In the late 1800s, Toronto was in need of a public bathroom. The location of this new “public convenience,” as it was politely known, was hotly contested. It was initially going to be located on the east side of Victoria St, near King St E. However, the intersection of Toronto St, on the south side of Adelaide St E, was finally chosen. It was right across the street from the former General Post Office in the St Lawrence neighbourhood of Toronto.
Toronto’s First Underground Lavatory
Funding to construct the new loo came partially from the City of Toronto (at the request of Alderman Lamb) for $1,500, with an additional $1,000 donated by Mr James Wilson.
Architects Strickland & Symons were commissioned to design the underground bathroom. From the excavation and marble to the plumbing and fixtures, the final cost for the project was around $3,700.
The city’s first public lavatory for men opened in October 1896. It was accessed through a one-storey tower located directly in the middle of Toronto St. A curved iron staircase led to the heated washroom with one sink, four urinals and three stalls (then known as water closets). Its walls and ceiling were faced with white glazed brick, and the floors were marble. Ventilation was through an electric exhaust fan. An attendant on duty provided use of the sink, soap and a towel for 3¢ or a boot cleaning for 5¢.
Another city alderman wanted a “monument” like Alderman Lamb’s in their district.
The City’s Second & Third Public Bathrooms
In 1905, an above-ground washroom was opened at the southeast corner of Yonge St and Shaftesbury St in the Summerhill and Rosedale neighbourhoods. It cost $4,000 to construct and was well patronized in its first year, with up to 300 users daily. The City Engineer’s report said that the public was so pleased with the conveniences that more should be built, not just for men but also for women.
Toronto’s third public bathroom was located underground in the centre median of Spadina Ave, on the south side of Queen St W in what we know today as the Fashion District. Completed in 1906, an iron hand railing surrounded its stairway entrance. This subterranean lavatory had an average of 733 patrons daily.
In 1908, the first women’s public washroom, or “comfort station,” was opened at Yonge and Shaftesbury. It was added to the existing men’s washroom’s west side.
How many people were using these conveniences yearly? Yonge St and Shaftesbury St had 98,000 male and 2,500 female patrons. Toronto St and Adelaide St E had 204,000 users. Spadina Ave and Queen St W had the most, with 579,000 patrons.
Just twelve years after opening, Toronto St’s underground lavatory underwent a complete renovation due to poor ventilation and aesthetic issues. It was made to look more like the Spadina and Queen washroom. The unsightly tower was replaced with an iron hand railing protecting the stairway, and the ventilation column doubled as an ornamental lamp.
The 1910s Through the 1930s
Public washrooms for both men and women continued to be constructed in high-traffic areas of Toronto and at city parks and beaches. They included these additions:
- Underground at Queen St E and Broadview Ave on the southeast corner in the Riverside neighbourhood. It opened in 1910.
- Underground at Parliament St and Queen St E on the southwest corner in the Moss Park area, built in 1912.
- Keele St on the west side, north of Dundas St W in The Junction area, was completed in approximately 1916.
- Dundas St W and Lansdowne Ave at the northwest corner in the Brockton Village neighbourhood at 1754 Dundas St W for men and 1760 Dundas St W for women. It opened in approximately 1917.
- Danforth Ave on the south side, just west of Broadview Ave in the North Riverdale neighbourhood. It was completed in 1920.
- King St W on the west side, just south of Queen St W in the Sunnyside area, opened in 1923.
The city now had several public lavatories scattered throughout the city, four underground. The construction of more continued on Toronto Island (Ward’s, Centre and Hanlan’s Point), Allan Gardens, Runnymede, Cherry Beach and more.
An important item to note was that in 1923, the city’s Property Committee decided that all gas stations (which was then a developing industry) be required to provide a washroom.
A Traffic Menace
By the late 1930s, there were calls to close the underground lavatories at Spadina and Queen, Toronto and Adelaide, as well as Queen and Parliament. The first two were due to their traffic menace, with one councillor calling it “The worst traffic hazard in the city.” However, it was also because of the $5,000 yearly cost to operate each one. It was also noted that there would be no savings in the first year of closure due to the cost of filling them in and paving them over.
