Tag Archives: Don Jail

Pioneers of the GTA – William Thomas Architect

Saturday, August 7, 2021

William Thomas was one of the pioneer architects in Toronto and his work in the 1840s and 1850s has had a lasting effect on the city with several of his buildings still standing. William was born in Suffolk, England, in 1799 and developed his skills designing several buildings in Gloucestershire, Birmingham and Leamington. When a depression came to the building industry in 1843 he packed up and moved to Toronto. William Thomas designed many buildings which have been demolished but the ones that remain represent a fabulous cross section of society. From the rich to the poor and from saints to sinners, everyone enjoyed the benefit of William’s work.

1844 – St. George’s Church 4600 Dundas Street in Etobicoke. This was one of Thomas’ first projects after arriving in Canada and this Anglican church is still serving the community, although currently restricted to on-line services. The brickwork above the vestibule states that the building was erected in 1844 and restored 1894.

1845 – The Commercial Bank of Midland, Toronto now in BCE Place. This building was started in 1843 shortly after Thomas arrived in Canada and was completed two years later. It was intended to be the bank’s prestigious entry into the Toronto market but it didn’t survive more than 25 years before the bank closed down. The building was used by various other businesses until 1969 when it was vacated. It was taken apart and reassembled in the concourse of BCE place. The picture below is from 1880 and taken from the Toronto Archives.

1848 – St. Michael’s Church 65 Bond Street. This was the second Catholic Church in the community after St. Paul’s, which had been built in 1822. Excavation of the cathedral had begun in 1845 and it was consecrated in September 1848. The congregation made its mark by being instrumental in the founding of St. Michael’s Hospital.

1848 – House of Industry 87 Elm Street. This building was Toronto’s answer to the poor house. In an era before social services people who were destitute often had nowhere to turn. After moving into this building designed by Thomas, the House of Industry began providing food, shelter and fuel to the needy. In 1947 it was converted into a senior’s residence because this population sector were now the ones most often in need.

1848 – Oakham House 63 Gould Street William Thomas designed this house as his own residence and used part of it as an office as well. The gothic revival house in yellow brick at the left was his home. Thomas had the red brick addition completed as an office for his architecture firm. The house is now part of Ryerson University and is used by students as a pub and cafe.

1850 – St. Lawrence Hall 157 King Street was built in 1850 as part of St. Lawrence Market. Inside, it is divided into three main rooms and was the first major event space in the city. The hall was used for concerts, balls, receptions and lectures featuring many prominent Canadians including George Brown and Thomas D’Arcy McGee. It had been in decline for a number of years until it was declared a national historic site in 1967 and then restored as a Centennial project.

1853 – Brock’s Monument Queeston Heights. Thomas was commissioned to build a second monument to War of 1812 hero Isaac Brock who died at the Battle of Queenston Heights. The original monument had been destroyed in 1840 in a bomb attack and it was replaced with the present 56 metre tall one which opened to the public in 1859.

1856 – Don Jail 550 Gerrard Street East. The Don Jail was the 4th jail to be built since the founding of York and the original portion of the jail served until 1977. An east wing was built in 1958 and closed in 2013 and then demolished the following year. This is Thomas’ most infamous building as it has been the site of 26 hangings and countless murders and suicides over the years. It has recently been rehabilitated and incorporated into Bridgepoint Hospital.

William Thomas passed away in 1860 after only a decade and a half in Toronto but he has left a lasting legacy in his architecture.

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Riverdale Park

Sunday, August 6, 2018

One of the first settlers in York (Toronto) was John Scadding.  He worked as secretary to Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe.  In 1794 he built a log cabin on his estate as a first home.  In 1856 the city purchased the Scadding homestead for use as a park and to give the city a place to build a new jail.  Thankfully, the early settlers of Toronto preserved some history for us and his home was moved to the CNE in 1879 to make way for the park.  I parked on Carlton Street near Riverdale Farm and went down the stairs into Riverdale Park West.  On my return trip I walked through Riverdale Farm which is also a great place to visit.

