The Saga of the Gardiner Expressway

This post merges several pieces I’ve written about the Gardiner Expressway over the years, along with additional material. 

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Gardiner Expressway, 1962. The caption was “Ready for ’67 Centenary if weather co-operates.” Photo by Dick Darrell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115131f.

Frederick G. Gardiner was proud of the expressway named in his honour. “You know,” he noted in a 1964 interview, “I used to lie in bed dreaming in Technicolor, thinking it was too big. Now I know it isn’t. Maybe in 20 years time, they’ll be cursing me for making it too small. But I won’t be around to worry then. Right now, I’ve come up smelling of Chanel No. 5.”

When Gardiner died in 1983, few liked the scent of his expressway. They cursed him for pushing a crumbling roadway increasingly seen as a barrier between downtown and the waterfront. Decades of city reports have suggested demolishing some or all of the expressway, triggering debates that will turn anyone’s face blue. While its fate eternally hangs in the balance, millions are spent every year to keep it in service. Every time a major reconstruction project occurs that slows down traffic, you’d swear by the tone of the media that Armageddon is descending upon the city.

But there was a time when regional officials believed the Gardiner Expressway would solve bottlenecks plaguing a growing city in the early 1950s. Had it been built to its full extent via the Scarborough Expressway, drivers might have enjoyed views of Humber Bay, the downtown skyline, and the Scarborough Bluffs.

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Sketch based on suggestions by Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair on bringing the Queen Elizabeth Way into Toronto. Toronto Star, September 14, 1949.

The combination of the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1939 and suburban growth had led to frequent traffic jams caused by commuters entering the city along the old Humber Bridge. Visions of a waterfront expressway were included in the city’s 1943 master plan, but it took time for plans to firm up. In 1949, Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair suggested the plan shown here, which he felt would reduce congestion he feared would emerge when the Ontario Food Terminal opened on The Queensway. The key to Sinclair’s plan was cutting the link between The Queensway and the approach to the QEW. “We’ve already had too many pedestrians killed or injured trying to dodge express traffic at this corner,” he told the Star.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, taken during a photoshoot for Time magazine, April 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2262, Item 32745-3.

Enter Frederick Gardiner, chairman of the newly formed regional government of Metropolitan Toronto. As a Toronto Life article noted 40 years later, “Gardiner liked big solutions to big problems, and he brought an entrepreneurial flair to city government. He loved building things, loved to get plans pushed through and get the shovels in the ground.” As Gardiner once observed, “a municipality is no different from an industrial undertaking.” Fixing the bottlenecks at the bottom of the city was right up his alley.

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Toronto Star, July 8, 1953.

One of Metro’s first acts was to announce in July 1953 that its executive committee had unanimously approved a motion by Gardiner to meet with regional planning authorities to discuss what was soon dubbed the Lakeshore Expressway. The highway would run from the Humber Bridge to Woodbine Avenue. Two sections would be elevated (Humber Bridge to Bathurst Street, and Cherry Street to Woodbine), with surface streets handling the traffic flow through downtown. Toronto Mayor Allan Lamport urged caution with construction—“We can’t go too fast on this. It is absolutely essential.” One of the main questions was which side of the CNE grounds should the expressway be built: on the north side, along the rail corridor, or on the south via fill into the lake?

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1954.

As 1954 dawned, Gardiner and Scarborough Reeve Oliver Crockford supported a plan to extend the Lakeshore Expressway east to meet Highway 401 at Highland Creek. The route would have cut through east end neighbourhoods before proceeding along the bottom of the Scarborough Bluffs. Gardiner saw what was later known as the Scarborough Expressway as a solution to potential bottlenecks at Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road, while Crockford felt it would help halt the erosion of the bluffs. The Scarborough Expressway remained in regional plans for decades before being scrapped.

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1954. Note the proposed interchange with Strachan Avenue in the upper right corner, which was never built, which would have provided “access to the north and to local destinations on Fleet Street” (primarily, I suspect, Exhibition Park and Maple Leaf Stadium).

On May 5, 1954, Metro Council received plans for the Lakeshore Expressway. The $49.8 million project would be elevated above Fleet Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) from Bathurst Street to Cherry Street. To alleviate congestion in the core, a two-level parking facility with direct ramps would be built under the expressway between Yonge Street and Parliament Street.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

The route would run south of the CNE, and it was predicted the fairgrounds would receive 25 additional acres from the fill required for the expressway.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954

A Globe and Mail editorial predicted that the new road “ought to eliminate the worst of the waterfront traffic problems, at least for some years to come.”

