Toronto’s First Post Office was a gift to us

‘Tis the season to think about gifts, and remember some of the best ones received in past years

By Ewa Jarmicka –

The meticulously restored 19th-century post office at 260 Adelaide St. East was a gift to the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, delivered on December 15, 1983. Few if any Canadian communities ever received a gift on the same scale from a private donor; in the light of 2011 realities it seems magical. Yet while it restores one’s faith in the creative energy of generosity, it also provides an example of how a community can take for granted a treasure in its midst.

Santa and Mrs. Claus in the case of Toronto’s First Post Office were Sheldon and Judy Godfrey, but they weren’t thinking in terms of a Hanukkah or Christmas gift to the SLN. What inspired them to take on four years of incredibly hard work, mind-bending stresses and heart-stopping surprises was a conviction that community involvement by individuals is the backbone of a democratic society.

In 1979 Sheldon Godfrey bought “a grey hulking jumble” of three-storey buildings at 252-264 Adelaide St. East which had been connected internally over many years. Even before a fire in 1978 did major damage to a middle portion, most of the parcel was abandoned. A bird’s eye photograph is depressing; it shows a mess that only a history buff would look at even once.

Cue Sheldon Godfrey. He and his wife Judy were born in Toronto. He earned an MA in Canadian history, then a law degree, and became a lawyer who collects things historical because he respects history. After inheriting the unique Dixon Building at 49 Front St. East, he restored it. When the block on Adelaide St. East needed him, he accepted the challenge.

Judy Godfrey made her mark as an innovative physio and occupational therapist and then became very involved with her husband’s sideline. She once remarked that she “shifted from rehabilitating people to rehabilitating buildings.” Today, their separate and joint websites reveal what stunningly productive lives they’ve led since their marriage 50 years ago, aside from raising three sons.

In 1979 the Godfreys knew that the neo-classical limestone structure at the northeast corner of George and Adelaide was built in the 1820s by Upper Canada’s first bank and served members of the Family Compact. After it went bankrupt, the building and gardens on its east side were bought in 1871 by the Christian Brothers teaching order, to use for offices. They built, of expensive white brick in Second Empire style, the De La Salle Institute for boys, and later attached to it the Georgian red-brick private home next door.

Thereafter, the buildings were considered one property and changed hands several times before the 1970s. While her husband sought advisors, contractors, tenants, and above all donors of funds for the project, Judy Godfrey spent every spare hour hunting for details of the original interiors, such as paint colors and window, door, and fireplace styles.

Photographs she found in Toronto’s Reference Library and the Ontario Archives proved beyond any doubt that the structure at the far east end, the most abused of the entire block over the years (in ’79 it was still being used as a windowless cold storage plant) was in fact Toronto’s long-forgotten first post office. It had been built by Postmaster James Scott Howard in 1833 as the fourth post office to serve the town of York, which was renamed and incorporated the following year as Toronto.

Because it was the communications hub of Upper Canada at the time of William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion in 1837, the elegant Georgian building is arguably even more significant than the bank building. In their book Stones, Bricks, and History, the Godfreys report what they learned about each part of the complex and the many different uses during 150 years, such as a World War I Air Force recruiting centre, artists’ studios, the United Farmers Co-operative Co. Limited, and the workshop in which Imperial Oil’s iconic oval “Esso” signs were created.

The total cost of restoring the “jumble” was never revealed, but someone qualified to guess put it at “about $1 million” in 1983 when the post office re-opened. Mr. Godfrey said at the time that it was “just about the limit of what ordinary people should be trying to do.” The non-profit Town of York Historical Society was established in 1983 to operate 260 Adelaide St. East, and he is still a member of its board of directors.

Today, the oldest purpose-built post-office building in Canada offers full 21st-century postal services. Open seven days a week, as it was in the 1830s, it has more than 200 mail boxes for rent and a writing room with quill pens, paper, ink, sand for blotting and red wax for sealing. There are, too, philatelic materials, books and historical mementoes for sale, hand-cancelling of stamps, and seasonal programs for all ages. At the very back is a large scale model of Toronto in 1837, commissioned by the Society.

This unique “living museum” now needs the community it serves so well to give in return. Using its postal services (instead of ones in pharmacies) is one way. A membership ($25 individual, $40 per family) in TYHS is rewarded with excellent quarterly newsletters and an annual general meeting in different historical venues such as the Arts and Letters Club. Because the post office is staffed by only one person, volunteers are needed to help visitors appreciate the museum. Finally, community members with business experience can contribute significantly by sitting on the TYHS board of directors, which meets for one hour 11 times a year. Events commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 are currently being planned, as is the annual March 6 celebration of Toronto’s incorporation.