University Avenue Landmarks

University Avenue

University Avenue defines the eastern edge of the Grange community. It is an eight-lane boulevard, landscaped along its centre, that runs from the Ontario Parliament buildings in Queen’s Park south nearly to the waterfront.

University Avenue began life in 1829 as College Avenue, a private road leading to King’s College which was the ancestor of the University of Toronto, standing where Queen’s Park is today. College Avenue was closed to commercial traffic and no streets were allowed to intersect it. Access was controlled by gatekeepers at both ends of the Avenue.

The City, stalled in its expansion by this private enclave, obtained a 999 year lease on the Avenue in 1859 and opened it to general traffic. Running parallel to College Avenue was Park Lane, later called University Street, which was eventually absorbed by a widened University Avenue.

See a pictorial history of University Avenue, as assembled by Derek Flack from archival photographs

Adam Beck Memorial

The Adam Beck Memorial, south of the intersection of University Avenue and Queen Street, honours Sir Adam Beck (1857-1925), the founder of Ontario Hydro, the provincial electricity provider. The statue was commissioned in August 1929 and was designed by Emanuel Hahn. Unveiled in September 1934, its inscription reads: “Erected by the Corporation of the City of Toronto and the Toronto Hydro Electric Commission in grateful commemoration of the public services of Sir Adam Beck, KT. LLD. MLA., whose labours have ensured that the citizens of his native province under co-operative municipal ownership shall enjoy the benefits of low cost electrical energy derived from water power resources to serve the industrial and domestic needs of the Province of Ontario. Nippigon, Trent, Eugenia, Severn, Muskoka, Rideau, Nipissing, Niagara, Queenston-Chippawa.”

Beck was an early and prominent advocate of publicly owned electricity grids, opposing the privately owned companies that he felt did not adequately serve the needs of the public.  With the slogan “Power at Cost” and in Latin, “dona naturae pro populo sunt” (“the gifts of nature are for the public”), he convinced Premier Whitney to create a board of enquiry on the matter, with him as chair. The enquiry suggested creating a municipally-owned hydroelectric system, funded by the provincial government, and using water from Niagara Falls and other Ontario lakes and rivers. In 1906 Whitney appointed Beck the first chairman of the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario. He was knighted by King George V in 1914 for his promotion of electricity and development of transmission lines.

In 1902, Adam Beck was elected mayor of London, Ontario, and a few months later was elected to the Ontario legislature as the Conservative member from the London riding.  Already a wealthy man, he donated his salary to charity while serving as mayor. His daughter Marion, born in 1904, suffered from tuberculosis, but due to Beck’s wealth and influence she had access to the best doctors and medicine. Realizing that not everyone could afford such care, in 1910 Beck founded the Queen Alexandra Sanitorium which was very advanced for its time.

In 1915, he tried to introduce a network of interurban railways (long-distance trolleys) in Ontario under public ownership, but this plan was put on hold during World War I.  Beck continued to push his railway proposal after the war, which pitted him against Premier Ernest Drury, with whom he had an antagonistic relationship. In 1920, Drury created a Royal Commission which concluded that the popularity of automobiles had rendered Beck’s public transit proposal obsolete.

South African War Memorial

James Mason (1843-1918) was a Canadian banker, senator and military officer. He was born in Toronto and educated at private schools and the Toronto Model School where he was head boy. After graduation, he joined the Toronto Savings Bank which ultimately became the Home Bank. He became its general manager and president in 1873. The bank collapsed in 1923 (the next collapse in the extremely stable Canadian banking system did not occur until 1985).

Mason was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1913 by Prime Minister Robert Borden and sat as a Conservative. He was one of the founders and funders of the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute which ultimately evolved into the Toronto Public Library.  Mason was a founder of the Royal Canadian Military Institute on University Avenue and served as its president. He was also an ardent imperialist and a founder of the Empire Club of Canada. 

Campbell House

Campbell House, now on the northwest corner of University Avenue and Queen Street, is the oldest remaining house from the original site of the Town of York. It was built in 1822 by Upper Canada Chief Justice Sir William Campbell and his wife Hannah.

The house was originally located on a plot of land 1.5 kilometres to the east of the intersection of what is now Adelaide Street (formerly Duke Street) and Frederick Street. For most of the 19th century the house was a private residence.  By 1890 the neighbourhood had changed into a commercial and industrial zone. The building eventually came to be used as office space and a factory, including a horseshoe nails company and an elevator company.

In 1972 the last owners of the property, the Coutts-Hallmark Greeting Cards Company, wanted to demolish the house in order to extend their parking lot. Prior to demolition the house was offered to anyone who could remove it from the property. A professional association of trial lawyers known as the Advocates Society, launched a campaign to save the building. With assistance from Toronto Transit Commission maintenance trucks, the 270 -tonne home was moved 1617 metres northwest from Adelaide Street to the current location.

The six-and-a-half-hour move was a major spectacle, and attracted a large crowd as several downtown streets needed to be shut down. Fully restored, it was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in April 1972.

