James Scott Howard: Postmaster
Changing Times on Duke Street
Hardware merchant Thomas Denne Harris purchased the building that had been Toronto’s first post office from former postmaster James Scott Howard in 1841. It had been built at an original cost of £1,600 but Howard sold it at a loss, needing the capital at that time. Mr. Harris and his family would live there, between the Bank of Upper Canada and Campbell House, for the next thirty years.
The bank failed as an institution in 1866, and the building, along with the Ridout family residence to the rear, was purchased by the Christian Brothers in 1870 for use as a boarding school. By 1872 the brothers had built a Victorian extension to the former bank, which took up the street frontage between it and Harris’s home, to house classrooms, a library and a boys’ dormitory. The Catholic community was elated to have regained land it had once owned and had parted with some fifty years earlier.
Upon Harris’s death in 1873 the De La Salle Institute, as the school was known, annexed the old post office and incorporated it into their complex by converting its three stories into two and replacing its Georgian windows with arched Victorian ones. From this time forward, the block of buildings would change hands as one.
In 1884, owing to financial difficulties, the Brothers sold the block to the Roman Catholic Separate School Board, although they continued to operate the De La Salle High School, rent free, out of part of it. It also housed St. Michael’s School and a high school for girls, and the school board held its meetings there for a time. The use of the buildings for educational purposes came to an end in 1916 and, despite efforts to rent them out, they remained vacant for two years.
In July of 1918 the Imperial War Munitions Board, acting on behalf of the Royal Air Force, leased the complex for a term of two years for use as a centre for records and recruiting. With the signing of the armistice in November of 1918, however, the Air Force surrendered the buildings before the expiration of its lease.
A largely residential area in the 19th century, the neighbourhood of Duke and George was, by the advent of the 20th century, shifting to commercial and industrial use. No longer a grand avenue of Georgian mansions, Duke Street was dominated by the enormous Christie’s biscuit factory on its south side which took up the entire block between George and Frederick. It was Christie Brown and Company Ltd. who would purchase the former De La Salle property from the Catholic school board in 1921.
Christie's primary interest was in the large yard to the rear, which they wanted for the recreational use of their many employees. The buildings were rented out to various commercial and industrial tenants including a jeweler, machine shops and the Imperial Oil Graphics department. The early oval Esso gas station signs were produced in a basement paint shop.
Then, in 1925, Christie Brown sold to the United Farmers Cooperative Company Ltd. The farmers were delighted to have the old Bank of Upper Canada, former bastion of the Family Compact, as their new headquarters. They saw themselves as the spiritual successors to William Lyon Mackenzie and his followers in the ongoing struggle against the privileged establishment. For the next thirty years the complex was home to the flourishing cooperative and progressive movement in Ontario.
The bank building became offices and board rooms, and an addition was built to the rear of the former Ridout residence on George Street. Extensive alterations were made to the old post office building. A mansard roof was added, the windows were bricked up and the whole thing was insulated for the installation of an up-to-date cold storage system. It was transformed into what was essentially a giant refrigerator for eggs and cream. The 1872 De La Salle building was used as a wholesale storage and processing facility. Agricultural products were transported to it from across the province. As the Toronto Creamery plant it was at one time responsible for a large portion of the butter used in the city of Toronto. Eggs, cream and butter – where better to collect and house them than directly across from a cookie factory? The Farmers’ Co-operative, in need of even larger facilities in an era when proximity was of lesser importance, sold the complex in 1956, although the post office building continued to be used as a cold storage facility for eggs until the mid 1960s.
By this time Duke Street itself had disappeared. The disjunction between it and Adelaide Street at Jarvis had been rounded off and it was now a one-way thoroughfare running east through a dingy industrial area. Historic buildings dating from the town of York, buildings that had witnessed the rebellion in Upper Canada, were rented out once again to various commercial tenants, including a company that manufactured neon signs. Rediscovered by the avant garde, their remaining habitable spaces were occupied by artists’ studios, including that of Michael Hayden whose outdoor neon sculpture, Duplex, was commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1968.
By the mid 1970s the area to the east of downtown was in a financial upswing. Handsome turn-of-the-century factory and warehouse buildings were being adapted for re-use. George Brown College moved into the old Christie Brown factory while others became theatres, shops, restaurants and offices. A new residential development, the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, was designed to be compatible with the existing buildings. Those at Duke and George, however, were badly decayed and slated for demolition and redevelopment when, on June 30, 1978, they caught fire. Roofless and seriously damaged in the aftermath they became a hulking ruin.
Despite this, in 1979, the Bank of Upper Canada building was declared a National Historic Site. That slim sliver of hope was enough to encourage Sheldon Godfrey, a lawyer and historian committed to the restoration of early Toronto buildings, to purchase the derelict block and undertake its renaissance. As the painstaking work progressed throughout 1980, the original Georgian character of the post-office building gradually emerged. While researching in the Baldwin Room of the Toronto Reference Library, Mrs. Judy Godfrey discovered proof that the bricked-up eyesore on the eastern end of the complex was Toronto's long-forgotten first post office.
Once this fact and the identity of its original owner had been established, the proclivity of James Scott Howard to maintain written records became invaluable. Among his family papers, housed at the Archives of Ontario, was discovered an invoice from the contractor for the interior construction and decoration in 1833. Based on this document and on additional research into post offices of the British colonial period, the facility has been restored as accurately as possible. Reopened as a post office in 1983, and renovated in 2002 thanks to a grant from Benjamin Moore, it is now a living museum and a National Historic Site.
Thomas Denne Harris Residence, c. 1869, J. Ross Robertson Collection, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library
Bank of Upper Canada & De La Salle Institute, 1872, courtesy of the Toronto Public Library
United Farmers'; Co-operative Co. Limited, 1927, courtesy U.F.C. Archives
Photograph of the buildings in December of 1979 courtesy of Sheldon and Judy Godfrey