Banner photo is of Front St W looking West from University in 2015. Photo by K Taylor.
Talking about Leslieville a little while back, I mentioned that it is one of the few areas of Toronto where you can still sense its past. And truly, it doesn’t take much imagination to look at the intersection of Leslie and Queen to envision the carriages, taverns and muddy roads that would’ve been commonplace when it was but a village on the outskirts of the city. But try to use this same imagination in today’s Financial District – at say, Front and Simcoe – and I’d bet you’d have no such luck.
For the most part, the area still adheres to the grid it was laid out on long ago. The most dramatic alteration came with University being extended south to slice between Simcoe and York, creating that odd sweep at Front. Other than that, it’s really not much changed. But stand at the foot of University, and it’s hard to catch a glimpse of the past. The scale of the buildings that reside here now feel less like the evolution of a street and more like a modern wing grafted onto the city. … Which, come to think of it, isn’t that far off considering that almost everything south of here is landfill – acreage we’ve borrowed from the lake. In any case, it’ll take a bit of work but if you can peel back the skyscrapers, pavement, sewers and almost 200 years, you’d find yourself looking at a stately 2 ½ story home and not a whole lot else.
The house you’re looking at (work with me here) was built for a man named John Strachan, and it was just the third brick building in, what was then, the town of York.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1778, Strachan came to Canada at 21 to teach the children of a few prominent men in Kingston, Ontario. In his first few years there he became quite cozy with their families, as well as other well-connected merchants, who were all of the conservative, Loyalist ilk. But Strachan was an ambitious man and wanted much more than a little teaching post; he wanted an academy and with it, prominence and power. As matters stood at the time, the prospect of an academy being established was dim and so Strachan decided to become a clergyman. Raised a Presbyterian, he applied for a vacancy at the St. Gabriel Presbyterian Church in Montreal, but found it had already been filled. So he did the next natural thing – he switched churches. With a letter of reference from his good (and powerful) friend Richard Cartwright, he joined the Church of England and was ordained as a deacon in 1803, and then a priest in 1804. He would eventually rise to become the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto in 1839. … Now, I’m not of a religious bent (bent in other ways, I’m sure, just not religiously) but even I feel that switching to the more powerful church was a bit of an underhanded play on Strachan’s part. But that’s my two cents you didn’t ask for.
Swapping churches came with the promise of his own mission in Cornwall, Ontario, and so off he went. While there he continued to teach and even managed to entice many leading Ontario families to send their boys to him for schooling. If there is one thing old Toronto historians liked to mention it’s how many upper-crust kids he took under his wing. Strachan himself had no problem imagining what their prominence and prospects might mean for him. In 1808, he wrote “By an bye, my pupils will be getting forward, some of them perhaps into the House & then I shall have more in my power.” But after nearly a decade in Cornwall, Strachan was lured to York (Toronto) by General Brock’s offer of chaplaincy of the garrison, at the outbreak of the War of 1812.
With one foot in religion and the other in education, Strachan now wanted a hand in politics. In 1820, he was appointed to the Legislative Council by Sir Peregrine Maitland who wanted “a confidential person in the council through whom to make communications.” With great influence now in each of these spheres, Strachan had become the key member of the Family Compact – a small group of men who controlled everything in Ontario. And he defended any attacks on their interests furiously.
One of these interests was the Clergy Land Reserves. One-seventh of all public land (nearly 2.5 million acres in total) was held for “support of the Protestant clergy”, and so was dedicated for use by the Church of England. When a Scotsman named Robert Gourlay came to Ontario and began to raise questions (and ire, rightfully) about the Reserves, Strachan wrote the speech which Maitland delivered to shut down all questioning. But Gourlay had hit a major nerve and wouldn’t let up and the Family Compact twice sued him for libel – and twice the jury acquitted him. Well, hell hath no fury like a Family Compact questioned and so they first had him imprisoned for sedition and then used an obscure law, the Alien Act of 1804, to get him tossed out of Canada.
Funny enough, it was around this time that our Reverend Strachan came into two thousand acres of land. As Charles Pelham Mulvany wrote in 1884: “He built himself a place of residence of no inconsiderable pretensions. It may be seen within its crumbling but still unfallen brick fence, the second house on Front Street west of York. The building is of brick, with a handsome façade fronting the bay; it is surrounded with pleasant grounds, and in its whole build and appearance reminds one not a little of some of those fine old mansions of the time of George III., which one sees peeping from among the elm trees in the old-fashioned gardens of Kew.” Strachan’s new home was known as “the Palace.”
