Category: Smith

James Avon Smith, Toronto Architect

James Avon Smith jr.

When I first came across a photograph of my great-great uncle James Avon Smith (1832-1918), the family resemblance between him and his brother (my great-grandfather) was clear. Their eyes were similar and so were the receding hairlines, while both men had bushy facial hair in keeping with men’s fashions of the day. Where James’ talent as an architect and artist came from, however, is not so evident. His own father and grandfather were teachers and his brother, John Murray Smith, was a banker. James’ career stood out on its own, and his influence can still be seen in Toronto today.

One of the most important buildings he designed was Knox College, a High Victorian Gothic style building completed in 1875 on Spadina Crescent.1 Over the years it has been used as a seminary, military hospital and medical research laboratory, and it is now undergoing a major renovation to add a new wing onto the original Presbyterian seminary.

As of September 2017, Knox College will house the University of Toronto’s faculty of landscape, architecture and design.2  

Born on April 22, 1832, James Avon Smith was the fifth of the seven surviving children of James Avon Smith senior and Jane Tocher.3 His father was assistant schoolmaster in MacDuff, Banffshire, Scotland. His grandfather, Alexander Tocher, was schoolmaster at Macduff for 67 years. His mother died in 1838, when James was just six, shortly after the birth of my great-grandfather, John Murray Smith.

According to family lore, James Avon Smith senior left Scotland in 1848 with three of the children, including son James, sailing aboard the Marmion. The rest of the family followed a few years later, settling in Toronto where James senior taught classics at Toronto Academy and Knox College. 

James junior apprenticed with architect William Thomas and briefly worked in partnership with John Bailey. He was in solo practice between 1860 and 1870, then formed a partnership with a former student, John Gemmell. They worked together for more than 40 years.

Smith designed nearly 100 churches in the Toronto area. Among the ecclesiastical projects he undertook with John Gemmell were Berkeley Street Wesleyan Methodist Church, Zion Congregational Church and College Street Presbyterian Church. Other projects they designed included the National Club on Bay Street (1874), the Don Brewery on River Street and the Noble Block on Queen Street West (1888).4

Many of the buildings he designed have been torn down to make way for more modern structures, but the city of Toronto has recognized several as heritage properties. Among them is his own family home at 84 Woodlawn Avenue East, which is still known as the James Avon Smith House.5James purchased the property in 1874 and designed the Gothic Revival style house a few years later. At first he rented it out, but it was his family home from 1886 to 1896. He then moved to 81 Woodlawn, a semi-detached house he also designed. 

Besides being a sought-after architect, James was also an artist. He was an active member of the Ontario Society of Artists and a charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy, serving as treasurer and secretary-treasurer of the latter organization for many years.6

While his professional life is well documented, there are few surviving details of his family life. Ontario records show that in 1861, he married his first wife, Lydia Elliott, and their daughter, Amy Pontifex Smith, was born two years later. Lydia died in 1879 and James married her sister, Fanny Elizabeth Elliot. A year after Fanny died in 1917, James married for a third time, to Rosa Brooks.7 He died a month later, on May 16, 1918. Daughter Amy P. Smith married Herbert Simmers in 1896. They had no children, and she died in Toronto in 1953. 

James is buried with his father, his brother Alexander, his aunt Elizabeth Tocher and both his first and second wives in an unmarked plot (section H, lot 145) in the Necropolis Cemetery in downtown Toronto.

Photo credits:

James Smith, digital image # 10010417 ca 1890, Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, Archives of Ontario Visual Database, copyright Queen’s Printer for Ontario. 

Knox College, Toronto Heritage Preservation Services

See also: 

“John Murray Smith and the Giant Bible,” Writing Up the Ancestors, March 9, 2016,

James Avon Smith of MacDuff, Banffshire,” Writing Up the Ancestors, April 18, 2014,

“My Tocher Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 13, 2015,

“Annie Louise Smith: One of the First Women to Graduate from McGill University,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 12, 2016,

