The morgue at 86 Lombard Street is arguably our street’s most ghoulish coolest buildings. Imagine the stories it could tell! Completed in 1908, it replaced an 1877 one-storey garage-like structure (pictured below) on the northwest corner of Esplanade and Frederick Streets.
It is not clear why the location on Lombard street was chosen for the new morgue, although perhaps the proximity to the Central Fire Hall was a consideration. Before the 1908 morgue was built, a double 2-storey wood building occupied the site for many years (address 90 and 94 Lombard). It was a semi-detached residence separated by a covered passageway, and like many of the homes on Lombard street, it experienced a high turnover of tenants, although some stayed longer. For example, the unit on the right was home to a family headed by William Ryan, a labourer, from at least 1862 to 1876. Patrick Harrington lived at the same property for seven years from 1885 to 1892, along with other boarders who changed yearly— William Roberts, Robert Armstrong, Dennis McCarty, and James Brock, all labourers.
Cornelius Flannery, a grocer with a business at 271 King Street East near Sherbourne, lived briefly on the left side of this double residence. He resided here for 3 years (1877 to 1880), after which he moved to 77 Lombard where he stayed until 1887. After that he lived at 30 Lombard for two years before leaving the street. Flannery’s moves indicate how residents on Lombard were being displaced by industry and commercial entities by the 1880’s, when the run-down wooden residential structures on Lombard Street were being demolished to make way for factories.
In 1891, the semi-detached 90-94 Lombard homes transitioned to commercial purposes, when the Baird Brothers took over the left portion of the building (90-92 Lombard). While Cornelius Flannery exemplified the displaced residents on Lombard, the experience of the Baird Bros. is also an example of the burgeoning entrepreneurial manufacturing sector in Toronto, where some businesses were successful and some were not. Thomas Baird learned the ironworker trade at J. Douglas & Co. He started his own company Baird Bros., which manufactured copper and iron cornices, skylights, gutter down pipes, and window caps. It was only in operation from 1890-1896, during which time he employed 5 blacksmiths.
After the Baird Brothers left 90-92 Lombard Street, the Second Hand Builders Exchange took over the site for a short while; they then moved to 79 Lombard Street (currently the site of Absolute Lofts on the south side of Lombard) and were there for many years. The semi-detached building reverted to a boarding house for a few years before the city purchased the property in 1905 to build the morgue.
The Esplanade morgue was proving to be inadequate. “Every official who has had charge of the morgue during the past 15 years has recommended almost every year the building and equipment of a new morgue”. In a letter to the Globe, a citizen expressed his condemnation, “It is a shame that a respectable citizen to whom death may come, through accident or sudden illness, be taken to place that is a horror to men who know it”. This writer was outraged that ladies who were required to identify loved ones had to do so amid “filth and gloom indescribable”.
When the City finally decided to heed their critics and build a new morgue, they turned to Robert McCallum, the City Architect. McCallum is associated with the design of the morgue as well as 30 other public buildings in Toronto between 1905 and 1913, including public libraries, fire halls, and police stations. But McCallum did not design most of these buildings. Instead, he delegated (but apparently took credit for) the work of two young architects, who he employed as assistants in his office: John J. Woolnough, who joined the City Architect’s Department in April 1904, and George F.W. Price, who was hired in 1905. It is likely that one of these two architects designed the morgue, which was completed in 1908.
The construction of the new morgue was not without criticism. Some felt that the expenditure of $40,000 was unnecessary and that one of the mansions along Richmond, Church, or Jarvis could have been retrofitted for around $2,000. A cynical citizen said, “Whether the fourteen shelves will ever be called into use or not is a matter which depends upon the city’s growth, but from past records they will suffer dire neglect”. In fact, the Lombard Street morgue accommodated the city’s needs for almost 70 years, after which a new morgue and coroner’s office was opened on Grosvenor Street.
Architecturally speaking, the morgue on Lombard Street can be described as Edwardian Classicism, a style popular in Toronto in the early 1900’s. Characteristics of the style evident in this building include a symmetrical façade, smooth brick surfaces, exaggerated classical detailing on the window and door surrounds (in this case the deep channelled masonry and keystones), sculptural elements, like the medallions below the cornice and “a bit of fancy” (or acroteria) above the doorway.
On September 9, 1908 the Toronto Daily Star wrote, “The entire building is handsome, commodious, and possesses every facility for which it was erected”. Upon entering the front door, a visitor would find the clerk’s office on the right and a large room on the left that held 14 receptacles for bodies. “The entire outfit resembles a huge refrigerator. The icing is done through an opening on the west side of the building, eliminating the necessity of entering the building to place the ice in the receptacle.”