A palace it may once have been, but a palace it did not remain – though it made a stab at keeping the name. Not long after Bishop Strachan’s death in 1867, his home became the Palace Boarding House. In its early days it seems to have been fairly respectable. In 1873 it counted amongst its boarders two newspaper editors (one from the Leader, the other the Mail), an architect, an optician, a druggist, a music teacher, a solicitor and a G.W.R. station master. But by the mid 1880s, it appears to have gotten a tad shabby.
By this time the area was changing quite a bit. Directly across the street sat Union Station – the second one, not the one we know today – and an incredible marvel called the Cyclorama. Built by the Toronto Art Company, it opened on September 13th (my birthday, mark it down folks!), 1887 (not my birth year, please note). And it was quite the attraction from what I can tell. What was inside it, you ask? Well hold onto your hats – the Cyclorama had panoramic religious murals painted on its walls. Whoo boy.
With this and other exciting developments cropping up on the south side of Front, I suppose it was just a matter of time before the Palace Boarding House was torn down for something of greater purpose. And so it was. In the late 1890s, the site was cleared and a grand department store was raised.
Nerlich and Co. were actually quite the Toronto institution by the time they moved to Front and Simcoe. Henry Nerlich, the founder, had come to Toronto from Germany in the 1840s and set up shop as a watchmaker. Working out of a small room at 120 Yonge St., it occurred to him that he might do better if he added some jewellery to his inventory and took his wares on the road. Pounding the wood sidewalks of small towns around Toronto he slowly expanded his line, importing little items from his native Germany, till he’d built up enough of a business to begin a serious importing house. By the time Nerlich’s moved to Strachan’s old Palace grounds, the company had already outgrown three other buildings and had branches across Canada and in Dresden.
Beyond the beautiful fancy goods and toys they sold, I imagine Nerlich’s was also known for their remarkable moustaches and baby faced staff.
Now here I have to confess something: the fate of Nerlich’s is a complete mystery to me. In all my life, I’d never heard of the company before stumbling on their old ads in the last year or so. Which is pretty remarkable considering how large they were – easily a worthy competitor of Eaton’s or the Hudson’s Bay Company. At first I thought they must have disappeared under a wave of anti-German sentiment during the first or second world war, but they were still issuing catalogues in the late 40s. Still, I have yet to meet a Torontonian who’s heard of them. Bizarre.
As for the block itself, I’m pleased to say that the Nerlich’s building still stands and the east side of its neighbour even bears a plaque with a bit of information about John Strachan. The funny thing is, for whatever reason, the plaque is on the wrong side of the block and they put it well above eye level near the second story. I’m okay with that though – it’s the thought that counts.
Note: Since originally publishing this piece, I have had the wonderful experience of being put in contact with Larry Nerlich – the last Nerlich to work for the great Nerlich & Co. Thanks to his generosity of time in answering what were probably a lot of dumb questions on my part, I can now fill in some of the gaps in the Nerlich story.
Nerlich’s was exclusively a wholesale operation which would explain why the average Torontonian wouldn’t have been aware of their large enterprise. The company occupied the Front street building until, in the late ’50s – early ‘60s, they moved out to Leslie St. in North York where they were in operation for about six years.
Thanks to Larry, I now know that founder Henry Nerlich and his son, Emil, both had homes in Rosedale – though sadly neither is still standing today. I’ve also learned that there weren’t other Nerlich’s outlets here, as I’d believed, but rather salesmen who worked across Canada. Originally the goods were shipped in cases from Europe – glassware, china, figurines –with blown glass ornaments brought in from Russia. By Larry’s time the goods were being imported from Hong Kong, China and Japan, as was/is the trend pretty much today. The company’s warehouse was located in Niagara Falls, NY.
I’m grateful to reader Heather for putting me in touch with Larry Nerlich, and to all the readers who’ve shared their interest in the Nerlich story. As with all human tales, there’s certainly much more to it than this and so I know that this is post-script is just skimming the top – but I hope it will satisfy a few Torontonians who relish the history of their city.