The preservation of the house was an important turning point in architectural preservation in Toronto. During the 1950s and 1960s, 19th century homes were demolished at a rapid rate, and architect Eric Arthur even predicted that by the year 2000 there might be no 19th century buildings left in the city. The spectacle of the physical move to save Campbell House was a preservation achievement which sparked greater interest among Torontonians to save other local landmarks.

The Canada Life Assurance Company agreed to lease the house’s current location to the city of Toronto for one dollar a year in exchange for the city forgiving the property taxes on the lot.

The Canada Life Assurance Company

The headquarters of the Canada Life Assurance Company, on the west side of University Avenue north of Queen Street, opened in 1931 (the photo shows the building under construction in the summer of 1930, with the British airship R100 overhead).  At the time Canada Life was the largest insurance company in the country.

The Beaux Arts style building was designed by architects Henry Sproatt and Ernest Rolph. It remains one of the largest office buildings in Toronto that has windows that can be opened.

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, on the southeast corner of University Avenue and Queen Street, seats 2071 in five tiers.  All interior and exterior noise has been reduced to the threshold of hearing – for the average listener, the room is perfectly quiet. The result is one of the quietest opera houses in the world.

The main façade has an exterior shade, computer controlled and linked to weather sensors, which can reduce heat gain in the lobby which is named the Isadore and Rosalie Sharp City Room. During the day a system of exterior roller shades with sun-tracking controllers raise and lower to protect the building against thermal gain and glare as the sun travels around the building. When not in use, the shades can retract completely.

The three-storey glass staircase rising through the lobby is the longest free-spanning glass staircase in the world – a  glass staircase of this magnitude had never been attempted before.

Full rear and side stages allow three productions to be simultaneously playing in repertory.  The fly tower is 33.9 metres high from the stage to the grid – equivalent to an 11-storey building.

In 1984 Ontario premier Bill Davis promised that provincially owned land on the southeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets would be the home for a new opera house. A design competition was won by the architect Moshe Safdie. In 1988 the project was approved and the existing stores and government offices on the site were demolished.

In 1990 a new NDP provincial government was elected which found the $311 million project excessively costly. The province was also still dealing with the $550 million cost of the SkyDome project that had become a financial disaster for the government. Thus two months after being elected the new government withdrew its funding for the project, and the land was sold to developers.

In 1997 the province said a parking lot that had previously been the site of offices for the Supreme Court of Ontario at Queen Street and University Avenue would be made available for the project. The lot was valued at C$31 million and the federal and provincial governments also pledged funding for a new, more modest project that would only cost some $130 million. The original plan called for a 190 metre tower of offices and condominiums to be built by Cadillac Fairview that would help fund the project. It would be further supplemented by a $20 million donation by Christopher Ondaatje. However both Cadillac-Fairview and Ondaatje developed concerns about the project and pulled out, and the city government under mayor Mel Lastman refused to provide any municipal funding. The project collapsed again in 2000.

In 2002 the Canadian Opera Company launched a new set of plans that included a $20 million donation from the Four Seasons hotel chain in exchange for perpetual naming rights to the complex. The complex took three years to construct at an estimated cost of $181 million, and is home to the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. Elevator access to the concourse level of Osgoode subway station was integrated into the construction of the Centre which, along with an elevator to the platform level within the fare-paid area, makes the station fully accessible.

Royal Canadian Military Institute and Residences

The origin of the Royal Canadian Military Institute goes back to the year 1890 when Lt. Colonel William Otter – who earned fame and promotion in the South African war, retiring as a General with a knighthood – encouraged others to help him create an institute where members of Canada’s fledgling military units could, through in-house discussions and talks by well informed guest speakers, be kept up-to-date on the modern tactics and strategy of war.

It wasn’t until 1907 that a permanent home for the Institute was purchased for $7,000. The house was located at 245 Simcoe St. It had a backyard that stretched to the east and opened out onto the College Avenue (now University Avenue).

As the organization grew in both stature and members, the Simcoe Street house was remodeled and enlarged with the purchase of the neighbouring house to the south. In the process the backs of these two houses were extensively altered so they became the front, giving the Institute its 426 University Avenue address. Just across and down the street was the fortress-like University Avenue Armouries where many of Toronto’s militia units met and drilled. The Institute’s location was perfect.  In 1946 the distinguished prefix “Royal” was granted by King George VI.

The building had been expanded in 1935 and renovated in the 1960s, but by 2008 the RCMI was fast approaching a critical crossroad. With club membership hovering around 1500, the RCMI was operating in the black, but only by a narrow margin. Its building remained stately, but it was in need of millions of dollars’ worth of reconstruction – millions of dollars that the RCMI did not have. The refitting that was required was neither cosmetic, nor optional: the RCMI was riddled with termites.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and two long-time RCMI members hatched a bold plan to “destroy the Institute, in order to save the Institute.” Honourary Colonels Peter Hunter and Jeff Dorfman proposed selling the property to a developer in order to construct a major condominium tower. (Hunter died in 2009 shortly after he got the ball rolling on this project, and Dorfman never got to see the final product as he died in 2014.) The mansion sat atop prime real estate in Toronto’s downtown core and as a result RCMI could demand fair value in return. Tribute was the selected developer and the premise was to tear down the existing, deteriorated building (below), dig a solid foundation and erect a 42-storey skyscraper. 