Notes and Sources 

  1. I Spadina Crescent. Wikipedia. Accessed May 18, 2017.
  2. This article includes spectacular photos of the building. Alex Bozikovik, “Merging the Past with the Future” The Globe and Mail, May 5, 2017,
  3. “Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950,” database, FamilySearch( : 8 December 2014), James Smith, 22 Apr 1832; citing , reference ; FHL microfilm 990,994.
  4. This is a complete list of the buildings James Avon Smith designed. “James Avon Smith (1832-1918)”, Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada,, accessed May 18, 2017.
  5. City of Toronto Council and Committees. City of Toronto bylaw no. 86-1999, to designate the property at 84 Woodlawn Ave. East (the James Avon Smith House) as being of architectural and historical value or interest. Enacted March 4, 1999. Accessed May 18, 2017.
  6. “James Avon Smith Toronto Architect” (obituary), American Art News, Vol. 16 No. 34, June 15 1918, p. 7. Rhymes with Fyfe,, accessed May 18, 2017.
  7. “Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1785-1934” database, accessed July 19, 2017), entry for James Smith, 1918, Simcoe, Ontario, citing Registrations of Marriages, 1869-1928; Series: MS932; Reel: 465, Archives of Ontario; Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Rosa Brooks was born in Essex, England around 1863. She appeared as a child in the 1871 census, which showed that her father was a miller. The 1891 census found her working as a servant for an elderly woman in Norfolk, England. That census added that she was an amanuensis, which means that she acted as a kind of secretary or literary or artistic assistant. She and James were married on 6 April, 1918 in Barrie, Ontario.

John Murray Smith and the Giant Bible

My great-grandfather John Murray Smith (1838-1894) hardly looks like a man of mystery. He was a banker with gentle eyes, mutton-chop whiskers and a mustache. But there is at least one mystery about him: how did he acquire that giant bible?

I adopted the bible from my cousin Benny, who had inherited it. It was so big (it weighs at least 10 pounds, or 4 kg,) that Benny was glad to get rid of it. There are no family records in its pages, but there is a plaque on the inside front cover that reads, “Presented to John Murray Smith, Esq. of the Bank of Toronto In grateful acknowledgement of services rendered In December, 1867. James Ross. William Coldwell. Toronto, February 1st 1868.”

What could a young banker have done that someone thanked him with such a present? I googled William Coldwell and discovered there was a journalist by that name working for the Toronto Globe newspaper in 1867.  Aha, I thought, perhaps Coldwell wrote an article in the Globe about whatever it was John had done, but a search brought no hits.

Actually, that bible may have been an appropriate gift for John, a devout Presbyterian. Later in life, he was a member of St. Paul’s Church (now St. Andrew’s and St. Paul’s) in Montreal, and president of the Presbyterian Sunday School Association of Montreal for eight years.1 He was also on the board of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) for fifteen years and served one term as president of that organization.2

John Murray Smith was born in 1838 in MacDuff,3 a town on the Firth of Moray, Scotland, where his father, James Avon Smith, was a teacher. His mother, Jane Tocher, died a few weeks after his birth,4 leaving his father with seven children to raise. His father remarried to a Mrs. Daly and Aunt Elizabeth Tocher helped to bring up the children.

According to an unpublished Smith family history, James Avon Smith left Scotland for America around 1846, eventually settling in Toronto, where he got a position teaching classics. Three of the children came over in 1848, and John and the other three followed in 1852.    After finishing his education, John began working for the Bank of Toronto. He worked in various bank branches in Ontario and, by 1871, was branch manager in Peterborough, a small city in eastern Ontario. While living there as a single man, he boarded at Caisse’s Hotel, said to be the finest hotel in Peterborough.5

He married Jane Mulholland of Montreal in 1871.6 She was the daughter of Henry Mulholland, an Irish-born hardware merchant, and Ann Workman, the only sister of several of the city’s prominent businessmen. In 1877, J. Murray Smith, as he was known to his business colleagues and customers, was transferred to Montreal, at that time Canada’s largest and most important city, as manager of the Bank of Toronto’s branch. 

John Murray Smith

Between 1873 and 1884, John and Jane had six children: Henry, Louise, May, Frederic (my future grandfather), Ella and Mabel. The two eldest were born in Peterborough, the others in Montreal.7

In 1881,the Murray Smith family moved to a two-story stone house on McGregor Street, a fashionable address on the slope of Mount Royal.8 From the front of the house, they would have looked toward the trees of Mount Royal Park and, from the back garden, they would have seen the St. Lawrence River in the distance.  

