25 Years of Barbara Frum Library (1992-2017) and How It Came To Be

September 25, 2017 | Barbara Myrvold

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Twenty-five years ago, on September 24, 1992, North York Mayor Mel Lastman and developer Dr. Murray Frum cut the ribbon to officially open the new Barbara Frum Library and Community Recreation Centre. 

Barbara Frum official opening invitation September 24 1992Program for the official opening, September 24, 1992. Toronto Public Library Archives

This marked a new chapter in the history of local library service, which can be traced back to 1952 when a delegation comprised of “ladies of Lawrence Manor” sought advice from the North York Public Library Association Board about establishing a library in their community.

Lawrence Manor and neighbouring Ledbury Park had developed after the Second World War in North York Township's burgeoning suburbs, and were located on subdivided farmland straddling Bathurst Street between Lawrence and Wilson avenues.

Library service arrived in summer 1954 when Lawrence Plaza was selected as a stop for North York Public Library’s first bookmobile.

One of the first North York Public Library bookmobiles 1954North York Public Library's first bookmobile, 1954. Toronto Public Library Archives

Lawrence Plaza had opened with "pamper and dazzle" at the northwest corner of Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue West in October 1953, proclaiming to be “Canada’s first planned community shopping centre."

“You will find everything you need,” gushed Globe and Mail writer Mary Walpole, noting that Lawrence Plaza featured wide promenade sidewalks, parking for 2,000 cars, a supervised playground, and “all day and evening outdoor music by Muzak [that] keeps the shoppers and the shops in a gala mood”.

Morgans Department Store at Lawrence Plaza 1960
Morgan's department store at Lawrence Plaza, Lawrence Avenue West, northwest corner of Bathurst Street, 1960. City of Toronto Archives

A permanent library for the community was promised in 1955, but it was not until January 23, 1962 that Bathurst Heights Regional Branch opened at 3170 Bathurst Street, at the northwest corner of Covington Road.

Bathurst Heights Branch exterior 1962Bathurst Heights Regional Branch Library, 1962. Toronto Public Library Archives

Designed by Freedman, Petroff, Jeruzalski Architects, the $120,000 library was enlarged in 1966 and eventually supported several smaller neighbourhood branches including Centennial (1966), Yorkdale (1969-1993), and Armour Heights (1982).

  Bathurst Heights Branch downstairs reference area circa 1975
Downstairs reference area in the 1966 addition to Bathurst Heights Regional Library, 1975. Toronto Public Library Archives

The book-conscious community solicited book donations for the branch’s initial collection and went on to support book discussion groups, a writers’ circle and author visits. Yiddish writer Isaac Bathevis Singer was an early visitor dropping in at Bathurst Heights Branch in December 1962 during Jewish Book Month.

In 1987, Bathurst Heights Branch celebrated its 25th anniversary but a feasibility study conducted that year found that the existing building could not be enlarged to support modern, accessible library services and should be replaced.

Around the same time, CBL Investments, under Dr. Murray Frum, owner of the land at the northwest corner of Bathurst and Lawrence, announced its intention to rebuild Lawrence Plaza. An agreement was reached between the North York Public Library Board and CBL Investments to exchange land and provide a new library at CBL’s expense, located on Covington Road one-half block west of the existing Bathurst Heights Branch.

The developers promised other amenities: a public recreation centre, a day-care centre, and a rental apartment for low-income families. Nevertheless, CLB’s redevelopment plans, especially for a high-rise condominium complex partly on the old library property, met with community opposition. In January 1990, one protester proclaimed: “Local residents don’t want the $12 million worth of gifts from the developer if it means introducing population density that would smother the neighbourhood.”

Model of Murray Frum high rise development for Covington road"Highrise launched: George Goldlist, left, and Dr. Murray Frum with a scale model of The Legacy; a condominium development that will be part of a $200 million makeover at Lawrence Plaza." Toronto Star, April 11, 1992. Toronto Public Library. Toronto Star Photographic Archive

Responding to public input, the library's architect, Phillip H. Carter, combined the library and the recreation functions into one building in the final design. He envisioned "a residential rather than an institutional flavour, both inside and out." His “dream was to tie the building visually to community, conveying the sense of a grand old house where people would stay and read rather than just pick up books and go home.”

Carter's previous library projects included a renovation of Toronto Public Library's Wychwood Branch (1978-9) and his firm went on to design Lillian H. Smith Branch (1995) – whose exterior outline bears a striking resemblance to Barbara Frum Branch and renovations at Beaches (2005), Malvern (2005) and S. Walter Stewart (2008) branches.

Construction on the new Bathurst Heights Branch began in July 1991. It assumed its present name on April 27, 1992 when the North York Public Library Board voted to rename the new library in honour of the late Barbara Frum. In waiving its policy of not naming library buildings after individuals, Board chair Barry Burton said, "Barbara Frum's contribution to Canadian culture and the Frum family's contribution to North York have been exemplary and deserving of such a tribute."

Barbara Frum
Barbara Frum, 8 September 1937 – 26 March 1992. CBC.

In the end, neither the old Bathurst Heights Library site nor Lawrence Plaza were redeveloped as had been proposed in the early 1990s.

Barbara Frum Library has gone on to provide exemplary library service to its community for the last quarter century. The three-storey, 31,000-square-foot library now ranks the eighth most active of Toronto Public Library's 100 branches, based on measurements such as circulation of materials, information requests and program attendance.  

  BF Exterior_2016_CSS_4239 Barbara Frum Branch Library and Crystal Towers Condominiums, 2014. Covington Road, north side, looking east from Saranac Boulevard to Bathurst Street.  Toronto Public Library