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 13.

Two other road projects were rolled into the Lakeshore Expresseway. In the west end, Queen Street was extended westward to meet up with The Queensway via a new bridge across the Humber.

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 10.

This stretch, which opened in December 1956, was eventually treated as an eastern extension of The Queensway.

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Construction of Woodbine Avenue extension, circa 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 115, Item 15.

In the east end, Keating Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) was extended from Leslie Street to Woodbine Avenue to provide an eventual end to the expressway. Opened in December 1955, residents soon dubbed the tight curve leading Keating onto Woodbine a “death trap.” Eastbound drivers going 55 miles an hour often found themselves driving into the southbound lanes of Woodbine or climbing onto the northbound sidewalk. Local councillors received complaints from residents ranging from smashed fire hydrants to a car hitting one home’s veranda. Over 60 years later, this curve remains problematic.

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Globe and Mail, May 19, 1954.

One east-end vision which never materialize was a plan to build a ramp on the west side of Woodbine Racetrack, which would have connected the Lakeshore Expressway to Kingston Road and Dundas Street East (which was still being stitched together from local side streets).

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Empress Crescent, looking east from Dowling Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard West, 1956. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-912.

Construction on the Lakeshore Expressway began on April Fools Day 1955, concentrating on the stretch between the Humber and Jameson Avenue. Around 150 homes were demolished to make way for the expressway and its related projects, mostly in south Parkdale around Dowling Avenue and Jameson Avenue. Streets like Empress Crescent vanished from city maps. When the Globe and Mail printed pictures of the rubble left behind by demolitions in 1957, it described the scene as “ruins reminiscent of a Second World War bombing raid.”

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Gardiner Expressway, looking west from east of the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue, during construction, showing Lakeshore Road bridge over CNR tracks, south of King Street and Sunnyside Railway Station, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-934.

Construction also brought an end to Sunnyside Amusement Park, which would be revamped as a city beach. The nearby bridge connecting Lakeshore Road (now Lake Shore Boulevard) with the King/Queen/Roncesvalles intersection also met its demise. The Sunnyside train station survived the building of the expressway, but ceased passenger service in 1967.

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Parkside Drive, looking north from Lakeshore Road, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-1714.

A new bridge waiting for the Lakeshore Expressway to cross it.

A December 1956 front page story in the Globe and Mail predicted that by 1980 the city’s expressway system (then projected to include the Crosstown, Don Valley Parkway, Lakeshore, and Spadina) would be dominated by buses, as some Metro officials hoped to ease future congestion by banning parking downtown. The idea was that suburban commuters would leave their cars in giant lots next to the expressways, hopping on buses to finish their journey.

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Toronto Star, July 2, 1957.

As construction proceeded, there were concerns that the expressway might permanently stop at Jameson Avenue. Metro was having problems convincing higher levels of government to help fund the proposed subway line along Bloor Street. Gardiner believed Metro couldn’t raise enough money to fund its expressway and public transit plans. “You simply cannot provide sufficient highways and parking space to accommodate every person who desires to drive his motor vehicle downtown and back each day,” Gardiner noted in January 1956.”Additional rapid transit is the only answer. It is a snare and a delusion to keep on spending millions of dollars on highways because the province will subsidize them 50 per cent. We know that beyond a certain stage $1 spent on more arterial highways and parking facilities.”

Problem was that Metro council preferred spending money on roads than transit. Eventually, outside funding for the subway came through.

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Copy of a cartoon by Bert Grassick published in the Telegram, August 29, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567. Series 648, File 26, Item 1.

On July 29, 1957, based on a suggestion from Weston Mayor Harry Clark, the Metro roads committee renamed the Lakeshore Expressway the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway. Clark felt it was a gesture of appreciation for leading Metro through its formative years. The tribute pleased Gardiner.

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Aerial view of the Gardiner Expressway, August 14, 1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 1.

At 3 p.m. on August 8, 1958, dignitaries including Gardiner, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost, and Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips officially opened the first section of the expressway, which ran from the Humber to Jameson Avenue. Frost praised Gardiner for his leadership. “Fred, you were the obvious man to do the job.”

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Toronto Star, August 7, 1958. Note optimism about cutting driving time by 10 minutes.

The road experienced its first traffic jam that day, a mile-long backup which would seem mild compared to present-day gridlock. As the Globe and Mail’s Ron Haggart put it, “the traffic jam was the best tribute of the day to the need for the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway.”

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East end of Gardiner Expressway at Jameson Avenue/Dunn Street, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 3.

