King West at Simcoe: A Tale of Two Centuries

Banner photo is of King St W and Simcoe in 2015.  Photo by K Taylor.

King W looking west to Duncan
From left to right: The Reid Building (1904) and Royal Alexandra Theatre (1907).  Photo by K Taylor.
King W looking east to Simcoe
From left to right: The Nicholls Building (1910), the Canadian General Electric Building (1917) and the Union Building (1908).  Photo by K Taylor.

The north side of King St. W. between Duncan and Simcoe is one of my favourite blocks in the city.  Unlike much of the area around it, this stretch has remained almost wholly untouched since the early 20th century. The five buildings that comprise the block (I am intentionally ignoring one which is being raised as I write this) are each handsome, distinct and, with their primarily Edwardian Classical styling, give the block a stately grandeur.   These remarkable buildings hail from the area’s industrial age and were built as warehouses, if you can imagine that – minus the Royal Alex Theatre, of course.

Three of the buildings are linked to Canadian General Electric which built 212 and 214, while 220 was developed by Frederic Nicholls who acted as a General Manager for the company.  Nicholls was quite the bigwig in publishing, politics and business.  Aside from sounding like a pretty tough customer, he’s best remembered for creating a syndicate with Sir Henry Pellatt (Casa Loma) and William Mackenzie (Canadian Northern Railway) that provided Toronto with power generated at Niagara Falls.

212 King W Full Length
212 King St. W., known as the Union Building, built 1908 by Darling and Pearson.  Photo by K Taylor.
Canadian General Electric Co 1909
A 1909 Toronto City Directory ad for Canadian General Electric – Click to enlarge

As for Canadian General Electric, there is only one surviving clue to the company’s past presence at 212 King St. W. : a monogrammed pier at the rear of the building.

- Rear Column
The Canadian General Electric Building’s surviving pier at the rear of the building.  Photo by K Taylor.

Much more visible to passersby is a plaque on the east side of the building which takes you deeper into the block’s history.

212 King St. W. Plaque
Upper Canada College plaque placed at 212 King St. in 1929 by “old boys from all over the world.”

From 1831 to 1891 the block was known as Russell Square and was originally home to Upper Canada College.  … While the plaque says 1829, the year of the school’s formation, the school wouldn’t move in until 1831.

Upper Canada College 1867 Courtesy of Toronto Public Library
Upper Canada College at King and Simcoe, 1867. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library .

During its residence on King St., the renowned private school drew visits from many notables of the day but the most fascinating to me is Charles Dickens.  He was given a tour of the school during his 1842 trip to North America and reportedly found it impressive. Walking along the site today, I wonder how many realize they’re treading the same ground as the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

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