I was really sorry to see that the Nicholas Hoare bookstore on Front Street with its old world look, creaky wooden floors and well-stacked shelves has closed. But I’m not surprised because bookstores seem to be going the way of the dry goods store.
In the early 19th century a dry goods store was a staple of any neighbourhood where one could buy a bag of chicken feed or a new hat.
But as essential as they were the dry goods stores gave way for the more opulent shopping experience, the Emporium.
By the mid 19th century Toronto had an abundance of grand shopping emporiums including the Golden Lion and Golden Griffith. But tastes changed and by the beginning of the 20th century even they had to give way to the more modern department stores like Eaton’s and Simpson’s.
However even these shopping behemoths had their day and soon, if pop-culturists are to be believed, all future shopping and reading will be online anyway, which could be one of the reasons for the demise of the charming local bookstore.
One the first merchants to begin the move away from an all-in-one dry goods store to a more specialty store was Jordan Post. After arriving from Connecticut he purchased land on the south side of King from present-day Yonge over to Bay Street where in the 1820s he set up shop as the town’s first watchmaker.
It is rumoured that the entire block—worth millions today—was purchased by Post for about $800.
Post became one the first tradesmen to see potential in the intersection of King and Yonge streets as a future shopping district and is honoured today with Jordan Street, one street west of Yonge and King. His wife, the former Melinda Woodruff, is remembered in Melinda Street, one street south of King.
Thanks in part to Post, King and Yonge became the new centre of Toronto’s shopping district for the next 100 years, dotted with little family-run shops, eventually growing into larger more elaborate emporiums and arcades, the forerunners to modern shopping malls.
As King and Yonge became more fashionable the area around St. Lawrence Market, once dotted with dry goods stores, started to evolve into a warehousing district for the wholesale trade.
At first these warehouses were nothing more than a few hastily built shacks at the end of a crumpling dock.
However with the arrival of the railroad came construction of more elaborate warehouses, each one surpassing the next with businesses competing to see whose warehouse would be more fashionable than the next.
While many of these spectacular buildings are gone, a few stunners still survive.
The 19th-century warehouses on Front Street East between the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and the new condo development at Church Street are some of the most sophisticated examples of high Victorian Romanticism left in Toronto.
In 1872 the Dixon Building at 45-49 Front St. E. (former home to the Nicholas Hoare bookstore) is Toronto’s only remaining structure with a totally cast-iron façade, an architectural innovation where intricate designs cast in iron could make the exterior look like it was carved in stone, only less expensively.
During the height of the Industrial Age in the mid 19th century anything made of steel was considered state of the art; you had to have it if you wanted your company to be considered leading edge—so much so that the entire south side of Front Street from Yonge to Bay Street, where today the enormous Dominion Federal Building now stands, was known as the Iron Block.
On Feb. 14, 1872, a year after the trendy Iron Block opened for business, a massive fire swept through the entire development where not only did the iron façades literally melt onto the street in a messy liquefied heap of molten steel, but their heavy weight came crashing down on surrounding buildings.
The demise of the Iron Block more or less ended Toronto’s love affair with cast-iron façades, making the Dixon Building among the few left standing today.
During its renovation in the early 1970s, one of the Dixon’s iron exterior pillars was so badly damaged it was replaced with a wooden replica that was only noticeable when knocked upon.
Next door is the Perkins Warehouse (41-43 Front St. E.), built in 1874. With its cut-stone and brick façade, it’s a perfect example of what the business leaders of the late 19th century wanted all who came to Toronto to see: prosperity in the guise of a Venetian palazzo.
Its effect is truly stunning.
It is the Perkins warehouse that artist David Besant painted on the back of the Gooderham (Flatiron) Building in his landmark mural across the street facing Berczy Park.
Next to the Perkins is the Beardmore Building (35-38 Front St. E.), built in 1872 and now a Winners store, originally was a world-renowned harness and saddle-making factory and warehouse.
Its namesake, leather-king George Beardmore, also built one of the most beautiful homes in Toronto, still standing on Beverly Street across from the AGO and now home to the Italian Consulate.
What all these former warehouses share today is a stripped-down, bare-bricked, exposed-beam-ceiling interior. However you can bet in their day they were anything but with dark walnut paneling and heavily detailed ceilings.
These interiors were as sumptuous as their exteriors.
By the time these warehouses were built it had only been a mere 50 years since Toronto was considered a backwater colonial outpost.
In that short span and to prove to the world that we had arrived, a stunning metropolis with the look and feel of an ancient imperial city was starting to emerge and these remaining warehouses with their powerful façades are a true testament to that time.
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