On the second floor, a coroner’s inquest room ran the width of the building at the front. It had a low platform with a railing and a witness box, and handsome mouldings around the windows, doors, and transoms. Other facilities included a retiring room for coroners, a room for lawyers, separate rooms for male and female witnesses, a lavatory, and an unofficial press room. Outside on the west side of the building, stables accommodated three horses and two ambulances.
The newspapers carry many short announcements of inquests held at the Lombard Street morgue. Thomas McBrien had the unfortunate fate of being the subject of the first inquest held in the new morgue. An article in the Toronto Daily Star on December 17, 1908 chronicles the witnesses’ sketchy account of what happened. Nevertheless, it took only a couple of minutes for the jury to bring in a verdict: Thomas McBrien “died by falling from a ladder”.
Calls to include an ambulance station next to morgue were raised as early as 1905, even before the morgue was completed. However, the City Ambulance Station is not listed as the morgue’s neighbour in the city directory until 1914.
When the Toronto Police transferred responsibility for ambulance services to the Department of Public Health in 1933, an ambulance dispatcher was given an office on the main floor of the morgue. Eventually, the dispatcher moved to an office above the ambulance station garage in the depot lot itself. The site remained an ambulance depot even when the morgue and coroner’s office moved to Grosvernor Street in 1968.
The sign in this 1981 photo reads Metropolitan Toronto Department of Ambulance Services. In 1982, the city considered expanding the ambulance station, but instead the condominium at 82 Lombard was built on the site between 1983 and 1985. A sliver of the ambulance parking lot still exists as does the garage.
By the 1960’s the morgue was in bad shape. In 1967, the then-coroner, Dr. Morton Shulman, criticized the city for finding money to build the St. Lawrence Arts Centre while the morgue was in a disgraceful state of affairs. He described it as “a morgue in which none of us would wish to be found dead” echoing the criticism of the prior Esplanade morgue.
His criticism was not unfounded; built when the city had only 287,000 people, the morgue now serviced a population just under 2 million. The provincial coroner agreed that the Toronto coroner services were so swamped that autopsies were being delayed up to 24 hours. The morgue did not have x-ray equipment and hospitals were having to take up the slack. One year later in 1968, the city opened a new morgue on Grosvenor Street. (As it happened, the ambitious centennial plan to build the St. Lawrence Art Centre that the coroner criticized was scuttled when public opinion turned against the increasing costs.)
In 1979, the city agreed to rent the morgue to the Women’s Cultural Centre for $1/year for 10 years as a “showplace of women in the arts”. The Women’s Cultural Centre was established in 1975, the same year the UN’s had it’s First World Conference on Women and the International Year of Women.
Helen Notzi, founder of the centre, garnered support from prominent figures like Mayor David Crombie and MPP Margaret Scrivener. Female members of the centre’s advisory council included authors Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence, actress Kate Reid, activist June Callwood, artist Joyce Wieland, and sculptor Maryon Kantaroff.
Helen described first visiting the morgue to view it as a potential site, “The place was dank, dirty and spooky as hell. All it needed was spider webs to make it look like a movie haunted house. We gingerly walked around the autopsy room. We shivered at the sight of the refrigeration lockers where the corpses were kept. Then we looked at one another and agreed: the place was perfect”.
The Centre received provincial funding to start renovating the morgue into an art gallery and theatre. Because the building was designated as a heritage building in 1973, the city’s architectural conservation committee intervened to ensure that the interior heritage features, like the inquest room, were preserved. A preliminary estimate to update the building was $250,000. Architect Ron Thom completed the work at a final cost of $400,000. When it opened, it included a 130-seat cabaret theatre called the Redlight Theatre that was furnished with “opulent purple and burgundy coloured velvet trimmings”, a 1,500-book library, a studio workshop space for arts and crafts, and a 42-seat café called Polly’s.
The centre was named after Pauline McGibbon, the 22nd Lieutenant Governor of Ontario (1974 to 1980) and the first woman in Canadian history to serve as a vice-regal
representative. It opened to some fanfare; those who attended its opening included its namesake Pauline McGibbon, Ontario Premier William Davis, Toronto Mayor John Sewell, and the chairs of the Ontario Heritage Foundation and Ontario Arts Council.
