An ongoing research project of the Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch

The Horticultural Gardens

by David Bain

Park Lot 5, shown in gold, with the Horticultural Gardens (later Allan Gardens) in green.

By the late 1850s, industrialization and rapid growth had left the young city of Toronto with few opportunities for public open space. The best were among the remains of the 32 one-hundred-acre blocks known as Park Lots that ran across the north of the city. In earlier decades, there had been some isolated examples of innovative planning, but Park Lot development was generally piecemeal with profit the overriding motive. It was the University lands and a few Park Lots preserved in whole or in part that now held promise. In this environment, Park Lot 5, belonging to the Allan family, was to be the setting for an early foray into park development resulting in the creation of the Horticultural Gardens.

Merchant, soldier and banker, William Allan (1772–1853) was a poor Scots immigrant who succeeded in business, rose in society, and became one of the wealthiest citizens of York. When he purchased Park Lot 5 in 1819, he was a successful merchant and office holder, and well able to build a palatial Greek Revival style home, Moss Park, on the south end of his property.

Moss Park, the wonder and envy of the citizens of the town, was completed in 1828, with later alterations by John Howard (1803–1890).[1] Andre Parmentier (1780–1830), the New York based landscape designer responsible for College Avenue, provided a plan for an appropriately grand landscape. As a result, by the 1830s, an orchard, ornamental plantings and curving roadways had been established in the area of the mansion.[2]

George William Allan, 1822–1901 (Toronto Reference Library, T 34414)

If William Allan was a pioneer, his son George William Allan (1822–1901) was a builder. In a variety of roles, he helped hasten the development of his hometown from a village to a prosperous city.

As a young man in his twenties, George William Allen was an alderman and, in 1855, just past age 30, he was mayor. Trained as a lawyer, he was prominent in speculative land development. His political career later took him to the legislature, the Senate and the Privy Council. He also served voluntarily on the executives of a long list of public organizations including the Upper Canada Bible Society, the Ontario Society of Artists, and the Toronto Horticultural Society. While he lived the privileged life of a wealthy aristocrat, travelled a good deal and indulged his personal interests in science, horticulture, art and history, he often used his wealth for the public benefit. For example, he championed artists Paul Kane and James Audubon when others did not prove to be nearly so generous or so perceptive.[3]

Botanical Garden, 1858 (after a detail from the Boulton Survey of Toronto): A glimpse of the layout of the site as George Ure described it in 1858.

In the late 1840s, William Allan’s Park Lot was pinched by development east and west, and Lot, Carlton and Gerrard Streets were finally pushed through from the east. In 1848, George Allan built a cottage, Home Wood, north of Moss Park for his new wife Louisa (Robinson) Allan on the new extension of Carlton Street.[4] The subdivision of the rest of Park Lot 5 began in earnest in 1849 and 1850 when William Allan had surveyor J.O. Browne draw up plans for parts of the former Meadow now south of the newly extended Queen Street.[5] By February 1850, the law firm of Robinson and Allan was offering lots for sale on the south side of the new part of Queen and on the west side of Caroline Street in the same block.[6]

Botanical Garden, 1862 (after a detail from the Browne map of Toronto): The Horticultural Gardens as designed by Edwin Taylor. The gardener's cottage is in the northeast quadrant with the pavilion at the centre. The location of the amphitheatre in the southeast quadrant (circle) is approximate.

Tragically, Louisa Allan died in Italy in 1852 and, following the death of William Allan in July of 1853, George Allan moved into Moss Park. For much of the 1850s, the Homewood, as it came to be called, was rented to Reverend Thomas Schreiber and his wife Sarah. Allan was presumably a frequent visitor as, in 1856, he travelled to England and marry the third Schreiber daughter, Adelaide Harriet.[7]

Shortly after the elder Allan’s death, George Allan proceeded with plans for development on the “Homewood Estate” (north of the Homewood) and the “Moss Park Estate” (between Moss Park and Home Wood).[8]

The Moss Park Estate plan, announcing villa lots for sale and dated April 1854, demonstrates an effort to develop a strong central avenue, and some possible interest in the development of a mixture of a park and housing. In the plan, a tree-lined thoroughfare, Pembroke Avenue, enters a green area to the north of Gerrard before dividing to enclose what would seem to be an oval or circular piece of land, the future site of the Horticultural Gardens. However, at this time and for a few years later, the pragmatic Allan still had an idea of a mixture of housing and garden on this 10-acre site south of Home Wood. In his 1858 book on Toronto, George P. Ure had these words to say about the future park site: “The entire park is divided into eight lots, four on each side; thus leaving a commodious space for horticultural embellishment; and when the drive with its interior decorations is completed, it will form by far the pleasantest part of the city.”[9]

