History of Toronto Public Library's Staff House (1928–1964)

April 27, 2022 | Pamela

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We preserve some of TPL's own history in the Toronto Public Library Archives, part of our Special Collections. In addition to vintage photos of branches and annual reports, available on our Digital Archive, this collection has mysterious objects like a flat wooden shovel. 

Believe it or not, this shovel was used to retrieve hot fruit pies from the oven at a clubhouse for library staff — the "Staff House". Located beside the old Central Reference Library (214 College Street), this largely forgotten facility served lunch and supper to staff for decades. 

Large flat wooden spoon on picnic cloth
One of the more unusual items in our collections: a wooden tool (a peel) used in the Staff House kitchen.

Origins of the Staff House

In 1928, the City of Toronto granted $400,000 to retrofit the old Central Library, originally funded by a Carnegie grant. Library workers had been expressing concern about the lack of space almost since it opened in 1909.

Large building on corner in old photo
Central Library, 214 College Street, 1930. (Now the University of Toronto's bookstore.) View on Digital Archive.

The City also purchased property at 236 College Street for $35,000. The building had been the residence of Dr. Charles McKenna. It adjoined the Central Library building on the west. Repairs were done to make it into a space for staff, thereby saving a considerable expense in the new addition to the Central Library. It was furnished with a cafeteria, restrooms and clubrooms. (We hold many files detailing the purchase and renovation.)

The Staff House had been the dream of Chief Librarian George H. Locke. Acquiring the property was also done to “square off” the land to allow for future expansion.

Old photo of building amid trees
Staff House, 216 College Street, approximately 1940. View on Digital Archive.

On February 20, 1928, the Staff House and its dining room were opened to all staff members who paid an annual fee. It was administered by a committee for the Staff House made up of library staff. In the first year, the fee was $5. Below is a list of the first staff members to join. It lists "L. Smith" or Lillian Smith, the legendary librarian and namesake of our current branch at 239 College Street.

Receipt with list of names with the number five beside each and total of 85 at bottom
Left: Staff House receipt book, 1930. Right: blueprint of ground floor of Staff House, 1928.

Parties, pies and a place to stay

Over 8,000 meals were served and 30 parties were held in its first year. The Staff House employed two cooks, a dietitian and a dishwasher. Waitresses came from the Edith L. Groves Vocational School for Girls.

"Those of us working in the old Central building found it so convenient to be able to go there for lunch or dinner and enjoy the companionship of our colleagues.” – Rosemary Sheppard, former head of St. Clements Library in a 1984 interview for TPL News

Meals were inexpensive and sounded delicious. There were special menus at Christmas and for other special occasions such as teas for visiting delegates of the Ontario Library Association and library school students. A typical menu for Christmas Dinner was roast turkey with cranberry sauce (120 portions), potatoes, peas and corn, tomato soup, juice and mince pie with (real) whipped cream.

Large group of women posing in coats in old photo
TPL staff in front of Central Library, approximately 1920. View on Digital Archive.

The dietitian kept books with detailed menus and all food purchased — records that still exist in our Toronto Public Library Archives. Staff were able to purchase desserts like Banana Cream Pie, Lemon Snow and Blueberry Tart.

In 1936, the fees were reduced from $2.50 to $2 a year on salaries less than $1,000 a year and from $5 to $4 on salaries $1,000 and over. The Staff house continued to experiment with serving meals on the lawn “annex” during the summer months. There were 12,394 meals served in 1937.

There was an apartment on the top floor of Staff House available for library staff to rent. Carbon copies of letters in the 1949 files show that Chief Librarian Charles Sanderson was heavily involved in the administration and maintenance of the $52.50 per month apartment.

Over the years the Staff House was kept in good condition by the library maintenance staff. The years passed with not much change until 1940.

Illustration of town house in cheerful colours
Painting of Staff House by E. Kilgour, approximately 1950s. View on Digital Archive.

Changes during and after the Second World War

At the start of the Second World War, there were increasing demands on the clubhouse. The Staff House Committee had to consider the rising costs of food and other supplies. There could be no parties at Staff House during the war but it was used extensively by the Library’s War Committee. A steady stream of parcels bound for overseas passed through the building with the help of volunteering library staff. In 1944 an honour roll containing the names of 22 staff (17 women and five men) who were serving in the military was hung in the Staff House.

After the war, the Staff House suffered a number of setbacks and was unable to return to its former glory. In 1947 the stove exploded and burned the cook. There was another large fire in 1957. The Library’s annual reports often spoke about the difficulties in retaining people to work at Staff House and members to volunteer their time for committee work. The cost of supplies continued to increase.

Detailed overhead map of central library and other building including smaller staff house nearby
Fire insurance plan showing Central Library (right) and Staff House (bottom middle), 1945.

The end of an era

In the 1960s, the Library’s annual reports now spoke of the new Metro Reference Library, the upcoming Centennial Celebration and how the TPL's Boys and Girl’s House, the sister to Staff House, needed maintenance. On March 6, 1962, Chief Librarian Harry Campbell announced the City was planning to build a parking garage where the Staff House was. Expressways and parking had become a major priority. 

The Staff House Committee struggled for another year and a half, having to operate without any maintenance or revenue from the apartment before the building was demolished in 1964.

Aerial view of large building beside empty park
Site where the Staff House used to stand along College Street, 1977. View on Digital Archive.

In 1963, the Chairman of the staff association (predecessor of the Toronto Public Library Union) remarked that he never saw the need for it: “Staff in those days were given an hour and a half for lunch which gave them plenty of time to eat at home.” He may have had a meal waiting for him at home but for the ladies working at the library, who by condition of employment were required to resign if they got married up until the mid-1950s, Staff House was a comfortable refuge. 

When the Staff House was torn down its furniture and equipment were auctioned off. A former staff member, Mary Williamson picked up the wooden shovel — or peel — at the auction and later decided to donate it back to Toronto Public Library.

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