Toronto Through My Lens

Tag: GerrardStE

The Old Don Jail

Given that my last post was of the Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital, it seems only natural to segue into posting about its next door neighbour – the old Don Jail.

When I first arrived in Toronto many moons ago I remember hearing about the infamous Don Jail from so many different people. To say the place fell into wrack and ruin was an understatement; by all accounts it had all the charm of a medieval dungeon.

Construction & Cramped Quarters

The Don Jail was built between 1858 and 1864, with a new wing built in the 1950s. Designed in 1852 by architect William Thomas, who also designed St. Michael’s Cathedral and St. Lawrence Hall, the jail was constructed with a distinctive facade in the Italianate style.

The Don Jail opened in 1864 and closed in 1977. The Jail was state-of-the-art when it was built, and considerably more humane than jails in much of the world at the time. It was certainly a great improvement from earlier Toronto Jails. The cells, though, were tiny – just 86 centimetres wide and there was no electricity or plumbing. A bucket served as a toilet, which was emptied every morning.

Prisoners were not allowed to talk without permission and received only monthly visits from friends and family. Violations frequently resulted in flogging. For about the first 100 years, inmates generally were not allowed to speak unless addressed first by a prison official.

Prisoners spent 23 hours a day in the cell blocks with the remaining hour in the outdoor exercise yard, now a parking lot. They had to keep moving in the yard and were not allowed to sit around and soak up the sun. The inmates did much of the maintenance including painting, carpentry work and other jail repairs. They also worked a jail farm that covered much of the present Riverdale Park.


In later years the Don Jail became extremely overcrowded. Frequently three inmates were held in cells meant for a single prisoner and in other cells inmates went for days without a chance to exercise. The environment was so bad that both prisoners and guards were at risk. The jail did not meet the minimum prison standards of the United Nations.

At one time the jail held 691 prisoners, well over the recommended maximum. It was designed to house 275 prisoners, one per cell, and it was noisy and plagued with mice and cockroaches. Many of the prisoners suffered from mental illness.

Public Hangings

Public hanging in Canada wasn’t abolished until 1869, and in Toronto it was moved indoors from the Don Jail yard to its confines in 1905. Before capital punishment was abolished in Canada, the Toronto Jail was the site of a number of hangings. Starting with the execution of John Boyd in January 1908, hangings at the jail took place in an indoor chamber, which was a converted washroom, at the northeast corner of the old building.

Previously, condemned men had been hanged on an outdoor scaffold in the jail yard. The indoor facility was seen as an improvement because outdoor executions were quasi-public (at the hanging of Fred Lee Rice on July 18, 1902, crowds had lined surrounding rooftops to see something of the spectacle), and because the condemned didn’t have to walk as far.

A Massive Renovation

When the Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital demolished the 1950s-era Riverdale Hospital building to replace it with a new 10-storey facility, the historic Don Jail building was extensively renovated to serve as the administrative wing for the hospital, a process which included the removal of “150 years worth of grime” from the exterior. About 20 per cent of the former jail’s heritage interior was preserved, including the centre block’s half-octagonal rotunda featuring clerestory windows, as well as original iron railings and balconies supported by griffin and serpent cast-iron brackets.

In 2012, Bridgepoint Health commissioned a complex restoration project to be carried out on the Don Jail, overseen by several architecture firms. The inflexible floor plan, established for the isolation and separation of prisoners, was transformed into an open, welcoming, and functional administrative space for the new Bridgepoint Active Healthcare Centre.

About 20 per cent of the former jail’s heritage interior was preserved, and the rest of the brickwork cleared out to make way for modern office space. Clear material distinctions were made between new and old and the patina of history. A new partition never meets an old wall, but instead is separated by a glass fin and the marks of history. This work was recognized with the 2016 Built Heritage Award of Excellence.

Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital coupled with the Old Don Jail

The east wing was formally decommissioned on January 6, 2014, at which point it too was transferred to Bridgepoint Health and demolished in March and April of that same year. The grounds of the former jail are being landscaped into a city park to be named Hubbard Park after William Peyton Hubbard. The former Don Jail Roadway has been extended and renamed Jack Layton Way after Jack Layton, the late leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada and former Member of Parliament for the area.

On A Final Note, Literally…

Those who know me know I’ll link pop music to anything, and the Don Jail is no exception. Most of us from the music video era know that a certain Canadian pop star who liked to wear sunglasses at night shot his 1984 signature video at the old Don Jail. This was way, waaaaay before its current renovated state of course:

OK, queue the pulsating synths…


There are practically hundreds of articles written on the history of the Don Jail. The information above was gleaned from several websites, the City of Toronto and the Ontario Heritage Foundation by the Toronto Historical Board.

For an interesting 2011 article from The Globe & Mail regarding the Don Jail, click here. The piece highlights much of the harrowing and inhumane conditions in the jail during its prime.

The Max Tanenbaum Sculpture Garden

The Max Tanenbaum Sculpture Garden is a semi-hidden Toronto gem. It sits on the west side of the Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital beside the old Don Jail at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East. I call it “semi-hidden” because the figures in the Sculpture Garden can only be seen from the Don Valley Parkway; they are practically invisible from either Broadview Avenue or Gerrard Street East.