At some point, Allan had a change of heart. The Toronto Horticultural Society’s annual report for 1856 now mentions Allan’s “…munificent offer of permanent grounds”.[10] In early July of 1857, during Allan’s prolonged absence in England, the Society alerted City Council that they were “…about to lay out five acres in an oval shape as public gardens, in Moss Park, at an expense of 5000 [pounds] on a block of eleven acres, and praying that measures may be taken by the City Council to accept this opportunity of securing a public square for the use of the citizens”.[11]

Municipal politicians now debated the proposed change for an extended period and in the end were unable to agree on a land exchange for the other five acres around the oval. After Allan’s return, at the annual meeting of the Horticultural Society in February 1860, he informed the Society that “…they could have use of the five acres adjacent to the five of which he had just given the deed. All that was required of the Society was that they would keep the fences in order (applause). These five acres would thus form a portion of the garden. At the end of five years, he would claim the right to resume the ownership or, if the funds of the Society were in a prosperous state, they might purchase the lands at the assessed value.”[12]

On April 1, 1859, Professor Croft informed the meeting of the Horticultural Society that, “… Mr. Taylor, a gentleman of great experience as a landscape gardener, who had lately arrived from England, had kindly offered to draw a plan of the proposed gardens, as his contribution to the Society. [Professor Croft] had every confidence in bearing testimony in regards to the talents and ability of Mr. Taylor in his profession, as he had known him for a length of time. Mr. Taylor had acted as one of the principal assistants to Sir Joseph Paxton.”[13] Despite this impressive link to a British park pioneer, Taylor appears to have had little impact on the overall design concept as Allan and the Society members had already determined that the new park was to be a botanical garden. The botanical garden, with specimen plantings and the requisite conservatory, was the rage of the day in Great Britain, and Allan had been most impressed with the Royal Botanic Society’s London Gardens in the “inner circle” of Regent’s Park.[14]

On September 11, 1860, a rainy day in Toronto, the Prince of Wales officially opened the Horticultural Gardens. “The entrance gate of the gardens was tastefully arched with evergreens and various decorations were placed about the grounds… On both sides of the broad walk leading from the gateway (at Gerrard), ropes had been placed, and behind them stood a large number of people, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the Prince”.[15]

The Horticultural Gardens photographed by Octavius Thompson and published in his "Toronto in the Camera" in 1868. The maple planted by the Prince of Wales, in 1860, is just to the left of the pavilion in front of the fence. (Toronto Reference Library T 11684)

The path from Gerrard led directly to a newly completed pavilion by William Hay at the heart of the park. It was an oblong building 100 feet long, east to west, and 60 feet in width, supported by numerous cedar pillars, the bark still on, and topped by tiered roofs. In the centre of this decidedly Canadian structure was a fountain as well as seating for some 1,500 people.

Just east of the new pavilion was what earlier had been described as “…an excavated circle, with tiers of earth in regular gradations from the circumference to the centre.” This hole in the ground was described as similar to a larger one in Regent’s Park intended for the display of plants.[16] Hundreds of trees and shrubs, extensive sodding, ornamental flower beds of different sizes and shapes, and artificial mounds completed the picture in the oval. It was framed by the remains of a beech and maple forest on the five outside acres.

Since this day marked not only the official inauguration of Toronto’s Eastern Park or Horticultural Gardens, but also that of the Western or University Park (Queen’s Park), it might be said to mark the beginning of a public park system for Toronto.

