Downtown London has been London's heart since the 1820s. Every neighbourhood in the city - even the newest suburb - has a history, and many of them, such as Old East, Hamilton Road, and Wortley Village, have histories which are rich and fascinating. What makes Downtown special is that its history links to every other part of the city in a rich web of connections.
Take, for instance, the building at the northeast corner of Dundas & Wellington. Many people will be aware that the structure was erected as London's City Hall in 1927, and served that function until 1971, when the city moved into its present structure. Less well known is the fact that a large portion of the building is older, having been built in 1917.
In the early twentieth century electricity was a new and exciting technology. The first electric lights had been installed in a store on Dundas Street in 1883, but the vast majority of the city still depended upon coal, mostly imported from Kentucky and West Virginia, for both heat and power.
Over the late nineteenth century a number of private companies began experimenting with the technology. The largest was the London Electric Company part of whose facility still survives at 309 Thames Street.
Adam Beck, however, had bigger ideas. Starting at the turn of the century he set out to establish a publicly owned hydro network harnessing the electrical power of Niagara Falls. The offices of the London portion of this network were established in rented quarters on the northeast corner of Dundas & Wellington. In 1917 the Public Utilities Commission would purchase their site, demolish the earlier building, and hire Lewis Edward Carrothers to erect a new office building on the site.
The new building was designed to encourage household usage of electricity. Early adoption of electricity had largely been by industrial clients with extensive power requirements. Unsurprisingly, the city's second electrical substation had been located on Cabell Street in the east end, in the heart of a factory district. The new offices, however, included a large shop on the ground floor. Local shops had been hesitant to sell electrical appliances when most houses in London had no electricity, and householders had no incentive to electrify without appliances. By establishing the first shop in London selling electrical appliances, the PUC hoped to break this vicious circle, and tempt Londoners to bring electricity into their homes.
Even without discussing the structure's role as city hall, that's an important set of historical connections.
It also brings us through most of the city's neighbourhoods. Adam Beck lived in the north end at 240 Sydenham, and his residence was rebuilt as part of a development there several years ago. Electrical substations litter the city's historic neighbourhoods, most notably the impressive #2 Substation at 825 Cabell Street, but also at 570 Central Avenue, where the PUC made an effort to merge the substation into a residential neighbourhood by disguising it as a Tudor residence.
A final connection comes from the architect, Lewis Edward Carrothers. A young man when he designed the PUC building, he would later go on to be the staff architect for the London Public School board, designing all of London's new schools in the 1920s and 30s, a time when the city was rapidly expanding. Among others, Trafalgar, Ealing, Lady Beck, and Empress (Jeanne-Sauve) Public Schools remain as elements of his legacy to the city scattered through the neighbourhoods.