners, Frank Gehry, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg and Daniel Libeskind ... the book is beautifully illustrated with new photography by Tom Arban. It also provides a neighbourhood overview and biographies of featured designers."


Faces on places a grotesque tour of Toronto

Faces on Places: a Grotesque Tour of Toronto: "Murray has photographed over sixty Toronto buildings, interviewed architects, stone carvers, and building occupants, and scoured archives for original architectural plans, to discover who these creatures are, and why they exist. Faces on Places is organized by type of sculpture, and contains street addresses and maps for suggested walking tours." The history of sculptural detail on Toronto's buildings is also really beautifully covered in another classic title Toronto Carved in Stone published in 1984 and written by Margaret McKelvey.

The 1920s and 1930s Art Deco/Art Moderne period of architecture in Toronto is rich in sculptural detail and these books will be of interest:

For those doing a bit more in depth research there's also the Architectural Index for Ontario - an index to print sources about Canadian architects and their Toronto buildings, parks, and built environment up to 2002.  It covers a wide swath of Toronto's history.


Toronto Architecture a City Guide

Toronto Architecture: A City Guide: "Twenty-two self-contained walking tours – each with an easy-to-follow map – range over 175 years of Toronto buildings. More than 900 buildings are catalogued: fanciful Victorian houses, graceful spired churches, lush Edwardian factories and warehouses, Art Deco apartments, and new landmarks. Illustrated with over 300 photographs, the guide examines well-known and important buildings as well as the more modest structures in between that form Toronto's cityscape."

If you like walking tours of Toronto you may also be interested in Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto by local celebrity and writer Shawn Micallef or Toronto Urban strolls for Girlfriends.


If you can indulge me and shift your interest in local architecture a tiny bit to local public art I think you would also enjoy these titles:

Creating memory  a guide to outdoor public sculpture in Toronto

Creating Memory: A Guide to Outdoor Public Sculpture in Toronto: "Toronto has over 600 public outdoor sculptures, works of art that provide a sense of the rich variety of life and work in the city, its peoples, cultures and aspirations. Interest in commissioning public sculpture began slowly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but increased rapidly after the 1950s.This is a book about the sculptures and how they disclose the city to itself. Creating Memory’s two introductory sections examine the factors behind this expansion over time and the changes in style as one generation of sculptors succeeded another. It looks at the reasons behind the changes as sculptures were conceived, sculpted and erected"

Smaller in size, more visual and much easier to use are the following older titles:



Lastly, I wanted to highlight the work of my librarian predecessors over the years including the deeply knowledgeable (and delightful) local History Specialist Barbara Myrvold who wrote a series of historical walking tours of various Toronto neighbourhoods (these are available in print and online as PDFs):

   Historical walking tour of Kensington Market and College Street   Historical walking tour of the Danforth

There's a list here of Toronto Public Library's local history publications – all of which are available to be borrowed from your local library branch and many are also available online as free PDFs.

There's lots more including:


I hope this gives you a flavor and sample of some of the rich resources that are available about Toronto. Enjoy!