This the second Horticultural Gardens pavilion, built in 1879 and photographed c1885-95 by F.W. Micklethwaite (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, item 5)

From this start as a sort of combination of private club and public square, the ownership and character of the gardens slowly evolved over time. On March 14, 1861, the five acres in the oval were finally gifted to the Toronto Horticultural Society.[17] In October of 1864, the Committee on Walks and Gardens recommended the purchase of the surrounding five acres from George Allan for $11,500. The City land was than leased to the Society, and the Society agreed to manage the entire site and open it to the public as a park.[18] The Toronto Horticultural Society managed the site for over 30 years, but in 1888, the Horticultural Gardens became the property of the City of Toronto.[19]

The donor of the grounds, George Allan lived into the 20th century, and when he died on July 24, 1901, the Horticultural Gardens was renamed Allan Gardens.[20]

In the final analysis, Park Lot 5 has benefited greatly from its long association with the Allan family. In particular, George Allan’s vision has had a strong and lasting influence. He saw a park at the heart with residential development to north and south. Today, this original concept remains largely in place, with the bonus of an additional park, Moss Park, created at the south end along Queen Street. His family’s money and his own considerable talents allowed the plan to emerge and, after his death, the park lot was far enough east of downtown to retain much of its low- rise residential character around the park at its centre. It is a case of the old Park Lot system succeeding, both in the short term and over the decades.[21]


[1] Dendy, William. Lost Toronto: images of the city’s past [Rev. and updated ed.]. McClelland & Stewart, 1993, pp 92–93

[2] Thanks to Pleasance Crawford and Stephen Otto for the information on the Parmentier work at Moss Park.

[3] Biographical facts were drawn from the following sources [hereafter Allan biographical file]:

  • Canadian Parliamentary Companion. Ottawa: J. Durie & Son, 1891, p 39;
  • Dent, John Charles. Canadian Portrait Gallery. Toronto: John B. Magurn, 1881, vol 4, pp 170-171
  • Morgan, Henry J. Canadian Men and Women of the Time. Toronto: W. Briggs, 1898, pp 14-15
  • Commemorative Biographical Record of the County of York. Toronto: Beers, 1907, pp 175-176
  • Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography. Toronto: Rose Pub. Co., 1888, pp 781–782
  • Toronto Daily Star. July 24, 1901
  • Toronto World. July 25, 1901
  • Wallace, W. Stewart. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: Macmillan, 1945, p 7
  • Wallace, W. Stewart. Royal Canadian Institute Centennial Volume, 1849-1949. Toronto: the Institute, 1949, pp 140, 171

[4] Martyn, Lucy Booth. Toronto, 100 years of Grandeur: the inside stories of Toronto’s great homes and the people who lived there. Toronto: Pagurian Press Limited, 1978, pp 108-111

[5] Winearls, Joan. Mapping Upper Canada, 1780–1867: an annotated bibliography of manuscript and printed maps. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991, pp 827-827. See R.P. 29 (B2423) and R.P. 14 (B2427).

[6] Globe, March 27, 1850

[7] Allan biographical file.

[8] Winearls, pp 834-835. R.P. 132A (B2497) was registered in June of 1855 and R.P. 150 (B2512) followed in March of 1856.

[9] A Member of the Press. The Hand-Book of Toronto. Toronto: Lovell and Gibson, 1858, p 238

[10] Toronto Horticultural Society Annual Report of the Managing Committee, for 1856. Toronto: Thompson & Co., Printers, 1857.

[11] “City Council”. Globe. July 9, 1857.

[12]  ibid.

[13] “Toronto Horticultural Society”, Globe, April 2, 1859.

[14]  Allan, Hon. G. W. “Rough Notes on the Progress of Agriculture and Horticulture in Some Parts of England”. Transactions of the Board of Agriculture and of the Agricultural Association of Upper Canada. 1860, 4, 88.

[15] “Opening of the Botanical Gardens”. Globe. September 12, 1860.

[16] “The New Botanical Garden”. Leader. September 22, 1859.

[17] City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200 Former City of Toronto, Series 480: Finance Department Deeds, Box 144507, File 2, Deed 119, The Honourable George W. Allan to the Toronto Horticultural Socy. Deed of Gift of Land Situate in the City of Toronto. Browne’s signed survey is a part of this document.

[18] Minutes of proceedings of the Council of the Corporation of the City of Toronto 1864. “Report of the Standing Committee on Public Walks and Gardens”, October 17, 1864, Appendix 107, page 155-6 (City of Toronto Archives)

[19] Minutes of proceedings of the Council of the Corporation of the City of Toronto 1888, Minutes of the Council, 7 May 1888, item 533, page 151. (City of Toronto Archives)

[20]  Allan Biographical file

[21] For a more detailed account of the development of the Horticultural Gardens see: “George Allan and Horticultural Gardens”. Ontario History. 1995, LXXXVIII, no. 3, pp 231–251