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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Opening up the past

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A fascinating artifact from our city's architectural history lies in storage at Black Creek Pioneer Village.

The Toronto fire of April 1849 leveled the whole of the north side of King Street between Church and Jarvis, including St. James Cathedral and the T.D. Harris hardware store. Before the year was out, activity was under way to replace the structures that had burned east of the church. In place of the previous rows of wooden shops, handsome new brick and stone terraces arose. Their elevations were built uniformly but each unit had separate ownership. Hence, Harris was able to retain the architect John George Howard to plan all aspects of his shop, No. 4 in the St. James Buildings, at 124 King Street East.

These plans included an impressive pair of heavy main doors that folded into pockets on either side during the day, but were closed to bar against intruders at night. They were crafted in Grecian style, made of pine, heavily beaded and molded, with only the lightest of handles on the exterior. Clearly they were meant to be opened and closed from behind. Harris had his name set in metal into the pavement at the threshold.

After Harris withdrew from business, perhaps in the 1860s, his shop was leased or sold to others. The last occupant of 124 King St. E. (before the terrace was demolished in 1968) was George Keith & Sons, seed-dealers; they had been there for decades.

In 1969, the managers of Gooderham & Worts Distillery (known today as the Distillery District) offered Black Creek Pioneer Village a donation of several pieces of obsolete equipment. They may also have offered as a courtesy to pick up the Harris-Keith doors that had been saved from the demolition, although the provenance of these items was forgotten almost immediately after they were delivered.

Jim Hunter, collections registrar at Black Creek, set out a few years ago to determine where the doors might have been used originally on the G&W site. They bore a striking resemblance to an illustrated image of Keith's store in Eric Arthur's book Toronto: No Mean City. And yes, immediately below the main fielded panel of the Black Creek doors, there were key identifying characteristics: the mail slot; the light, t-shaped iron handle, still in place; and two barrel-locks, almost invisible under layers of green paint, but positioned exactly as in the photograph.

So what is the future for this interesting object — to remain a hidden gem in Black Creek's storerooms, to be included when the curators are picking materials for a museum of Toronto? Or to be installed in St. Lawrence Hall when a serious renovation of the King Street entrance gets under way? For almost 120 years, these doors were closed at night to the Hall directly opposite, and it seems fitting to restore the relationship if the right opportunity presents itself.