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The property has a distinguished lineage. It belonged to Peter Russell, provincial administrator in the period 1796-1799, the man who took over when Governor Simcoe departed. Russell’s physician was William Baldwin, who married Russell’s cousin, Phoebe, which turned out to be devilishly lucky for him because Russell’s land ultimately passed to Phoebe thru inheritance. It was wilderness beyond the edge of town at that stage. Baldwin had Spadina Avenue cut north to south thru this wilderness in 1836 and made it the colony’s widest street. He desired, it is said, a spectacular Versailles-like vista from his home atop Davenport Hill all the way down to Lake Ontario.
Amongst his many talents, Baldwin was a gentleman architect. He designed his avenue to form a circular crescent, Spadina Crescent, at a point just north of where College Street was projected to cross. He divided the crescent into four quadrants, the east-west axis being a cross-street named Russell Street after Baldwin’s benefactor. Each quadrant was laid out for six large upper-middle class homes on spacious wedge-shaped lots radiating from the inner circle, which was to be a park circle called Crescent Gardens.
It was too bucolic to come true, even then. Russell Street was meant to stretch from Queens Park to Bathurst Street, but difficulties in acquiring rights of way doomed it to its current humble three-block estate. On Spadina Crescent, Baldwin’s descendents subdivided the lots so that twice as many homes sprouted as originally envisioned. The surviving jagged line of detached and semi-detached houses in the northwest quadrant represents the result of this diminution. In 1873 Baldwin’s grand-daughter sold the Crescent Gardens to the Presbyterian Church, which planted Knox College there, a seminary.
So now you had people crossing the dirt road to get to the island to study about God, but in horse-and-buggy days you could roam the road, no problem. The horse-drawn streetcar arrived on Spadina in 1879, the electric streetcar in 1892. In the early 1900s, automobiles began to appear. The city’s first pedestrian run over by a motorist was in 1907.
Knox College, or rather One Spadina Crescent as it is officially known, is with us still, packed with heritage value, tho at this juncture it is encased in tarps and scaffolding. You’ve seen it a million times, its ivied brick Victorian Gothic façade more or less filling the street as you head north on Spadina. The projecting and receding volumes, the steep gable roofs, the pointed windows, stone belts, buttresses, pinnacles, dormers and quoins — all combine to present what was intended to be a picturesque composition, not to say a sort of visual glossary.
For all that, my guess is that this building ranks lower in public affection than other long-lived landmarks, and not just because it became grimy and run-down over the years. The architecture itself is, in the last analysis, not as brilliant as we would like old architecture to be. Or maybe rather I should say that Victorian religious gothic has not traveled as well as, say, neo-classicism (Union Station) or Richardsonian romanesque (Old City Hall). A number of online commentaries on One Spadina Crescent describe the building as gloomy, creepy, or spooky. In fact, it's haunted.