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What King Street used to look like in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / February 6, 2014

King Street Toronto historyIs there a thoroughfare as historically important as King Street in Toronto? It would face stiff competition from Yonge and Queen (formerly Lot) streets, to be sure, but it's not for nothing that it bears the name of King George III, who ruled during the time that the Town of York was founded. The economic heart of the city (and now the country) through its central portion between University and Church Street, King was the first street to feature a bonafide office block, in the form of the Chewett Building.

Once home to the mighty Massey Ferguson buildings (stretching west from Massey St.), the Otto Higel Building (at Bathurst), Upper Canada College (at John), the Rossin House Hotel (at York), and the Toronto Star Building (near Bay), the street has lost some remarkable structures over time. On the flip side, landmarks like the Royal Alex Theatre, Commerce Court North, The King Edward Hotel, and St. James Cathedral ensure that the it's not bereft of historical reference points, even its manufacturing legacy west of Bathurst has been lost.

In general, buildings knocked down through the central portion of King Street were at least replaced with grand structures of their own (i.e. Toronto Star Building for First Canadian Place), a tradition that would continue should the Mirvish-Gehry proposal ever get approved. King Street is about as marquee as you get in Toronto, and a rather fitting place for showpiece structures.


201426-king-york-1834.jpgChewett Building, King & York streets, 1834

20121006-King-GoadsCanada.jpgFormer Upper Canada College grounds and King West via Goad's Atlas

201425-king-yonge-1895-1895.jpgKing & Yonge, 1896

201425-king-east-looking-east-1856.jpgLooking east along King towards Church, 1856

201425-king-east-looking-west-1856.jpgLooking west along King toward Yonge, 1856

201425-king-west-1856.jpgLooking west along King from York, 1856

201425-king-east-to-victoria-1910.jpgKing St. East to Victoria, 1910

2012214-King-West-Subway-1915.jpgKing West subway, 1915

201425-king-toward-bay-1930.jpgNear King & Bay, 1930

201425-yonge-king-1950-ttc.jpgYonge Subway construction at King St, 1950

201425-king-yonge-1950s.jpgYonge & King, late 1950s

201425-royal-alex-1955.jpgRoyal Alex Theatre, 1955

2012123-sword-resto-yonge-king-1967-s0648_fl0222_id0005.jpgSword Restaurant at Yonge & King, 1967

20121006-King-70s.jpgKing St., 1970s

201425-end-king-bridge-1973.jpgJunction of King & Queen streets, 1973

201425-bath-king-nw-1977.jpgNorthwest corner of Bathurst & King, 1977

201425-king-st-law-hall-1978s.jpgKing St. near St. Lawrence Hall, 1978

201425-king-st-lawrence-hall-1980.jpgDitto, but 1980

201425-otto-higel-building-demo-1981-king-bath.jpgNorthwest corner of King & Bathurst, 1981

2011823-king-west-early-80s-s1465_fl0058_id0085.jpgKing West, 1980s

2011823-king-west-early-80s-s1465_fl0058_id0083.jpgKing & Strachan, 1980s

2011823-king-west-80s.jpgKing West, 1980s

2013725-king-parliament-1994-s1465_fl0182_id0062.jpgKing & Frederick, 1994

Photos from the Toronto Archives



MinusTwo / February 6, 2014 at 10:23 am
So cool.

I always expect that I will look back and wish the city still looked as good as it used to... and in some cases, in some spots, that is true.

But in other spots, I think we have come a long way from how Toronto looked, especially in the 70's and 80's..
mike replying to a comment from MinusTwo / February 6, 2014 at 10:50 am
get your reasonable comment off the internet!
Joel / February 6, 2014 at 11:49 am
Love these posts, thanks Derek.
The Lonely Troll / February 6, 2014 at 12:03 pm
Yay! Streetcars!
By the way.... / February 6, 2014 at 12:03 pm
Not many people know that Toronto suffered two Great Fires; the first in 1849 and the second in 1904. Between the two of them, most of downtown was destroyed. Some of those buildings which did make it through the fire survived to this day, for which we are very lucky!
rob / February 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm
When I look at the old pictures of King Street I see many similarities to the boring arguments against downtown development. The street scape is homogenous, variations on a similar theme, boring at times with a good portion of bad architecture. Tightly spaced buildings sharing the same adjoining wall allowing little light to filter onto the street. Pedestrian are forgotten about there is just no room for them. This changed starting in the 40's continuing for many decade when a large portion of these buildings were torn down to make way for parking lots. The current build of tall towers built in those parking lots are set back, spaced far apart. Allowing more light to street, more room for pedestrians and more public spaces.
As pretty as the old building are to look at only a few need to be saved the city needs and must grow and adapt to the people that use it, not the other way around. That is what a city is the people not the buildings.
Aaron / February 6, 2014 at 12:24 pm
Ah, the good ol' days. NO bicycle lanes.
iSkyscraper / February 6, 2014 at 12:54 pm
Amazing how the primacy of sidewalks has faded. When you look at these old photos, the streets are mud and impassable while the proud sidewalks are wide, gleaming and encourage walking. Now we squeeze out pedestrian space and cram as many cars through as possible. Shame.

