The city’s third morgue was located at 86 Lombard St (between Church St and Jarvis St, on the north side) in the St Lawrence neighbourhood of Toronto.
Toronto’s First Two Morgues
The two prior morgues occupied the northwest corner of The Esplanade and Frederick St. The first was built in the 1860s and made of clapboard. At a City Council meeting in 1873, the decision to build a new “dead house,” as they were known back then, was a very live concern.
In 1877, the city’s second morgue was completed and stood on the same site as the first. Designed by architects Stewart & Strickland, the new building cost $3,500, and the two marble slabs on wheels were $400.
The red brick building that fronted Frederick St had a tiny inquest room, a large and airy autopsy room with a cement floor, a waiting area with a box stove and long bench, small storerooms for fuel, etc.
In the early 1900s, coroners began protesting that the morgue was no longer suitable for inquests, plus it was damp and out of the way. In 1906, the city’s Chief Medical Officer visited morgues on the US east coast to prepare for Toronto’s next morgue.
The Lombard Street City Morgue
Construction began on Toronto’s third morgue in 1907. It was designed under the direction of city architect Robert McCallum and was just west of Fire Hall No. 5. The two-storey Edwardian-style building is clad with red pressed brick. It features classic stone details at the entrance, in the rusticated lower window trim, the upper band course and the pilaster capitals. The lower windows have exaggerated keystones, while over the front doors is an acroterion. The handsome building is topped off with a cornice cap.
When the Lombard Street City Morgue opened in 1908, it had an identification room with 14 ice-cooled receptacles, an autopsy room, a courtroom for inquests, jury and witness rooms, a coroner’s room and a general office. Ice for the receptacles was added through an exterior opening on the west side. There was also an ambulance station at the rear with room for two wagon ambulances, stables for three horses, a caretaker’s room and a hayloft. The approximate cost of the morgue was $40,000, and the ambulance station was $4,500.
By the 1960s, the unventilated morgue had become inadequate and obsolete. Odours would permeate the entire building, and the hoards of flies in the autopsy room in the summer months were shocking.
In July 1975, after 68 years of use, the morgue was relocated to Grenville St. The new facilities would have five autopsy tables, whereas Lombard St had only one. And, although space had increased to hold 20 bodies, the Grenville St location had space for 80.
The Morgue Comes Alive with a New Role
The following year, Metro Executive Council leased the former morgue for use as a women’s cultural centre and theatre. The building underwent a $300,000 renovation with a redesign created by the architectural firm Thom Partnership. The receptacle room on the first floor became Polly’s Café, and the courtroom on the second floor was converted into a theatre. In the basement, an area where portable lockers stored bodies during busy times became workshops and studios.
In 1979, the Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre formally opened in the old morgue. Mrs McGibbon was the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1974 to 1980 and the first woman to hold a vice-regal office in Canada. The centre closed in the mid-1980s.
The Building Today & Future Plans
In more recent years, the former morgue was in use by the Fred Victor organization as a women’s hostel until 2021.
There are plans to build a mixed-use development called 100 Lombard. In the proposal, the old morgue building would be relocated about 35 m east to be directly next to Fire Hall No. 5 at 110 Lombard St.
Did You Know?
- Toronto’s Lombard St morgue was a replica of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital morgue.
- In 1945, NHL hockey great and former Leafs defenseman King Clancy was leaving the Royal York Hotel when Dr Smirle, a local coroner and former athlete, drove by. The doctor pulled over and asked King where he was heading, and he replied, “Up to Doug Laurie’s sports store for a pair of skates.” The store was in Maple Leaf Gardens, where King Clancy also had an NHL refereeing assignment that night. Dr Smirle decided to first stop at his office in the Lombard St morgue so King Clancy could have a tour during which an autopsy was being performed. When King dressed for the game later that evening, he was still “white at the gills” and said to his fellow linesmen, “I’ve seen everything now. And I’m walking after this. No more rides with Smirle.”
- In 1973, the Lombard St morgue building received heritage status from the city.
- Toronto’s fourth morgue was located on Grenville St and was used from 1975 to 2013. The city’s current morgue is the Forensic Services & Coroner’s Complex. It opened in 2013 and is located near Keele St and Wilson Ave.
- What is an inquest? It’s a public hearing conducted by a coroner before a jury of community members. They’re held to inform the public about the circumstances of a death.
Lombard Street City Morgue Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 86 Lombard St
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 86 Lombard St
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Aug 29, 1876, pg 4
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Sep 9, 1908, pg 9
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 29, 1945, pg 15
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Apr 15, 1964, pg 4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 5, 1975, pg 4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 1, 1976, pg 42
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 23, 1978, pg 5
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 13, 1979, pg T6
- Landmarks of Toronto: Volume 6 by J Ross Robertson (1914), pgs 10-14
- Canadian Architect: April 1980
- Fred Victor: Homeless Women Receive Warm Welcome…
- 100 Lombard
- NHL: King Clancy
- Ontario: Coroners Inquests
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives & Toronto Public Library
- Toronto City Directory by Robertson & Cook 1870 courtesy of Toronto Public Library