Photo essay: Toronto’s heritage lost, found and reframed

How the mysterious loss of the 13 earliest known photos of Toronto inspired the chronicling of the city's modern skyline



More than most cities, Toronto is like a palimpsest, a sheet of parchment that’s been scraped clean and written on again and again. Each time it happens, much of the city’s heritage fades away, but some ghosts remain frozen in time, as seen in the earliest photographs of Toronto taken more than 160 years ago.  

In 1856, William Armstrong, Daniel Manders Beere and Humphrey Lloyd Hime hauled their bulky glass plate camera onto the roof of the Rossin House Hotel at King and York. It was still under construction, but destined to become, at five storeys, the tallest building in the city.

Their commission: to create a panorama that the city would send to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London in its bid to win the competition with Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City and Kingston, to become the capital of Canada. 

As we know, Queen Victoria’s choice on December 31, 1857, was Ottawa, the city that was most remote from centres of power in Ontario and Quebec, on the frontier between both and further than any other city from risk of invasion by the United States.

But something happened to the Toronto panorama and 13 street views that were sent to London (numbered in timeline below). That mystery lasted more than 120 years.

In the enchantingly fictionalized account in his 2006 novel Consolation, Michael Redhill leaps from the 1850s to the 1990s. He conjures a marvellous tale of the glass plate negatives sealed in a metal box for their return to Canada, but lost when the ship carrying them founders during a storm in Toronto Harbour. 

Redhill’s 20th-century hero in the novel, dying archaeologist David Hollis, insists the negatives survived and might be found in an area of the waterfront that got landfilled to allow construction of a skyscraper. 

The real story of the finding of the Toronto panorama is almost as intriguing. In 1979, historian Joan Schwartz was looking for photographs of the British Columbia gold rush in the library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and found the panorama. In 1984, copies of them were “gifted” to Toronto for its sesquicentennial. Today, The Photographs Of Armstrong, Beere And Hime are on display in the lobby of the City of Toronto Archives at 255 Spadina Road and online.

In 2015, members of Architectural Conservancy Ontario made their own Toronto Panorama, which was completed last year. The 26-storey National Bank that now stands at King and York is much taller than the Rossin House Hotel (which was demolished in 1969) but lower than its neighbours, so they took their photos from the roof of the nearby 43-storey downtown Sheraton hotel across from Nathan Phillips Square. 

The result: a panorama of a city dramatically different from the Toronto of 1857, a city that has been rebuilt so many times over the past 161 years, very few of the buildings seen by Armstrong, Beere and Hime still exist.


A Toronto timeline 1857-present

Map-of-Toronto-(circa-1857)-Photo-1.jpg

Map of Toronto, circa 1857, bounded by Garrison Creek, Bloor, Don Valley and Lake Ontario.


Rossin House Hotel Photo 2.jpg

Rossin House Hotel, southeast corner of King and York streets. At five storeys, it was the tallest building in Toronto when completed in 1856. The 13-photograph panorama of Toronto, which today sits in the city’s archives, was taken from its roof in 1857.


Sheraton-Centre-Photo-3.jpg

Sheraton Centre just northeast of the former Rossin House Hotel. A modern panorama of Toronto mirroring the one taken in 1857 was shot from the Sheraton Centre’s 43-storey roof starting in 2015. The project was completed in 2017. 


John Thomas and Sons Pianoforte Manufactory Photo 4.jpg

1. John Thomas and Sons Pianoforte Manufactory on King West. To the left is Government House, built in 1798, the residence of the Lieutenant Governor. By the mid-1850s many King Street residences were being converted for hotel and commercial use.


Former-Bank-of-Canada-Blding-Photo-5.jpg

Looking west along Adelaide and Richmond over the former Bank of Canada building on University, completed in 1958. 


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2. Looking northwest from King West, the large two- to three-storey houses of frame, brick and stone illustrate the city’s increasing prosperity.


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Looking west-northwest, across University. Campbell House (in white circle, built 1822) is dwarfed by Canada Life Building (1931). U.S. Consulate and University Club appear further north (in blue circle). At the top of the frame is 426 University, whose entrance is a reproduced facade of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, which stood on this site from 1908-2007.


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3. Looking north-northwest over King. In the foreground are buildings in the less fashionable end of Boulton Street. In the left background is the south end of Grange Park and the spire of the Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr built in 1844.


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Whitney Block, Queen’s Park built in 1926. The tower was added in 1932.


York Street:Osgoode Hall Photo 14.jpg

4. Taverns, small shops and houses on York lead to Osgoode Hall (built 1829-1832), which, it was hoped, would transform the area by acting as the terminus of a grand avenue leading from Toronto harbour.


Osgoode Hall Photo 15.jpg

The view above Osgoode Hall today.


Ritchie Terrace on Adelaide West Photo 17.jpg

5. Seven new houses of Ritchie Terrace on Adelaide West with the red brick home of John Ritchie to the left and Osgoode Hall in behind. Roofs of St. John’s Ward, aka “the Ward.” To the right is the site of the new City Hall. 


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6. Looking northeast to Bay and Temperance. Gothic churches at right are Knox Presbyterian and Bay Street First United Presbyterian.


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Just north of Bay and Temperance looking northeast to new City Hall today (completed 1965), old City Hall (completed 1898) and Bell Trinity Square (built 1980-1983). 


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7. Primitive Methodist Chapel built in 1832 as seen looking northeast from King toward Yonge.


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Thicket of towers looking northeast today with Sick Kids Hospital and The One on Bloor, which will be Toronto’s tallest skyscraper when completed. 


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8. Older frame buildings on King looking toward York would be destroyed by fire in 1861. In the distance is the cupola of St. Lawrence Hall. Note wooden sidewalks, crosswalks and re-surfacing of roadway. 


Thomson Building Photo 25.jpg

Looking east along Queen at Bay. Old City Hall cenotaph at left with Cadillac Fairview tower beyond that. Thomson Building at lower centre.


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9. Toronto’s first theatre, the Royal Lyceum, was built in 1848 just north of what is now the financial district. 


East-southeast-financial-district-Photo-29.jpg

East-southeast toward the financial district today.


Commerce-Court-North-Tower-Photo-31.jpg

Commerce Court North tower (opened 1931), once the tallest building in the British Empire, flanked by the former Trump Tower (now St. Regis) and Scotia Plaza at left, First Canadian Place at right.


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Close up of Commerce Court North, Leslie Street Spit and Lake Ontario beyond.


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10. Henry John Boulton’s Holland House and William Warren Baldwin’s residence in the foreground looking south-southeast toward site of present Union Station.  


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Fairmont Royal York Hotel built between 1927-1929 framed by Telus tower. 


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11. The view from the future site of the Royal York Hotel looking to Tinning’s Wharf, south of the Grand Trunk Railway tracks (note the train) near site of the present Union Station.


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CN Tower (built between 1973-76) fenced in by newer tall buildings.


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12. York Street looking toward Toronto Bay. Beyond the steamship (top right) in this photo is the future site of Billy Bishop Airport at the western end of the Toronto Islands.


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Shangri-La Toronto at Adelaide and University (built between 2008-2012.)


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13. Parliament Buildings occupy the block southwest of Shangri-La in 1856. 


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