By Jane Beecroft | In about 1885, a plan of subdivision was advertised which would convert part of the farmlands of Colonel Joseph Wells into a six-block residential neighbourhood, stretching from Bloor to Wells Avenue, between Brunswick and Bathurst Streets.
As the entire upper central block, between Barton and Wells, Howland and Albany had already been sold to the Toronto Diocese of the Anglican Church for the construction of the first cathedral of Toronto, to be named for St. Alban the Martyr, the surrounding subdivision was named “St. Alban’s Park”.
As the Cathedral was built, it was set apart from the other blocks along its south side by a lozenge-shaped park encircled by Barton (then named Lowther) on all sides. The intention was to provide a beautiful southern exposure of the cathedral’s architecture since the east, west and northern sides already benefited from the gardens and grounds surrounding the cathedral on those three sides.
St. Alban’s Cathedral ran into financial problems and its cathedral status was cancelled before the building was finished, demoting it to local parish church status in 1936. The gardens and playing fields to the north of the cathedral and its other buildings were sold off.
At the same time, the unfinished but then already beautiful cathedral architecture still merited an appropriate setting. An arrangement was stuck between the Anglican Synod and the parish and the City of Toronto to enlarge and preserve the parkland by transferring it to the City of Toronto in return for closing the street which ran between the park and the cathedral’s south façade. This had the effect of retaining a garden-like setting for the cathedral’s architecture and for parish activities, in what is properly understood as a “sitting out” park. The parishioners petitioned the City, and the parkland was formally named St. Alban’s Square.
In about 1990, local residents lead by the environmental group Grassroots Albany undertook a long-term project for the beautification of the parkland, some of which was to honour local resident and park user Jane Jacobs. A magnificent rose walk was planted along the wrought iron fence that defined the northern boundary of the park, and native species of plants and shrubs were attractively set out in beds around the park.
In 2000, local residents successfully fought to prevent the conversion of the park into playing fields for the private boys school Royal St. George’s College. In 2008, residents successfully battled again to prevent the partition of the park for the imposition of an off-leash dog run.
St. Alban’s Square is part of a rich and important history and has a major role to play in part of a Toronto notoriously deficient in parkland. It should retain its role as a “sitting out” park and not be converted into a sandbox park, playing field, drug centre, or bathroom for street people or dogs.