Proposals & Closures
Since the time Toronto had its first public lavatory in 1896, there have always been proposals for more, but that was always accompanied by objections about where they would be situated. Along with other issues, there were concerns about the costs of building, maintaining and monitoring the facilities.
In 1923, there was a proposal to spend over $300,000 building 24 public washrooms in various city areas. Much of the plan came and went.
In 1969, outside of those in parks and in Nathan Phillips Square, the city’s four public bathrooms were located at Queen and Broadview, Keele and Dundas, Bay and Cumberland, as well as at Danforth and Broadview.
In 1981, the dark and dank public toilets underground at Queen and Broadview were closed as repairs alone would have cost over $100,000. By 1987 the city commissioner recommended closing the three remaining public washrooms due to expensive operating costs. Reports said that the cost-per-flush at the Danforth facilities was as much as $5.80, while Keele and Dundas was $3.20 (the cost to operate, including custodial staff, divided by the number of patrons). The third washroom was downstairs at the southeast corner of Bay and Cumberland.
By this time, there were laws in place that if the public had access to a shopping centre or an office building, there must be washroom facilities available (during operating hours), not to mention the many restaurants, coffee shops, and bars that had to have restrooms for their customers.
Artifacts & Heritage Designation
When the old public bathrooms closed, artifacts (mainly from Queen and Broadview) went to the city’s museum collection. They included two penny scales, faucets, cast iron gates, a wooden cupboard, marble stile and slabs, a door, drain cover, brackets, a sink, tiles, light fixtures, a marble and cast iron drinking fountain, a soap dispenser and signage.
The former lavatory on Danforth Ave, west of Broadview Ave, was built in 1920. City architect George FW Price designed the Period Revival style lavatory to complement the neighbourhood. The 1½ storey building is clad with reddish-brown brick and features brick, stone and wood trim. Other exterior architectural elements include brick quoins, oriel windows, canopies over the east and west end entrances and a steeply pitched gable roof, while the interior has vaulted ceilings. The local landmark at the east end of the Prince Edward Viaduct received heritage status from the city in 1984. The building has been repurposed and is home to a French language school today.
Where To Go Today?
The City of Toronto provides public washrooms at Nathan Phillips Square, Union Station, and St Lawrence Market, with facilities in public buildings and recreation centres, parks and maintained pathways. Click for a list of Toronto’s public washrooms.
If you can’t find a public washroom nearby, there are coffee shops or fast food restaurants. While in many cases you don’t need to purchase anything to use the facilities, if possible, it’s a nice gesture to buy a beverage or something small as a thank you.
Did You Know?
In 2010, the city partnered with Astral Media and unveiled its first automated pay-as-you-go public toilet on the northwest corner of Queens Quay W and Rees St in Toronto’s Waterfront area. Once a visitor pays 25¢, the door slides open and closes once they’re inside. Patrons have 20 minutes to use the high-tech toilet that features ambient background music and a sink, water, soap and hand drying station. Once the motion sensors detect, the patron has exited the lavatory, the door seals, and the self-cleaning process begins. It’s heated/air-conditioned and fully accessible. In 2012, a second automated pay washroom was installed on the south side of Lake Shore Blvd E at Northern Dancer Blvd in The Beaches area.
Toronto’s Public Lavatory Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 55 Danforth Ave
- Ontario Heritage Trust: Prince Edward Viaduct Public Lavatory
- City of Toronto: Fine Art & Artifact Collection
- City of Toronto: Report of the City Engineer by the Toronto Department of Public Works (1896), pgs 3 & 82
- City of Toronto: Report of the City Engineer by the Toronto Department of Public Works (1905), pgs 86, 87 & 136
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jul 1, 1895, pg 8
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Apr 22, 1896, pg 6
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jan 26, 1903, pg 1
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 11, 1923, pg 13
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 25, 1923, pg 14
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jan 29, 1938, pg 30
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Feb 3, 1938, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: May 20, 1969, pg 5
- The Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Mar 20, 1983, pg F8
- The Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Mar 13, 1987, pg A1 & A4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 17, 1987, pg A20
- Canadian Architect and Builder: Sep 1896, Volume 9, Number 9, pg 133
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & Canadiana
- Street Photo: Queens Quay W and Rees St from Google Maps
- Toronto City Directory by Might Directories Ltd 1933 courtesy of Toronto Public Library