Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on December 13, 2008.
Looking north from the top of the Bank of Commerce Building, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1567, series 648, file 7.
The best way to get a comprehensive view of the city of Toronto as a whole is to go to the Canadian Bank of Commerce, at 25 King Street West, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and take the elevator to the 31st floor. Choose, if you can, a reasonably clear day. From the observation gallery, 426 feet above the street, you will have a superb view of the city and the surrounding country. On a bright day, when there is a north wind, the guide assures us that he can see the spray from the falls of Niagara, at the other side of the lake. When we were up there, there was a mist over everything, but it was beautiful. It seemed to us that we were looking down on the past, present and future of Toronto, almost as if we were pagan gods in a synthetic Olympus.
The mid-century equivalent of a trip up the CN Tower is one of the many ideas for tourists that John and Marjorie Mackenzie provide in their 1950 guidebook to our province, Ontario In Your Car. For 26 of the book’s 291 pages, the Mackenzies provide visitors with descriptions of local landmarks, historical quotes, and a sneaking suspicion that they prefer exploring the northern wilderness.
Many of the tidbits of information are directed towards Americans, whether it is noting the monument to Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) in Exhibition Place or that “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford was born on University Avenue. Also clarified for southern visitors: what’s the deal with Avenue Road?
Avenue Road is a continuation of University Avenue, and that really is its name. It always seems to strike our American friends as being an utterly incongruous name, but if one remembers that it was far outside the town when Toronto first became a city, and that it was a mere trail which led to the Avenue, it does seem to make more sense. Try to remember this street and how to get to it, for it is probably the one you will take when you leave Toronto for the fishing camps and resorts of the north.
The Old Mill Hotel, c. 1945. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 532.
The city’s nightlife rates favourably, with the Mackenzies shooting down the notion that evening amusement did not exist. The Old Mill ranked highly (“dancing every night in a quaint and delightful setting”), while the red and blue colour scheme of the Imperial Room in the Royal York Hotel was headache inducing. Late-night revellers were advised to grab a bite at the original location of the Lichee Garden on Elizabeth Street, which stayed open until 5 a.m. The fun did not extend into Sunday, when blue laws left tourists scratching their heads.
The Lord’s Day Alliance has left a strong indelible mark on the city, for better or worse, and many visitors arriving on the Sabbath, look in dismay at the closed theatres and deserted streets, and they ask: “Where is everybody? What do people do with themselves on Sunday?” The answer is “They are out playing golf.”
Lou Turofsky at 1950 Grey Cup game, Varsity Stadium. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 9451.
Golf courses feature significantly in the guide’s breakdown of recreational activities by season. Autumn is regarded as the nicest time of the year, filled with colourful trees, society balls, Broadway try-outs, and the start of hockey season. Football at Varsity Stadium earns a nod, more for university action than professional play, even though Varsity was the site of the 1950 Grey Cup, a.k.a. “the mud bowl.” Winter earns less praise, though this has less to do with available activities than the authors’ preferences. “Not being too keen about skating and skiing, we rather tend to a lukewarm attitude on the virtues of Ontario as a winter resort, but there are many who love it, and who wait impatiently for the snow to fall so that they really begin to live.”
Views of the construction on Yonge Street at King Street, March 16, 1950. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1128, series 381, file 31.
One major attraction not mentioned but that would have been noticed by tourists is the construction of the Yonge subway. Construction began in September 1949, with onlookers able to gaze down into open trenches from the sidewalk or temporary decks like the one shown above. Visitors had to wait four years before they had a chance to ride the line.
Mayor Hiram E. McCallum and Ice Follies performers drink milk at civic reception, Old City Hall, between 1948 and 1951. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 6678.
The guide also neglects to mention that you could venture into City Hall and enjoy a glass of milk with mayor Hiram (Buck) McCallum.
The Mackenzies’ final verdict on our city?
Toronto may be the capital of Ontario and the centre of population, but it is by no means the whole Province. There are those among you, we are sure, who are looking forward with anticipation to the lakes and streams of the northland, where the bass and trout are waiting for you, where you can hunt wild life with a camera or a gun, and where Nature has not yet been moulded to suit the whims of man.
Queen Elizabeth Way, circa 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 380, Item 64. More on the history of the QEW Monument.
A few words about the QEW, from a chapter dedicated to the decade-old highway:
Some people are always in a hurry. It may be because of a restless temperament, or it may be because they have only a very limited time in which to cover everything they want to see. In either case, if time is the essence, the Queen Elizabeth Way is your road.
This is Ontario’s super highway. It is laid out in the modern manner, with divided roadways, clover leafs and circles for merging traffic, and cross-over bridges for the side roads. It is named to commemorate the visit to Canada and the United States of King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1939. The speed limit is 50 miles an hour.
As a rule, we don’t go in much for fast driving, but we have often travelled from Niagara Falls to Toronto, via the Elizabeth Way, in less than two hours.
Park Plaza Hotel, looking north along Avenue Road, 1936. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1034, Item 173.
We think the Park Plaza is one of Toronto’s best hotels. It has a small lobby, and practically no public rooms, but the well-furnished bedrooms are unusually comfortable. The cocktail lounges, and the small dining room on the top floor are among the best in town.
Guild Inn, 1944. Photo by H. James. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0108031f.
There is another place which we like very much, especially for a golfing holiday. This is called the Guild Inn, and it is about five miles from the eastern city limits, south of Highway 2, at Scarborough overlooking Lake Ontario. It is a delightful inn of the luxury type, with beautifully furnished rooms and lovely grounds stretching for a mile along the famous Scarborough Bluffs. The management will introduce you, if you wish, at four Golf Clubs nearby, two of which are private championship courses. The Guild Inn is unique. It allows you to live in the country and still be near enough to Toronto to enjoy the theatres, the shops and the sights.
Eaton’s College Street, 1950 (guessing on a Sunday, based on the curtained display windows). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 16, Item 49357.
If you have any shopping to do, both Eaton’s and Simpson’s are well worth a visit, and if it should be lunch or tea time, we know you will enjoy the pleasant surroundings and good food in the “Georgian Room” at Eaton’s, or the “Arcadian Court” at Simpson’s. Eaton’s College Street store also has an excellent restaurant, the “Round Room,” if you should be in that part of town.
Other brief tidbits:
- Casa Loma “has no history and no tradition, but it is enormous.”
- Autumn is the nicest time of the year in Toronto.
- Of (Old) City Hall, “we predict that, 50 years from now, it will be pointed out as a fine example of late Victorian architecture.”
The book appears to have been designed for golfers, as local courses are discussed in many of the entries, especially around suburban Toronto. Thornhill’s entry is almost entirely about golf, while a trip to the links was the main reason to stop in Aurora. A good chunk of Newmarket’s description is taken up by discussing the Briars Country Club at Jackson’s Point. And so on.
My hometown, Amherstburg, is briefly mentioned in the Windsor section. It focuses solely on Fort Malden and writer Anna Brownell Jameson’s unflattering description of the “wretched little useless fort” during the 1830s. Sadly, Amherstburg lacked a golf course, unlike Windsor, Kingsville, or Leamington (whose links were “flat, but attractive”).