Eugene Palermo

Sales Representative

St Lawrence Markets History

Many, if not most communities of any size around the world have a public market. This is a place for the sale of goods from local community members, things such as foods, and services, animals, and other items that might interest community members and are open every day, year round. Farmers’ markets often are open only during spring, summer or fall, offering goods available only at those periods in the year. Others (Public Markets) are open year round and sometimes have several different functions.

The St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, Ontario is in the category of public market and has had a chequered and interesting history, suffering damage or destruction over the years, and consisting variously of one or two buildings. For a time in the 19th century it was also home to the Toronto City Hall from 1845, though that use ended when a new city hall was constructed on Queen Street at Bay Street in1899.

The St. Lawrence Market is also considered an historic site since it was designated for use as a public market by then Ontario Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter in 1803 with its first building being erected in 1814 and first permanent structure in 1820. Located in downtown Toronto it consists of two buildings (North and South Markets) facing one another across Front Street at the corner of what was then New Street, but now Jarvis, and having different purposes. A creek ran through the two sites to the bay in Lake Ontario.

The public market and an antique market had originally been established in the North Building and was open only one day a week. However in 2015 it was closed and is presently being redeveloped. All of its market functions have been moved to a temporary building south of the South Market Building.

The South Building opened in 1845 and has been rebuilt twice still incorporating a portion of when it was the town hall and is still open Tuesday to Saturday. It contains food stalls, restaurants and the St. Lawrence Market Gallery.

In the city history the “Market Square” in its earliest days, became the centre of the city’s social life, where auctions of slaves took place (when slavery was still legal including the auctions of black slaves) but also included where and when and also when public punishments took place. Interestingly however the town Bylaws forbade the selling of things one would expect at any other public market (butter, eggs, meat etc.) This kind of activity – the sale of goods could occur only at the Market Square on a Saturday between the hours of 6 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.

In 1823 the town’s first public well was dug on the acreage set aside for the South Building. This building, also constructed as Toronto City Hall, was used as the City Council’s offices in 1845 and also as a jail. However the whole upper floor of the South Building became Council’s home until the Toronto Great Fire in 1849 which destroyed the northern side of the building which was then torn down.

After the fire, a new market building was constructed between the remains of the old South Building and the North Building across the road. In the 1850s the railways arrived in the city and tracks were placed along Front Street to the market. They were eventually relocated and moved south to where a passenger station was constructed.

The current South St. Lawrence Market Building (the one that residents and visitors know and love) was built in 1845 as the Toronto City Hall. It was rebuilt in 1899 and part of the City Hall was moved to a new home by 1904 at the corner of Queen and Bay streets.

The North Building has a different history from the South Building and will be replaced soon with a new four-storey building, which will contain an atrium to replace the original structure. What is fascinating about this new building is that beneath the floors of the North Building they discovered the foundations of the 1831, 1851 and 1904 structures.

The entire community of Toronto which has watched or participated in the St. Lawrence Market buildings since they began will most certainly enjoy the new building and all it stands for in the history of the city.

Other historic locations in the St. Lawrence district.

The area that was originally known as the St. Lawrence district or section of Toronto has many other historic buildings that contribute to its fascination for history buffs and also to the “romance” of the area.

The first Toronto Post Office

The oldest building in Toronto that was constructed with a purpose or a reason to exist is Toronto’s First Post Office, also known as the Fourth York Post Office, (when Toronto was known as the Town of York). It is the only surviving example of a department of the British Royal Mail in Canada today. It opened in 1833 before the city received the name of Toronto and eventually became part of a Roman Catholic boys’ school and later a cold storage facility. It now houses a museum and a full-service post office run by the Town of York Historical Society.

It is one of the two post offices that existed when Toronto was actually founded and has had many different owners and uses. Since 1982 after a series of different uses as well as being left vacant waiting for renovations or demolition, it was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980.

It re-opened as a museum in 1982 and is also a full-service dealer for Canada Post. It is classic late Georgian Architecture though originally a three storey building with two front doors, one for the residence of the postmaster and the other for the post office proper. A fourth storey roof was added in 1876 to join it to the Roman Catholic boys’ school (De La Salle College.) It is rich with history and well-respected by the community for this.

The Gooderham Building or as it is also known The Flatiron Building

This building, well-known for its unusual shape and decoration, is situated on Wellington Street and from it one can easily see the west end of the financial district. It was constructed in 1892 by the Gooderham Family for their Distillery business. It is the focal point for much of Toronto sightseers’ photographs and also a landmark building for the city.

There is an unusual mural on the back wall of the building which is well known in the art world as well as being a highlight for the city. The building itself is a corporate office building set on a foundation that is well above ground level and has many windows that are single and also arch hung. There are three entrances, two of which lead to a pub in the basement which cannot be reached from inside the building. The entrance to the building itself is on its north side.

There is a small city park behind the building at Front and Wellington Streets. This is called Berczy Park in honour of a German gentleman who “set sail” for Canada shortly after 1792 and eventually married a Canadian. He was an architect and surveyor and is credited with being one of the founders of the town of York which was the first name for what became the city of Toronto. One of his two sons became the second post master of Toronto.

William Berczy as an architect and surveyor also helped build the town of Markham, along with many of the roads north of the then community of York. Several of these are still in existence. As well he was responsible for clearing the Rouge River so that transportation along it could be easier.

Berczy was responsible for erecting many houses in York as well as in those communities north of Toronto including Markham along with the many roads such as 15 miles of Yonge Street. There are many structures, parks and roads with the name Berczy north of Toronto.

