Spadina Heritage

A ride on the northbound Spadina streetcar is a tour through history. 

Pull the cord as you approach College Street and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the conductor cry out “whoa” as he tugs on the reins of the horse pulling the carriage.  

The year is around 1890, and as you step off the streetcar you see a row of new two- and three-storey brick buildings on the east side of Spadina from College all the way down to Cecil Street. They have stores on the ground floor and apartments and businesses on the second and third floors.  They will still be there 125 years later – a monument to Toronto’s immigrant history. 

They should be preserved.  They are not the monumental and justly famous historical buildings built in the same decade like the Beverley Street Baptist Church, the Gladstone Hotel on Queen West, the Bank of Montreal at Front and Yonge, or the James Cooper House on Sherbourne.  However, the Spadina Avenue buildings are full of history and they help us understand how people came to Toronto from all over the world and became Canadians. 

In fact Spadina Avenue (at left on the map below) is as important in the peopling of Canada as Pier 21 in Halifax, the Grosse Ȋle quarantine station in Quebec, or the seaport in Vancouver.

The word Spadina comes from the Anishinaabe word “Ishapadena” referring to a rise in the land or hill. The land belonged to the Anishinaabe-speaking Mississauga people, and the name means “those at the great river-mouth.”

A group of chiefs and elders met with representatives of the British government in 1787 to sell some of their land to the crown, a total of 250,808 acres (101,528 hectares), for around $9,500 plus 2000 gun flints, 24 brass kettles, 10 dozen mirrors, 2 dozen laced hats, a bale of flowered flannel, and 96 gallons of rum. 

The chiefs signed with their pictographs, an eagle, a raven, a fish, etc.  The British negotiators, for their part, didn’t do their job properly and revisions kept being made to the contract for the next 18 years. The Supreme Court of Canada two hundred years later decided it was still a bad deal and awarded the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation $145,000,000.

Despite the subsequent problems, Colonel John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, “ordered his Executive Council to meet on September 2, 1793, at the new town site of York on Lake Ontario to distribute land to settle the area and keep the Americans out.” 

The one hundred Park Lots were granted by Simcoe as douceurs to compensate his officials for uprooting themselves in Niagara and moving across the lake to York, an easier port to defend. They were required to develop the properties within a specified time. Park Lot 15, on which Spadina Avenue would eventually be built, extended from Queen Street up to Bloor Street.  The lot was ten chains or 660 feet wide.  William Willcocks was given Park Lot 15 and he also obtained a “farm lot” 1320 feet wide, north of Bloor to what is now St. Clair Avenue, on which Spadina would continue.

The Baldwin family, well-to-do Irish immigrants with six children, arrived in Canada in 1799 and stayed with the Willcocks family for a period of time.  Eventually son Robert Baldwin , a doctor and a lawyer, married Eliza Willcocks – the great love of his life – and controlled land including lots l5 and 16.

He decided to follow the example of his friends and associates and in 1818 built a house up on Davenport Hill. (On that site a replacement home called Spadina House, pronounced Spa-deena , not Spadina with a long “i” like the Avenue, was built in 1866 by James Austin. Spadina House exists today as a museum, below.)

The house that Robert Baldwin built had a spectacular view toward Lake Ontario, and Baldwin began to imagine a grand boulevard, now Spadina Avenue, running south toward the lake.  A normal road was one chain or 66 feet wide.  Spadina Avenue would eventually be 160 feet wide.

Before that time there was a large field on the east side of Spadina that crossed what became College Street.  It was called “The Common.” There is a wonderful watercolour painting of it, published in The Canadian Illustrated News (Hamilton) with the legendary Royal Regiment accepting Colours from the ladies of Toronto.

Mr. R. Towey, the current adjutant at the Fort York armoury, provided the following information. “Our regimental history Battle Royal describes the Common as “a large empty space west of Brock Street.  The Presentation took place on July 6, 1863.  A regiment’s Colours are ceremonial flags that are carried during parades and other ceremonies.  There are traditionally two flags: the Queen’s Colour which is based on the national flag, and the Regimental Colour.   Historically, their main purpose was to provide a rallying point for the unit on the battlefield.  His Royal Highness Prince Charles presented new Colours to the Royal Regiment of Canada in November 2009.”

The heritage buildings we are concerned with today on the east side of Spadina were built on part of The Common. They begin at 439 Spadina Avenue south of College and run down to 381 Spadina Avenue at the corner of Cecil Street, the latter a three storey building with great mansards. It’s not entirely clear how many of the buildings in this block were constructed separately between 1880 and 1885; although there are 29 numbered addresses, somewhere between nine and thirteen individual structures were probably built that shared internal stairways and utilities.

Number 381 was sold on December 29, 1886, to I. Moncreeff for $5000.  The grantor was S. Thompson and the property subsequently changed hands many times including to Hugh Crane, Ruth McRoberts, Josephine May Ross, then in 1926 to S. Zaritsky, followed by David Goodman, then Peter Lin in 1973.  (Notice the international flavour of that series of names!)

