Toronto Reference Library at 40: The Evolution of Its Site. Part 1. Site and Street Name Changes

October 27, 2017 | Barbara Myrvold

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As the Toronto Reference Library celebrates its 40th anniversary on November 2, we take a backward glance at the changes to the site as the area evolved from dense forest to suburban village to downtown neighbourhood.

The present library is bound by Yonge Street on the west, Asquith Avenue on the south, Collier Street on the north and Sherlock Holmes Walk on the east. In 1972, Metropolitan Toronto Council approved providing $7 million to acquire the block for a new Metropolitan Toronto Central Library. 

TRL Google map
Toronto Reference Library, 2017. Google maps

The library is only the most recent occupant of the site. In a series of three blogs, the history of the property will be traced from its early days until the $30 million library was constructed in the 1970s.

Using materials in the library’s collections and online resources, we will document changes in the site and the names of its bordering streets (part 1) and show some of the buildings that stood along its frontages on Yonge Street (part 2) and Asquith Avenue (part 3), which disappeared before the Reference Library opened in 1977. Unfortunately no images of previous buildings on the Collier Street frontage were found to warrant a separate post for it.

The Area in 1802

The Toronto Reference Library was constructed on a small section of Lot 20, Concession Two from the Bay, visible in the upper left portion of this 1802 map. (Lot and concession numbers are still used in legal descriptions of properties.) The 200-acre farm lot was located on the east side of Yonge Street and bordered today's Bloor Street for its entire length. The land was part of a huge tract that the British bought from the Mississauga in 1787 and 1805, the so-called Toronto purchase. It was subdivided for settlement shortly after Upper Canada (Ontario) became a province in 1791. 

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples had been on the land. They placed their camps along the springs and streams which flowed through the area as they travelled on a portage trail that extended between what became known as the Don and the Humber rivers, and partly was located along modern Rosedale Valley Road and Davenport Road.

The 1802 map shows "Yonge Street", which John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of the province, ordered built in 1793 to replace native trails leading from the capital at York (Toronto) to Lake Simcoe and its water links with the upper Great Lakes. Yonge is the only one of the three city streets bordering the Toronto Reference Library to retain its early name (for Sir George Yonge, British Secretary of War). Asquith and Collier have been known by several different names over the years.

The Area in 1852

This 1852 map of Yorkville shows Yonge Street and the earliest names of Asquith Avenue, then called Jarvis Street, and Collier Street, then known as James Street. The site of the future Reference Library had been subdivided into 13 lots by this time, probably by Joseph Bloor, a brewer (who perhaps named James Street for his father James Bloor), and Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis of Rosedale (for whom this Jarvis Street was named), who laid out the village of Yorkville on their combined lands in about 1836.

Lot owners are identified on this map. Two of the lots facing Yonge Street were held by James Wallis, a blacksmith (H) and a Mr. Smith (I). Joseph Bloor owned the property at the northeast corner of Yonge and Jarvis Street (J) and another pair along Jarvis itself (R, Q). The three other Jarvis Street lots belonged to a Methodist Chapel (K), David Crown, a boot and shoemaker (P) and a Mr. Crown, either William or his father Elias, both builders (O). Matthew Hutchinson, a carriage maker, held three lots in the vicinity of the southeast corner of Yonge and James streets (G, F and L/R).  The other two lots on James Street belonged to Sheriff Jarvis (M) and Thomas Atkinson, a brick manufacturer (N).

The Area in 1884 

Yorkville was an independent municipality for 30 years from its incorporation on January 1, 1853 until it was annexed to Toronto on February 1, 1883. About six weeks after annexation, a city bylaw changed the names of several Yorkville streets to avoid confusion with Toronto streets of identical names. These included Jarvis Street which was renamed Bismarck Avenue (in honour of German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck) and James Street that became known as Park Road, since it connected Park Road in Rosedale to Yonge Street.

The Area in 1924

This 1924 map shows the two side streets that now border the Toronto Reference Library with both their historic names and their current designations. In 1896, Gwynne Street was renamed Park Road since it connected the earlier Park Road in Rosedale with Bloor Street. The section of what had been Park Road between Yonge Street and the former Gwynne Street was renamed Collier Street, since it was a western continuation of the existing Collier Street, which had been laid out in 1886 on a subdivision of the property of the late William Henry Draper and probably had been named for his son, Francis Collier Draper.

At the request of local residents, the name of Bismarck Avenue was changed to Asquith Avenue in August 1915 because of heightened anti-German sentiment following the sinking of the Lusitania during the First World War. The new name honoured H. H. (Herbert Henry) Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852-1928), who served as the Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916.

The area in 1965

A detailed view of the site in May 1965 is available on Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto (vol. 5, plate 557), but it cannot be reproduced here for copyright reasons. Much of the block was vacant. The only buildings standing were those on Yonge Street near the intersections of Asquith Avenue (nos. 775 to 783) and Collier Street (nos. 799 to 805), as well as 2 to 10 Asquith Avenue and 41 Collier Street. All of these buildings would be demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the Toronto Reference Library.  

Construction and opening of the library, 1975-1977

After years of planning - and replanning and redrawing - the ground breaking ceremony for the new Metropolitan Toronto Central Library took place on a blustery day in late February 1975.  The library officially opened almost three years later on November 2, 1977. 

  TRL construction_aerial
  Aerial view of Metropolitan Toronto Library construction, view from south, June 2, 1976.  Toronto Public Library Archives

Find out more

To see originals of many of the items featured in the blog post, join me for a Discover Special Collections talk on Wednesday November 1. 

Everyone is welcome to the public celebration of the 40th anniversary on Thursday November 2 at 2 p.m. in the Atrium of the Toronto Reference Library.

More Toronto Public Library resources about Yorkville are available through our Toronto neighbourhoods map

Much of the information on the blog post is derived from Stephanie Hutcheson's book, Yorkville in Pictures, or my unpublished revision and expansion of it.

Related posts

Toronto Reference Library at 40: The Evolution of its Site. Part 2. Yonge Street Frontage

Toronto Reference Library at 40: The Evolution of its Site.  Part 3. Asquith Avenue Frontage