Church and Queen – Before the Dawn of Pawn

Banner photo is of 131 Church in 2013.  Photo by K Taylor.

Long before Church St. became synonymous with pawn shops and camera stores, or even churches, it was the idyllic country estate of John McGill, the last Lieutenant of the County of York.

McGill Cottage
McGill Cottage, built 1803. Current site of the Metropolitan Church. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

McGill built his cottage here in 1803 when the land was heavily wooded and there was good deer hunting to be had.  Its distance from the city also proved ideal as it provided safe refuge during the American Invasion of 1813.  However, shortly before his death in 1834, McGill began to parcel off and sell the land and the acres were slowly carved and shaped into city streets.

By the 1840s, little brick buildings began to bloom on the east side of Church street.  These became homes and businesses which for many years counted doctors and lawyers as their main residents.  Of these only one remains much as it would’ve appeared to a soul walking past 150 years ago: 131 Church Street.  With its fanciful onion-shaped spire, this delightful building is easily one of the most unique you’ll find in the city.  Though its original ground floor has been obscured with a modern retail renovation you can still sense the great age entombed in the brick.

129 Church St

A few of the former inhabitants of 131 Church are as remarkable as the building itself.  One early resident in the 1860′s was Angus Morrison, a Scottish born lawyer who would become the 21st Mayor of Toronto.  His legacy includes having negotiated the agreement with Ottawa to have Toronto take over the exhibition grounds.   Some years down the road, in 1882, a doctor named Abner Mulholland Rosebrugh opened his offices within its walls.

Notice of Dr. Rosebrugh's move to 121 Church (today's 129) from the Toronto Daily Mail, Feb 2, 1882.
Notice of Dr. Rosebrugh’s move to 121 Church (today’s 131) from the Toronto Daily Mail, Feb 2, 1882.

Dr. Rosebrugh appears to have been quite a progressive man as he re-established the Free Dispensary, a program which provided health care to those who could not otherwise afford it.  He also had an avid interest in technology and, along with an optician named Charles Potter, devised an instrument that could photograph the fundus of the eye.  But it is for the telephone line that connected his house to Potter’s that he is most remembered today, as it was the very first in Toronto.

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