GYRA is a leading advocate for the protection and preservation of Yorkville’s built heritage and cultural assets.  GYRA works closely with Architectural Conservancy Ontario and Heritage Toronto to prevent the destruction of the few remaining heritage buildings, and to commemorating Yorkville’s heritage assets.  The GYRA Board of Directors includes a distinguished heritage architect, and a highly respected historian.  

To commemorate Yorkville’s rich history, GYRA embarked on a series of plaques to ensure Yorkville’s heritage and cultural assets are not forgotten.

With steward Heritage Toronto and local historians, GYRA’s first initiative was the “Village of Yorkville” and “Yorkville Town Hall” plaques, located in front of Town Hall Square, the former site of the Yorkville Town Hall.

GYRA’s next venture was the narration of the evolution of Davenport Road – from ancient trail – to rural road – to urban street.  The stories are told on three double-sided glass panels, six-feet in height, installed in Frank Stollery Parkette.

Yorkville’s most colourful period was the bohemian 1960s coffee house and music scene.  The Riverboat Coffee House plaque is installed on the sidewalk in front of the 5-star Hazelton Hotel, where the Riverboat introduced many of Canada’s iconic singer-songwriters.  Plaques are in the works for the Purple Onion, the Penny Farthing, and an introductory plaque featuring a map of all the Yorkville coffee houses and clubs.

Village of Yorkville

Like many early Ontario communities, Yorkville began with a hotel, the Red Lion Inn, built in 1808.  It was the first stage coach stop on Yonge Street, north of Bloor, which was the primary route for travel from around the province to the market located on Scollard Street and Davenport Road.  The hotel played a significant role in Yorkville's history, for within these walls the Yorkville community and Potter's Field Cemetery was planned, plots were hatched for the 1837 Rebellion led by William Lyon MacKenzie, and the hotel, also known as an "inn", supported Yorkville's brewing industry.  In 1812 the owner tried unsuccessfully to sell his Inn and 200 surrounding acres for $400.  Today, all that remains of the Red Lion Inn is its north wall, Starbuck's south wall.

Founded in 1808, Yorkville owes its growth to James Dobson, a builder, businessman, and Yorkville’s first reeve and postmaster.  Dobson purchased land along the west side of Yonge Street and laid out lots. His post office and general store was located on the site of today’s Town Hall Square.  The lots along Yonge Street were reserved for a town hall (built 1859-1860).  In 1830, Joseph Bloore an innkeeper, brewer and land speculator, and William Botsford Jarvis, sheriff, politician, land speculator and entrepreneur purchased and sub-divided land into small lots on new side streets "to those interested in living in the cleaner air outside of York" (Toronto's former name).  In 1853, with a population of 1,000, Yorkville was eligible to incorporate as a Village.   In 1883, with an increasing population stretching the costs of municipal services, the Village of Yorkville requested annexation to the City of Toronto.  

During the 19th century Yorkville boasted 17 hotels or inns, all concentrated in the oldest part of the Village from Yonge Street to Avenue Road, south of Davenport Road.  There were hotels that were taverns, and taverns that were hotels, to accommodate European immigrants en route to their grant of land,  spaced a mile and a quarter apart up Yonge Street, housing horses in drive-sheds, and serving as stagecoach stops and mail depots.  

Established in 1830, the Joseph Bloore Brewery was situated in the Rosedale Valley Ravine close to the Severn Creek.  The creek was dammed for water power and the mill pond, several acres in diameter, would be enjoyed in the summer for swimming and rafting, and in the winter for skating.  Around 1832, George Severn established the Yorkville Brewery on the south-east corner of Yonge & Davenport with a 4-storey building housing stock cellars and vaults, and a three-storey malt house.  In 1867, a fifteen horsepower steam engine was in use and the brewery produced between 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of ale and porter weekly.  

From the 1840s to the 1890s, brick and tile manufacturing flourished in the Village.  The Yorkville Brick Yard was located in today's Ramsden Park.  Rich in clay and sand deposits left by the ancient Lake Iroquois, the brick yard produced Yorkville's famous yellowish-white brick, and can be seen in many prominent buildings including the Yorkville Fire Hall, St. Michael's Cathedral, and St James Cathedral.  Among the brick makers were three inter-married families who carried out brick making for several generations and in the mid-1880s, employed about sixty men, producing from four to six million bricks a year.

Toronto's first public transportation company, was the Williams Omnibus Bus Line, owned by furniture maker and undertaker, Burt Williams, established in 1849 with four six-passenger buses, manufactured by William's own cabinet-making store at 140 Yonge Street. For six pence passengers were carried in horse-drawn stage coaches between the St. Lawrence Market and the Red Lion Inn.  The first horse-drawn street railway, owned by Toronto Street Railway, commenced service in 1861 carrying passengers between the Yorkville Town Hall and the St. Lawrence Market.  In the first year the company owned eleven horsecars, and grew to 262 cars, 100 omnibuses, 100 sleighs, and 1,356 horses.  In 1892, the horse-drawn cars were replaced with electric cars. In 1833, private companies were contracted to build, improve and maintain roads, in return for which they were permitted to collect tolls from the road users.  The Davenport route had five tollgates between the Humber and the Don Rivers, the first at Yonge & Bloor and the fifth at Lambton. Tollgate Number 3 situated at Davenport & Bathurst included a cottage, home to the toll-keeper and his family.  

