Queen Street Mental Health Centre

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Queen Street Mental Health Centre
Construction Began 1846
Opened 1850
Demolished 1976
Current Status Demolished (Original)
Building Style Pre-1854 Plans
Architect(s) John George Howard
Location Toronto, ON
Alternate Names
  • Provincial Lunatic Asylum
  • Asylum for the Insane, Toronto
  • Hospital for the Insane, Toronto
  • Ontario Hospital
  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (current)



In 1846, construction began on the first ‘Provincial Lunatic Asylum’ on a 50 acre portion of the Garrison Reserve, which was Military property. Designed by architect John George Howard, it was the largest and most modern building in British North America at the time; with its own 12,000 gallon fresh water tank, flush toilets, and central heating. The 40 foot diameter dome was the highest point in Toronto. It was capped by a cupola as a lookout guarding against potentially renewed attacks (as in the War of 1812) by the American military. At the time, the asylum was considered to be on the remote outskirts of the City, away from City residents who would travel to the area to look at the building as a tourist attraction. On August 22, 1846, an official ceremony was held by provincial and civic officials for the laying of the cornerstone by the Honorable Chief Justice John Beverly Robinson. Three and a half years later on January 26, 1850, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, with 250 beds, opened its doors to its first 211 patients who had been transferred from the Temporary Asylum, which was housed in a former jail on King Street.

At this time, there were few treatments available for patients with mental illness. There was, though, ‘Moral Therapy’, which included a lot of fresh air and work-related activities for patients, such as laundry, kitchen duties, and farming of the land. Typically, patients wouldn’t get better – many of them would stay for life. The Toronto architecture firm of Cumberland and Ridout was engaged in 1851 to design a wall with lodges and an entrance gate around the asylum. The half-height portion of wall between the lodges, fronting Queen Street West, had many decorative details, including an iron fence on top of the wall. And, a year later in 1852, an all-brick wall on the north, east, and west sides of the property was completed. In 1853, Dr. Joseph Workman, an enlightened clinician and medical educator open to new ideas, came on board as the asylum’s Medical Superintendent, a role he held until 1875.

In 1860, Kivas Tully, renowned architect and civil engineer, prepared a new design for the wall, which included improved details such as stone capping; and a year later, the new south wall was complete. This new design survives today only along the south boundary. Patient labor was used extensively in the construction of the 12-16 foot surrounding walls, as well as subsequent reconstructions of the walls, large portions of which still remain standing today and are historically protected.

Between 1866 and 1869, new east and west wings (also designed by Kivas Tully) were added to the main asylum building, almost tripling the bed capacity, as a measure to ease the severe overcrowding. In 1871, the name of the asylum changed to ‘Asylum for the Insane, Toronto’, which held until 1905. In 1878, a portion of the wall was demolished and replaced with an iron fence on Queen Street West to provide a view to the Superintendent’s Residence. Between 1888 and 1889, following the government’s sale of 23 acres of the site for development, the east and west walls were moved and rebuilt using original materials. All available limestone caps were reinstalled in these portions; however, there was not enough stone material to complete the wall to Queen Street. This sale of land reduced the site to 27 acres, the size that it is today. Then, in 1889, two new brick workshop buildings (extant) were constructed against the south wall for use by staff and patients engaged in several skilled trades. The buildings included the asylum carpenter’s shop, as well as the engineer’s, blacksmith’s, and painter’s shops.



The Provincial Lunatic Asylum was still dealing with overcrowding; up to 1,600 patients lived there at one time. The significant overcrowding and government neglect led to the deterioration of the building. In 1905, the name changed to ‘Hospital for the Insane, Toronto’, as now “the patients are regarded as sick people and are treated as such,” according to Dr. Charles Kirk Clarke, Medical Superintendent. From 1905 to 1911, Dr. Clarke recommended selling off and relocating the overcrowded and henceforth, poorly maintained facility, without success. A new facility in Whitby was designed to replace the one on Queen Street; however, both continued to be utilized after the opening of the Whitby facility in 1919.

Medically, treatment advanced from an emphasis on sedatives, physical therapies, and psychosurgery to the adaptation of lithium and the major tranquilizers in the early 1950s. Baths used to calm patients remained as part of the treatment. Between 1953 and the 1970s, the first generation of anti-psychotic medications, hampered by muscle stiffness and other side effects, were in use. In 1954, construction began on the new Administration Building on Queen Street and in 1956, the building was completed. Eight years later in 1964, the Ministry of Health announced its plans to replace the Queen Street asylum structures with new buildings on the same site. And in 1966, the name changed to the ‘Queen Street Mental Health Centre’.

