a visit to the toronto archives

a few weeks ago, i stumbled upon this post on blogto, about where to buy vintage photographs of toronto. as this helpful post details, there are a few places to browse, but none better than the city of toronto archives, which has thousands upon thousands of images, all searchable in their gencat database. many are scanned, so you can preview them from home, and for others there are descriptions, but you have to visit the archives in person to see them. i searched my street name and a series of 17 photos came up, all documenting the widening of woodbine avenue in 1956. none of my actual house or street, but i ordered an 8 x 10 print of the photo above, which is the corner of woodbine and my street; you can even make out the street name on the street sign in the high-resolution print.

you have to pick photos up in person at the archives, but i didn’t mind because in perusing the website further, i found a downloadable pdf called “researching your house.” ever since we got our property assessment in the mail a few weeks ago, which stated the date of construction of our house as 1922, i’ve been curious about our home’s history. when we bought the house last november, the seller’s agent told us it had been built in the 1940s and that we were only the third owners. after seeing the conflicting information on the assessment, i wanted to find out for sure.

i went yesterday with pierre and the staff there were so helpful. further to the general pdf i found online, they had printed guides for researching your house if you lived in east york, scarborough, north york, etc. because the different municipalities (pre-amalgamation) all kept records using different systems, it’s a different process to research a house in east york than a house at king and john.

to start, we looked at a 1924 map of our area, which showed our street divided into lots, and little pink blocks meant brick homes were built on the lot, while yellow blocks meant wooden homes were built there. in 1924 our street was full of homes, but our lot was still vacant. we had neighbours to the east, but our house and our westside neighbours’ home had not been built yet. fun fact: in 1924, mortimer avenue was called mcmichael avenue and sammon avenue had recently been renamed (formerly salmon avenue).

so, our house was not built in 1922 after all. the next step was to look at city directories to figure out the year our house was actually built in. city directories are basically like very big phone books, that sometimes tell you information like occupations and other neat stuff. city directories from 1890-1955 are on microfilm, so we got to use a microfilm reader to scan through and find our street. our house number finally appeared in the 1941 edition, under the name gordon j rixon. the city directory listed him as a tenant in the home, not an owner.

the early city directories also listed the “neighbourhood” to which each street belonged. in the 1920s east york was a separate township, divided into neighbourhoods much the same way toronto is now divided into corktown, the junction, the annex, bloorwest village, etc. our house is in what is known as danforth village, but decades ago our neighbourhood was called “cedarvale.” and our old greektown apartment? it was in “little york.”

since it turned out paul’s agent had been telling the truth about the year the house was built, i expected gordon j rixon’s name would show up every year until 1999, when we knew paul bought the house. but the 1943 directory listed robert c youell as the home’s tenent. by 1959, robert c youell was listed as owner, so we wondered if maybe he had rented it for several years before finally buying it. his name carried through until the 2001 directory, when paul miller’s name was listed as the home’s new owner.

because it was saturday (parts of the reference section were closed), we couldn’t look at assessment rolls, which give great information like the home’s assessed value, the owner’s religion and occupation, and how many people lived in the house. we know a little about paul miller, because our neighbours are chatty and sometimes his mail still turns up here, but i would love to learn more about robert c youell and gordon j rixon. i’d also love to know what our house was assessed at in 1941 when it was built, and in 1975, and 1992, or at other random times over the last 70 years.

have you ever researched your house? what did you find out?

6 thoughts on “a visit to the toronto archives

    1. i was thinking of going back on a weekday over the christmas holidays, so that i can access the assessment rolls and finish my research. if you go, definitely let me know what you find out about your house!

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