A local heritage advocate's private sleuthing has led to the discovery that a 150-year-old house on Church Street, slated for demolition, was the home of one of Toronto's leading educators and social reformers.
Frances Esther (Hester) How, who died in 1915, pioneered a number of children's educational and social services, including day cares, school meals, English as a second language classes and even juvenile courts.
The beloved teacher and social reformer lived many years at 506 Church St., which is now occupied by Boutique Bar. Graywood Developments proposes tearing down the 19th-century house to make way for a mixed-use, 15-storey redevelopment.
Adam Wynne, the local history hobbyist who discovered How's long-time occupancy of the house, believes it should be preserved instead of torn down. "It has a very important connection to a very important person," he says.
Graywood's plans for 506 Church St. have received less public attention than its corresponding plans to redevelop the house next door, 508-510 Church St., home of the Crews & Tangos drag bar, which has drawn much community comment.
A July 2020 heritage impact assessment conducted by ERA Architects Inc., which was commissioned by Graywood as part of its redevelopment proposal, did not mention How's connection to 506 Church St., where she lived much of her life.
"This has been a great mystery of mine," says Wynne, who was the first to inform the city's heritage officials of How's long-time residency. "I am very interested to learn why she was omitted from the documents."
Christine Yee, Graywood's vice-president of development, told the Church Wellesley Neghbourhood Association in an email that How's connection to the property has now been brought to the company's attention by the city's heritage preservation services.
As a result, the developer's heritage impact assessment has been revised to account for How’s role in the community and now states that the property "meets the criteria for historical/associative value" through its association with her.
Wynne learned about How's connection to the house in May 2020 when he was researching a number of properties on Church St. south of Wellesley St. He says there are relatively few buildings given heritage designations south of that major artery as compared to those north of it.
As Wynne examined 506 Church in a directory of city properties, he noticed How's name associated with the house. By chance, he then found her profile in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
Wynne soon located a number of other articles about How, particularly in newspapers from the 1910s. How was so highly regarded that she was hailed as Toronto's Jane Addams, a reference to Chicago's Nobel Prize-winning social reformer.
"I was a bit shocked that there was kind of no reference to her in local history narratives as being connected to that neighbourhood," Wynne says. "She's quite a big and a very important figure in Toronto's history."
Wynne has submitted a heritage property nomination for 506 Church St., along with 508-510 Church next door.
Wynne, 25, a recent University of Toronto graduate, has been interested in the city's architectural heritage since he was a young child. Although not a resident of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood, Wynne says he is a member of the LGBTQ+ community and takes an interest in the area and tries to support its businesses.
Around the time How's father, Thomas Ferguson How, died in 1876, Frances Hester moved into the house and lived there with her mother, Catherine, until the latter's death in 1910.
Known affectionately as Hessie How, or Aunt Hessie by her hundreds of pupils and former pupils, she was described as a firm but kind teacher and school principal. She was credited with turning some of the city's toughest children into productive citizens.
How was the first teacher and manager of the Mission Union School, in the heart of what was then St. John's Ward, Wynne says. The ward, which teemed with poverty and slum housing, was bordered by Yonge Street in the east, University Avenue in the west, College Street to the north, and Queen Street to the south.
The Mission Union School was founded by William Holmes Howland, a leading businessman and later city mayor, and Toronto school board inspector James Laughlin Hughes in response to the problem of the ward's truant, delinquent boys.
"They chose Frances Hester How to teach the students that otherwise could not be integrated into the school system directly," Wynne says.
The Mission Union School was merged around 1890 with the Elizabeth Street School, and How became its first principal, Wynne says. In 1912, a year before How retired, the school -- located across from the east entrance of today's Hospital for Sick Children -- was renamed the Hester How School in her honour.
How's illustrious career is shadowed by some controversy, however. There were reported attempts to convert Jewish children to Christianity in or around the Elizabeth Street School. The extent to which How knew this was happening has not been established, Wynne says.
How never married and after she died was buried in an unmarked grave in St. James Cemetery. Wynne has been discussing the possiblity of raising funds to commission a proper grave marker once How's descendants can be located and consulted.
Wynne says that if 506 Church St. is not spared from the wrecker's ball, at the very least a plaque should be placed outside to commemorate How's longtime residency.
Graywood's Yee says the developer "will review with our architect and heritage architect the commemoration strategy for this site." She says they are open to ideas.