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

October 30, 2017 | Barbara Myrvold

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The Toronto Reference Library is located on the east side of Yonge Street between Asquith Avenue and Collier Street. Shown here are some of the buildings on Yonge Street that stood on or opposite this block during the 100 years or so before the library opened on November 2, 1977. 

1. Yorkville Town Hall. Stood on Yonge Street, west side, opposite today's Collier Street, 1860-1941

This early picture is a remarkable record of the area in the 1860s. In the centre is the Yorkville Town Hall, which opened, minus its tower, on west side of Yonge Street just north of William Street (Yorkville Avenue) in 1860. In front of the Town Hall is a horse-drawn car of the Toronto Street Railway. Service commenced from the Town Hall to the St. Lawrence Market in September 1861. Wooden sidewalks are on both sides of the street and a gas lamp provides illumination.   

This section of Yonge Street in the 1860s was described in great detail by Harry Smallpeice in a reminiscence of “When Yorkville was a baby town,” published in the Toronto Star on November 20, 1909. Going south from the Town Hall were the post office and store operated by James Dobson. Across the road at the southwest corner of William Street (Yorkville Avenue), Smallpiece recollected, "stood the residence of Mr. Geo. Bostwick, the autocrat of the village. Bostwick was a man of independent means and a magistrate....Next door was William Hewitt’s dry good store….Then came George Scott’s grocery store and the house and large grounds [behind the fence] of Mr. Geo. Botswick’s sister, the Widow Parker.”

The east side of Yonge between Jarvis (Asquith) and James (Collier) appears much more ramshackle. Going north were shops of a grocer, a tinsmith, a butcher and blacksmith James Wallis. "It was on the green in front of Wallis’ shop the Queen’s Birthday celebrations always took place," Smallpeice recalled. "Promptly at sunrise…the village notables would assemble around one of Wallis’ big anvils that had been brought out of the shop for the occasion and solemnly fire off twenty-one rounds....In the rear, Richard Peacock, a drover, lived in a small cottage, surrounded by a beautiful garden, the pride of the neighbourhood. Next came a small white brick cottage, occupied then by Matthew Hutchinson; then William Hand’s saddlery establishment and Matthew Hutchinson’s carriage and wagon works in the rear.”

Designed in 1859 by William Hay, one of Toronto’s most important early architects, the Yorkville Town Hall was built of white “Yorkville” brick with red-brick and blackened-brick detailing. Nineteenth-century historian Henry Scadding commented in his monumental Toronto of Old (1873) that the town hall had "a Flemish look. It might have strayed hither from Ghent.”

After Yorkville became St. Paul's Ward on annexation in 1883, the building was renamed St. Paul's Hall. It was used by a variety of organizations, including the Toronto Public Library, which operated its first branch, Northern, there from 1884 until the Carnegie-financed Yorkville Branch opened in 1907.

Fire destroyed the old town hall on November 12, 1941 and it was demolished the following May. The clock (which had been installed in the tower in 1889) and the Village of Yorkville coat of arms (seen here above the huge rose window) eventually were removed to the fire hall beside the public library on Yorkville Avenue.

Also visible in this picture are two buildings on the opposite side of Yonge Street at the corner of Collier Street. The one at the southeast corner, then a furniture store, was demolished when the Toronto Reference Library was built.

More images of Yorkville Town Hall

2. Parker's Dye Works. Stood on Yonge Street, east side, between today's Asquith Avenue and Collier Street, 1885-1960?

Parker's Dye Works Yonge Street entrance 1908 Canadian magazine
Parker’s Dye Works, Yonge Street, east side, between Bismarck (Asquith) Avenue and Collier Street, 1908. From The Canadian Magazine, December 1908. Available through Early Canadiana Online

In 1876, Thomas Parker established a large “steam dyeing and scouring works” in Yorkville on the west side of Yonge Street just north of Davenport Road. The business soon was taken over by Thomas’s young son, Robert, who in 1885, relocated Parker’s Dye Works a few block south to James Wallis’s old smithy. In the same year, Yorkville architect Mancel Willmott, designed a three-storey, 30- by 150-foot building with three entrances on the east side of Yonge Street for the enterprise. As the business expanded with branches in Montreal, Hamilton, London and other Ontario places, along with hundreds of agencies across Canada, additions were made to the works, which boasted in 1901 that it was “the largest of the kind” in Canada.