At its opening, Helen Notzi explained the mission of the centre, “The concept is that Canadian women in the arts, professions and letters should have a special place in which to showcase their talents to the general public.” The first-year line-up included a play, classical cabaret, and an art exhibit that featured prominent Canadian women artists including Joyce Wieland, Vera Frenkel, Lynn Donoghue, and Sybil Goldstein. Also on offer were courses in photography, poetry, pottery, batik, and French as well as a 7-lecture series called “The Enduring Woman” (that would have been interesting).
The Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre held a lot of promise. This piece written in the Globe & Mail articulated the social frustration of the 1970s that underpinned a movement toward women’s agency: it was time to come out from the shadows and claim their due, whether professionally, at home, or in the arts…and to resolve to be a lot less anonymous.
Despite many fundraising events the centre faced money issues and was perhaps too broad in its mission. In November 1981 the centre closed and faced eviction. The founders pleaded with the city for clemency, “The centre was named after Pauline McGibbon to honor her contribution to the community.
It would be disastrous if a building named after her is driven into bankruptcy”. The centre reopened in April 1982 with a new board of directors and 12-month management plan to get its financial affairs in order. But its days were numbered. An art exhibit review by Christopher Hume in 1986 is one of the last. Interestingly, this last fundraising event was an auction for art work that was being flown from Zagreb to Canada while the bidding occurred. “Bidders in this high-altitude sale each get a certificate noting the height and location at the time of the bid”. Seems a little gimmicky, but this was the 1980’s after all. The Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre occupied the Morgue building from 1979 to about 1986.
Shortly after the Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre closed, the Fred Victor Mission used the building as a hostel for 2 years (1988 to 1990), while their building at Queen & Jarvis was being retrofitted. In 1993 the morgue was vacant when the Fred Victor Centre proposed to turn it into offices and build a 12-storey shelter that would envelop the building at the back and the west. This idea was rejected. The building was being used for shelter by some homeless youth until 1994 when the Fred Victor Centre returned. Today, the Fred Victor Centre uses the building as a 44-bed emergency homeless shelter for women.
Recently, two CBC historical television shows have featured their own versions of Toronto’s morgue. CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries uses a brief exterior shot of Julia Ogden’s morgue that appears to be based on the 1877 morgue that stood on the north-west corner of Esplanade and Frederick Streets. The first season of Murdoch Mysteries was based in 1895. It is now in its eleventh season making the date of episodes about 1906. The new morgue on Lombard Street did not open until December 1908.
Scenes from another CBC series, Frankie Drake, recreate Toronto in the 1920’s and that show also bases its morgue on the 1877 garage-like structure on the Esplanade, including the smoke stack. To be historically accurate it should feature the red brick Lombard Street morgue which was in use by 1908.
Today, Toronto’s newest state-of-the art facility is called Forensic Services and Coroner’s Complex, which opened in 2013 at Keele and Wilson. Compare these two pictures: the receptacles of the 1908 Lombard Street morgue and those of the 2013 morgue near Keele and Wilson.
The city has come a long way since its first fourteen iced receptacles. The long-ago critic who wondered if the city would ever need 14 receptacles might be a little astonished at the current capacity.
Sources Consulted: Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada; Canadian Architect, April 1980; findagrave.com; Goad’s Fire Insurance Maps of Toronto via recursion (Nathan Ng); The Globe & Mail via ProQuest: Nov 11, 1905; “City’s Morgue Disgraceful” Dec 7, 1906; “What is needed at new morgue” Oct 26, 1906; “McGibbon Cultural Centre opening shows promise for future of women” Sep 15, 1979; “McGibbon Centre may close” June 15, 1982; Jack Landan, “New forensic services and coroners complex prepares fall opening” Urban Toronto, July 15, 2013; Ontario Archives F4679-2-3 Box 865104 “Metro’s women in art to call old morgue home”, Report to Architectural Conservation Committee, Nov 8, 1976; Toronto City Archives photos as captioned; Digital Toronto City Directories via Toronto Public Library website and in library directories; Toronto Daily Star via ProQuest: “Toronto Morgue A Fine Structure” Sep 9, 1908; “The First Inquest in the New Morgue” Dec 17, 1908; “Morgue has busy times” April 1, 1916; “Morgue before arts” Jan 25, 1967; “Coroner’s building continent’s worst” Oct 24, 1967; “$50,000 donated to cultural centre” Aug 29, 1978; “Cultural Centre hitting stride” January 28, 1980; “Exotic Brazil” Feb 5, 1981; “Don’t evict us, women plead in brief to stay in McGibbon cultural centre” June 14, 1982; March 14, 1986; “Plan for morgue site rejected by committee” Sep 8, 1993; History of Toronto Paramedic Services from Toronto Paramedic Service website (now defunct); Toronto Public Library photos as captioned.