The mid-century modern clubhouse, located in the neighbourhood of Seaton Village at 843 Palmerston Avenue, stands in the park setting of Vermont Square, highly contrasting with the surrounding Edwardian houses and low-rise apartment buildings in the area.
Seaton Village and the Annex (or the “Bloor-Bathurst district” as these neighbourhoods were collectively branded in the local newspapers in the fifties) did not experience physical and social decline as was the case with Cabbagetown and other inner-city communities. However, in the late forties, the neighbourhoods were portrayed in the local news as “a trouble spot of Toronto.”
The construction of the clubhouse was a project that resembled some elements of urban renewal and symbolized the philosophy of its proponents (consisting of government officials) toward postwar urban life and its built environment.
Many urban renewal schemes in Toronto involved the complete destruction of the existing urban fabric: Regent Park, a massive housing project, replaced Cabbagetown, a working-class neighbourhood condemned as a slum, situated the in eastern section of downtown Toronto.
The Annex in the Postwar Period
Established in the late nineteenth century, the Annex was among Toronto’s early fashionable suburban residential districts, with many prominent local elite families (including the Eatons and the Masseys) calling it home. Architect E.J. Lennox (1854–1933) designed many of the fine mansions built in the style that successfully combined the elements of both Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque, located on the neighbourhood’s elegant, leafy streets.
In the late forties, these large houses were converted into communal-living lifestyle characterized by boarding homes, apartment buildings, group homes, and fraternity houses. This pattern emerged after World War I, when women widowed as a result of the conflict began to take in borders to help them offset the costs associated with carrying a mortgage.
Established middle- and upper-middle class residents, preferring single-family houses (many of whom had resided in the Annex for generations), gradually started to relocate to other neighbourhoods, including Rosedale and Forest Hill.
Toronto Daily Star claimed that the remaining Annex residents were fearful of “teen-aged gangs,” which caused them to live “in a reign of terror with their after-supper exploits.”
The commercial strip situated on Bloor Street West between Spadina Avenue and Christie Street remained lively and popular, especially following the late-1950s influx of Hungarian residents in the area, who established restaurants, services, and other businesses serving their community.
However, the heavy vehicular and streetcar traffic, combined with the glow of numerous neon signs gracing the historic façades of commercial buildings flunking both sides of Bloor and the presence of an adult movie house contributed to giving a gritty appearance to the strip. The social turn toward suburban domesticity in the 1950s made established urban neighbourhoods like the Annex and Seaton Village mostly undesirable places to live in and raise a family.
“Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men”
Founded in 1947 by a policeman named William H. Bolton, the club originally provided its programming to the area’s youth in the basement of the parish hall for the St. Alban’s Cathedral on Howland Avenue in the Annex.
William H. Bolton spent his childhood in the neighbourhood. He was a veteran and during the war he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. His father, Herbert Bolton, was a policeman and Bolton also entered this field of employment, serving as the head of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force’s break and enter squad (whose members were responsible for investigating break-ins). Bolton established the club on November 1st, 1949 as a “place for ‘kids to come in off the street’” when he gathered about a dozen local youth and provided them with second-hand basketball, volleyball, and a net.
Isobel Bolton, his wife, established a ladies’ auxiliary the same year to fundraise for the club and served as its president for seventeen years. They were both devoted to the growth of the club, with Bolton spending “every spare moment” on volunteering with the local youth. By 1960, the membership consisted of nearly three hundred boys.
Religious and moralistic sentiments as well as contemporary notions of masculinity characterized the mission and the activities of the club, whose motto was “It’s better to build boys than mend men.”
“Whipper” Billy Watson (1915–1990), the famous wrestler, was the guest of honour at the inaugural banquet held by the club, which came to be an annual tradition:
“There was sudden silence as Whipper Billy Watson told them what their duties were to their parents, the policemen on the corner, and to each other… ‘Don’t fall for that stuff about it being sissy to go to church.’ he added. ‘If you don’t believe in God, what have you to believe in?’”
By providing meaningful and interesting after-school and summertime recreational and social activities, the founders and volunteers, acting as role models and mentors, believed that they were able to protect their charges from being involved in criminal activities, and thus mentor them into responsible and exemplary law-abiding citizenship and manhood.
The club organized classes in sports (such as swimming and boxing). It was also equipped with a manual training shop, where boys learned carpentry and leathercraft. Classes and activities on the principles of responsible citizenship were also offered. Its membership was only open to boys, most likely due to the lack of space. A program intended for girls accompanied the opening of the new clubhouse in 1961.
Fundraising for a New Clubhouse
The inadequate facilities hindered the club’s outreach and programming initiatives: Toronto Daily Star reported the basement of the parish hall was “in such a rundown condition that even the floor of the gymnasium has been condemned.”
The newspaper was highly supportive of Bolton’s work, devoting dozens of articles to his dedication in improving the club and working with the teenage boys residing in the Annex and Seaton Village. A donation of $5,000 toward the operations of the club, provided by the editorial board of the paper, kickstarted the fundraising campaign for new facilities.
The boys who participated in the activities of the club were heavily invested in the efforts to secure the necessary funds for the construction of the new clubhouse: they made and sold birdhouses (made by the boys in the club’s workshop), Christmas cards, balloons, and raffle tickets, and organized bazaars and other events. They were able to raise $85,000 by February, 1961.