Number 389 was guaranteed by S. Thompson to Anne Gordon in 1886 and was owned by many of the same names as number 381, including Ruth McRoberts, then Rose Greenberg in 1912.  The Might’s city directory lists the kinds of stores in the ground floor starting in 1900 and including a stationary shop, a grocer, a ladies’ tailor, Imperial House Furnishing (representatives for Frigidaire refrigerators) and in 1934 John Garde & Company (now run in North York by the family’s fourth generation). Rosemary Donegan in her book Spadina Avenue writes “John Garde and Co. Ltd. was established in 1905 by John Garde (1861-1938),  J.M. Statten and R.B. Mowbry, sewing machine adjusters-mechanics on Queen Street East.  In 1921 they moved to 395 Spadina to service the growing garment industry of the district.  In the mid-30’s they moved up the street, renovating the exterior of the shops.”  The properties at 389 and 391 Spadina were sold by the Garde’s in 2002 to Son Dam.

Today the ARTarium Gallery ( the ground floor of 389, with an eclectic and eccentric assortment of items of art for sale. The gallery belongs to a married couple Emily Suzuki and Sean Kulchar; originally her family was from Asia and his from Eastern Europe, a great example of Spadina’s history.

There is a laneway on the north side of 439 (left, above, with graffiti) that winds its way back to a collection of working class homes on Glasgow Street – many built to house Chinese families and their relatives who first came to Canada at the time the Canadian Pacific Railway we being built – and after a couple of houses the laneway heads back west behind the buildings on Spadina, turning south and coming out on Cecil Street, adjacent to the Cecil Community Centre.

 “The building now known as Cecil Community Centre was built in 1890 by architects Knox & Elliott as the Church of Christ.  By the 1920s, it was converted to a synagogue for the Ostrovtzer congregation, with substantial renovations, including demolition of the original church spire and the addition of marble tablets and a brass chandelier with a Star of David – features which remain to this day.  By the 1950s, the congregation had moved and the building changed hands once again; over the next 20 years, it was variously a Chinese Catholic centre and the first home of the Community Homophile Association of Toronto before falling into disrepair.  In the 1970s, the building was acquired by the City of Toronto and restored for community purposes.  It opened as the Cecil Street Community Centre in March, 1978.”

On the south side of Cecil, on the corner of Spadina, is Grossman’s Tavern (below), which opened in 1943 and describes itself as “one of the city’s longest-running live music venues, and Toronto’s self-described Home of the Blues.” Rock, folk, roots and jazz acts are also at home here, with Grossman’s motto “Never a Cover, Live Music.”  A lot of would-be writers of books and music have downed substantial amounts of liquor at Grossman’s, searching for a muse.

A short distance south and a block to the east at 101 Huron Street is the First Baptist Church, the oldest continuing Baptist congregation in Canada, “founded (1826) by fugitive slaves who were drawn to Upper Canada by the promise of freedom.  Like many that came to Canada, the founding members came with little more than their religious faith and their belief in the doctrine of the Promised Land … a paradise where they would find freedom from their earthly misery and bondage. And so it was that eight years before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, 12 slaves from the Southern U.S made their way via the Underground Railroad to become the first members of First Baptist Church.”

Back on Cecil Street when you turn north at the intersection of Spadina Avenue you can see, on the opposite side of the street, the large palm tree neon sign of the El Mocambo club.

The El Mocambo had a no-frills reputation as a tavern with entertainment until one night in 1977 when the Rolling Stones showed up for an unadvertised  concert and so did Margaret Trudeau (wife of the Prime Minister then and mother of the Prime Minister now), causing a sensation.

To this remarkably wide and diverse street immigrants came from all over the world. Many started their new lives on Spadina Avenue in the garment industry, in retail stores, in restaurants and in many other jobs including stripping at the Victoria Burlesque (below) at Spadina and Dundas.  Men would line up at the door and when it opened race down to find a seat next to the stage. 

Many immigrants had suffered terribly under brutal dictatorships, others from religious persecution, wars, depressions and abject poverty. When they arrived in Toronto they had to get along with people they considered enemies back home.  Spadina was definitely a tough street, a battleground of competing ideologies from Fascism to communism and orthodox to reform religions, racism and many other “isms,” but Spadina represented hope especially for future generations. As each wave of immigrants did better they moved on up or out and across the country and built Canada.

Their heritage – our heritage – on Spadina is disappearing.  Property developers, often with little or no regard for heritage, are constructing large, impersonal – and profitable – buildings around College and Spadina.  If these new projects fail to respect and embrace the heritage buildings, all that will be left is a brass plaque stating that once upon a time this was a vibrant neighbourhood – that has vanished.

The Spadina heritage project needs lots of help.  The following are questions that I have not found the answers to.  If you have any corrections or new information, please contact me at

Were the Baldwins themselves initially responsible for developing the properties south of College?

Does anyone know the name of the architects and landowners who devised the first buildings?

How would the original buildings be described architecturally?

Does anyone have any historical information about other owners or tenants?

And … we need creative ideas of how to preserve the buildings while incorporating them into future development.

Sources for this article are many and include: The Toronto City Archives; The Toronto Public Library; Rosemary Donegan’s Spadina Avenue; Wendy Smith’s unique web site:; Nathan Ng’s blog: ; Austin Seton Thompson’s Spadina, A Story of Old Toronto; Allan Levine’s Toronto, Biography of a City; and Edith Firth’s The Town of York, 1793- 1815.