Banner photo is of Perth Avenue Church, taken circa 1898. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
When railroad fever really ramped up in the 1880s, and numerous lines began to cut west of the city, they brought first interest and then industry to the sparsely populated hinterlands. Much of this new activity was concentrated in the Dundas and Keele area where a young developer named Daniel Webster Clendenan had bought up an old racecourse and was busy turning it into a village. The village would become the Junction which, long after being absorbed by the city of Toronto, would become a darling of New York Times travel writers. And while it’s perhaps the best known off-shoot of the westward expansion, there was another development that sprang from the crossed rails.
Originally noted as simply “NW Annex to the city,” it is known today as the Junction Triangle. Looking at a map of the area, you can see why:
Like its neighbour the Junction, this hunk of west Toronto was owned by a man keen to develop it into a thriving community. His name was Simeon Heman Janes:
Simeon Heman Janes was born in Oxford, Ontario in 1843. His family, which was of Huguenot descent, came to Ontario from Massacheusetts – part of the United Empire Loyalist brigade that fled the U.S. at the end of the 18th century.
Simeon was a well-educated young man, having attended Victoria College where he graduated in 1866 with a Master’s Degree – and was made Valedictorian to boot. Moving to Toronto a year later, he entered the retail world as a partner in Janes, Brayley and Newcombe (the latter you may recall from our visit to Church St), before moving to the wholesale side of things.
But real estate soon proved to be Simeon’s true calling.
When a depression hit the housing market in 1879, savvy Janes bought up large tracts of land which he developed and later resold for great profit. Of these, he is best remembered for developing The Annex – a seemingly, eternally “hot” neighbourhood in the city. Lesser known is his hand in the Junction Triangle development – nonetheless, it was one of his pet projects and parts of the area still bear his mark.
Unlike other developers of the era who named streets for members of their families, Janes – who was known for “the cultivation of his literary tastes” – named his for his favourite writers. Scattered throughout his new development were avenues named Hugo, Irving, Macaulay, Wallace and Tennyson. But for the main thoroughfare Janes went a different route (that was an unintentional pun, you’ll be surprised to hear) and named it Churchill for Sir Randolph Churchill – you know, Winston’s father. Alas, Churchill was even shorter-lived than its namesake, and within a year the avenue had been renamed Perth.
By 1889, with the blocks now carved and the streets named, construction began on a number of houses along the stretch. At first, as with any new development, there were more houses than residents – and so, in that first year only seven homes were noted as being occupied. Among the souls housed within, should you wish to know (no? Too late), were Richard Perry, a real estate agent, George Dunning, a canner, John Free and David Kent, both carpenters and William Kehoe, a laborer. But within a year or two, their number would grow significantly and the east side of the street was soon home to many families.
The bulk of these early residents worked at jobs which reflected the major industries of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Many worked for the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk railways, as well as the Toronto Railway – the precursor of our TTC. Likewise, a whole slew of Perth residents were Bell Telephone line men. In fact, for a time, there were so many linemen on the block that Bell even had a company stable built at the NW corner of Perth and Bloor.
While their work for the telephone company and railroads could take them far afield, their religious needs, at least, were cared for much closer to home. Even before there were yet a dozen residents on the street, two churches had sprung up, ready to welcome new flocks.
First on the scene was the Perth Avenue Methodist Church:
The congregation, an offshoot of the St. Claren’s Avenue Church, purchased the land and built the 80’ X 40’ church for the tidy sum of $7,000 – and on March 10th, 1889 it opened its doors for its first service.
In its early years, the church’s pastors lived outside the area and traveled in each day to attend to the 11AM and 7PM services. The church’s second pastor, for instance – Reverend Edward Barras – made the commute from St. Andrew St, way over in Kensington Market. Later, as the area developed, subsequent pastors were put up on nearby Symington at Wallace. It was only in 1909, when the church’s nearest neighbour, James P. Street – a motorman for the Toronto Railway – moved out of the house next door that the Methodist pastors gained an official residence:
The second church to appear was the Anglican St. Martin’s in the Field, two blocks north of the Methodist church, at Macaulay:
Built in 1890, it was a simple structure – something John Ross Robertson made no bones about mentioning in his Landmarks of Toronto:
However, Ross Robertson did employ some flair when describing the fate of St. Martin’s first rector:
With the churches now open for business and more new houses cropping up along Perth, the neighbourhood now needed a school for the children who’d, doubtless, soon be roaming its streets. And so in 1890, the north end of Perth, at Ruskin, became home to a public school:
Initially the principal, Miss Lucy Polley, ran the school with just a couple of teachers and a caretaker, Thomas McClure. But as the blocks in and around Perth were thronged with new families, the number of children to be collared and schooled grew. And before long, the school not only needed a larger staff, but also better bathroom facilities:
And here we have the new and, apparently, improved washing-up area:
While the children were no doubt pleased with the improved plumbing, it very likely was of less import than the building of Perth Square next door:
You’ll notice that there were a good number of kids out there enjoying themselves – but the real excitement came when there was a ball game on:
Here’s another fun action shot:
So you see, it was quite a sweet, little community. But of course, surrounded as it was by railroads, it wasn’t long before industry came knocking, hoping to capitalize on the nearness of the lines.
