Hidden Toronto: Graymar House

It was an important part of the commercial core of old Toronto, but the history of 29 Jarvis remains mostly a mystery


City of Toronto Archives

The Haymarket Weigh House outside Graymar House, circa 1970.

What 

Graymar House 

Where 

29 Jarvis 

Why you should check it out 

It’s listed simply as 29 Jarvis in the city’s registry of heritage properties. No special names. No indication of a notable Torontonian who once owned it. The registry indicates it was built sometime between 1830 and 1840. And that it was a hotel at one time.

St. Lawrence Market historian Bruce Bell reports that Graymar House, as the building was known when it was a hotel, “catered mostly to farmers that were coming into our city from their farms in Richmond Hill, Scarborough, etcetera, and would stay there on Friday night so they would be close to the market when it opened at 5 am on Saturday morning.”

The building’s connection to a row of commercial properties facing Front Street is also noteworthy. Sure enough. Just outside the hotel stood the weigh house for the hay market where hay brought in from local farms would be weighed and sold to wholesalers on the street. 

“Hay was the gasoline of its day,” says Bell.

It’s believed, says Bell, that Henry Bowyer Lane, the architect who designed the first city hall on the current site of St. Lawrence Market, also designed Graymar House. Bell notes “the same two-tone brick was used.” But it’s not entirely clear when Graymar House was built.

Back when the area at Jarvis and Front formed the commercial core of the old Town of York, there were few buildings made of brick. Campbell House, the Grange and the Bank of Upper Canada just around the corner on Adelaide were made of brick. Campbell House and the Grange would later be moved to their current locations to be preserved and make room for the old town’s growth.

Smaller brick-making operations existed at the time, but it wouldn’t be until the end of the 19th-century that the Don Valley Brick Works would supply a growing city with the clay to fire rapid development.

Jarvis Street, then known as New Street, was the road that was designated to blaze the path for the expansion of the town northward. 

But the Great Fire of Toronto on April 7, 1849, also known as the Cathedral Fire for taking out St. James Church, gutted all the buildings in the market as well as the area between Jarvis and Church all the way north to present-day Adelaide. Wind threatened to blow the fire further west and north but a rain shower would spare the area west of Church. 

While city records indicate that the construction of Graymar House was completed in 1840, Bell says there’s some evidence to suggest it may have been built after the fire.

Nevertheless, even before fire ravaged the market, the winds of political change and plans for redevelopment were already afoot to extend New Street’s reach north beyond Wellesley. That decision would prove fortuitous, laying the groundwork after the fire for the re-establishment of the market area as a commercial centre and for future economic growth of the city.

The expansion northward began with the purchase of the estate of Samuel Jarvis in 1845, for whom the future Jarvis Street would be named. 

The road leading up to Jarvis’s estate, known as Hazel Burn, lay just north of the market at Jarvis and Queen. The 50 hectares it sat on was originally parcelled off to Samuel’s father, William, the first registrar and secretary of Upper Canada.

Jarvis, like his old man, was a member of the Family Compact that ran the colony.

But unlike his father, he was a lout. According to his biography, Jarvis was “a man of questionable competence.” That may be understating it. 

In fact, he had been forced to sell the estate he inherited to repay some £4,000 he stole from the Indian Department in Upper Canada, for which he served as chief superintendent.

The department headed up relations with the colony’s Indigenous population, but Jarvis and others who ran it seemed more concerned with lining their pockets.

A commission set up to look into the department’s operations uncovered widespread briberyfraudreligious discrimination and “lack of interest in the welfare of the Indians” under Jarvis’s watch.

Prior to Jarvis’s troubles in the Indian Department, he was charged with murder in 1817 over the death of 18-year-old John Ridout after a gun duel between the two men had gone awry. The dispute was reportedly over money, some 100 pounds. 

Jarvis would be acquitted. No surprise there. The following year he would marry Mary Boyles Powell, the daughter of William Dummer Powell, the judge who presided over his trial. Despite various blots on his public record and reputation, he would go on to lead a life of leisure after his retirement in 1847.

“Samuel Peters Jarvis, attempting the life of an 18th-century tory squire, had become an anachronism,” is how his life would be encapsulated in his biography.

Graymar House would go on to become an anachronism of sorts in its own right. In 1984, it would receive a heritage designation, around the time when the building was occupied by a Golden Griddle. It’s been home to a number of different establishments since then, continuing a 200-year history in the market area – albeit less noteworthy – that actually goes back to the arrival of French explorers and fur-traders in the mid-1600s. The Pioneer Memorial just steps from the former Graymar House tells that story.

Samuel Engelking

Read all of NOW’s Hidden Toronto stories here.

Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks

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