Facadism, read the act of tearing down a building only to keep its street-facing wall and incorporate it into a new structure that’s obviously much nicer, is common practice in Toronto these days. Finding new use for landmarks of the past that, by modern standards, might be energy inefficient, have a poor layout, be decrepit, cost a fortune to maintain or simply sit on prime land, is a feat that developers of the past were seemingly not up to perform, often opting for the wrecking ball. When adaptive reuse is not an option, one might argue that facadism is the lesser of two evils but, oh boy, isn’t it truly amazing stepping into the history of a well preserved edifice? Fortunately, you can do just that at the Adelaide Court, née York County Courthouse.
York County, encompassing much of the GTA at the time of its incorporation in the 1790’s, used one of Upper Canada’s two parliament buildings, at the intersection of Parliament and Front streets, when court was in session, until 1812 when it moved into its own permanent space on King St. Sentences and punishments were almost synonymous at the time. Branding, that is burning on a convict’s hand the initial of the crime he had committed, occurred until 1828 while public hangings took place on a scaffold on Court St as late as 1838. Lesser vices might have earned you a few hours of public humiliation, sometimes over months, ankles restrained in stocks, right at the street’s corner. Until slavery was abolished in 1833, the courthouse was also a place where slave owners advertised their possessions for sale.
Halfway through the century, the courts started to run out of space and eventually moved into a new structure at 57 Adelaide St E in 1853, the object of this article. Barely thirty years later, the county was indicted for maintaining an unsanitary public building and discussions opened about erecting a new courthouse yet again. The city saw an opportunity there and in 1899-1900 the two bodies migrated into a shared facility: Old City Hall on Queen St W. The Adelaide St courthouse originally comprised a three-storey central section with two two-storey wings on its sides in a greek revival architectural style. Basement cells occupied the entire building’s footprint for prisoners awaiting trial.
After the courts vacated to Old City Hall, York County attempted to sell the building to help pay for its share of the cost of the new civic landmark. Failing to secure a buyer for the structure as a whole, it sold the western section to the Consumers’ Gas Company in 1902 and the eastern one to Eastmuir and Lightbourn a year later. The former was restored and retrofitted as an appliance showroom in the 1920’s while the latter was heavily modified and reopened as the much taller Eastmuir and Lightbourn in 1904. The amputated central mass, adorned by Greek limestone columns, lived on as the York County Municipal Hall, providing accommodation for events, public departments and the county’s council chamber.
In 1910, the Arts and Letters Club, home to the Group of Seven painters, relocated to the second floor’s old assize courtroom. For the next ten years, there, they gave theatrical representations, one of which Sir Wilfred Laurier attended in 1913, and indulged themselves in the disciplines of literature, architecture, music, painting and sculpture. Soon, in 1920, the county came knocking at the door asking for its space back in order to relieve the courts at Old City hall. A courtroom was set up on the first floor where the county’s council had convened for the past twenty years and the council took it upstairs to the assize court.
57 Adelaide operated as a courthouse until 1966 and as a municipal hall until the early 1970’s. Magistrates’ and family courts which had been housed in the facility relocated to the new City Hall and to 361 University Ave at that time. Besides courts, Metro Toronto, York County’s successor for the present-day City of Toronto area after 1954, had run various departments from the building including social services and roads and transportation. However, the space had lost its grand status two decades earlier, in 1949, when the council chamber had relocated down the street to 67 Adelaide. After much turmoil over the old courthouse’s future, including the bankruptcy of a non-profit that was to set up a heritage centre there, it was leased to “Adelaide Court”, a consortium of three local alternative theatres, in 1976. Unfortunately, the theatres folded one after the other and by the late 1980’s restaurants had wound up in the venue and have remained in this historic location ever since.
The York County Courthouse is located one block north of King Station on line 1 of the TTC subway system. While onsite, head over to Toronto Street, immediately to the west, for a look at the Post Office and the old Consumers’ Gas Head Office.
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