Rescued by Community History Project, the Cottage was painstakingly restored and today operates as a museum.    

Posted on the Tollkeepers Cottage website are the 1851 tolls:

For a vehicle drawn by two-horses: six pence
Each additional horse or beast: two pence
Vehicle drawn by one horse: three pence
Horse Ass or Mule: two pence
Score of Cattle: one pence
Score of Sheep: one pence

Photo courtesy of torontoplaques.com

Yorkville Town Hall

Built with the yellowish-white bricks from the Yorkville Brickyards, the Yorkville Town Hall opened in 1860 on the site of the present day 18 Yorkville condominium building, and included a police station with a lockup.  In the second floor Council Chamber, Yorkville politicians debated, among other things, “the running at large of Pigs and Swine and Poultry”, the planking of sidewalks and the “prevention of immoderate driving.”  The Williams Omnibus company pastured their horses on lots behind the Town Hall.  The building was destroyed by fire in 1941.  All that remains is the carved stone coat-of-arms, now mounted on the Yorkville Fire Hall.  The five symbols represent the occupations of the first councillors:  brewer George Severn, brick maker Thomas Atkinson, carpenter Reeve James Dobson, blacksmith James Wallis, and butcher Peter Hutty.

Photo courtesy of torontoplaques.com

Yorkville in the 60s

The Birthplace of Canadian Song

During the 1960s, the Village of Yorkville was the heart of the folk music scene. Some forty coffee- houses and clubs opened their doors nightly to singer-songwriters such as Ian & Sylvia, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Murray McLauchlan, Bruce Cockburn and Dan Hill, who performed their first compositions in these smoky venues.

Hundreds of singer-songwriters and musicians from all over Canada flocked to the Village, and their music evolved to include blues, pop and psychedelic rock. Hippies, flower-children, and long-haired teenagers thronged the streets to revel in the sounds of this legendary music mecca.

The Riverboat Coffee House was the most famous of Yorkville’s coffeehouses, where Canadian luminaries including Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell played. Other venues such as the Purple Onion, the Mynah Bird, El Patio, Chez Monique, the Night Owl, and the Penny Farthing featured Leonard Cohen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, David Clayton Thomas, Stitch in Tyme, the Paupers, the Sparrows, the Mynah Birds, Kensington Market, and Luke & the Apostles, to name a few of the many, many singers and musicians who further defined Canadian music.

Three recording studios were located in Yorkville, and attracted major acts like The Guess Who, Anne Murray, and Lighthouse. Yorkville can proudly claim to be the vibrant birthplace of Canadian song.

The Riverboat Coffee House Lament

All the coffeehouses and clubs from those psychedelic love-in days are long gone
The smoke has cleared
Mini-skirts and go-go boots have been tossed aside
Pretty flowers in the hair have long withered
Love beads have lost their lustre
Carefree hippies have settled into middle-age contentment
Yorkville now sanitized with designer boutiques and up-scale condos
And on the Riverboat site sits the five-star Hazelton Hotel

© 2009 Gee Chung

Evolution of Davenport Rd

Ancient Trail - Beneath the winding course of Davenport Road lies hidden an ancient trail created by Aboriginal peoples. The trail linked their settlements with hunting and fishing grounds, and with trade routes that tied this region to the upper Great lakes, the Atlantic coast, and the Midwest.

Between the Humber and the Don Rivers, the ancient footpath avoided difficult terrain by weaving along the foot of the escarpment that is one of Toronto’s most distinctive geological features - the shoreline of 13,500-year-old glacial Lake Iroquois, forerunner of much smaller Lake Ontario. This meandering route, at odds with the city’s rectangular street grid, now connects us to the distant past.

Rural Road - The ancient trail beneath Davenport Road may have become known to Europeans in the 1600s, when French traders, missionaries, and soldiers entered this area.  With the arrival of British settlers and the establishment in 1793 of the Town of York (now Toronto) the footpath was forever transformed. The trail through the forests allowed travel to and from newly settled lands, and was eventually widened to accommodate horses and wagons. The new road was named "Davenport" after a house built on the escarpment for John McGill in 1797.

Urban Street - As the forest along its length was cleared for farms and industry, the ancient trail beneath Davenport Road became an important link to small villages, such as Yorkville and Carlton, and to the City of Toronto's markets. From the 1830s, the former Lake Iroquois deposits of gravel, clay and sand were transported along Davenport Road for the building of the City.

Paved in one section with wooden planks in the mid-19th century, Davenport Road featured toll booths at its major intersections to finance the roadwork - one has survived at Bathurst Street, and is now a museum. By the 1890s, an electric street railway ran along Davenport west from Bathurst. Since the 1930s, increased automobile traffic has led to further widening of the road.

Created by ancient peoples, the Davenport Road route is today a busy urban thoroughfare.