In 1970, construction of four new Active Treatment Units began, together with a central Community Centre. At the time, these concrete, glass, and cinder block buildings were welcomed for their contemporary modernity. Each unit was built in a residence style with 250 beds per unit and shared washrooms. Also in 1970, a new opening was made in the wall along Shaw Street. In 1972, Active Treatment Units 1 and 2 and the Paul Christie Community Centre opened and in 1974, Active Treatment Units 3 and 4 were completed. The construction was phased in order to permit the old asylum buildings to remain in clinical and other uses until the successor buildings were ready, and the buildings were numbered according to the order in which they were opened. That is why today, Unit 3 is beside Unit 1 and Unit 4 is next to Unit 2. As each of the four new units was completed, the patients were moved over from the 1850 asylum building, which was demolished in 1976. This was followed in 1978 by the demolition of the former Superintendent’s Residence (later, the Nurses’ Residence) and the remaining sections of the north wall.

In 1979, the Joseph Workman Auditorium opened and the infamous ‘999 Queen Street’ address changed to 1001 in an effort to symbolically disconnect the new center from its stigmatized past. Also in 1979, the ‘Asylum for the Insane, Mimico’ (renamed as the ‘Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital’ in 1966) was closed and partly re-merged with Queen Street. The end of the 1970s was the era of the de-institutionalization of psychiatric patients who were stable on medications. Unfortunately, this came without the necessary community supports such as supportive housing. It was also the era in which the inpatient population declined from a high of 1,600 in the old asylum building to approximately 400 – 500 at any given time in the new 1970s buildings. The 1990s saw newer anti-psychotic drugs (e.g. risperidone, 1994; olanzapine, 1998) with their side effects of weight gain and metabolic problems.

In 1997, the City of Toronto designated the surviving 1860s boundary walls (partly rebuilt in 1888-1889) and two 1889 workshop buildings as heritage structures under the Ontario Heritage Act. Also in 1997, the Health Services Restructuring Commission (HSRC), an arms-length agency appointed by the Government of Ontario to redesign the province's health care system, released its report, which included changes to addictions and mental health care. In 1998, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) was formed from the merger of the Queen Street Mental Health Centre, the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, the Addiction Research Foundation, and the Donwood Institute. Dr. Paul Garfinkel was CAMH’s founding President and CEO.


In 2001, the Vision and Master Plan outlined the transformation of the Queen Street site into an ‘urban village’ – an integrated community, weaving together a mix of CAMH buildings with non-CAMH land uses, including parks and new through streets, into the fabric of the City of Toronto. The vision for this 27 acre downtown site was to literally tear down the institution that promoted isolation and stigma and offer a new kind of hospital that is integrated with the community; where being part of the community is part of the treatment. Also in 2005, the Province announced approval and funding for Phase 1A of CAMH’s Queen Street redevelopment. These four new buildings of Phase 1A would be home to CAMH’s Addiction and Mood and Anxiety Programs and would include three 24-bed Alternate Milieu (AM) client care buildings with private bedrooms; a quiet room to read, relax, and receive visitors; and communal living spaces.

In 2006, CAMH and the City of Toronto signed a Heritage Easement Agreement, which set out the schedule for, and approach to, the repair and conservation of the historic walls and the abutting historic workshop buildings. And, one year later, repairs to the historic wall commenced. n April 6, 2006, the official groundbreaking for Phase 1A took place, inaugurating the start of construction for this first phase of the Queen Street Redevelopment Project. Two years later, the four new buildings of Phase 1A were completed and on April 7, 2008, Phase 1A operations got underway. Almost three months later on June 26, 2008, CAMH celebrated with a grand opening of the Phase 1A buildings. On April 6, 2006, the official groundbreaking for Phase 1A took place, inaugurating the start of construction for this first phase of the Queen Street Redevelopment Project. Two years later, the four new buildings of Phase 1A were completed and on April 7, 2008, Phase 1A operations got underway. Almost three months later on June 26, 2008, CAMH celebrated with a grand opening of the Phase 1A buildings.


Main Image Gallery: Queen Street Mental Health Centre


Dr. Geoffrey Reaume - Remembrance of Patients Past: Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940.

Edna Hudson (Ed.) - The Provincial Asylum in Toronto: Reflections on Social and Architectural History. Toronto Region Architectural Conservancy, 2000.

Friends of the CAMH Archives (FoCA) Newsletter; scroll down to linked index: [1]


The following sixth-eight minute documentary entitled "If these walls could talk stories behind Toronto's psychiatric patient built wall" is about the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. It was created by Toronto filmmakers Naomi Berlyne and Sibyl Likely.