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Globe & Mail development reveals lost Toronto mansion

Posted by Chris Bateman / September 30, 2013

toronto berkeley houseWorkers surveying the ground for what will become the new King Street East offices of the Globe and Mail unearthed brick foundations and a handful of tantalizing artifacts from a long lost Toronto house last week.

Unlike cities with a longer history of occupation, new construction in Toronto seldom turns up a rich archaeological site, so when glass containers, pieces of crockery, and even an unbroken lightbulb emerged from the muck, it felt special.

The mansion was once home to the victor in a famous and deadly duel, before falling in to dereliction and ultimately being knocked down in the 1920s, overshadowed by chimneys and smoke in the industrial east end.

toronto berkeley houseBerkeley House was one of the largest homes in the young town of York. Sitting on the corner of what was once Parliament Street, the hewn timber house was built by Major John Small, an officer in the British militia, in 1794.

At the time, York was nothing more than scattering of simple wood homes on a small street grid bound by what is now Jarvis, Adelaide, Princess, and Front. On its completion, it would have been of the first permanent dwellings in the fledgling community east of Fort York.

Major Small was the clerk of the executive council of Upper Canada, a cabinet-like office of Canada's early government. Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe said Small was "a Gentleman who possesses and is entitled to my highest confidence." As his biography points out, that was one of few compliments - he would be regularly criticized for inefficiency.

He was paid £100 a year, a wage less than the average unskilled labourer and only slightly more than his own staff members.

toronto berkeley houseSmall's most famous act, however, was his role in a deadly duel with then-attorney general John White. Major Small's wife, it seems, had publicly snubbed White's spouse at a time when social slights were taken extremely seriously (John White may also have slept with Small's wife, it's not clear.)

Mrs. White questioned the legality of Small's marriage and his personal morals in a letter that was widely circulated and extremely embarrassing. Major Small arranged a duel with White, and fatally shot him to death in 1800. It would take White 36 hours to die from his injuries.

He was acquitted of murder after a brief trial and lived on until 1831.

toronto berkeley houseThe central portion of the house with its twin gables is the oldest. John Small's son Charles added wings in the 1840s. By 1870, the large home had been divided up into three separate homes, with Charles Small living in oldest part of the building.

Berkeley Street took its name from the old house when the Parliament Street name was shifted a block east.

Major Small's 1-acre lot, which was tacked on to the side of the original street grid, giving it an irregular shape on early maps, was subdivided numerous times and the land sold to industrial concerns. At various times Berkeley House was neighboured by a lumber company and a grain elevator.

Despite its noisy neighbours, Charles Small kept a backyard orchard of pear trees, one of which turned up in the recent excavations. The grand interior belied the home's crumbling timber walls. Pictures taken shortly before its demolition in 1925 show the exterior stucco falling away in clumps and window shutters hanging from the building's rotting window frames.

Berkeley House was demolished in 1925, its foundations encased beneath a concrete parking lot until this year.


toronto berkeley house1912 watercolour by Owen Staples, based on an earlier pen and ink drawing by W. J. Thomson.

toronto berkeley houseAnother 1912 watercolour by Owen Staples, this one based on a drawing by Mrs. C. C. Small.

toronto berkeley houseThe Berkeley House shortly before its demolition in 1925.

toronto berkeley houseThe foundations as they appear today.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library



BM / September 30, 2013 at 08:36 am
What a great post. Thanks.
Steve / September 30, 2013 at 08:49 am
Great article! It's incredible what comes up under a parking lot.

It's too bad they tore it down in the 20's, today it would be Toronto's oldest surviving building along with Scadding Cabin! (Which says a lot about the age of the city)
E. Toby Coke / September 30, 2013 at 09:03 am
Good post.

Anyone else notice that in the last photo, where the house is at its most derelict, the large brick building right beside it is nowhere to be seen, and in fact the wing of the house is still back in there behind the Wondershine sign?

"Earlier" photos show a tall brick building to that side.

Skye / September 30, 2013 at 09:31 am
Great post. Considering the building was 130 years old in 1925, I wonder if there was any hue and cry to save the building at the time? Or if everyone agreed it was simply old and in the way?
John replying to a comment from Skye / September 30, 2013 at 09:45 am
I think the whole idea of saving things because of their historical importance is a relatively recent thing. In many cities it was only in the '80s that the government really started stepping in to save anything at all.
Skye replying to a comment from John / September 30, 2013 at 10:09 am
That's what I figure as well. People think there's little concern for historical preservation now, but the idea was almost nonexistent 80-90 years ago.
Gary / September 30, 2013 at 10:47 am
Thanks for this great little article. I glimpsed those stone foundations a few weeks ago between cracks in the hoarding and thought it might be historical. It's nice to know what was there.

I agree it would have been incredible if it was still there, but I don't think the concept of historical preservation existed back in the 1920's as we know it today.
Fig / September 30, 2013 at 10:54 am
Great article Chris!
nardl blarn / September 30, 2013 at 12:34 pm
Really interesting post but I'd hardly call that dump a mansion!
Robert / September 30, 2013 at 01:09 pm
There is a misconception that all the new builds in the past few years are replacing old Toronto buildings. many of those sites have been parking lots for 30, 40 50 60 even 80 years or more. In other words they are mostly infill projects.
Charles Marker / September 30, 2013 at 01:40 pm
Excellent post and pictures. Very interesting.

