Wednesday, June 21, 2017

James Avon Smith, Toronto Architect



James Avon Smith jr.
When I first came across a photograph of my great-great uncle James Avon Smith (1832-1918), the family resemblance between him and his brother (my great-grandfather) was clear. Their eyes were similar and so were the receding hairlines, while both men had bushy facial hair in keeping with men’s fashions of the day.

Where James’ talent as an architect and artist came from, however, is not so evident. His own father and grandfather were teachers and his brother, John Murray Smith, was a banker. James’ career stood out on its own, and his influence can still be seen in Toronto today.  
One of the most important buildings he designed was Knox College, a High Victorian Gothic style building completed in 1875 on Spadina Crescent.1 Over the years it has been used as a seminary, military hospital and medical research laboratory, and it is now undergoing a major renovation to add a new wing onto the original Presbyterian seminary. As of September 2017, Knox College will house the University of Toronto’s faculty of landscape, architecture and design.2  

Born on April 22, 1832, James Avon Smith was the fifth of the seven surviving children of James Avon Smith senior and Jane Tocher.3 His father was assistant schoolmaster in MacDuff, Banffshire, Scotland. His grandfather, Alexander Tocher, was schoolmaster at Macduff for 67 years. His mother died in 1838, when James was just six, shortly after the birth of my great-grandfather, John Murray Smith.

According to family lore, James Avon Smith senior left Scotland in 1848 with three of the children, including son James, sailing aboard the Marmion. The rest of the family followed a few years later, settling in Toronto where James senior taught classics at Toronto Academy and Knox College. 

James junior apprenticed with architect William Thomas and briefly worked in partnership with John Bailey. He was in solo practice between 1860 and 1870, then formed a partnership with a former student, John Gemmell. They worked together for more than 40 years.

Smith designed nearly 100 churches in the Toronto area. Among the ecclesiastical projects he undertook with John Gemmell were Berkeley Street Wesleyan Methodist Church, Zion Congregational Church and College Street Presbyterian Church. Other projects they designed included the National Club on Bay Street (1874), the Don Brewery on River Street and the Noble Block on Queen Street West (1888).4



Many of the buildings he designed have been torn down to make way for more modern structures, but the city of Toronto has recognized several as heritage properties. Among them is his own family home at 84 Woodlawn Avenue East, which is still known as the James Avon Smith House.5 James purchased the property in 1874 and designed the Gothic Revival style house a few years later. At first he rented it out, but it was his family home from 1886 to 1896. He then moved to 81 Woodlawn, a semi-detached house he also designed. 


Besides being a sought-after architect, James was also an artist. He was an active member of the Ontario Society of Artists and a charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy, serving as treasurer and secretary-treasurer of the latter organization for many years.6

While his professional life is well documented, there are few surviving details of his family life. Ontario records show that in 1861, he married his first wife, Lydia Elliott, and their daughter, Amy Pontifex Smith, was born two years later. Lydia died in 1879 and James married her sister, Fanny Elizabeth Elliot. A year after Fanny died in 1917, James married for a third time, to Rosa Brooks.7 He died a month later, on May 16, 1918. Daughter Amy P. Smith married Herbert Simmers in 1896. They had no children, and she died in Toronto in 1953. 

James is buried with his father, his brother Alexander, his aunt Elizabeth Tocher and both his first and second wives in an unmarked plot (section H, lot 145) in the Necropolis Cemetery in downtown Toronto.

Photo credits:
James Smith, digital image # 10010417 ca 1890, Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, Archives of Ontario Visual Database, copyright Queen’s Printer for Ontario. 
Knox College, Toronto Heritage Preservation Services

See also: 

“John Murray Smith and the Giant Bible,” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 9, 2016, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2016/03/john-murray-smith-and-giant-bible_9.html

“James Avon Smith of MacDuff, Banffshire,” Writing Up the Ancestors, April 18, 2014, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2014/04/james-avon-smith-of-macduff-banffshire.html

“My Tocher Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 13, 2015, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2015/02/my-tocher-family.html

“Annie Louise Smith: One of the First Women to Graduate from McGill University,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 12, 2016, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2016/02/annie-louise-smith-one-of-first-women.html

Notes and Sources 

1. I Spadina Crescent. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1_Spadina_Crescent. Accessed May 18, 2017.

2. This article includes spectacular photos of the building.
Alex Bozikovik, “Merging the Past with the Future” The Globe and Mail, May 5, 2017,  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/home-and-garden/architecture/spectacular-new-home-of-u-of-ts-daniels-faculty-merges-past-andfuture/article34906578/?utm_source=Shared+Article+Sent+to+User&utm_medium=E-mail:+Newsletters+/+E-Blasts+/+etc.&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links.

3. "Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XY64-Y8F : 8 December 2014), James Smith, 22 Apr 1832; citing , reference ; FHL microfilm 990,994.

4. This is a complete list of the buildings James Avon Smith designed.
“James Avon Smith (1832-1918)”, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1313, accessed May 18, 2017.

