A walk through Toronto: Don Jail & Bridgepoint Health

Being a tourist in your own city can be fun and much more affordable than travelling. So when you are unable to jet set to an exotic destination, take time to learn more about the place you call home.

Exploring your neighbourhood is a good place to start. Do you ever wonder about the buildings that you pass by as you go about your day? You know, that fancy home in your neighbourhood, the old building down the street from your work or the new marvel that was recently unveiled around the corner. They all have stories and some of them might surprise you.

Toronto is full of such gems.  Even though much of the city’s old architecture has over time succumbed to a wrecking ball or fire, you can still find plenty of spots that have stories to tell.

Architecture can have a profound effect on how we view and perceive a building. Sometimes the beautiful exterior that makes us marvel at its design belies the pain and suffering that occurred inside.  Toronto’s former Don Jail and its neighbour, Bridgepoint Health hospital, are two very quirky examples of that.

Bridgepoint Health (left) and Don Jail (west wing)

The Don Jail opened in 1864.  According to Wikipedia, the building was designed “with a distinctive façade in the Italianate style with a pedimented central pavilion and vermiculated columns flanking the main entrance portico , and it is one of the oldest pre-Confederation structures that remains intact in Toronto.”  The well-known architect who designed it, William Thomas, also left his mark on many projects in other parts of Canada, including Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Pretty fancy digs for a jail, you might say.

As the jail was originally intended as a reform prison that offered progressive approaches to dealing with prisoners’ well being and health, the design of it makes a bit more sense now. The architectural details were probably intended to play a role in that progressive approach and are the reason where the “Palace for Prisoners” nickname came from.

Unfortunately, over the years, Don Jail became known for overcrowding and deplorable conditions the inmates had to live in. The fancy facade didn’t change that one bit. Men and women suffered terribly here and their pain will not be erased from history.

The modern Bridgepoint Health, now a research centre and a rehabilitation facility, is nestled between the former jail and the Don Valley Parkway. It is a stark contrast to its historical neighbour.  However, in 1860, this was the location of the House of Refuge, better known as the home for “vagrants, the dissolute, and for idiots.” (Wikipedia) It was intended to aid the “poor, needy, and disabled” Torontonians and eventually was “converted to serve as an isolation hospital when a smallpox epidemic began in the 1870s.” Yikes.

plaque discribing hospital development
Plaque outside Bridgepoint Health

Although presently this is a busy spot in this part of Toronto, in late 1800s this was quite a remote place offering many health benefits. As the plaque on site states, the site “was outside of the city, surrounded by forests and fields, and adjacent to the Don River, which was considered an excellent setting to promote moral and physical health.”

You might debate the health benefits of modern day’s Don River, but you can’t argue with the spectacular views of Toronto’s skyline as you wander down Broadview Avenue. On our walk one snowy Saturday, we did just that and stopped to learn more about the these two buildings. Even though I’ve driven by this spot many times, I never took the time to learn more about these places and the role they played in the history of the city I call home.

The former Don Jail is now the administrative building for the hospital. Recently, I watched a documentary on the jail and the archeological discoveries made around it prior to the the developemtn of the new hospital. At night, as you peer inside the former Don Jail, you can see an outline of the bars that marked the cells and can’t help but wonder about the misery of those crammed into those tiny cells. I look forward to Doors Open next year in hopes of being able to visit inside and learn more about this site. Stay tuned.

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