Parker's Dye Works birds eye view 1908
A Bird's-eye of Parker's Dye Works, 1908. The Canadian Magazine, December 1908. Available through Early Canadiana Online

By 1908, Parker’s main offices and headquarters extended back several hundred feet east from Yonge Street with a T-shaped extension to Collier Street on the north and Bismarck (Asquith) Avenue on the south. The company remained at this location until the late 1950s. In 1961, Parker’s Dye Works and Cleaners advertised it had newly opened “Toronto’s first drive-through cleaning service” at 21-27 Yorkville Avenue. Its old Yonge Street headquarters were cleared of buildings by 1965, and much of the vacant land was used for a parking lot. In 1973, Tranby Holdings Limited owned the vacant land, where the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library was constructed. 

Parker's Dye Works ad card 1890

Parker’s Dye Works heavily promoted its services. In 1890, it circulated sheet music for an advertising jingle entitled We Dye to Live, which invited people to “Come! Come! Come! to Parker’s Dye Works” – set to the tune of Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! The Boys are Marching. Mary Lou Fallis included the piece in her 1997 recording of historic Canadian songs, Primadonna on a Moose.

The song’s title is rather ironic, since working at Parker’s could be unhealthy if not downright dangerous for its 125 workers. Many were regularly exposed to gasoline, benzene and other toxic chemicals used in the dyeing and cleaning processes, and these highly flammable materials occasionally exploded. An explosion in one of the outbuildings in October 1909 destroyed the structure and injured nine workers. A firefighter at the Yorkville Avenue station reported, "I was sitting in the hall when I heard it go off. As soon as the roar came I knew what was up. ‘There goes Parker’s Dye Works again, boys’, said I."

3. Buildings on Yonge Street at the southeast corner of Collier Street. Stood 1880s?-c.1973.

These buildings may have built between the 1880s and the early 1900s. In 1910, the year that this picture was taken, the Toronto city directory recorded that the the only occupant was a Masonic Lodge at 801 Yonge (centre); the rest of the buildings were vacant,

In the 1950s, Birdsall Dance Academy, operated by Fanny Birdsall (1898-1991) and her younger sister Helen Birdsall (1906-1988), was at 801 Yonge. Their dance school opened in Toronto in 1923, and over the next 60 years, thousands of children were taught there. The sisters also were involved in producing various dance shows across Toronto, including performances at Massey Hall, the Eaton Auditorium and the Canadian National Exhibition. Fanny retired in 1969 but both sisters were involved in teaching until 1983. In 1987, they were special guests to honour 50 years of choreographing CNE dance shows.

All of the buildings pictured here were demolished in 1973-4 to make way for the Toronto Reference Library. Previously Tranby Holdings Limited had owned 803 Yonge and 11 Collier Street, which had been leased to a music store, Long & McQuade. 

4. Buildings on Yonge Street between today's Asquith Avenue and Collier Street. Stood 1880s - c. 1973.

Several businesses are visible in this 1953 streetscape. Going north on the east (right) side of Yonge beyond Asquith Avenue, one can discern Three Sevens Open Kitchen restaurant (where fish and chips were 35 cents) at 777; an A & P grocery store with Patricia Stevens Finishing School upstairs at 779-781; and a shoe repair and a bakery at 783. Parker’s Dye Works and Cleaners occupied three store fronts in the middle of the block at 785-791 Yonge. It was gone from here by 1965, but the buildings on Yonge near the Asquith and Collier intersections were standing until they were acquired and demolished for construction of the Toronto Reference Library in the 1970s.

Note the streetcar tracks on Yonge Street. These were removed after the Toronto Transit Commission opened Canada's first subway in 1954 under Yonge Street between Union Station and Eglinton Avenue.  

Find out more

To see originals of many of the items featured in the blog, 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 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 1. Site and Street Name Changes

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