The local municipal and regional governments were supportive of this initiative: in July 1960, the city donated a plot of land located in Vermont Park to be used as the location of the proposed clubhouse and the Metropolitan Toronto Council executives provided a grant totalling $25,000.
Bolton laid the cornerstone for the clubhouse on September 25th, 1960 and it officially opened in early July of 1961 after ten years of raising the necessary funds, costing $380,000. A swimming pool, gymnasium, club, crafts, and game rooms, library, and a kitchen were the facilities that the new building made possible. Female members of the club had their own designated “girls’ lounge.” The facilities were planned to accommodate twelve hundred members.
The club sponsored sports teams, hobbies, craft activities, and clubs. Health service was also provided to the members. The membership was open to boys and girl aged seven to seventeen years and residing within the area within the vicinity of Bloor, Davenport Road, Spadina, and Ossington Avenue.
St. Alban’s as a “Renewal” Project
In October 1955, George Bell, a park commissioner for the city, issued an ambitious proposal to secure additional land with the goal of increasing the existing parkland. Vermont Park was on the list.
Subsequently, numerous houses on Rossmore Road, Olive Avenue, and Palmerston Avenue were bought by the city and demolished in 1957:
- on the north side of Olive (between Rossmore and Palmerston), houses numbered 20 to 48 were razed (fifteen properties in total)
- all houses on the west side of Rossmore (between Olive and Vermont Avenue), were demolished, numbered 2 to 20 1/2 (eleven properties in total)
- on the east side of Palmerston (between Olive and Vermont), houses numbered 801 to 821 were torn down (nine properties in total)
- the vast majority of these houses were occupied by their owners, according to the 1955 edition of the Might’s Greater Toronto Directory.
The newly acquired properties allowed the city to donate a portion of the parkland of to the club, but at the same time destroyed three city blocks within the historic core of Toronto. This is one of the characteristics of the urban renewal plans that were popular among politicians and civic leaders in the postwar period.
Thus, the encouragement and support of the municipal and regional authorities in the building of the new clubhouse bears some similarities with urban renewal projects in other neighbourhoods in Toronto: forced expropriation of property, displacement of the residents, and construction of a modernist style structure contrasting with the architecture of the existing neighbourhood.
Bolton retired from policing in January of 1973 at the age of sixty-one after his unit was disbanded. Toronto Star commemorated this occasion with an article outlining his career and service to community:
[The club’s] efforts through the years have been credited with reducing the juvenile crime rate in west-central Toronto.”
St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club has a detailed section on the history of the organization on their website, with many archival photographs.
City of Toronto Archives include a number of digitized aerial photographs of Seaton Village, showing the properties that were demolished to enlarge Vermont Square.
Newspaper articles documenting the milestones of the club can be accessed from Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive and Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive (both resources can be accessed with your library card).
“$25,000 Grant to Club Sought.” Toronto Daily Star, 6 July 1960, p. 8.
“Add 126 Acres to Parks Over 25 Years—Bell.” Toronto Daily Star, 12 Oct. 1955, p. 3.
Batten, Jack. The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood. Boston Mills Press, 2004.
“Began with a Dozen Boys, Old Equipment St. Alban’s Club Now Bursting at Seams.” Toronto Daily Star, 20 May 1960, p. 14.
“Boys’ Club Gets New Home.” Toronto Daily Star, 25 Sept. 1960, p. 31.
“Boys’ Club Fetes Salesmen.” Toronto Daily Star, 11 May 1960, p. 9.
“Break and Enter Squad Boss Retires.” The Toronto Star, 8 Jan. 1973, p. 25.
Campbell, George. “Bolton Does Big League Job for St. Albans.” Toronto Daily Star, 28 Feb. 1953, p. 11.
Dempsey, Lotta. “It’s Bill Bolton Arena.” The Toronto Star, 22 March. 1971, p. 11.
“Graduates to Fingal Bombing and Gunnery School.” Toronto Daily Star, 17 Feb. 1941, p. 19.
“Inspector Gets Citizenship Award.” Toronto Daily Star, 29 Mar. 1956, p. 7.
“Isobel Bolton Founded Club.” Toronto Daily Star, 3 Oct. 1980, p. A19.
“Not ‘Sissy’ to Go to Church, ‘Whipper’ Tells Boys’ Club.” Toronto Daily Star, 16 Sept. 1959, p. 10.
“St. Alban Clubhouse Open for Inspection.” Toronto Daily Star, 8 July 1961, p. 30.
“St. Albans Boys Club, with Membership of All Races, Colors and Creeds, Seeks $50,000 for Expansion .” Toronto Daily Star, 29 June 1953, p. 1.
“St. Alban’s Club Gets Park Site.” Toronto Daily Star, 31 May 1957, p. 1.
“St. Alban’s Club Seeks $350,000.” Toronto Daily Star, 11 Feb. 1960, p. 15.
Sewell, John. The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning. University of Toronto Press, 1993.
“Will Teach Underwater Swimming.” Toronto Daily Star, 8 Oct. 1954, p. 21.