In an essay in the commemorative book published for Toronto’s 125th anniversary, Toronto ’59, Nathaniel A. Benson placed the Gardiner in the context of the evolution of Toronto’s shoreline.

The lakeshore once was open, save for a staunch little lighthouse and an old-fashioned yacht club. Today there rise the towers of a great Molson brewing plant, the imposing Tip Top Tailors Building, the head offices of Loblaw’s, and the multi-million dollar home of the Toronto Baseball Maple Leafs. The garish lights of the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway cut spectacularly along the railway tracks, with its day-and-night ceaseless whizz of traffic shaking the peace of the ancient graves in the old military cemetery on Strachan Avenue, grazing the heroic battlements of old Fort York.

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Plans considered for Fort York, Toronto Star, October 4, 1958.

After further study, the route of the Gardiner was switched to the north side of the CNE. This placed Fort York in the path of the expressway, which lead to protests throughout 1958 from groups ranging from historical societies the Toronto Women’s Progressive Conservative Association. The tide of voices against proposals to move the fort led to one of Gardiner’s few losses when it came to the expressway.

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Construction of the new Dufferin Gate, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 8.

While Fort York was saved, the CNE’s Dufferin Gate wasn’t. Fairgoers passed under the old landmark for the last time in 1957. Two years later, construction was well-underway for its replacement.

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Construction of the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 19.

By the end of the 1950s, some politicians and local media grew impatient with the slow pace of construction, which wasn’t scheduled to end until 1965. “At such a pace,” noted a December 1959 Globe and Mail editorial, “Metro might not bother at all. The growth of traffic will far outstrip the growth of the road, and at the end of 10 years congestion will be worse than when the work was started.” Part of the blame was placed on Frederick Gardiner’s refusal to borrow more than $100 million a year to fund all Metro capital works projects.

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Globe and Mail, November 3, 1960.

By the end of 1960, designs were close to being finalized for the expressway’s connection with the Don Valley Parkway. Hopefully Frederick Gardiner and Nathan Phillips didn’t collide into each other. This cartoon also shows the streets (Fleet and Keating) which soon became Lake Shore Boulevard East.

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Eastbound Spadina Avenue ramp, Globe and Mail, July 31, 1962.

The Jameson-Spadina section opened during morning rush hour on August 1, 1962. Despite the potential bottleneck at the eastbound Spadina ramp, one travelled noted that his evening rush journey on opening day from the Humber to Spadina and Front took 10 minutes.

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Jarvis Street, east side, looking northeast from Lake Shore Boulevard East, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, 1963. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5603.

Note the billboards in the far background. The distraction provided by advertising was a growing safety concern, which led Metro’s transportation committee to recommend that no ads be placed within 150 feet of the Gardiner or the Don Valley Parkway.

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Lake Shore Boulevard East, looking west from Cherry Street, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, between 1961 and 1964.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5619.

John Bentley Mays writing about the Gardiner (in this case, describing wandering underneath the expressway near Fort York):

Few sites more forsaken lie this close to Toronto’s busy, dense downtown mountain-range of glass. Overhead, the wide steel belly of the Gardiner’s traffic level lies like a flat green snake on a series of tall, water-stained concrete brackets. Underneath spreads the expanse of loose gravel, some of it used as a gathering place for trucks, some of it the dusty yard of a factory in which big cement blocks are fabricated.

One hesitates to use the word beautiful of such a forbidding place, though the word fits the hill. There is a strong visual surge and power here: in the dignified rhythms of the expressway’s tapered reinforced-concrete supports, marching away into the distance like an immense Baroque colonnade, in the tough muscularity, in the ensemble of cement factory and rumbling trucks. There is a gruff beauty here that swank towers nearby can’t touch.

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Constuction of the Gardiner Expressway, 1964. Photo by Frank Grant. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115133f.

The caption for this photo reads “Full speed ahead: Workmen are busy levelling the groun underneath the concrete arches which will carry the expressway in the York-Jarvis area. By 1967 the Gardiner is expected to be extended still further to Leslie St.; and by 1972 will stretch out across Scarboro to link with Highway 401.”

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Globe and Mail, November 6, 1964.

Besides the link between the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, November 6, 1964 also saw the opening of most of the Eastern Avenue flyover.

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Globe and Mail, May 5, 1966.

