By Nicholas Thompson, originally published May 20, 2010
Toronto’s Fraternal Legacy
Fraternal benefit societies have a lengthy tradition in Toronto. The various Lodges, Chapters, Halls and Orders attended by generations of men, plebeian and patrician alike, are as fascinating for their esoteric rites as their insights into social history. The wide-ranging influence of these groups on Toronto’s political and socio-economic maturation, difficult to gauge in some ways, and easier in others, is perhaps best explored physically. Notwithstanding their myriad other benefits, the city’s fraternal societies bequeathed us a rich built legacy that scores of Torontonians interact with on a daily basis.
Most of Toronto’s prominent fraternal societies, with their storied and often mystic traditions, were brought over by immigrants from Europe and the United States. The presence of familiar institutions and like-minded men, was likely no mean comfort for newcomers to an unfamiliar environment that could be physically and socially alienating particularly in York’s formative years. By Toronto’s incorporation in 1834, lodges of various orders were established, with members meeting regularly in public halls, inns, and commercial spaces. As Toronto grew, so too did its fraternal ranks, often at a heady pace. The proliferation of Masons, Orangemen, Oddfellows, Foresters, Knights of Pythias and many others required ever-larger spaces for gathering. By the early twentieth century, conventions, congregations and parades involving tens of thousands were not uncommon. Daily newspapers included “Lodges” sections for the numerous appointed meeting times and venues for the various brotherhoods; a 1905 city directory contained seven pages devoted simply to listing them.
To accommodate their swelling ranks, societies undertook the construction of halls of varying size and stature. Many were first clustered in and around King and Yonge streets, but spread out in time with the city’s continuous outward expansion. The Masonic Hall on Toronto Street, completed in 1858, was among the finest. Originally planned as a mixed commercial, office and concert building for leading piano-maker Albert Nordheimer, the upper floors were reconceived to accommodate the city’s Masonic Lodges due to Nordheimer’s increasing involvement with the Order. An imposing mass of richly detailed Ohio freestone, it represented an architectural departure from its surroundings. William Dendy writes that “the building struck Torontonians as rather strange in style, used as they were to fairly standard exercises in the Classical and Gothic.” Amply proportioned and lavishly appointed, the assembly rooms were described (after 1867) as “the finest in the Dominion.” The building was razed in 1965.
The latter decades of the nineteenth century saw many new society buildings erected, some of which remain. Large Masonic Halls appeared on Queen street, both in the west – in the once dormer-roofed Orient Hall at Bathurst, most recently the “Big Bop” – and in the east, at Boulton Avenue, where touches of Gothic and Moorish flair grace the 1885 Poulton Block. These were generously complimented in 1888 with the completion of the stately Masonic Hall at Yonge and Gloucester streets, to Richard Ough’s designs. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a society that at its peak boasted some 60,000 members in Ontario alone, also left its mark in this period. Its hall on Queen Street near Vanauley, features carved reliefs of musical instruments and workers’ tools, reflections of the order’s membership and philosophy.
In response to a massive increase in membership, the Oddfellows commissioned one of the boldest society buildings yet, the Oddfellows’ Hall at Yonge and College streets. Completed in 1893 to plans of local architects Dick and Wickson, its range of uses, quality of building materials, and striking French Gothic design impressed many commentators. The Toronto Daily Mail noted that it was “the only society hall in the city which has an elevator running up to the society rooms, and the elevator moreover is run by electricity.” The ground floor contained a branch of the Bank of Commerce, a tobacconist, and a men’s Toilet Club presided over by “a French tonsorial artist of no mean pretensions.”
Two years later the Temple Building, perhaps the grandest of all fraternal society structures, was completed on Bay Street. It served as North American headquarters to the Independent Order of Foresters, a comparatively young fraternal benefit society popularized in Canada by Oronhyatekha, a Western-educated Mohawk who rose to become its Supreme Chief Ranger. A towering example of Romanesque Revival – it was the city’s first skyscraper – the Foresters’ Temple Building ushered in a new era of office development on Bay Street while emphatically stating the influence of the fraternal society in Toronto. It was cruelly demolished in 1970.
Society memberships remained strong into the early twentieth century and their buildings continued to appear, including Masonic temples on Annette Street and Eglinton Avenue, and the Foresters’ Hall on College Street, where today a moosehead still appears in the architrave. In the 1910s both the Oddfellows and Freemasons undertook major new structures, the last to be built within the old city limits. The Oddfellows’ Hall on College Street near Huron, a handsome Italianate affair, was completed in 1913; all coins and cornice, it retains vestiges of its fraternal past in the IOOF symbols surrounding the entrance. In 1918, the city received a dignified addition to its stock of Masonic Temples at the corner of Yonge and Davenport, in a building that has since become used for television purposes.
As populations shifted beyond Toronto’s traditional residential areas, centrally located society halls became less relevant, and suburban ones took their place. These often eschewed their more classicist predecessors in favour of modern design, the York Masonic Temple and the Foresters Tower being two examples. The pace gradually slowed, however, as many fraternal societies faced long, steady declines in membership, doubtless owing in large part to the city’s evolving demographic profiles. Many still exist, though with somewhat muted presence. Whatever their future, the spirit of Toronto’s brotherhoods endures through stone, brick and mortar.