I would also give anything to get that cobblestone median back. TTC gets a failing grade for not using stamped concrete or other tricks as streetcars and LRT do in other cities to create a more warm and inviting street atmosphere. / February 6, 2014 at 01:15 pm
Great photos!
GRBY / February 6, 2014 at 01:25 pm
This City buries it's history better than most.

What a shame. So many great looking victorian buildings lost to greedy developers that put up monstrous, 'modern' buildings that typically look like shit.
Mayor McCokehoover / February 6, 2014 at 01:31 pm
King and John looks SO different. Metro Hall, Roy Thompson, even the Eclipse White Wear building that houses the Tim Horton's on the corner (brick here, painted now) that is slated for Frank Gehry treatment.

So wild! My brain can hardly comprehend that corner store sitting where the hotdog stand sits now. (though, if you squint, it's kinda like the old Corned Beef House used to look, perched a street NW on Widmer and Adelaide, also now lost to development)

Borte / February 6, 2014 at 01:52 pm
I've seen a few before, but those photos from 1856 Toronto are bananas. I mean 1900 was almost fifty years away!
rob replying to a comment from GRBY / February 6, 2014 at 04:43 pm
Aside from the architecture all those 'monstrous' buildings have been great for Toronto. If you see bad I would like to know what is bad about it?
Wiarton Willie replying to a comment from GRBY / February 7, 2014 at 02:15 am
Yup. Wouldn't it be great if Toronto were still a little backwater hicktown with mud sidewalks. Condos are Bad because they represent Change, and we do not approve of Change. People just love to complain about everything here.
Arthur B replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / February 7, 2014 at 11:15 am
Think logically about it for a minute. Now, why would they want to put in wooden sidewalks before they covered roads with cobblestones? Well, when you walk in mud, it gets all over your shoes and pants and lady's long dresses. When you drive a cart mud gets all over the wheels and the horse's hooves.
So, putting together all this information, does it now make sense why they used wooden boardwalks? hmm?
Spike replying to a comment from GRBY / February 7, 2014 at 12:38 pm
Most of that factory space shown in the 1980's King & Strachan photo could have been preserved for the concept of a street of start-up businesses that was mentioned months ago, but we couldn't preserve it, oh no; we had to tear it down to make way for condos, condo, condos. How will the industries of the future ever happen in Toronto if this keeps up?

@Wiarton Willie: There's good change and there's bad change; losing most of the grand old buildings of Toronto isn't good change, especially when said new buildings will break apart if you even sneeze on them or lean against a wall inside of them. We don't even have the economic backbone to keep people employed so that they can afford these buildings, yet we keep on building them.

Now, I don't mind living in a modern metropolis, but there has to be some limits and some perspective (historical or otherwise), and we've lost that completely with this spate of construction we're going through.
Wiarton Willie / February 7, 2014 at 12:59 pm
A lot of dull old dark red ramshackle brick-box factories are gone, along with their sweatshop memories. Toronto is not going to become a heavy manufacturing center again, or a sleepy little retirement city stuck in a time warp. That is because Toronto is a city that believes in the future more than dreaming about the past. There are plenty of rusty yesteryear cities around that didn't move with the times for that type of dusty nostalgia.
lou / February 7, 2014 at 05:22 pm
"Rusty yesteryear cities" like New York, London, Boston, and countless others that embraced their history and still moved forward? It doesn't have to be one or the other.
Col Bettson / February 16, 2015 at 10:31 pm
thank you, so so much for your work, digging up & sharing this outstanding piece.

Other Cities: Montreal