What proved to be the final stretch of the Gardiner, from the Don Valley Parkway to Leslie Street, was opened on July 15, 1966. Intended to be the first phase of the Scarborough Expressway, it would have intersected with Highway 401 at Highland Creek. Had a request to the Ontario Municipal Board from a citizen group inspired by the fight against the Spadina Expressway not delayed work, the next approved phase of the Scarborough Expressway would have extended it to Birchmount Road and Danforth Road. While Queen’s Park cancelled Spadina in June 1971, provincial officials were willing to fund a short extension of the Scarborough Expressway to Coxwell Avenue if the OMB approved. There was also the matter of purchasing homes (1,000 in the original plan, 500 after a revision) in the path of the projected route.

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Photo by Boris Spremo, originally published in the November 21, 1973 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0011711f.

The original caption for this photo:

Opponents of the proposed Scarborough Expressway arrive at The Star Forum by bus last night, practising what they preach on the desirability of transit over private cars. Members of action groups left their cars at home and chartered a double-decker bus and one from Toronto transit Commission. They brought signs proclaiming their beliefs but a policeman made them leave them outside.

The “Star Forum” was a session held at the St. Lawrence Centre on November 20, 1973 to discuss whether the Scarborough Expressway should be built. Metro chairman Paul Godfrey indicated he’d support the project based on what he knew up to that point, but wouldn’t commit himself to a position until a Metro report was issued in February 1974. TTC chairman Karl Mallette felt further development of public transit in Scarborough would make the expressway obsolete (if only he knew the battles and delays to come on that front…). “The plain fact is that expressways don’t solve urban transportation problems,” Mallette observed, “they create more of them. They’re becoming prohibitively expensive and are an intolerable intrusion in and near residential areas.”

The next year, Metro Council scrapped further construction.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking west from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 2.

The first cracks in the Gardiner were observed in 1962. Metro roads commissioner George Grant blamed heavy traffic, while the province claimed a thinner-than-normal coat of asphalt was used while building the expressway’s first section. A year after Frederick Gardiner died in 1983, an ongoing repair program began to attack the effects of expansion and contraction on the concrete.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking east from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 13.

Chaired by former mayor David Crombie, The Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront’s 1992 report provided a good summary of the issues many Torontonians have with the Gardiner Expressway: “The combination of the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway, Lake Shore Boulevard underneath it, and the rail corridor beside it has created a physical, visual, and psychological barrier to the Central Waterfront. It is a constant source of noise and air pollution, a hostile, dirty environment for thousands of people who walk under it daily, and a barrier to thousands of others who risk life and limb to get across or around it. The Gardiner/Lake Shore is not only a road; it is a structure. As it processes traffic, it stunts land use; meant to move us along, it limits our opportunities.” That commission recommended a mixed approach to the Gardiner, where some elevated sections remained, some were moved, and some were buried.

Speaking of burying the Gardiner…

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Construction on the Gardiner Expressway, 1996. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115149f.

Like clockwork, every few years a plan to bury or replace the freeway emerges. Each plan is initially greeted with relief that the waterfront will soon be rid of what many people perceive as an eyesore and barrier. Just as predictable is the backlash, which usually involves fears about runaway costs and traffic Armageddon during construction.

One of the first serious proposals to knock it down was in the fall of 1983, when Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton asked city staff to investigate burying the Gardiner. Eggleton was supported by Godfrey, who saw a golden opportunity for a new route through the not-yet-redeveloped railways lands to the north. Godfrey feared that “with all the bureaucracy and red tape involved in putting a roadway of that magnitude through, I really wonder whether we’ll all be alive to see it, even if all the money is available.”

The opportunity to use the railway lands soon evaporated, but other ideas abounded. City planning commissioner Stephen McLaughlin described to the Star three plans submitted to the city: “modest” ($25 million to demolish the Jarvis and York ramps and build a new exit at an extended Simcoe Street); “grand” (place the Gardiner in a trench or tunnel between Bathurst and Jarvis); and “visionary” (for $1 billion or so, re-route the Gardiner into a tunnel under Lake Ontario).

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Sam Cass standing on the bridge over the Don Valley Parkway by Riverdale Park, 1971. Photo by Reg Innell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0125807f.

Such plans were hooey to Sam Cass, Metro roads and traffic commissioner, and staunch defender of the Gardiner. Cass, who still promoted the completion of the Spadina Expressway in 1983, called the Gardiner “a beautiful structure that’s still doing what it was designed to do.” His contention that maintaining it wouldn’t cost much proved incorrect. Cass boasted that the Gardiner required no repair during its first decade-and-a-half and figured once a modestly priced five-year program to fix salt damage was completed, the elevated section wouldn’t require further repair for a quarter-century.

