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A former public toilet hiding behind greenery and a white picket fence on the Danforth remains one of Toronto’s most distinctive examples of public works architecture
By Enzo DiMatteo
Aug 1, 2021
Photo by Nick Lachance
Prince Edward Viaduct Public Lavatory
55 Danforth Avenue
The official opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct on October 18, 1918, was a momentous occasion in the history of Toronto. It ushered in a new era for Toronto, bridging a burgeoning city that had been growing on both sides of the banks of the mighty Don.
But the ceremony to mark the occasion was absent of fanfare. Toronto historian Donald Jones describes how the official opening “passed virtually unnoticed by the press and the public.”
It was the final weeks of the First World War and Toronto was also in the grip of a deadly influenza epidemic, so only a few spectators showed up before Mayor Thomas “Tommy” Church called an “abrupt” end to the ceremonies.
“We will not have any more speakers for, if we keep you any longer, we will be violating the Medical Officer’s regulations as to gatherings of people.”
There would also be no public ceremony to mark the opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct Public Lavatory three years later in 1921. Like the viaduct bridging the two solitudes of the city, it would quickly become a welcome sight for those on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the nearby Don Valley, not to mention travellers venturing out of the nearby hotels and area bars that were popping up around Broadview.
It was the start of the Roaring 20s and Toronto was growing by leaps and bounds.
The Danforth was beginning to emerge as a working-class neighbourhood, a far cry from its dusty past only a few decades earlier of unincorporated villages on the other side of the Don.
Across the street from the lavatory, the Playter Society building was quickly becoming a retail and commercial hub in the area. Further east, Allen’s Danforth Theatre, one of 10 playhouses built in Toronto after the Great War, played popular movies of the day.
Broadview was the next frontier of the city. Streetcar service had just begun to extend east of Broadview (which was known as Don Mills Road back then). So it made sense for there to be public washrooms at the nexus of major intersections. The Prince Edward Viaduct Public Lavatory was one of nine built in that era.
The lavatory offered, by the day’s standards, accommodations fit for a prince. The interior featured wood bathroom stalls, brass fixtures and vaulted ceilings. Unlike most of the city’s other public washrooms of the time, which were below street level and tended to be dank and unsanitary, this one was above ground with windows to allow plenty of light in. There were also attendants on duty.
R.C. Harris was commissioner of works at the time and the city had embarked on a number of major works projects to serve Toronto’s booming population and upgrade sanitary and drinking water conditions. An architectural team employed by the city was put to work designing the city’s infrastructure. G. F. W. Price, one of three city architects at the time, was tasked with the job of designing the lavatory.
While it was a small project compared to other large public works proposals of the time, particular attention was paid to its scale to remain in keeping with the residential character of the neighbourhood.
Price designed some of the cities most notable landmarks. Among them: the CNE Coliseum, the Queen West Market building, the Wellington destructor building and the former city morgue on Lombard Street.
But it’s the lavatory that remains one of his most distinctive works, mixing Period Revival, Classical and Medieval architectural stylings with its steeply pitched gable roof, flared eaves and decorated brick, stone and wood exterior.
The lavatory was closed in 1988 after the city determined that it was too expensive to maintain. As Barbara Myrvold writes in Historical Walking Tour Of The Danforth: “With two full-time attendants and only 30 daily users, the Danforth washroom cost $500 a day, or almost $17 a flush, to operate.” So the story goes.
Price’s creation had been designated a heritage property by the city in 1984. A number of organizations expressed interest in taking it over. But the city had other ideas, declaring the property surplus.
Since then, it has gone through a number of incarnations, including as the headquarters of the Thessalonikeans Society of Toronto and the French-language school École Napoleon.
With plans now afloat to remake the viaduct into a pedestrian-friendly avenue, it’s unclear what future plans the city may have for the building. But if you find yourself in the area, it’s worth taking in the architectural gem – and other notable locations in the vicinity – hiding these days behind greenery and a white picket fence.
Hidden Toronto is a weekly feature exploring the city’s alternative history through contemporary landmarks. Read it online each Sunday.
Enzo was born in Belgium and emigrated with his family to Canada in the heat of Trudeaumania. He is a winner of numerous writing awards and the only (alleged) Commie banned from entering Cuba. It’s complicated. Claims to fame: champion wood-chopper.