From Stolen Books to Violins

1798

60 Simcoe St.

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The present Roy Thomson Hall sits serenely in a much-storied place that has had several personalities throughout its history. Justice John Elmsley built the first house here in 1798. In 1810, it became the home of a small subscription library. In April 1813, during the War of 1812, American troops sacked York and stole the library’s books.

Justice John Elmsley, c 1790s (courtesy Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec/P560,S2,D1,P320).

American Commodore Isaac Chauncey was mortified to learn of the library incident. He ordered the books returned. It took six months, but in November 1813, two boxes of books were returned under a flag of truce.

Following the War of 1812, Justice Elmsley’s house was purchased as the Lieutenant-Governor’s residence. Its large lawns played host to major celebrations, including the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1854. A fire destroyed the home in 1862, and a second Government House was built on the same site to replace it.

By the turn of the century, the once illustrious neighbourhood of Government House had gone in a different direction. The nearby Parliament Buildings were vacated and destroyed, and Upper Canada College, once across the street, had been replaced by office buildings and warehouses. Government House was sold and in 1912, demolished. The new owner, the Canadian Pacific Railway, replaced it with a large freight and express building. The railway continued to use the site until the 1970s, when it too moved on.

In September 1978, construction began on the present concert hall, which opened in 1982. It was named for media mogul Roy Thomson (1894-1976), whose family contributed $4.5 million toward the $57 million facility. Designed by architect Arthur Erickson, Roy Thomson Hall features a distinctive curvilinear honeycombed glass canopy. It underwent an extensive renovation to correct its cold acoustics and reopened with a gala concert on September 21, 2002.

By Laura Bonikowsky

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Roy Thomson Hall.

On May 24, 1854, a crowd composed of 5,000 Torontonians came together on the grounds of Government House, near King and Simcoe streets, present site of Roy Thomson Hall (public domain). View the image gallery