As annual repairs became a reality, calls for the Gardiner’s burial increased, especially as other cities contemplated demolishing their elevated highways. In a lengthy 1988 piece on why the Gardiner should come down, the Globe and Mail’s John Barber likened it to a Cadillac in a scrapyard. As chunks of concrete fell and its steel skeleton rusted, Barber declared “the highway that began life as a heroic symbol of the city’s progress is now just an overflowing traffic sewer.”

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Toronto Star, January 20, 1988.

Among those Barber spoke with about alternative options was developer William Teron, whose company was covering over a section of the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Bringing his plan to municipal officials in 1990, Teron proposed an eight-lane Gardiner buried along the waterfront and a revamped, landscaped Lake Shore Boulevard. He promised to deliver the highway in less than three years and cover the $1 billion cost in exchange for development rights for housing and offices along the Gardiner’s former route, which Teron figured would recoup his costs. Naysayers included Metro traffic officials, who warned of cost overruns, overstatement of green space, massive traffic tie-ups during construction, and disruptions to TTC service.

Teron’s plan went nowhere, as have numerous other proposals since then (such as this one from 2013).

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“Bumping the Humber Hump. Robert Balen works on 30 tonne steel beams for a new bridge over the Humber River, which will replace the westbound lanes of the notorious hump on the Gardiner Expressway.” Photo by Boris Spremo, 1998. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115144f.

Until 1998, one of the Gardiner’s distinguishing characteristics was the “Humber Hump.” Created by settling bridgework near the Humber River, it was a roller coaster ride that either thrilled or terrified. One of the best ways to experience the hump was riding near the back of a school bus, where the combination of position and speed would send you flying. During my university daze, I took a drama criticism class which included field trips into Toronto, and my classmates eagerly anticipated who’d hit their head on the roof when we rode over the hump.

But it wasn’t always fun. The hump witnessed several fatal accidents over the years, and going too fast could send your entire vehicle flying. After years of failing to remedy the settling, the bridge was replaced in 1998. The remnants were sent off to the Leslie Spit.

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Demolition of Leslie Street ramp viewed from north side of detour, looking south-east. Photo by Peter MacCallum, January 20, 2001, City of Toronto Archives, Series 572, File 77, Item 4.

By the late 1990s, poor maintenance of the section east of the Don Valley Parkway prompted calls for a teardown. Opposition to the demolition came from two groups: film studios concerned about dust and noise that was factored into the final demo process; and local residents who worried about traffic spilling onto side streets and into the Beaches, even though drivers would be able to follow essentially the same route into the lakeside community. City councillor Tom Jakobek resisted demolition, devising several compromise plans that would have preserved part of the stump. “Cars are an important necessity in this society,” Jakobek noted in 1999. “Why would anyone want to eliminate road capacity anywhere, when it’s located in the middle of an industrial area and people use it?”

But Jakobek was in the minority: most attendees at public deputations wanted it to go away. City council approved its demolition in 1999. Only a few pillars remain, while land opened up for a bike path, big box shopping, and the TTC’s Leslie Barns facility.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, 1961. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 175, Item 17.

“I’ve looked at this darn thing from one end to the other,” Frederick Gardiner observed in 1964, “and I can’t think of anything I would like to change.” Many Torontonians have and will continue to disagree. For years, the arguments over the Gardiner Expressway have boiled down to either maintaining it in some form to prevent excessive disruption to motorists, tear it down and redirect the traffic, or find creative uses to rehabilitate the existing structure.

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The Bentway, as used for exhibits during Nuit Blanche, October 2019. 

The latter has found favour in recent years, leading to artistic projects such as The Bentway. Housing and office towers have grown around the expressway in the core (but please, don’t throw your furniture toward the road!).

For as much as the Gardiner is maligned as a waste of money and an obstacle to the waterfront, I’ll admit it’s still thrilling to cruise into downtown at night along the elevated section, radio cranked to 11 to a song like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and soak in the lights and cityscape unfolding around you.

As Toronto Life concluded in 1993, “No matter what Toronto decides to do, it will be a prodigiously difficult project, politically and financially. It sounds as if it might require the skills of a politician as powerful and shrewd as, say, Fred Gardiner.”

