Don Jail

Discover Toronto’s sordid past at Don Jail

Hiding in plain sight

Do you ever wonder about the buildings you pass by daily or while you’re visiting a new city? Be it that fancy house, a really old building, or that new marvel recently unveiled with much fanfare. They all have stories to tell and some of them might actually surprise you. This is exactly what happened to us with what was once the Don Jail, Toronto’s former prison.

Toronto doesn’t have a lot of old architecture. Over time, many of the city’s old buildings have succumbed to a wrecking ball or a fire. While condos and office buildings seem to appear overnight, you can still find plenty of spots that have stories to tell. The beautiful Don Jail building, looking a bit out of place, is a great example of that.

Don Jail
Entrance to the building

The architectural design

The Don Jail opened in 1864. At the time, it was the largest prison in North America and a perfect ode to Victorian views on penal reforms. 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.”  Wikipedia

That is pretty fancy for a place meant to keep criminals off the streets. The intricate details, designed to awe and intimidate the prisoners as they arrived, are really quite intricate. I guess to ponder their crimes and reflect on the sins they committed. The building was designed by a well-known architect William Thomas who left his mark on many spectacular projects in other parts of Canada.

Don Jail
Back of the building. The prisoner yard was here.
Don Jail
It doesn’t look too bad bathed in sunshine
Don Jail
The ceiling I’m sure many have looked towards
Don Jail
Basement. I think this used to be cells at some point too

Don Jail in the early years

The jail was originally intended as a reform prison. It offered “progressive” approaches to dealing with prisoners’ well being and health. The architectural details added a touch of symbolism and polish that went with the progressive approach. They are also the reason for Don Jail’s “Palace for Prisoners” nickname. It probably didn’t seem like a totally horrible place with a name like that, until you actually got there.

Although presently this is a busy spot in the city, in late 1800s it was quite remote. One of the many plaques here states that 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. Not that the prisoners could really enjoy any views.

Don Jail
The building is filled with plaques that inform about the place’s history

The not so progressive years

As any other place built on Utopian ideals, things didn’t play out as expected.  Over the years, as the city’s population grew, so did the number of inmates. Don Jail became overcrowded and the prisoners lived in deplorable conditions. The fancy facade didn’t ease their misery. This was a place where many men suffered and 34 were executed.

Today, the former Don Jail is now an administrative building for the nearby Bridgepoint Health hospital. A while ago, I watched a documentary called Hangman’s Graveyard.  It followed a team of archaeologists that excavated the parking lot and the graveyard underneath it. The documentary goes back to 2007, before the hospital was built. I found it really interesting to watch as it looks so different now, 10 years later. I assume most passerby’s don’t even know what used to be here so many decades ago.

[videopress 4EXZY7kx]

Visiting the past

Once a year, during the Doors Open Toronto, visitors can venture inside the now renovated building and see what life for prisoners was like. It is nowhere near as terrible as it was, but you still get a deep sense of sadness when you stand there and look at the narrow cells. It’s hard to imagine being locked in, but to know that there would have been plenty of others with you is enough to set you straight.

Every now and then I try to visit places like this to understand what life was like in the past. It wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows, but it shaped the world we live in now. When you think about it, it’s also pretty interesting to see an old prison become an office. I don’t know how I would feel about working there. Would you?

Don Jail
What it looked like before renovation

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Don Jail
Today it has a bit of an artsy vibe

History of Bridgepoint Health hospital

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) Its intent was to aid the “poor, needy, and disabled” Torontonians. It was eventually “converted to serve as an isolation hospital when a smallpox epidemic began in the 1870s.” Yikes.

plaque discribing hospital development
Plaque outside Bridgepoint Health
Don Jail
The contrast between the old and the new is striking

Bringing it all together

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.

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. Watching the documentary and visiting the actual building was eye opening.

Have you ever visited a place that was something very different to what it is today? Let me know!

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