Also, I agree with Robert that many of the new buildings are improvements over the parking lots that were there. Looking at downtown-area photos on Vintage Toronto from the 1950s and 1960s, there's a lot of ugliness and much of it is parking lots.
Benedict / September 30, 2013 at 04:26 pm
Hi there - here's a photo I took (I work next door)
luska / September 30, 2013 at 05:00 pm
The windows and shutters on the house are really charming. Thanks for this interesting article!
bobo replying to a comment from Skye / September 30, 2013 at 05:11 pm
Modern architectural conservation began with William Morris and John Ruskin as a reaction to the industrialization of England and Europe when, for the first time in history, industry and commerce began to pose a serious threat to cities and architecture on a massive scale. Prior to that it was fires and wars the destroyed cities.

However, even at this time building remained the domain of the artisan. It wasn't until our parent's and grandparents generations that the ancient art of building came to an end, replaced by the industrial mode of fabricating and erecting buildings. Today we can slam together square footage at a fraction of the cost - and in a fraction of the time. Perhaps 10x faster, and higher.

Industrialization forced the demolition and relocation of residences from industrializing districts (as was the case here), but it was the industrialization of building technique that saw the near obliteration of historic structures from the face of Canadian cities.

Prior to these two significant shifts: Industrialization of cities followed by the industrialization of the building process - common sense and an innate appreciation for the work required to build a good a building were incentive enough to preserve good buildings.

Anyone who can't appreciate the difference between the two modes: artisanal and industrial building modes - is not qualified to comment on the value of historic structures.
bobo replying to a comment from Skye / September 30, 2013 at 05:22 pm
In 1794, when this mansion was built, nobody anticipated that Corktown would become the location of the most noxious industrial uses of the day (gasworks, oil refining etc). That is why this house became rundown, NOT because the house was simply too old.

If this House had been situated in Rosedale, or near Casa Loma, it could well have survived and been cherished through to today, as many 100+ year old homes have.

Valerie / September 30, 2013 at 07:07 pm
Keep these posts coming Chris! I read every one with delight. Much appreciated, you're making Torontonians proud.
gayle b / September 30, 2013 at 08:42 pm
Thanks for the great article. I love stories like this although it is a shame that the house had been demolished, so wonderful that the foundations and artifacts were found.
buku replying to a comment from Benedict / September 30, 2013 at 09:40 pm
great photo benedict, thanks
Irish / September 30, 2013 at 10:50 pm
Great article Chris. Thanks
rt / September 30, 2013 at 10:53 pm
here we go:

The Lost Mansion Condos
Live the lifestyle starting at 399k
Kate / October 1, 2013 at 09:12 am
I find it interesting that this article is being posted now. The location being discussed is my former backyard, and the structure of the building and any archaeological finds were unearthed more than a year ago. As interesting as it was to see everything being unearthed, it never seemed like the city was all that interested in the finds. The Thompson will be another structure/condo to cover any history Toronto has.
Arleen replying to a comment from Benedict / October 1, 2013 at 10:07 am
Fabulous detailed shot.
Brendam / October 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm
The construction of Berkeley House did not begin until 1795 or later. What the story doesn't mention is that John Small bought the property (31 August 1795) for $50 from carpenter George Porter who had already erected a log house there. Small originally intended to keep the humble dwelling as a stable but for reasons unknown, his new house incorporated the old log structure ... perhaps even more interesting to the archaeologists.
Pat / October 3, 2013 at 04:38 pm
Fascinating! George Leslie (after whom Leslieville is named) had his first nursery in the area. I wonder if the orchard was from his stock!
Bob / October 3, 2013 at 08:43 pm
Wonderful article. Daughter sent it to me. I have
forwarded it to a descendant of John Small in the U.S.
He also thought it was great. Good job Chris.
Carrie replying to a comment from Benedict / October 6, 2013 at 07:11 pm
Nice addition Benedict! thanks for posting.
Carrie / October 6, 2013 at 07:12 pm
Ate this up Chris! Great piece.
James Eaves / October 8, 2013 at 04:40 am
Thank you for such an informative article. My paternal grandmother, Marion Small, was a direct descendent of Major John Small, and came to live in San Francisco in the early 1920's. My aunt left two oil portraits of Major and Mrs John Small to the museum in Toronto. I have read much about the duel (and the subsequent duel involving the other side of my Toronto ancestors, the Ridouts) but I didn't know much about the Berkeley House.
Stephanie Small / October 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm
John Small was my great (x4) grandfather, so James, looks like we are related. Thank you for sharing this post Chris and being kind about his past.
Ann replying to a comment from Stephanie Small / October 10, 2013 at 05:46 pm
John Small was also my Great (x4)Grandfather. Stephanie and James, please get in touch:
Krista / October 11, 2013 at 03:07 pm
Thanks for the great article.
The link between built heritage and a sense of belonging/history in communities is quite well known albeit not always adequately respected (in my humble opinion). I find it especially interesting how your article has now led some people in the comments to now connect with their real-life history and find relatives.
I wish Canada would adopt some more forward thinking heritage policies such the "heritage first" policy in the USA to promote reuse and restoration of heritage buildings (see link for more info).
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