Sources: Regeneration: Toronto’s Waterfront and the Sustainable City (Toronto: Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, 1992); Toronto ’59 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1959); Emerald City: Toronto Visited by John Bentley Mays (Toronto: Penguin, 1994); Unbuilt Toronto 2 by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); the May 4, 1954, May 17, 1956, December 8, 1956, March 23, 1957, July 30, 1957, August 8, 1958, August 11, 1958, December 3, 1959, February 6, 1962, October 20, 1988, May 12, 1999, and May 15, 1999 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 14, 1949, July 8, 1953, January 2, 1954, May 3, 1954, July 2, 1957, November 21, 1973, September 30, 1983, September 13, 1989, April 24, 1990, May 18, 1999, April 28, 2000, May 6, 2000 and July 15, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 1993 edition of Toronto Life.

Articles I’ve written that were incorporated into this post were originally published by The Grid on March 17, 2012 and July 24, 2012 and Torontoist on February 7, 2014.

Dining at the Coxwell Kresge

This installment of my Retro T.O. column for The Grid was originally published on June 26, 2012.

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Toronto Star ad announcing Kresge’s arrival in Toronto, June 12, 1929. The original location on Danforth west of Woodbine is, as of July 2019, occupied by Dollarama. Click on image for larger version.

While modern successors of five-and-dime stores like Dollarama expand across the city, they lack certain attributes their ancestors possessed. You won’t find the mingling of odours from parakeets, popcorn, and rubber boots. You won’t find the latest chart-topping records. And, in the chains at least, you won’t find a classic lunch counter.

While the dining areas in Toronto’s branches of cross-border chains like Kresge and Woolworth didn’t have the society-changing impact like those locations that served as focal points of the American civil-rights movement, they did provide a gathering place for the surrounding community. Sitting on a stool or leather-padded seat along the counter, patrons could catch up with friends or enjoy coffee, a light meal, and a slice of pie on their own. Before fast-food chains took over, the counters were ideal for a fast economical meal or a treat to calm down the kids.

ts 88-10-11 coxwell kresge dinette Toronto Star, October 11, 1988. Click on image for larger version.

When the Star profiled the “venerable east-end oasis” that was the Kresge outpost at 265 Coxwell Ave. in 1988, its counter seemed like a relic from another age. Despite the store’s yellowing shelf stock and creaky wooden floor, the 28-stool counter remained vital for its aging clientele as a place to socialize as their neighbourhood evolved into Little India. According to veteran clerk Vi Podmor, “We have the same old people showing up for coffee at the same time they have for years. I think they need this place to stay in touch.” Regulars like Moe Chandler recalled how busy the counter, which opened in 1942, was in its heyday, when it was patronized by streetcar drivers. “But they go to the doughnut shop on the corner now,” Chandler noted, “and a lot of people who used to shop here are going to Bargain Harold’s across the street.” While many of the other patrons he knew had passed on, Chandler, described as a “spry” 86-year-old, felt the counter was a “not bad” cruising spot.

Adding to the atmosphere was the vintage restaurant and soda-fountain equipment used to prepare the lunch counter’s culinary delights. Top sellers were classic snack bar fare: burgers, hot dogs, toast, and western sandwiches, at prices that only survive at Gale’s Snack Bar; few menu items topped four dollars. The classic milkshake machines likely saw less use than they did during the 1950s and 1960s, when local teens flooded the store every week to pick up the weekly CHUM Chart and enjoyed a drink while scanning the latest chart-toppers.

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Example of a downtown Toronto Kresge storefront, in this case at the southeast corner of Yonge and Carlton circa 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 21, Item 49409.

The Coxwell lunch counter outlived Kresge, whose last five Toronto stores were closed by Kmart in 1994. The new store owner, Super Dollar, retained the vintage aura of the dining area by retaining the “Dinette” sign, now with “Dollar” in front of it. But the decision to retain low prices proved unprofitable and the counter was closed in April 1996. The community’s ire expressed itself in a petition signed by 425 people. Combined with a substantial sales drop overall following the counter’s closure, store owners reopened it a few months later. The store would change names again, but the counter continued to feed the neighbourhood, under the banner of Liquidation World, until it closed for good in April 2007. Some seats were quickly removed to make space for a rack of dish cloths that once might have cleaned the counter. The store site is currently vacant, despite interest in remaking the space.

Sources: the April 18, 2007 edition of the National Post, and the October 11, 1988, April 26, 1996, and September 11, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

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As of October 2019, 265 Coxwell Avenue houses Dollar Tree. Head to the back, near the rear entrance, for a sense of where the lunch counter was.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Thanks to the Toronto Star Photo Archive at the Toronto Reference Library, higher-quality versions of Doug Griffin’s photos of the Coxwell Kresge taken in 1988. There’s a glimpse of the No Frills next door which, as of July 2019, is being rebuilt.

