Campbell House

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Campbell House is a historic house in downtown Toronto. It is the oldest remaining house from the original site of the Town of York and was built by Upper Canada Chief Justice Sir William Campbell and his wife Hannah in 1822. The home was designed for entertaining and comfort, and constructed at a time when the Campbells were socially and economically established and their children had grown to adulthood.

Sir William Campbell

Sir William Campbell (2 August 1758 – 18 January 1834) was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Upper Canada and a resident of Toronto. He also held political appointments in both Nova Scotia and Upper Canada.

He was born in Caithness, Scotland in 1758. At the beginning of the American Revolution, he joined the 76th Regiment of Foot, went to North America and was taken prisoner at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. In 1784, he settled at Guysborough, Nova Scotia. He studied law and began practicing as an attorney in 1785. A few years later, he was appointed justice of the peace and captain in the local militia. In 1799, he gained a seat in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly representing Sydney County. In the same year, he was also appointed attorney general, superintendent of coal mines and a member of the Executive Council in Cape Breton. In 1801, he took on a 7 year lease to operate the coal mines but, due to his inexperience, ownership was taken back by the Crown in 1804. In 1808, after a dispute with administrator Brigadier-General Nicholas Nepean, he was dismissed from his appointments and forced to go to London to seek compensation.

In 1811, Campbell was appointed to the Court of King’s Bench in Upper Canada and arrived in York (Toronto) later that year. In 1814, he assisted Chief Justice Thomas Scott by presiding over several of a series of trials known as the “Bloody Assize”, which were held at Ancaster to prosecute those charged with treason during the War of 1812. In 1825 he became a member of the Executive Council and speaker for the Legislative Council. He retired in 1829 due to failing health; he was knighted in April 1829.

Campbell House History

The house is one of the few remaining examples of Georgian architecture left in Toronto and is constructed in a style in vogue during the late Georgian era known as Palladian architecture.

The house was originally located on a plot of land 1.5km to the southeast of its current location, at the intersection of what is now Adelaide Street and Frederick Street. More specifically, it stood at the head of Frederick Street as a view terminus. After Sir William Campbell’s death in 1834, the house was willed to his wife, Lady Campbell for her use. After her death in 1844, the property and the contents of the house were auctioned off and the proceeds were distributed amongst their heirs. For most of the 19th century the house was a private residence and maintained. It continued to house various local notables until 1890. By then the neighbourhood had changed into a commercial and industrial zone. The building eventually came to be used by several businesses after the turn of the 20th century as office space and a factory, including a horseshoe nails company and an elevator company.

The 1972 Move

In 1972 the last owners of the property, the Coutts-Hallmark Greeting Cards Company, wanted to demolish the house in order to extend their parking lot. Prior to demolition the house was offered to anyone who could remove it from the property. A professional association of trial lawyers known as the Advocates Society, launched a campaign to save the building. Eventually it was arranged that the building would be moved to its current location at the corner of University Avenue and Queen Street West, south of the Canada Life Building. With assistance from maintenance trucks of the Toronto Transit Commission, the 270 tonne home was moved 1617 metres northwest from Adelaide Street to its current location in 1972. The move was a major spectacle, and attracted a large crowd as several downtown streets had to be shut down. Fully restored, it was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on 1 April 1972.

The preservation of the house was an important turning point in architectural preservation in Toronto. During the 1950s and 1960s, 19th-century homes were demolished at a rapid rate; architect Eric Arthur even predicted that by the year 2000, there may be no 19th-century buildings left in the city. The spectacle of the physical move to save Campbell House was a preservation achievement which sparked greater interest among Torontonians to save other local landmarks when they became threatened.

Today, the home serves as both a historic house museum and a club for the members of the Advocates Society. The museum also includes an art gallery.

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