5. City of Toronto Council and Committees. City of Toronto bylaw no. 86-1999, to designate the property at 84 Woodlawn Ave. East (the James Avon Smith House) as being of architectural and historical value or interest. Enacted March 4, 1999.  http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/bylaws/1999/law0086.htm. Accessed May 18, 2017.

6. “James Avon Smith Toronto Architect” (obituary), American Art News, Vol. 16 No. 34, June 15 1918, p. 7. Rhymes with Fyfe, http://rhymeswithfyfe.blogspot.ca/2015/05/james-avon-smith-toronto-architect.html, accessed May 18, 2017.

7. “Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1785-1934” database Ancestry.ca (http://www.ancestry.ca, accessed July 19, 2017), entry for James Smith, 1918, Simcoe, Ontario, citing Registrations of Marriages, 1869-1928; Series: MS932; Reel: 465, Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Rosa Brooks was born in Essex, England around 1863. She appeared as a child in the 1871 census, which showed that her father was a miller. The 1891 census found her working as a servant for an elderly woman in Norfolk, England. That census added that she was an amanuensis, which means that she acted as a kind of secretary or literary or artistic assistant. She and James were married on 6 April, 1918 in Barrie, Ontario.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

New Book Tells the History of Mile End



Hundreds of special events are taking place in 2017 to mark the City of Montreal’s 375th birthday, but the one that means the most to me is the publication last month of a history of the Mile End district of Montreal. Some 200 years ago, that was where my three- and four-times great-grandparents lived.

There, at the intersection of the only two roads for miles around, Stanley Bagg and his father Phineas ran an establishment called the Mile End Tavern. Their landlord and future in-law, an English-born butcher named John Clark, probably came up with the name Mile End. The tavern was at the corner of what is now Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Mont-Royal Avenue, and the whole area eventually acquired the same name. 

A Mile End landmark restaurant. jh photo
Mile End has no formal boundaries, but it is essentially just to the northeast of Mount Royal, as far as the railroad tracks. Some of the area’s streets are known far beyond Montreal: Saint-Urbain, for example, was made famous by author Mordecai Richler, and both Saint-Viateur and Fairmount streets have bagels named after them. Other well-known streets include Laurier, Parc, Saint-Joseph and Jeanne-Mance.

It is a vibrant neighbourhood, home to musicians, teachers and software developers, trendy restaurants, second-hand shops and rows of triplex and duplex dwellings, often featuring Montreal’s iconic outdoor staircases.

Histoire du Mile End, the first book to focus on the area’s history, was written by former journalist Yves Desjardins. His journalism background shows: he has researched his subject thoroughly in newspaper accounts, archival sources and academic articles, and pulled it all together in clear, concise language. I can attest to how readable it is because, although the book is in French, I have had no trouble reading it. It helps that the book is generously illustrated with historic photos and maps.

Over the decades, Mile End has been home to waves of immigrants, starting with French Canadian job-seekers who moved to the city from the Laurentians, and including Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italians, Portuguese and Greeks. Many of the area’s residents worked in the nearby Peck Building, labouring in low-paying jobs in the garment industry; today, the Peck Building is home to Ubisoft, a major player in the video game industry.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, sometimes it takes a community to write a book. Yves had help from friends and neighbours -- many of them members of the local history group Mile End Memories -- who gave him access to their own research and expertise. I provided him with information about my ancestors the Baggs and the Clarks, and the collaboration paid off for both of us: I was able to fill in family information he didn’t have, and he helped me understand the historical context of my ancestors’ lives.

I learned that Saint-Laurent Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between the western part of the city, where the majority of English-speaking Montrealers live, and the eastern part, which is overwhelmingly French-speaking, was the only road leading north out of the city in the early 1800s. The Baggs owned much of the land on the western side of Saint-Laurent, and it remained primarily rural until the 1890s. Much of the land on the east side was owned by the Beaubien family, and early residents worked in local tanneries and quarries. 

Ubisoft employs thousands of people today. jh photo.
 At the end of the 19th century, a group of real estate promoters from Toronto tried to develop a “strictly high class suburb” in Mile End called the Montreal Annex. While they did manage to attract a few professionals and their families, the scheme eventually failed. For decades, most of Mile End’s residents were strictly working class, or worked at skilled trades such as shoe-making and carriage-making.

Meanwhile the area experienced many growing pains as politicians argued over taxes and infrastructure, and promoters battled to provide the public transportation (by electric tram and rail) that was key to the area’s growth.

Today, as the city of Montreal rebuilds its infrastructure and controversy surrounds plans for future residential projects and transportation corridors, it seems that some things haven’t changed much.

Yves Desjardins. Histoire du Mile End, Québec: Éditions du Septentrion, 2017.

See also:
Janice Hamilton, “The Mile End Tavern”, Writing Up the Ancestors, Oct. 21, 2013, http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/2013/10/the-mile-end-tavern.html

Mile End Memories, http://memoire.mile-end.qc.ca/en/ This site includes articles in English and in French, photos, an interactive map that indicates the location of many historic buildings, including the Auberge du Mile End (Mile End Tavern), and a link to summer walking tours of the area.


This article is simultaneously posted on www.genealogyensemble.com