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1891 The Gooderham Building

The historic Gooderham Building, built in 1891, has come to symbolize the defiance of 1960’s urban renewal by its very existence standing proudly at the apex of Church, Wellington and Front like the bow of some great ship. To us it has always been there but for a hundred years prior to its construction the building that at one time stood there was, to the people who once called this area home, just as important and historic to them as it is to us.

The Gooderham Building

Around 1800, Church Street was considered the outskirts of town and Wellington, then called Market Street, was an access road for farmers coming into the town to sell their produce at the Market. The only other reason to come out this far would be to visit Coopers wharf that lay at the foot of Church Street just south of Front, to collect your mail, say good-bye to old friends or shop at the first general store in York that once stood on its massive wooden pylons. The only other major structures in the area were Chief Judge Scott’s home at Scott and Front Sts. and York’s first jail where the King Edward Hotel now stands.

In 1820 Peter MacDougall, a French Canadian of Scottish descent, arrived in York and built a small farmhouse on the corner of what would later become Church and Wellington where Pizza-Pizza now stands. The land was once owned by the Attorney General John Macdonell, the aide de-camp to General Isaac Brock who died at his side during the War of 1812 at the bloodbath at Queenston Heights. The land was passed on to his nephew, James, on the condition that he change from being a Catholic to becoming an Anglican and it was he who in turn leased it to Peter MacDougall.

In 1829 the house was remodeled by John Brown and turned into a hotel named Ontario House. In a local newspaper article written that year it says
“On the corner of Church Street stands The Ontario House, a hotel built in a style common then at the Falls of Niagara and in the United States. A row of lofty pillars, well grown pines in fact, stripped and smoothly planed, reached from the ground to the eaves and supported two ties of galleries which, running behind the columns, did not interrupt their vertical lines.”

In 1845 the Ontario House was taken over by Russell Inglis and renamed The Wellington. As a boy while working in a restaurant in Scotland, Inglis waited on novelist Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe) and would later retell conversations he had with the famed Scotsman to his enthralled patrons. The hotel prospered because the area was now a stage couch terminus and to supply enough rooms for his overnight guests, he annexed the Coffin Block across the street.

The Coffin Block named because it looked like a coffin, stood were our present-day Gooderham Building stands today at the apex of Front, Church and Wellington streets. It was 3 stories high topped off with a with a flat roof and in its basement was where people booked travel by stagecoach to various parts of Upper Canada- places that had roads of course. This was Union Station before there were trains. In 1816 it took four days to reach Niagara Falls by stage coach. An advertisement dated September 20th 1816 states:  
“A stage will commence running between York and Niagara: it will leave York every Monday, and arrive at Niagara on Thursday; and leave Queenston every Friday. The baggage is to be considered at the risk of the owner, and the fare to be paid in advance.”
In 1835 the basement operation became the headquarters to the William Weller (of Colbourg) Stagecoach Company. He operated a line of stages from here to Hamilton known as the Telegraph Line. In an advertisement he tells his passengers that he will ‘take them through by daylight on the Lake Road, during the winter season’

On June 19th, 1832 something truly horrific happened in front of where the Flatiron stands today when a gentleman was found lying on the wooden sidewalk gasping for breath. Within a few hours he would be dead from Cholera. It soon began to spread rapidly and by the end of the summer a quarter of York’s population was either dead, dying or extremely sick. Across from the hotel was the notorious Henrietta Lane. Long gone, this laneway ran from Wellington up to Colborne Street where Gooderham Court, the condo complex now stands. Notorious because the street was filled with brothels it was also ground zero for the first Cholera epidemic. Not surprising considering it was just steps away from the harbour.

Next to Henrietta lane was John Grantham’s livery stable and behind that in the Big Field, as it was known, was the winter quarters of George Bernard’s Circus. All that muck, horse manure and mosquitoes were the perfect breeding ground for a disease that not only was wiping out our local population but what began a year before in India was now spreading across the world. It would be years before they figured out that cleanliness was paramount to healthy living and until then York and the rest of the earth continued to suffer through these outbreaks.

By the 1840’s the area surrounding the Coffin Block had the look and feel of a wild-west town complete with saloons, prostitutes, wooden sidewalks and horses stuck in the mud. The area was so abundant with mud, partly due to the closeness of Lake Ontario with its waters constantly washing ashore, that the nickname Muddy York came into being.

If that first Cholera epidemic a decade before was seen as horrific then the event that happened in front of the Coffin Block on December 28, 1841 was nothing short of wondrous. It was on that spot that Toronto emerged from the dark ages when we lit our first gas streetlamp. This new-fangled gadget brought Toronto into the gas age and for the first time people were walking around at night under the fuzzy glow of this marvelous invention. Before street lamps were installed going out at night was a dangerous occupation. The gas for this new invention, made from coal, was supplied by Charles Berczy son of William (Berczy Park is named for them) and his company would eventually grow and become Consumers Gas.