These are marvellous figures, created by Canadian sculptor William Lishman (1939-2017). Since 2015, twenty of his works have been displayed outside Bridgepoint, a hospital for patients with complex chronic disease and disability.

The works of this talented creator are displayed at a number of Canadian locales. Amazingly, Lishman was dyslexic and colour blind, which must have made for an interesting time when creating these sculptures.

Designed in memory of the late businessman and philanthropist Max Tanenbaum, the colourful, life-sized pieces at Bridgepoint aim to celebrate the human spirit. According to a post on Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital’s website, the figures aim to express the capabilities of the physical form through dance, sport and movement. The sculptures complement our building and speak to the hope and aspiration we bring to our patients, families, and the community.

We are privileged to have an installation by William Lishman on our campus. These life-sized sculptures depicting human figures engaging in dance, sports and movement evoke a sense of wonder, The artwork inside and outside of our hospital has a positive impact on our patients, connecting them to the life of the community and city. We’re grateful to the Spiro Family who donated the work, which was designed in memory of the late Max Tanenbaum (1909-1983).
Dr. Gary Newton, President and CEO of Sinai Health System

If you would like to view a short YouTube video highlighting the Sculpture Garden, you will find one below:

A Few Bonus Shots

As I was leaving the Hospital grounds, I noticed these Sorel Etrog sculptures by the front doors:

The Max Tanenbaum Healing Centre

As an adjunct to this Sculpture Garden, The Max Tanenbaum Healing Garden can be found on the 14th floor atrium of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. The Princess Margaret website describes this garden as:

cultivated patterns of formal French gardens incorporating the artistry of hand-blown glass flowers, enclosed by an artificial boxwood hedge. The vertical walls feature decorative panels that add another visual dimension and unify a garden rich in colour, creativity and natural forms. The hand blown glass flowers have each been created to blend together in a colourful garden that resembles a rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple are all represented in the garden with flowers that carry one colour or a blend of multiple colours and tones.

The few shots I’ve seen of the Healing Garden look amazing and I plan to feature it in a future post.

Festival of South Asia 2023

This past weekend saw the two-day Festival of South Asia take over Gerrard Street East from Glenside Avenue to Coxwell Avenue.

The main focus of the Festival of South Asia is to celebrate the diversity of South Asian culture. The festival is now in its 21st year, and is one of the largest festivals of its kind in North America. It’s a multi-cultural experience of tastes, sounds and sights of South Asia.

Throughout the day there were stage performances, a kids zone, an arts and culture market, participatory workshops and activities, and roaming entertainers along Gerrard Street. Unfortunately the sun was particularly cruel last Sunday so I didn’t stay quite as long as I would have liked.

Dance exhibition
Food stalls
Colourful clothes for sale in the market
Pakora, Samosas and more
Some of the Kids Zone
Jewellery Vendor
Dance exhibition
Dance exhibition
Mural on Gerrard Street East
Henna application
Food truck
Grilled food on Gerrard Street East

Cabbagetown Murals

The Cabbagetown area is home to many colourful and interesting murals. Here’s a few I’ve encountered during a walkabout in the ‘hood:

The Phoenix Concert Theatre
410 Sherbourne Street, Toronto
Fudger House
439 Sherbourne Street, on rear of building facing Bleecker Street

Darling Lane

West of Parliament Street, south of Wellesley Street East

“Welcome to Cabbagetown”
On side of LCBO building, 512 Parliament Street

Doctor O Lane

South of Carlton Street, west of Parliament Street

Number 9 Audio Group

Recording studio at 222 Gerrard Street East

Construction Murals

Southeast corner of Gerrard Street East & Sherbourne Street

Miziwe Biik

Aboriginal Employment & Training Centre, 169 Gerrard Street East

The Toronto Chinese Archway

Opposite Bridgepoint Health Centre (now Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital) , near the intersection of Gerrard Street East and Broadview Avenue, there stands the Zhong Hua Men gate, aka Toronto Chinese Archway. The gate serves as an entrance-way to the Chinese community in this neighbourhood.

The Archway’s official construction began in late 2008 and opened to the public, with a ceremony by then-Mayor David Miller, on September 12, 2009. The creation of the Archway came about in large part due to the efforts of Valerie Mah, as a member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of East Toronto, together with Councillor Paula Fletcher.

The two stone lions, each weighing 3 tons, sitting at the base of the Archway are a gift from the People’s Republic of China. The project cost roughly $900,000.00, of which the City of Toronto contributed $415,000.

Ten years in the making, the Archway was the brainchild of Dale Cheung, President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (East Toronto) and Bernard Loh, the group’s Vice-President, as well as a small group of past and present members. The group dreamed up the project, back in the day, while having Dim Sum with the area’s former City Councillor, Jack Layton.

In keeping with the traditional Chinese Paifeng style of commemorating the great achievements of ones ancestors, the Zhong Hua Men Archway is engraved with messages of goodwill and wisdom.

The Archway and parking lot next to it has since won a prestigious international award in 2012 for Best Design/Implementation of a Surface Parking Lot.

The lions are lifted into place, 2009
This photo courtesy of The Toronto Star

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