Toronto’s architectural gems—the old Knox College at 1 Spadina Crescent


At the head of Spadina Avenue, where the street divides to form Spadina Crescent, is one of Toronto’s grand structures from the nineteenth century. The building creates an impressive vista when a person gazes north from China Town, to the head of the street. The structure dominates the wide thoroughfare, in the tradition of the wide avenues that circle important buildings in European cities. On Spadina, the traffic flows around the structure, creating a sense of importance that in another location it would not receive. The legislative building at Queen’s Park, the Old City Hall, and Upper Canada College at the top of Avenue Road are other Toronto buildings that occupy prominent positions, where the buildings dominate the streets that they overlook.

The land where the Knox College was built was at one time known as Crescent Garden. Its owner intended it to be a park, and in a deed granted its ownership to the City of Toronto. The city never accepted the offer, and the property was sold in 1873 by a daughter of Robert Baldwin to the Hon. J McMurrick (1804-1883) for $10,000. He was an influential member of Knox Presbyterian Church on Spadina Avenue, south of Bloor Street, and donated the land to build a larger Presbyterian College than the institution possessed at the time.

The new Presbyterian College in Spadina Circle was to be the fifth location since it was founded in 1844. Named after the famous Scottish theological reformer, John Knox, it had originally been located in the building that was formerly Sword’s Hotel on Front Street. The Royal York Hotel occupies the site today. Another location the College occupied was Elmsley Villa, on Grosvenor Street. In 1875, it relocated to Spadina Circle.

The new College was designed by architects Smith and Gemmel. Its pointed Gothic windows, wall dormers, turrets, gables and gargoyles reflected the Gothic Revival style of architecture. The College commenced conferring degrees in theology in 1881. In 1887, it federated with the University of Toronto, and in 1915, relocated to King’s College Circle. Its address today is 59 St. George Street.

After Knox College vacated the premises, the building housed several different occupants. It served as the armouries for a Toronto regiment, and later, the Spadina Military Hospital. For a few months in 1918, Amelia Earhart, the famous pilot, worked in the hospital as a nurse’s aide. In 1943, the premises were purchased by the Connaught Laboratories, which were named after the Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, who served as Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. The laboratory became a world leader in developing penicillin and insulin, and manufactured these medicines on the premises. The University of Toronto acquired the property in the 1970s. 

Today, the old Knox College building has a reputation for being haunted. In 2001, a professor was murdered there. I remember this killing as a neighbour of mine worked in the building at the time. The  news sent shock waves through the staff and students. Then, on 10 September 2009, a woman fell to her death from the third floor while on a ghost hunt. I doubt that many visitors, students or faculty members today worry about ghosts.  However, the building continues to sit prominently at the top of Spadina Avenue, an impressive reminder of the great architectural accomplishment in our city during the 19th century.


View of the old Knox College, looking north on Spadina from College Street, in the summer of 2012.


                      The ornate tower of the old college building

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Left-hand photo, the doorway of the College with its detailed surround, which includes Corinthian pilasters, and the Gothic detailing of the tower (the right-hand photo).

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Gothic designs and one of the gargoyles on the former Knox College building.


South facade of the old Knox College building, overlooking Spadina Avenue.

pictures-r-3204[1] 1908. Tor Ref Lib.

      Knox College in 1908. Photo from the Toronto Reference Library.


Gazing north on Spadina from near College Street, in 1899. Photo from City of Toronto Archives.


   Gazing north on Spadina c. 1900, City of Toronto Archives.


        The grand structure on a summer evening in 2012.

To view the Home Page for this blog:

To view other posts about the historic buildings on Spadina Avenue:

Spadina Avenue – sinful, spicy and diverse

A history of Spadina Avenue—the days when it was a quiet rural street remote from Toronto

The Reading Building, a warehouse loft on Spadina Avenue

The Darling Building on Spadina Avenue

The amazing Fashion Building on Spadina Avenue

Toronto’s architectural gems – the Tower Building at Spadina and Adelaide Street

The Balfour Building at 119 Spadina Avenue

An architectural gem – Grossman’s Tavern at Spadina and Cecil Streets

History of the house that contains the Paul Magder Fur Shop at 202 Spadina

An important historic building that disappeared from the northeast corner of Spadina and College

Historic bank building on northeast corner of Spadina and Queen West

History of the Backpackers’ Hotel at King and Spadina

Hamburger corner – Spadina and Queen Streets

Lord Lansdowne Public School on Spadina Crescent

The Victory Burlesque Theatre at Dundas and Spadina

The Dragon City Mall on the southwest corner of Dundas and Spadina

Buildings on the west side of Spadina a short distance north of Queen Street.

History of the site of the Mcdonalds on northwest corner of Queen and Spadina

A former mansion at 235 Spadina that is now almost hidden from view.


Military hero of the War of 1812 lived near corner of Spadina and Queen West.

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