Food and history intersect in an enduring way at Jarvis and Front Sts.
That’s where you’ll find Toronto’s historic St. Lawrence Market. The venerable red-brick building South Market, built in 1904, still draws droves of Torontonians Tuesday through Saturday looking to plunder the aromatic treasures of dozens of vendors — breads, cheeses, meat, veggies, fruit, fish, jarred delicacies and rare food finds, as well as non-edible merchandise from artisans and retailers.
What they may not know is that incorporated into the 1904 structure is a good portion of Toronto’s first permanent City Hall (sans roof), that dates back to 1844. At the front of the building, facing the street you can see the original City Hall’s stone and brick entrance. The second floor original council chambers have been turned into the Market Gallery, with art exhibition space.
Today, the St. Lawrence Market consists of the main South Market (Jarvis St., south of Front St.,), the North Market (Jarvis St., north of Front St., and temporarily closed for redevelopment) and St. Lawrence Hall (King St. E. and Jarvis Sts.). The North Market has hosted a Saturday Farmer’s Market at Front St. and Jarvis since 1803, when Toronto was known as York.
That was the year the lieutenant governor of the province of Upper Canada, Peter Hunter, proclaimed the land north of Front St., south of King St., west of Jarvis St., and east of Church St., would be called the Market Block. Of course, it wasn’t just market business that went on. There were also public floggings and a stock and pillory to punish all sorts of shenanigans.
You didn’t want to be a nuisance, like York resident Elizabeth Ellis. In 1804 Ellis had to stand in the pillory in the Market Block on two days a week for two hours at a time over a six-month period because she was deemed a nuisance, according to Robertson’sLandmarks of Toronto Revisited (a book first published in 1894 and viewable online.
“Back then you could still be hanged for speaking your mind,” says Toronto historian Bruce Bell, who has been running tours of the St. Lawrence Market for years. “We were still under British rule and you had to be careful what you said.”
By 1831, a brick market structure ran from King. St. to Front St. In 1834, when the City of Toronto incorporated, municipal offices were temporarily located in part of the market building, at the southwest corner of King St. E., and Jarvis St.
The Great Fire of Toronto in 1849 destroying much of the city, damaging the North Market building, but sparing the City Hall building.
The North Market was rebuilt in 1850 and continued to host a Saturday farmers’ market. The building south of Front had rear market stalls for fruit, vegetables and poultry but its main use was as a City Hall and a police station, with jail cells in the basement. The prisoners apparently complained about flooding in their cells and were eventually moved to the Don Jail.
The 1850 rebuild following the fire included St. Lawrence Hall (named after Canada’s patron saint). It was a magnificent Renaissance Revival cultural centre and meeting place designed by William Thomas and became an important social hub for the city, hosting concerts, exhibitions, lectures and public meetings in the 1,000-seat assembly room.
“Anyone who was anyone at the time appeared there,” says Bell.
Jenny Lind — one of the most popular opera singers in the world — played to a packed house at St. Lawrence Hall on Oct. 21, 1851, part of a North American tour. The “Swedish Nightingale” gave $1,000 from her performance fee to the Protestant Orphans Home on Dovercourt Rd. Dwarf entertainer General Tom Thumb performed at the hall 10 years later. The great American orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had himself escaped slavery, spoke against its evils at in 1851.
The North American Convention of Colored Freemen met on site for three days in 1851 to “discuss issues of slavery and black emigration from the United States.” The convention confirmed Canada as the best destination for refugee slaves.
Sir John A. Macdonald also promoted Confederation at St. Lawrence Hall on numerous occasions, the last being Jan. 22, 1867, just months before he became our first prime minister.
But St. Lawrence Hall’s golden days had fizzled by the latter part of the 1800s. By 1895 Massey Hall had been built and it quickly became the concert and cultural hotspot.
The Hall was refurbished from 1966-1967 to mark Canada’s centenary and was also designated as a National Historic Site. Today, it has commercial and office tenants and space that can be rented for special events.
The North Market has been rebuilt a number of times. It is currently closed during redevelopment. (The Saturday Farmers’ Market and Sunday Antique Market continues at a temporary location at 125 The Esplanade.)
Various renovations and structural changes were made to the South Market during the later 1800s. The city’s municipal government left the building in 1899 for the new City Hall at Bay and Queen Sts. (what we now call Old City Hall). Vendors took over the entire ground floor of the old South Market building after it was re-engineered in 1904 (incorporating the old city hall).
By the 1960s, however, the South Market was looking a bit shabby. It would barely escape the wrecker’s ball the next decade. In 1971 a planning board report and consultant recommended to the city that the South Market be demolished. But adamant citizen groups fought back and persuaded the city to renovate.
By 1978, renovations had been completed on the South Market, including a revamp of the basement, which now serves as space for more vendors. In total, there’s more than 100,000 square feet of space in the building.
One wall of the original jail remains in the basement, says historian Bell, who is thankful the South Market and St. Lawrence Hall didn’t become prey to the “urban knockdown in the 1950s and 1960s” when “25,000 historical buildings” in the city were torn down.
Today, the St. Lawrence Market remains a huge draw for Torontonians, as well as tourists, a piece of history that remains vibrant and at the heart of the city.