Friday, 11 April 2014



Just a short walk from my humble abode near the corner of Broadview and Gerrard stands the historic 1864 Don Jail and -- until very recently -- its modern extension built in the late 1950s. Over the last several weeks, my neighbourhood strolls have taken me to the site of the Don Jail to observe the demolition of the modern building, which ceased to function as a jail in late 2013. (Not everyone would choose this site as a destination for an evening walk, but for someone who is fascinated with objects and buildings embedded with stories and memories, I can’t help but to return.) Every day, construction crews remove another piece of the building, and every day passersby get a bit more of a glimpse into the hidden world of the Don Jail. Barred windows, cell doors, benches bolted to the wall -- all the private elements of the jail suddenly flung open for public viewing like a haphazard diorama.

Demolition of the Don Jail. Source: Urban Toronto

For those who haven’t spent much time kicking around Broadview and Gerrard or don’t know the history of Ontario’s penitentiary institutions, the Don Jail opened in 1864; at that time, it was the largest jail in North America. Designed by architect William Thomas, the historic building certainly looks the part of an eerie and intimidating nineteenth-century correctional facility: the carved image of Father Time, which once greeted prisoners as they entered the Don Jail’s door, still stands watch over the main doors today. According to a 2011 Globe and Mail feature on the jail, the historic portion of the jail was closed in 1977 and all inmates were relocated into the adjacent modern building in the hopes that officials “could dispel its image as a medieval dungeon.” Yet even with a new modern building and the abolishment of capital punishment in Canada in 1976, the Don Jail has still maintained a fairly grisly image right up until its recent closure -- due, in part, to reports on overcrowded cells, violence among prisoners, and poor living conditions.
Entrance to the historic Don Jail. Source: The Globe and Mail
For those concerned that this landmark is also on its way out, do not panic: the historic building has been restored and recently converted into administrative offices for the Bridgepoint Hospital next door. But after the fascinating peek into the jail’s private spaces that the destruction of the modern wing has created, I can’t help but imagine what an extraordinary museum or heritage site the old jail could have been. So much of a nation’s character and history is reflected in its justice system -- and how that system has changed over generations. For example, a look at the central rotunda (now the site of polished Bridgepoint offices) where prisoners once watched the flogging of other inmates -- and where a prisoner once swan-dove to his death by suicide -- speaks volumes about the physical and psychological traumas of experiencing life in the jail. The personal stories of both prisoners and employees rooted in the objects and spaces would offer another important look at lives and experiences kept hidden -- literally -- under lock and key.
The central rotunda of the Don Jail, now Bridgepoint offices. Source: National Post

Certain historic penitentiaries have masterfully converted their defunct facilities into historic sites and, in doing so, learning opportunities. A notable example is Alcatraz Island, a US national park just off the coast of San Francisco. The former prison on the island is now a museum with extensive collections representing its history as a military prison (from 1859 to 1934), a federal penitentiary (from 1934 to 1963), and during the American Indian occupation of the island between 1969 and 1971. The prison has been restored primarily to depict its time as a federal prison in the mid-twentieth century; the contrast of stepping out of the warm Californian sun and into the dark, chilling cells is enough to set the tone of the visit. As you wander through the prison, you listen to stories told by Alcatraz officers and inmates on an award-winning audioguide. (Several of these clips are available on the museum’s website here; I highly recommend listening to a few and checking out Alcatraz’s virtual tours.) The museum aims to capture the essence and share lives lived -- of officers, their families, and inmates -- once completely (and intentionally) separate from the public sphere.
Alcatraz Island. Source: Alcatraz Cruises
Of course, it is hard to complain about the restoration of a historic building for a new and improved purpose. Instead of a historic landmark being torn down, the hospital has salvaged the historic Don Jail’s exterior and re-appropriated its interior for their current work. Another major issue is that not every landmark can be saved and converted into a museum -- it’s just not feasible. (Let’s face it: there are fascinating stories embedded in buildings all over Toronto. All buildings potentially could be museums.) But what do you think of the questions raised here -- should there be more of a historic (or contemporary) spotlight on the state of the criminal justice system? Is there a “right” way to honour or appropriate a historic landmark?
Historic Don Jail next to Bridgepoint Hospital. Source: National Post
If you’re interested in the life and times of the Don Jail, I recommend the reviewing the photographs by the Globe and Mail’s Peter Power here, or reading the National Post’s retrospective on 150 years of the Don Jail. Or swing by the Riverdale neighbourhood to observe the construction crews and the gutted modern building, as it’s nearly gone.

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting Katherine! It reminds me of the Kingston Penitentiary, another old and historic prison. Opening in 1835, it officially closed down last September. Apparently you can tour the facility, but I haven't been able to find out what their plans for the building and space are. I'm sure the thought of moving the Kingston Penitentiary Museum to this space has been considered, but that being said it's on a very large, very expensive piece of real estate (so who knows what will happen). I agree that some care has to be taken in how we honour these landmarks, but when we have to prioritize what kinds of institutions get funding, where do jails fall? Some interesting questions!