He was also a well know artist and painter, mostly as a painter of wonderful portraits. One of his paintings is a full length painting of the Mohawk chief Thayendaegea.

Berczy Park behind the Flatiron or Gooderham Building was left vacant for many years but was renovated in 2019 and now has a three-tier fountain featuring 27 dogs spouting water. Currently it has a trough for dogs to drink from, and has become a popular destination, especially for dog lovers.

The Cathedral Church of St. James

This is the church of the oldest congregation in the city established in 1797. The cathedral itself opened for services in1853. It was one of the largest buildings in the city at the time and is viewed as a great example of Gothic Revival architecture and is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. It is the episcopal seat of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Archbishop of Toronto and has a choir school for Royal St. Georges College open to boys from grade 3 to 12.

The parish of St. James was begun in the town of York in 1797 with its first church built of wood. It was used as a hospital in the War of 1812 and subsequently robbed and damaged by American troops. In 1818 the church was enlarged and a bell tower addition was finished which was first used as a fire bell for the town.

However in1839 the church burned down and was then reconstructed as a cathedral. The cemetery that was a part of the parish was moved in the 1840s, to Parliament and Bloor Streets but there are still unmarked graves under the parking lot constructed in recent years. Then in 1849 the cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of Toronto and an international architectural competition was held to replace it. There were eleven submissions entering the competition from both Canada and the United States. Finally construction of the new building began in 1850 and the Ohio brick and stone cathedral was finally opened to the public and the parishioners in 1853.

John Strachan the first Anglican bishop of Toronto in 1867 when he died. He was then buried in a vault beneath the high altar as was Dean Henry James Grassett another cathedral peer.

But all the external details such as finials, towers and spires were not completed until 1874. Its spire at that time, was the tallest structure in Canada when it was finished and would remain as such until the construction of Toronto’s Old City Hall. Major renovations were finished finally in 1982 and the parish was able to celebrate its bicentenary in 1977 with the peal of ringing bells.

Its Gothic Revival Architecture is reflected throughout the building. Every element including the stained glass windows, pointed arches, and high ceilings among those elements allow as much light as possible into the core of the building.

The exterior is complex and filled with ornaments atop pinnacles and different coloured stone to add to its beauty. As well the interior with a large covered organ attracts a great deal of attention. There has been much written to describe both the interior and exterior of the Cathedral as it continues to attract a great deal of interest and publicity.

St. James Park

St. James Park is an urban public park owned by both the city and the church (St. James Cathedral) and is bounded by many of the buildings and structures of the downtown Toronto core, including the cathedral. It was created in the early 20th century and contains many formal gardens, a water fountain at the intersection of its two walkways, and a gazebo.

It is currently under major renovation. A new playground for children is being constructed as well as a bandstand for outdoor performances which will be much appreciated by the local residents but also visitors to the St. Lawrence district whose popularity within the city residents is growing by leaps and bounds.

Members of Toronto Parks staff maintain the park as a whole and the gardens are tended by members of the Garden Club of Toronto with the whole park often used for weddings or other photo shoots.

The Park is another historic venue in the city which is enjoyed and admired by residents, business owners and visitors and people who love the beauty that has been created there along with the surrounding buildings and sense of the history of the city.

St. Lawrence Hall

The site where one of the oldest buildings in the city of Toronto now sits, at the corner of Front and Jarvis Streets, was part of the St. Lawrence Market itself, and housed many shops including the Farmer’s Market Arms Inn. However the Great Fire of Toronto in 1849 destroyed the northern wall of this building and English architect William Thomas was hired to create a new “meeting hall or pavilion.” Construction took place in1850 at the corner of what is now Front and Jarvis Streets and that original building was replaced with what is now known as The St. Lawrence Hall.

This became the place where many politicians such as John A. MacDonald and George Brown the fathers of confederation, made speeches to the public. Musicians and other performers also found audiences there. It became part of the St. Lawrence Market on its lower levels with stores and businesses opening there. A third storey became known as St. Patrick Hall - a meeting hall for the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union.

However as the city grew many halls and other larger more suitable performance halls came to be used and the St. Lawrence Hall fell into decline. For several years it was the home of the National Ballet among other uses. Finally in 1967, marking Canada’s Centennial, it was designated as a Heritage Site. Its east wing was completely renovated and is now protected as a National Historic Site. The first two Juno award presentations took place there in 1970 and 1971. As well, the City of Toronto notes that the Front Street right of way at 92 Front Street East is an archeologically sensitive area.

The St. Lawrence District today

A popular city destination for tourists, as well as also being one for long term and brand new residents in the city, the St. Lawrence District remains one of the most eagerly sought areas for businesses and residential properties as well as being a visually and historically interesting area. Many new condominiums, hotels, restaurants and all kinds of other commercial enterprises can be found there and attract many people to the area. It is a bustling, fascinating part if the City with much history and also currently a great deal of development designed with consumers and residents alike in mind.

A visit to the St. Lawrence District today, will amaze newcomers to the city as well as provide long term residents of the city with the joy and satisfaction of seeing “their city” growing and expanding in ways that enhance the entire life of the area and the city. It continues to attract construction of hotels, airbanbs, permanent residences such as large and small condominiums and a great deal of other commercial business, such as sporting events, large festivals, and of course if you wish….the St. Lawrence Market is still always open with restaurants and food stalls to satisfy a visitor’s every whim. The District is truly a section of a bustling urban body that offers everyone who stops by or lives there with a sense of the beauty and history to be found in a well-organized section of such a large busy community.