Periodically, a news story about unwanted old upright pianos makes the rounds. It seems like no one wants them, but there are a lot of them around. There was a time when almost every Toronto household had a piano, even those that could barely afford one. Pianos have always been an interesting aspect of Toronto’s economic and social history, with Heintzman and Nordheimer having become household names.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that our neighbourhood has a connection to this piano heritage. Specifically, 107 Church Street, one block north of Lombard Street, on the northeast corner of Church and Richmond.
Today, 107 Church Street is a rather nondescript building. A 1972 photo shows what used to be on that corner. There are strong indications that the current façade covers the older building. The doorways are in the same location both on Richmond and Church, and the retail space with windows is the same. The number of bays on the heritage building (7 on the Church side and 6 on the Richmond side) match the number of elongated window openings on the current building and the two centre windows on the south side are closer together than the rest.
An early business at 107 Church Street was the Octavius Newcombe Piano Company. The 1891 publication of Toronto, Old and New by Graeme Mercer Adam, provides a picture of the building around that time and also states that the building was completed in 1879.
Octavius Newcombe had a successful career with the Quebec Bank (its headquarters was a building on the northwest corner of King and Toronto Streets and it still stands today), when he turned to commercial interests. He started in the piano business by entering into a partnership with the well-known Mason and Risch piano company. . For a brief period they operated as Mason, Risch & Newcombe.
After eight years, Newcombe formed his own pianoforte company called Octavius Newcombe & Company. He built high quality, durable pianos that were mainly distributed in Canada. After winning some awards, including a Paris Exhibition Gold Medal in 1900, his business expanded to the US and Europe. In addition to the Church Street property, he had a large factory on Bellwoods Avenue. Octavius died in 1905. His brother carried on the business but vacated the Church Street building that same year. In the 1930s The Lansdowne Piano Company bought the rights to produce pianos using the Newcombe name, which they did until 1960.
After Newcombe Pianos vacated 107 Church Street, two brothers, Charles and Theodore Young, opened a fancy goods manufacturing business under the name Young Bros. The term “fancy goods” referred to any goods that were not staples; in many cases it meant “ready-to-wear” fashions. In the case of the Young Brothers it meant souvenirs and leather goods. The brothers were born in Dundas, Ontario; it was their father William A. Young, who had emigrated from Berlin via the US to Ontario and operated a “last and peg” company (wooden model feet used for shoe making). The Young Brothers remained at 107 Church Street from 1906 to 1910, afterwards moving their business to various other locations in the city.
In the 1910’s, a furnace maker, plumber, and the Canadian Pneumatic Tool Company each had short stays in the building. The latter marketed air-powered industrial tools as well as the Little Giant Worm Drive Truck.
The next tenant of 107 Church Street was The Harpham Brothers. Horace Harpham came to Canada in 1913. “There he became involved in the selling and Maintenance of British-made Motor Trucks. In 1919, along with his two younger brothers who had followed him to North America, he established Harpham Brothers, the first Firestone tire dealership in Toronto.” Horace may have worked for the Canadian Pneumatic Tool Company. A 1914 picture showing him driving a British made Commers Truck, the same truck in the “Little Giant” advertisement by Canadian Pneumatic. By 1920, Harpham Brothers, a truck and tire dealership, is working out of 107 Church Street. They were the first Firestone tire dealership in the city.
It was a smart location for a tire dealership; the McLaughlin building and garage was across the street and, in 1925, the St. James Parking Garage opened one block south. This cluster of automobile-related businesses was a harbinger of the city’s love affair with automobiles and the massive levelling of buildings that later occurred to make way for parking lots. Harpham Brothers left the building in 1929, but their business remained in operation until 1969.
Star Electric Fixtures, a lamp retailer, used the building as retail space from 1930 to about 1943. Their factory and showroom at 99-101 Queen Street East was later became Much Music’s Electric Circus dance club. Today it is the Carbon Bar Restaurant.
In the 1950’s, 107 Church Street was one of four Pattenick’s store locations. They sold discounted clothing for men, women, and children.
During the 1960s and early 1970s the Gourmet Cafeteria served up corned beef on rye, but the building was mostly vacant. In 1976, it was renovated by Edward Okun. (I am not sure if this is the same Miami real estate developer Edward Okun who was convicted of a Ponzi scheme fraud and sentenced to life in prison!).
Today, the building is owned by GOP Enterprises and is tenanted by several jewellery businesses. Before Wild Wings opened in 2010, there was a Coffee Time at street level for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s.
From pianos, fancy goods, trucks, tires, and jewellery, 107 Church Street has been a hard working building. Let’s hope that one day the 1879 façade will be restored.
Sources Consulted: Online museum at antiquepianoshop.com; City of Toronto Archives photos as credited; Historical Newspapers via ProQuest: Toronto Daily Star March 5, 1952, Toronto Star Dec 6, 1936, Globe & Mail August 9, 1924 and September 5, 1918; Graeme Mercer Adam, Toronto, Old and New, 1891; Wayne Kelly, Downright Upright: A History of the Canadian Piano Industry, published by Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1991; interview with Adom Knadjian; http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/; findagrave.com