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Originally, Riverdale Park was 120 acres but it was later expanded to 162 acres.  When the Don Valley Parkway was built it split the park in two and reduced the size to the current 104 acres.  The two halves of the park are joined by a pedestrian bridge that gives access to the Lower Don Trail which leads north toward The Bloor Viaduct.  The eastern part of the park is smaller and retains the distinct shape of the old riverbed as can be seen in the picture below.

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In the 1880’s the lower portion of The Don River, the Don Narrows, was straightened out and a couple of sections were cut off from the river.  These sections of the former river now form the ponds in Riverdale Farm.

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The east half of Riverale Park was used as a landfill in the 1920’s and exhaust pipes still line the sides of the park where methane gas is allowed to escape from below.  Along with a sports track there is a swimming pool on the east side of the park.  The north end has been naturalized again and there are many mature trees along the various hiking trails.

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The Task Force To Bring Back The Don has been working on various projects in the park including several tree planting sessions.  The first one on the eastern slopes was actually the first action in the 40 Steps to a New Don River program.  They have also created a small wetland at the base of the ravine where the runoff from the embankment is collected and bulrushes now grow.  Maximilian Sunflowers are growing in a large cluster at an intersection of trails in the woodlot.  They are not native plants and this cluster was likely planted here.  They are often found in the wild as escaped garden plants.

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At the north end of the park a set of accessible ramps leads to a bridge that allows you to cross one of the on-ramps for the DVP.  This bridge makes a great place to get a look at the top end of the park.

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Purple Loosestrife was once considered to be a real threat as an invasive species with fears that it would choke out native wetland plants.  There appears to be a balance now where the plant co-exists with native plants and it may eventually be considered naturalized.  Monarch butterflies were taking advantage of the flowers and the sunshine.

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In 1881 five cannons were brought to Riverdale Park for decorations.  The one that stands near the old jail was cast in 1806 and bears the insignia of King George III who ruled from 1760 until 1820 making him the third longest serving monarch in British history.

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Riverdale Park was once the garden for the Don Jail.  Prisoners were used to tend the gardens as well as look after the buildings and animals at Riverale Zoo.  The Don Jail was built in 1864 as the third jail in the city.  It was considered to be a modern facility at the time with better accommodations than other jails of the era.  It wasn’t too long before overcrowding led to it becoming a dreadful place to spend any time.  There was an addition built in the 1950’s and the original jail was closed in 1977.  The addition has since been closed and demolished.  The remaining jail building is one of the oldest pre-confederation buildings in the city.

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The front entrance to the jail was very ornate with Father Time looking down on all the inmates as they entered the building that would be their new home for the duration of their sentence.  The cover photo shows the front of the building with all of the artwork that decorates it.  The Latin phrase meaning Abandon Hope All Who Enter used to adorn the lintle above the door.  With the old jail now serving as part of a rehab hospital it was considered inappropriate and has been removed.  The inside of the old jail has been renovated but it used to be similar to the Owen Sound Jail we featured earlier this year.  Seventy people were executed at the jail, the last two in 1962.  Unclaimed bodies were buried on the property under what would become a parking lot.  Recent demolition and construction on the site revealed several skeletons.

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Starting in the 1860’s the south corner of Riverdale Park was used for healthcare facilities, originally known as the House of Refuge.  A small pox epidemic in 1875 saw the facility changed into the Riverdale Isolation Hospital.  Patients with contagious diseases were treated here until the late 1950’s.  By 1957 the threat of contagion was greatly reduced and the facility was given a new mandate.  They began taking care of chronic illnesses and rehabilitation.  In 1959 a new building was designed for the Riverdale Hospital.  Mushroom shaped canopies were designed for the entrance to the new facility.  With the construction of the new 10-story Bridgepoint building the mushroom canopies have been preserved as part of the architectural heritage of the site.

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The new healthcare facility also has become a place of public artwork.  The Max Tanenbaum Sculpture Garden contains twenty life-sized sculptures made of metal strips.  They celebrate life through a display of dance and sport themes.

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Riverdale Park has a long history and has seen many changes over the years but remains an interesting place to explore.

Google Maps Link: Riverdale Park

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