In 1860 Russell Inglis died and his hotel, the one-time famed Ontario House and now known as the Wellington was demolished. In 1862 the site (now Pizza-Pizza) became the headquarters to the Bank of Toronto. When built the bank was the most sophisticated and luxurious building in the city and if it were still standing today would easily rival the Flatiron for the attention of the tourist’s camera and no wonder, they were both built for the same man, George Gooderham whose family owned Gooderham and Worts distillery.

In 1837 when the company began distilling the wheat by-products into booze for a thirsty city, Toronto was a saloon-laden town with a tavern for every 100 people.  Beer was drunk then, like water is today. Mothers fed their babies beer, kids drank beer openly in the streets, magistrates and clergy drank on the job and no wonder, water then was filthy and tasted horrible. Dead horses, cats, dogs, manure and daily garbage were thrown onto the ice of Lake Ontario and when the ice melted, the sewage would sink into the lake where upon people would drink the stuff untreated. That in turn led to the cholera outbreaks, killing thousands.  Beer seemed a nice alternative to death.

In 1859 George Gooderham undertook a massive building project. Under the supervision of architect David Roberts Sr., five hundred men worked on the construction of what are today the oldest standing sections of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery at Parliament and Cherry streets. Using four massive lake schooners to move stone from Kingston quarries, the factory’s main building, the still standing gristmill, was finished in 1860 at a cost of a then staggering sum of 25,000 dollars, making it the most expensive building project in Toronto at the time.

As their fortunes grew the Gooderhams, beginning in 1885, started to build worker-cottages on Trinity and Sackville Streets (still standing) while continuing to live amongst their workers on the NW corner of Trinity and Mill Streets until 1889 when George built for himself an impressive mansion on the NE corner of Bloor and St. George. As the distillery flourished George enlarged its facilities and began to expand into the Toronto and Nipissing Railroad, Manufacturer’s Life Insurance and philanthropic enterprises like U of T and The Toronto General Hospital.  

In 1882 George, as president of The Bank of Toronto, built a head office on the corner of Front and Church where now Pizza-Pizza stands and where Russell Inglis’s Ontario House Hotel once stood. In 1884 George, needing more room, erected a three-story office building next door (long demolished). By 1891 that too was getting crowded, so he commissioned David Roberts Jr., the son of the architect who had built the distillery, to erect the Gooderham Building at a cost of an astonishing $18,000.  Rumour has it that he had commissioned a tunnel to pass underneath Wellington Street to connect with his Bank of Toronto though more recent renovations revealed nothing of such a tunnel.

When the army of bulldozers swept through the old downtown core centering around Church and Front Sts. in the late 1950’s and early 60’s one of the first gemstones to be eradicated from the scene was the glorious banking palace which by then had become a records center covered with a century of soot and grime. In 1957 the Gooderham estate sold their namesake Flatiron building to Velco Investments who in turn sold it to David and Thomas Walsh for $600,000 in 1973. It was they who saved the Flatiron from demolition as everything else around it was being eradicated off the face of the earth by giving it a much needed half a million dollar overhaul. In November of 1975 the Gooderham building was finally designated a historic site. In 1998 Michael and Anne Tippin took control and once again the Gooderham underwent a painstaking restoration.

The Gooderham Building today has people lined up around the block to take a peek inside during Doors Open. There really is not much left from Toronto’s Golden Age of Architecture when industrial titans like George Gooderham would spare no expense to build what they hoped would be lasting monuments. I love looking at the Gooderham Building when fog has blanketed the modern gleaming city built behind it. Its then you get a glimpse of what it once must have looked like when first built, standing magnificently alone its stature fully appreciated.

Excerpted from Bruce Bell’s History of the Gooderham Building and Surrounding Area written in July 2002. He offers fascinating tours of downtown Toronto and can be reached via his website at http://brucebelltours.ca/
Photograph by Harry Cartner, available by contacting Harry at hcartner@gmail.com

1891 The Gooderham Building

History of the Gooderham Building in Toronto and the surrounding area. Bruce Bell describes the growth of early Toronto from its humble beginnings to the building of the Bank of Toronto and The Gooderham building (also known as the Flatiron building) at Church and Wellington Streets. Built by George Gooderham as offices to manage the growing enterprises in which Gooderhams were engaged.


Owner of originalBruce Bell
DateJul 2002
Linked toFlatiron Building; George Gooderham

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