John also purchased real estate as an investment. In 1890, he acquired five adjoining building lots on Charles Borromée Street from Robert Stanley Bagg. The following spring, he purchased five more lots on the same street.9 He probably built brick or stone or row houses and sold or rented them.

According to family stories, John loved sailing. Around 1891, he bought a summer house in Beaurepaire (now part of suburban Beaconsfield) on Lake St. Louis, a broad section of the St. Lawrence River.10

John died of heart failure at age 57, in Beaurepaire, on July 25, 1894,11 and he was buried two days later at Mount Royal Cemetery. He had been a good businessman and the solid investments he left to his family meant that, although they sold the summer house, they were able to remain in their McGregor Street home for many years.

See also

Janice Hamilton, “James Avon Smith of MacDuff, Banffshire,” Writing Up the Ancestors,

Janice Hamilton, “My Tocher Family” Writing Up the Ancestors,

Janice Hamilton, “The World of Mrs. Murray Smith,”   Writing Up the Ancestors,

Janice Hamilton, “Annie Louise Smith: One of the First Women to Graduate from McGill University” Writing Up the Ancestors,

Photo credits

The author’s collection
The author’s collection

Notes and Sources

  1. “Men of Canada: The Late John Murray Smith,” W. Cochrane, The Canadian Album, 1896, p. 131,, accessed March 4, 2016.
  2. Montreal was home to the first YMCA in North America. When the Montreal YMCA was set up in 1851, it had strong connections to Protestant churches, but it became open to people from all churches. Its goal was to put religious teachings into practice and to lead by example. The Montreal YMCA began offering night classes to citizens and immigrants in the 1870s. In addition to reading rooms and lectures, the YMCA also made physical education programs available.  
  3. “Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950,” database, FamilySearch(, accessed 29 February 2016), John Murray Smith, 20 Jan 1838; citing reference FHL microfilm 990,994.)
  4. Jane Tocher died Feb. 28, 1838, aged 35, according to the gravestone inscription in Doune Kirkyard, MacDuff, Banffshire, Scotland.
  5. Ontario Directory, Peterborough, 1871, p. 696,
  6. “St. George’s Anglican Church, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec,” Quebec,Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968 [database on-line] (, accessed March 1, 2016), entry for John Murray Smith, October 4, 1871, citing Gabriel Drouin, comp. Drouin Collection. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Institut Généalogique Drouin.
  7. 1891 Census of Canada, database. ( accessed March 2, 2016), entry for J. Murray Smith; Citation Year: 1891; Census Place: St Antoine Ward, Montréal Centre, Quebec; Roll: T-6407; Family No: 21, citing Library and Archives Canada. Census of Canada, 1891, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, Series RG31-C-1. Statistics Canada Fonds. Microfilm reels: T-6290 to T-6427.
  8. Theo. Doucet, N.P. #105552, 29 April, 1881, Deed of sale. Author’s files.
  9. John Fair, N.P. 13 Jan. 1890, Deed of sale R. Stanley C. Bagg et al to John Murray Smith,and John Fair, N.P. 24 March 1891, # 28434, Deed of sale from Robert Stanley C. Bagg et al to John Murray Smith. Abner and Stanley Bagg Fonds, McCord Museum, Montreal.
  10. Robert L. Baird, Gisèle Hall, Beaconsfield and Beaurepaire, 1998. This book notes that J. Murray Smith’s summer house was on Thomson Point. Two Toronto real estate brokers had purchased the Thomson farm in 1891 and subdivided it into lots. The point was described as “one of the most picturesque on the whole Island of Montreal.” I have not seen a photo of the Murray Smith cottage but, if it was like others in the area, it was likely a “massive fantasy in wood,” complete with turrets and balconies. Summer residents commuted from the city to their country houses on the lake by train, and the developers had entered into an agreement with the Grand Trunk Railway Company to build a station at Thomson Point.
  11. ” St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Montreal, Quebec, Quebec,” Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968 [database on-line] (, accessed March 2, 2016) entry for John Murray Smith, July 27, 1894; citing Gabriel Drouin, comp. Drouin Collection. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Institut Généalogique Drouin.