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Another ad for one of Kresge’s early Toronto stores, taken from the November 15, 1929 edition of the Star. As of July 2019 this location is a Scotiabank branch.

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Globe and Mail, January 6, 1994

The 13 Canadian locations marked the end of Kmart’s involvement in the five-and-dime trade. The remaining American Kresge stores (along with the Jupiter chain) were sold to McCrory’s in 1987. Growing up across the border from Kmart’s home base of Detroit, I remember shopping at several Kresge’s across the Motor City’s suburbs, mostly to stock up on sports cards. Soon after the sale, the stores were rebranded as McCrory’s, accompanied by a drop in quality during the period where five-and-dimes were on the way out and dollar stores were starting to fill that retail void.

Kmart’s overall woes continued. The Canadian division was sold to Zellers in 1998. Store closings continued in the United States. Falling behind competitors like Target and Walmart in the discount department store it once dominated, Kmart declared bankruptcy in 2002. Then hedge fund operator Edward Lampert gained control, merged the company with Sears, and has demonstrated over the past two decades how (a) to drive two venerable retailers into the ground and (b) how Ayn Rand-inspired methods are no way to run a business. A sign of how far Kmart has fallen: in Metro Detroit, where the company was based until Lampert gained control, only four locations remain as of 2019.

The Wimpy Awards

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on March 27, 2012. The number of burger joints, especially those with gourmet aspirations, continues to grow. There’s even a website (Tasty Burgers) dedicated to review the GTA’s purveyors of ground round, or whatever they’re tossing in the burgers these days. Stick around to the end of this post for some of my (as of 2019) favourite burger spots.

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Illustration by Patrick Corrigan, Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

It’s safe to say Toronto is currently hamburger crazy. Whether you prefer going to an old-school burger joint that retains its 1960s-era appearance, testing a highbrow patty made with gourmet ingredients, or joining the never-ending lineups at The Burger’s Priest, Toronto has rediscovered its love for a slab of ground meat loaded with every topping imaginable (though you still can’t get lettuce at Johnny’s in Scarborough).

Back in March of 1983, Toronto Star food writer Jim White felt the local burger scene needed recognition. Noting that there were so many awards for the arts, White jokingly told readers that to correct a “cultural imbalance,” the paper was launching a series of articles to hand out Oscar-style statuettes to worthy local eateries. To honour Toronto’s best burgers, White devised the Wimpy Awards, which honoured Popeye’s gluttonous pal.

White’s criteria for the Wimpys ruled out “anything pre-fab, served by clowns or named after someone like Harvey or Wendy.” Though he intended to focus on the burger alone, White discovered that “the décor, background music, and ambience of a burger joint can be just as important as the product.” As a control measure, a basic burger and fries were ordered at each restaurant in the competition, as “the quality of French fries colours one’s impression of the burger.”

Some winners from the Wimpy Awards, presented with little fanfare on March 16, 1983:

Best Burger for the Buck: the original location of Lick’s in the Beaches, then a narrow eatery with long lines, two tables, and six stools. For only $1.95, Lick’s served large burgers that White described as “superb and perfectly charbroiled.” He noted that “the only thing missing in this setting is John Belushi shouting ‘Cheezeburgah…cheezeburgah.’” No mention as to whether the chain’s singing schtick was already in place.

Most Expensive Burger in Toronto: For $10, patrons of the Courtyard Café at the Windsor Arms Hotel received a loosely packed patty served with a truffle-tinged artichoke, purposely-undercooked chips, and a bland tomato tart.

Best Staging for a Burger: At the Bloor Street Diner, diners enjoyed their meal amid a backdrop of “pink neon, high-gloss black lacquered trim and stainless steel table tops.” The burger itself had a quality most people would appreciate—it wasn’t “sinewy.”

Best Patty: The Hayloft at 37 Front St. E. offered a burger that was lean, juicy, flavourful, and extremely fresh. Unfortunately, White felt it was ruined by lousy condiments, mediocre bun, and fries that had been sitting around for a while. The server accidentally brought White a cheeseburger, which was topped with “a tasteless, carrot-coloured film to peel off as one peels dried rubber cement off the back of one’s hand.”

Best Burger in a Supporting Role: Both Mr. Greenjeans (Eaton Centre and 120 Adelaide St. E.) and Partners (836 Danforth Ave. and 765 Mount Pleasant Rd.) served their burgers in large wicker baskets filled with Buffalo chips and on what White considered the city’s best burger bun, a light egg roll prepared by Central Bakery.

