T.O. History Revisted – The Gooderham (Flatiron) Building

By Bruce Bell

Bruce Bell is the history columnist for the Bulletin, Canada’s largest community newspaper. He sits on the board of the Town of York Historical Society and is the author of two books ‘Amazing Tales of St. Lawrence Neighbourhood’ and ‘TORONTO: A Pictorial Celebration’. He is also the Official Tour Guide of St Lawrence Market. For more info visit brucebelltours.com

This summer tourists from around the world will once again stand on the Front Street meridian and snap a thousand pictures of the historic Gooderham Building framed within the stunning skyline of a modern day Toronto. I often wonder how many of these photos I end up in as I cross the street just as one of those tourists is snapping their camera.

Arguably it’s the most photographed building in Toronto and because it’s well over a hundred years old it shows up in practically every book ever written on this city in the past century. Built in 1891 (it pre-dates New York’s more famous Flatiron building by 10 years) it 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’s 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 the Gooderham is to us.


Toronto’s Gooderham Building, a.k.a. the Flatiron Building, 1895

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-byes 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 (named after him naturally) and Front Streets 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.

As I wander around Church and Wellington Streets today I can’t help wondering did Macdonell as he lay dying on the battlefield ever think of this same corner in his beloved York with the hope of one day retuning and building a home for himself.
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 in order to supply enough rooms for his over night 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 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 stage coach 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’.

Exactly 170 years ago, 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.

It never ceases to amaze me, but going to school in Sudbury as I did, the term Muddy York together with Hog-town was probably all I was ever taught about what one day would become my ultimate obsession- the history of York and its people.

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 street lamp. 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.
Even today at night when just a few street lamps go out at once the effect can be a bit frightening. 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 1832 George’s father, William Gooderham, arriving from Yorkshire; brought with him money and 54 family members to help his brother-in-law James who arrived a year earlier expand his bakery business at Parliament and Mill Sts, to be known then as Worts and Gooderham.

In 1834 James Worts, despondent over the death of his wife in childbirth, committed suicide. William Gooderham, together with his 7 sons (his 6 daughters, like other well-bred women of the 19th century, were not encouraged to work) and the nephews left orphaned after the death of his sister and James, took control of the factory and re-named it Gooderham and Worts. The ‘Worts’ in the name of the factory is not named for James Sr. but for his eldest son, James Gooderham Worts, who took over his fathers’ side of the business.

In 1837 the company began distilling the wheat by-products into booze for a thirsty city. Toronto for all it’s soon to be Victorian idealism and demeanor 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 aforementioned cholera outbreaks, killing thousands. Beer seemed a nice alternative to death.

And the Gooderhams were becoming experts at making good tasting beer and alcohol as well as extremely wealthy and in 1859 they 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.

In 1843 William Gooderham, built the Little Trinity Church on King E because at the time St. James Cathedral at King and Church used to charge a pews fee and many working class Anglicans couldn’t afford to pay it. As their fortunes grew the Gooderhams beginning in 1885 started to build worker-cottages on Trinity and Sackville Streets (still standing) but for all their wealth and power they continued to live amongst their workers in a house, now demolished, on the NW corner of Trinity and Mill Streets.

In the late 1800’s as Toronto was becoming more class conscious and the dividing lines between commercial and residential areas became more defined, George Gooderham, son of William, who had now taken over the family business, built for himself an impressive mansion (still standing) in the fashionable Annex area on the NE corner of Bloor and St. George in 1889.

George, now in full control of the family business, developed it into a financial and commercial empire becoming not only the richest man in Toronto but in all of Ontario. As the distillery flourished he enlarged its facilities and began to expand his own interests that included the Toronto and Nipissing Railroad, Manufactures’ Life Insurance and philanthropic enterprises like U of T and The Toronto General Hospital.

In 1882 George became the president of The Bank of Toronto (forerunner to The TD) and built as the head office the grand Bank of Toronto building 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 as his offices in his Venetian inspired bank building were becoming overcrowded, he erected a three-story office building next door.

Today the site of that long demolished building, which was almost as opulent as the bank, is now part of the L-shaped condo complex Gooderham Court whose main entrance is on Church Street.

By 1890 that too was getting crowded so what he needed was not only more office space but a building that was to stand out in a sea of magnificent structures that once graced our streets. In 1891 he commissioned David Roberts Jr., the son of the architect who had built the distillery, to erect the Gooderham Building the last remnant of the Imperial City at a cost of an astonishing $18,000.

There, on the fifth floor, underneath the green cone-shaped cupola, he set himself up in an office that overlooked not only the busy intersection below but also everything and everyone he held command of including his soon to be finished King Edward Hotel.

From his ships in the Harbour to his trains on the Esplanade to his Distillery in the distance to his employees at the bank all were within sight of the original Big Brother. Then he had commissioned, what was to become one of the great legends of our neighbourhood, a tunnel to pass underneath Wellington Street to connect with his Bank of Toronto.

When he died on May 1st 1905 his funeral at St. James Cathedral, against his last wishes for a small affair, was one of the largest the city had seen.
He was a great benefactor, builder and much loved man to the people of Toronto who lined the streets to show their respect as his cortege made its way to St. James Cemetery.

After his death the Bank of Toronto began to plan a move into what is regarded the most beautiful building Toronto ever knew, its new headquarters on the corner of King and Bay in 1913, itself demolished in 1960 and replaced with the equally stunning TD Center. (A scale model of that monumental building complete with its 21 Corinthian columns can be seen under glass in the TD Center’s main banking hall and out at the Guildwood Inn in Scarborough standing like an ancient Greek theater its impressive King Street entrance has been preserved).

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 Mr. Gooderham banking palace which by then had become a records center covered with a century of soot and grime.

It was replaced by what was seen at the time as an award winning design. The little TD bank that still stands in part and converted into the Pizza Pizza was, when I first saw it, one of my favorite small buildings in the city, until of course I saw pictures of what was demolished to make way for it.

In 1920 the distillery founded by the famous Mr. Gooderham as he was commonly known and by the tragic Mr. Worts was bought by the Hiram Walker Company and continued to operate up until the 1990’s.

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 dollars 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 peak inside as we witnessed during the latest Doors Open which the Tippins also co-chair. I can’t help thinking that 40 years ago we were in such a hurry to live like the Jetson’s we had to destroy anything that got in our way as we sped towards the future.

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.

Now that the future is here, our wish is for why couldn’t we have saved and preserved more of these beautiful treasures. I love looking at the Gooderham 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.

The haze might disappoint the tourist, but not me.

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