News & Opinion

What is the West Annex?

The West Annex neighbourhood in Toronto is recognized as Bloor on the south, Bathurst on the west, the CPR tracks to the north, and to the east, the lot lines at the back of the houses on the east side of Brunswick Avenue. Today, Kendal and Dalton represent the shorthand for that eastern limit, although they are not precisely on that historic boundary, which formed the dividing line between The Annex to the east and Seaton Village to the west when the former joined the City of Toronto in 1887.

It all began with the first surveys of the British Regime in the late 1700s. Yonge Street was laid out as the spine of the province, and Lot Street (now Queen Street) was established as the base line. From Queen south to the lake were the Broken Front Lots, so named because of the irregular shoreline. Next, from Queen to the city limit, the future Bloor Street, 100 acre Park Lots were laid out, and from Bloor to the future St. Clair Avenue, 200 acre Farm Lots.

Farm lot 25, from the Brunswick back yards line to the line that became Bathurst Street, was first granted to Ensign John McGill in 1798. He was important for his military service on John Graves Simcoe’s staff. Upon his death in 1821, his widow sold the farm lot to  Colonel Joseph Wells, the son of a wealthy English silk merchant and a hero of the Battle of Waterloo. Wells, who died in 1853,  had several daughters and five sons, George Dupont, Robert, Charles, Arthur and Frederick. Frederick’s daughter eventually inherited Farm Lot 25 which she sold off gradually.

Charles Romaine and William Pearce Howland, later to become a Father of Confederation, purchased the southern section of Farm Lot 25 down to Bloor Street. They registered a six block plan of subdivision on the lands from Bloor to Wells, Bathurst to the back lots of Brunswick, but nothing further took place until the lands passed into the control of the Howland Land Syndicate, in which W.P. Howland’s son Oliver Aiken Howland–future mayor of Toronto–was one of several principals.

1885 plan of subdivision | click to enlarge

In 1885 they re-registered the plan of subdivision and called it St. Alban’s Park after the magnificent Cathedral of St. Alban’s the Martyr planned as the community’s centrepiece, the grounds of which would occupy the entire block from Albany to Howland, Barton (then Lowther) to Wells.

Located immediately west of the neighbourhood then known as the Toronto Annex, the Wells lands formed the eastern part of Seaton Village, which joined the City of Toronto in 1888.

A handful of houses had been built in the 1880s on the northern block of Albany and Howland for the men working on the Ontario and Quebec Railroad (later the CPR) which ran just north of Dupont Street.

Development slowed during the recession of the 1890s, but in the first years of the 1900s optimism returned and the subdivision lots quickly filled with houses.

Solidly built, contractor-designed home

In The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood Jack Batten observed that “distinct from the elaborate Queen Anne and Richardson Romanesque homes” of the Annex proper, West Annex houses were “solidly built Victorian brick homes whose appearance announce[d] that a business-minded contractor, not a fanciful architect, had designed the place.”

Although the lands originally formed the eastern part of Seaton Village, residents began to identify more closely with their Annex neighbours to the east some time after 1910,  when a widening of Bathurst Street made it a major through-fare and cut off the streets of Albany, Howland, and Brunswick from the rest of the village. In 1952, residents founded the West Annex Neighbourhood Association.

In the 1960s, the West Annex Neighbourhood Association joined forces with the Annex Ratepayers Association and became the Annex Residents’ Association (“ARA”), the major impetus being their mutual opposition of the Spadina Expressway which Metro Council approved for construction in 1962, and which would devastate both neighbourhoods.

St. Alban's the Martyr Cathedral, 100 Howland Avenue, photographed from St. Alban's Square park

Beginning in about 2005, disenchantment with the ARA’s failure to oppose Royal St. George’s College’s controversial expansion plans lead to a decline in many West Annex residents’ confidence and participation in the ARA. A subsequent attempt by an ARA working group to impose an off-leash dog run in historic St. Alban’s Square park—the heart of the West Annex—provoked a furious and successful defence of the park by the neighbourhood, and cemented the community’s alienation from the ARA.

With that alienation came a resurgence of pride in, and identification with the West Annex as a community distinct from the Annex proper. Today few West Annex residents belong to the ARA, and consider their local community-based groups like the environmental advocates Grassroots Albany and the residents’ organization Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park as their legitimate representatives.

Grassroots Albany native plant sale

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*This page underwent major revisions 22 April 2011 with the help of Jane Beecroft of the Community History Project.

Other offline sources:

Jack Batten, The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood, 2004, Erin, Boston Mills Press.

Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of  Toronto, 2008, Vancouver,  Douglas & McIntyre.

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