The RCMI was given the lower six floors in the new tower in freehold, and it was agreed that a likeness of the original façade would be included in “The Residences at the RCMI.”

On the 6th floor there are nine rooms and suites, and all of them would be equal to the best 5-star hotels. (The old mansion had a total of six rooms available to members, but these were primitive small nooks, with single beds and antiquated washbasins.) The fifth floor contains a fitness centre with a wide array of equipment and a view out onto University Avenue. Below the gym is the RCMI’s pièce de résistance – its world-renowned library.

On the third floor is the long bar, complete with the cockpit seat taken from the Red Baron’s downed Fokker triplane, the short bar, and the main dining room. The second floor contains meeting rooms, the administrative offices and a lounge replete with military miniatures in display cases. The ground floor entrance foyer on University Avenue, open to the public, includes an informative display of Canadian military miniatures, hats and helmets, and a photographic history of the building.

Demolition and excavation began in 2010, the cornerstone was laid in 2012, and the new building opened in June 2014. The historic facade, and much of the interior, was recreated. On the exterior of the building, Zeidler Partnership Architects used multiple finishes: non-reflective glazing framed by charcoal gray mullions in contrast with vertical white spandrel and aluminum accents. The north and south elevations include dark gray granite paneling at their bases. The north elevation, built close to the Air Miles office tower at 438 University Avenue, has no windows. Zeidler avoided the curse of a blank wall by cladding this elevation in spandrel panels of black, white and various grays in a mammoth grayscale scatter.

When the history of automobile traffic in Toronto is written, the RCMI building will hold a prominent place.  Unlike every other modern condominium previously built in Toronto, the RCMI – with its 318 condos – has no private car parking facilities.  There are nine underground spaces for rental “auto-share” cars, but no other parking spaces, in contravention of city building regulations.  Those regulations, requiring hundreds of parking spaces for a building this size, were written when the car was king, before downtown density had increased along with traffic congestion, and before taking public transit or walking to work , shopping, or entertainment had become fashionable.  The RCMI building was an experiment: would people buy condominiums that had no place to park, especially if the building was well served by subway and streetcar lines?  The answer was yes; the majority of units were sold in advance, even before a sales office was opened.  The parking space variance obtained by the RCMI, through the intervention of city councillor Adam Vaughan, has since served as a model for most other downtown condominiums and apartments, which are being approved with much reduced parking requirements.  The RCMI, incidentally, includes 319 bicycle parking spaces.

Text based on the RCMI official history, the UrbanToronto website, Wikipedia, Mike Filey in the Toronto Sun, and Scott Taylor in the magazine Esprit de Corps.

Osgoode Hall

Osgoode Hall, on the northeast corner of University Avenue and Queen Street, was constructed between 1829 and 1832 in the late Georgian Palladian and Neoclassical styles after a design by architects John Ewart and W. W. Baldwin. It now houses the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Divisional Court of the Superior Court of Justice, and the Law Society of Upper Canada.

The portico of Osgoode Hall’s east wing was built at the head of Toronto’s York Street to serve as a terminating vista, though it is now obscured by trees planted on the building’s lawn. The building has been expanded, restored and renovated ten times.

Osgoode Hall was named in honour of the province’s first chief justice, William Osgoode. The law school was established by The Law Society of Upper Canada in 1889 and was the only accredited law school in Ontario until 1957. The building housed Osgoode Hall Law School until 1969 when the faculty was relocated to the campus of York University

At the time it was built, everything about Osgoode Hall made it stand out: the scale of the building and the property in a district of single-family homes, its business and public purpose in a residential neighbourhood, its professional occupants in a working class area, and its wealth in “The Ward,” the city`s main reception area for new immigrants and once one of the city’s worst slums. Today Osgoode Hall is surrounded by skyscrapers and pavement.

The six-acre site at the corner of Lot Street (Queen Street West today) and College Avenue (University Avenue today) was acquired by the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1828. At the time, the location was on the northwest edge of the city.

Osgoode Hall has had to share its six acres with other structures over the years. The grounds have been occupied by wood and coal sheds, a carriage house, a stable, a boiler house and lavatories. In 1886, the west lawn was turned into tennis courts for law students. More recently, plans for an eleven-storey tower on the west lawn and for an underground library under the front lawn have been considered and abandoned.

At the edge of the property along Queen Street and north along University Avenue, there is an ornate iron fence completed in 1867. It is renowned for its peculiar “cow gates.” While tradition is that they were installed to keep out wandering cattle (Osgoode Hall was originally in the country) it is more likely that the gates were a Victorian whimsy.

In 1861 the highly publicized case of John Anderson was heard in the courtroom at Osgoode Hall.  The Anderson case established a clear precedent against allowing refugee extradition back to the United States, thereby protecting Underground Railroad refugees from being returned as fugitive slaves.