One of the earliest to appear was John C. Gilchrist’s planing mill:
John Gilchrist, a Pickering native, first came to Toronto in 1884 and soon after fell into partnership with a fellow named Willoughby Power. As Power and Gilchrist, the two manufactured sash and doors on Niagara St. While this might not stir the blood for many of us, woodworking was Gilchrist’s passion. As a young man he’d learned the trade at his father George’s Pickering planing mill, and according to his bio in the riveting Canadian Forest Industries magazine, “nothing appealed to him quite as keenly as mastering the details of a new machine or seeing how he could cut up a board to the most economical advantage.”
The Power and Gilchrist partnership appears to have been a successful one – but just the same, ol’ Willoughby eventually felt the need to retire. This prompted John Gilchrist to begin a new partnership with his brother David – whose views on economical wood cuts are not known – and the firm was rechristened Gilchrist Brothers.
After the Great Fire of 1904 swept downtown Toronto, the Gilchrists, looking to put some space between their mill and the city center, settled on a large lot at Perth and Ernest. At some point during this move, David Gilchrist appears to have fallen off because once the new mill was established in 1906 it was in John’s name alone.
In 1908, John Gilchrist – a man we now know to be devoted to his work – made certain he’d never leave its side, by moving his family into the house next door:
And he proved a very good neighbour – not just to the mill but to the neighbourhood. Becoming the Chairman of the Bloor and Lansdowne Business Men and Ratepayers’ Association – or the BLBMRA, as nobody called it – he invested heavily in the now burgeoning area.
Close on Gilchrist’s heels came the establishment of a number of other industries. Among them was the Canadian Box and Lumber Co, which took up the large lot behind the Methodist church:
As well as the Flint Varnish and Color Works:
By the time the First World War descended – and stole away John Gilchrist’s son, George – the last of the vacant lots in and around Perth Avenue had been filled by new homes. The Methodist Church at Ernest had been shuttered but began anew in a similarly grand structure at the NE corner of Wallace – while poor, plain St. Martin’s would soon disappear altogether. Numerous industries now hummed in all the back lots, and clanging trains continued to ring the whole.
And so, with Simeon Janes’s development now complete, the neighbourhood came to rest and entered a long period where nothing much changed. And I can personally attest to this, because this is my neighbourhood. Perth Avenue is where I was born and raised and where I still consider “home” to be. So I can tell you that much of what we’ve just looked at was still here when I was a kid. Oh sure, there were some changes but, for the most part, the fabric of the neighbourhood remained the same.
Gilchrist faded away, naturally, but his mill became home to Ontario Hardwood in 1934 and they still have a presence on Ernest today. As kids, we used to play around the site and I remember having the most burning need to know what was inside the large buildings. One day, a neighbourhood boy came up just as I was kneeling for a peek under the warehouse door. “You know what’s in there?” he asked. I shook my head. With a sweeping arm gesture, he said “Barbie dolls – as far as the eye can see!” … it was a pretty mean thing to do, frankly.
In the last few years, the area around Perth Avenue has woken from its long rest. The old industries, minus Ontario Hardwood, have been moving out and a few of the factories left behind have been turned into lofts. Those that were leveled will soon be home to scores of townhouses.
Ernest, which has always been more of an industrial alley than an avenue, is now prime real estate, thanks to the lovely, leafy rail path which crosses its western end, providing a perfect shortcut to the GO train.
And art has come to the area in a big way. The former site of the Perth Avenue Methodist Church is now the photography studio of Michael Mahovlich:
And the former Ontario Hardwood warehouse – the one not filled with Barbie dolls – is now the Division Gallery :
As for the the lovely old Perth Public School , sadly I never knew it. When I went to school there it was in its present, low-slung 1960s form. Likewise, Perth Square is long gone – replaced by Perth Park which, though quite decent, does not invite lively baseball games.
And so it goes – things come and go. I won’t lie, the loss of places I knew (even old factories no one else will ever miss) always hurts me. Happily, though, there’s currently more coming than going – especially in the resident-department. I just hope they’ll love the old neighbourhood as much as I do.
* Simeon Janes’s Tennyson Avenue did not last into the 20th century. Also long gone are two streets he, delightfully, named Harold and Maude. Harold was never built on, and Maud was later renamed Randolph – likely as a nod to Janes’s early ode to Sir Randolph Churchill.