Last week, it was announced that the remains of previous structures built at the St. Lawrence Market North site had been discovered in advance of construction to replace the aging building. With remnants of former markets dating back to 1831, the find is a significant step forward in understanding the cultural and built history not only of this historic Toronto neighbourhood, but the city as a whole. On Wednesday, UrbanToronto had the opportunity to tour the shuttered north market, which now looks more like an archaeological dig site, and explore the find up-close and in detail. 

St. Lawrence Market North in its current form, image by Marcus MitanisSt. Lawrence Market North in its current form, image by Marcus Mitanis

The current building lies directly across Front Street from the larger 1850 structure which National Geographic named the world's best food market. Markets, in several shapes and forms, have occupied the site since at least 1803, when Lt. Governor Peter Hunter declared the location a place to sell "cattle, sheep, poultry, and other provisions, goods and merchandize." It wasn't until 1831 that a permanent two-storey building with an open courtyard was erected on the site, with the north end housing City Hall from 1834 onwards.

Model of the 1831 open-air market, image by Marcus MitanisModel of the 1831 open-air market, image by Marcus Mitanis

A massive fire in 1849 destroyed the market, which was replaced by a new building two years later. In an effort to rejuvenate the area, a new building was constructed in 1904, until again making way for the current one-storey building which opened in 1968.

The new and upcoming St. Lawrence Market North, image by Marcus MitanisThe new and upcoming St. Lawrence Market North, image by Marcus Mitanis

Now, the site is going through yet another modern interpretation by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners of London and Adamson Associates Architects of Toronto, but maintaining its traditional use and ties to the neighbourhood. 

St. Lawrence Market South, image by Marcus MitanisSt. Lawrence Market South, the oldest of the two existing structures, image by Marcus Mitanis

Preparing the site for construction, Golder Associates Ltd. conducted a stage 2/3 archaeological assessment on August 31. Three trenches, measuring 15 by 1 metres, were dug out beneath the concrete floor of the existing building, subsequently peeling back layers of Toronto history. Evidence from each previous market was uncovered, a discovery which had been anticipated and factored into the new building's construction timeline. 

Map of the site and the three trenches, image courtesy of Golder AssociatesMap of the site and the three trenches, image courtesy of Golder Associates

With lead archaeologist Dr. Peter Popkin and Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell (Ward 28) explaining what was found, we examined each of the three trenches to understand the full magnitude of the discovery.

Dr. Peter Popkin leads the tour as we look at trench 3, image by Marcus Mitanis Dr. Peter Popkin leads the tour as we look at trench 3, image by Marcus Mitanis

In trench 3, remnants of the old foundation piers from the 1831 market are largely intact, a good sign of things to come, as the building's cellars are likely in a similar preserved state. Those cellars as expected to provide precious artifacts that shed light on the first permanent market's activities until its unfortunate demise in 1849. The 1904 market's concrete foundation, running north and south, is also visible in this trench. 

Trench 3 contains evidence of the 1831 pier foundations, image by Marcus MitanisTrench 3 contains evidence of the 1831 pier foundations, image by Marcus Mitanis

Robber trenches, aligning with the foundations for what were the walls of the 1851 market, were also found. A large flagstone sewer and two capped stone feeder sewers have been discovered and are assumed to have been constructed as part of the 1851 structure. 

The second trench contains sewer remnants, image by Marcus MitanisThe second trench contains sewer remnants, image by Marcus Mitanis

The difference in the layers of soil for each market is visible in the image below. The darker stain at the bottom indicates the 1831 market, while the lighter tones above show the 1851 and 1904 sections. 

Staining of the 1831, 1851 and 1904 cuts, image by Marcus MitanisThe darker stain of the 1831 market capped by the 1851 and 1904 cuts, image by Marcus Mitanis

The northernmost trench shows several cast iron drainage pipes and a brick-lined box drain representative of the 1904 structure. An arched stone sewer from 1851 lies beneath. Each of these trenches is capped by the relatively simple concrete flooring of the existing building, demonstrating that construction of the 1968 market did not remove all traces of history associated with the site. 

Trench 1 contains a brick box drain and cast iron pipes, image by Marcus MitanisTrench 1 contains a brick box drain and cast iron pipes, image by Marcus Mitanis

Stage 4 mitigation is the next step, which requires the complete demolition of the current building. Four levels of underground parking are included in the redevelopment of the site and it is not yet known which and how many of these artifacts will be preserved. City officials hope to eventually put many of the findings on public display.

Fences outline the perimeter of each trench, image by Marcus MitanisFences outline the perimeter of each trench, image by Marcus Mitanis

As work progresses inside the building, a temporary market opened in June on The Esplanade. While the discoveries will impact construction, about 18 months had been earmarked for archaeological assessment work, and the findings come as no surprise in an area with rich history. 

The new temporary north market, image by Marcus MitanisThe new temporary north market, image by Marcus Mitanis

As the excavation work continues, new findings will no doubt be made, and UrbanToronto will keep you updated with the progress. For more information and renderings of St. Lawrence Market North, click on our dataBase file, linked below. Want to talk about the project? Click on the Forum thread link, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.