Hidden Toronto: Albany Club

Much has changed in Canada’s view of the Conservative movement since the establishment of the Albany Club post-Confederation in honour of John A. Macdonald


Nick Lachance

What

Albany Club of Toronto

Where

91 King East

Why you should check it out

Much has changed since the Albany Club, Canada’s oldest private club, was established a decade after confederation in 1882 by friends and supporters of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.

John A. is no longer a revered symbol of Canadian history. Statues erected in honour of Macdonald are being removed across the country owing to his role as the author of one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history – the establishment of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools system.

Much has also changed for the Conservative movement. Arguably, the party of John A. has never been more divided after the fallout following the most recent federal election.

Many tense discussions in the club’s wood-panelled rooms have set the course for conservatism in Canada. Those discussions will no doubt continue with some urgency. But the club itself has been slower to change.

A 1921 Toronto Star article quoted in the club’s history still proudly observes: “Only a Tory of unusual calibre can belong to the Albany… no Marxian Socialist has ever leaned over these balustrades… no Prairie Agrarian ever sits in these grand old upholsteries.“

Indeed. “All races and nationalities and religion” are welcome today, to what began as an old boys club. The Toronto of the 19th century was not a welcoming place to outsiders. The club notes that it has accepted Protestant, Catholic and Jewish members since its inception. 

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that its board of directors passed a recommendation tabled by one of its newest members, Ted Rogers, that the club “could best attract much-needed members by recruiting Conservatives – regardless of their nationality, ethnic background or religion.” 

And it wasn’t until 1979 that the club welcomed its first female members, although the fourth floor of the club would remain the purview of male members only until then-president Hal Jackman had lunch with club member Susan Murray in 1982. Female members have had full access to the club ever since. Its current president is Linda Franklin.

The Albany Club was first located at 75 Bay. Its facilities consisted of a dining room, a coffee room, a reading room, a smoking room, a billiards room and bedrooms that would eventually be converted to private meeting rooms. The self-described “home of Canadian Conservatives and business leaders” moved to its current location on King East in 1898. Former Conservative prime ministers and premiers as well as mayors have been members, among them Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney. The club’s roots go back to the Crown.

It was named after Queen Victoria’s eighth and youngest child, Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany, whose sister, Princess Louise, was married to Canada’s Governor-General, the Marquess of Lorne. 

The Duke, however, was born with hemophilia and also reportedly suffered from epilepsy. He would die tragically of a cerebral hemorrhage after hitting his head in a fall. He was 30 years of age.

The limestone building that houses the club today has survived its own close calls. It was designed by Charles John Gibson, whose other notable architectural works include the mansions of stately Rosedale as well as St. Jude’s Anglican Mission Church on Roncesvalles and the Victoria Industrial School for Boys in Mimico

The club occupies the former site of the Town of York’s first courthouse, near what was then a row of commercial warehouses and a thriving part of the town. But as York grew northward the area became less a centre of commercial activity. The Albany Club continued to survive nonetheless.

But it looked like it would close for good when a proposal to redevelop the site for condos was submitted to the city in 2012. That plan never got off the ground, thanks in part to the building’s heritage designation. 

Development pressure, however, continues to encroach on the area. In 2019, construction of an 18-storey office tower taking up the stretch between Church and Victoria next to the club got underway and is now nearing completion. The club was closed for much of the pandemic. It has since reopened to welcome back members. The club has also become a popular venue for weddings and other events to help keep it financially solvent. The future of the Conservative movement it seeks to promote, however, seems less inviting than the “old flag, old policy, old leader” days of Macdonald. 

Nick Lachance
Read all of NOW’s Hidden Toronto stories here

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

@enzodimatteo

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