Toronto’s Darkest Burger: The experience of eating at Toby’s Good Eats at 91 Bloor St. W. on even a sunny day was “like sitting in a cellar during a hydro black-out.” When the waitress told him to enjoy his lunch, White replied “we would if we could see it.”

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

star 1977-07-13 best burgersToronto Star, July 13, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

An earlier roundup of the Metro Toronto’s burgers from the Star. Two of the spots mentioned remain: Johnny’s (notice they don’t mention the lack of lettuce as a topping option) and Apache.

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

One of the articles which accompanied the Wimpy Awards. As of July 2019, none of the winners exist in their 1983 forms. Lick’s expanded into a chain then collapsed in the early 2010s. Only two locations appear to have survived. The Courtyard Cafe at the Windsor Arms has been used as a brunch buffet space in recent years.

That pricey $10 burger? The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator puts it at $23.76 in 2019 funds, which wouldn’t be out of line at higher-end eateries. Don’t get me started about $100 stunt burgers that periodically provide fuel for clickbait.

Where do I enjoy digging into a burger in Toronto? It depends on my mood. Sometimes you want a high-quality patty with top-notch ingredients. Sometimes you want a char-grilled slab of beef from a place that’s been around forever.

In alphabetical order…

Burger Shack (Eglinton and Oriole Parkway)
Old school homeburgers. Excellent fries. Giant selection of canned sodas. Thick sauteed onions. Swinging seats that remind me of childhood meals at the Woolco cafeteria.

Burger Stomper (Danforth west of Chester)
Fresh-tasting meat, doesn’t go overboard with the portion of fries.

Five Guys (Leaside location, Laird north of Millwood)
Pricey, and a chain, but worth it taste-wise. Beware filling yourself up with free peanuts.

Golden Star (Yonge north of Steeles)
Another old-school homeburger joint, serving condiments out of giant metal bowls just like Harvey’s used to. Decor screams 1970s.

Great Burger Kitchen (Gerrard and Jones)
Only if you’re really, really, really hungry, or plan to share your sides.

Jumbo Burger (Runnymede and Dundas)
Yet another old-school hamburger joint, with delicious thickly-battered onion rings.

No Bull Burgers (Kingston west of Victoria Park)
Recent discovery. Fresh burgers in different sizes, delicious fries and rings, and (for vegetarians) an excellent quinoa-based patty.

Slab Burgers (Charles and Bay)
Handy for a research day at the Toronto Reference Library.

The Choosing of an Interim Toronto Mayor, 1978

This story was originally published by The Grid toward the end of 2012. I don’t have the exact date, as it was one of those pieces which fell off the website before the publication folded for good. I don’t remember what the original title of this article was, though the sub-head probably mentioned Rob Ford during the period it appeared he might be tossed from office.

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Toronto Star, August 27, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When Toronto city councillors voted for an interim mayor on September 1, 1978, the deadlock the media predicted came to pass. Candidates Fred Beavis and Anne Johnston had 11 votes each. Under the law, there was one solution to determine who would fill the last three months of David Crombie’s term: placing the contenders’ names in a cardboard box.

While it’s unknown if choosing Rob Ford’s successor will require the luck of the draw, the last time council filled a mayor’s term wasn’t due to a politician departing in disgrace. After six years at the helm, Crombie used an upcoming by-election in Rosedale to leap into federal politics. When he announced his bid for the Progressive Conservative nomination in March 1978, Crombie praised the public’s civic engagement during his tenure. “You can fight City Hall in Toronto,” he observed, “and if your point of view is sensible you can usually win.”

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Toronto Sun, September 1, 1978.

When Crombie officially submitted his resignation in August, the list of interim successors narrowed to two councillors. First elected in 1956, Fred Beavis was the longest-serving councilor and had sat on nearly all critical committees. The genial former roofer was backed by the Executive Committee and council’s right wing, and criticized for his support of developers, reviving the Spadina Expressway, and eviction Toronto Island residents. If chosen, he would be the city’s first Roman Catholic mayor. Beavis was favoured over Anne Johnston, who was first elected in 1972, served as the chair of the Board of Health for four years, and claimed to be the same height as Crombie. Her support came from the left and her fellow female aldermen, while criticisms included loose lips, lack of experience with critical issues, and a suspicion she was a puppet for mayoral contender John Sewell. If chosen, she would be Toronto’s first female mayor.

The decision was made during a tense 45-minute meeting. A proposal to adjourn and move into an informal caucus was quickly voted down. Official nominations were made for Beavis and Johnston. George Ben stunned his fellow councillors by declaring the process “asinine and an affront to the dignity of Toronto.” He criticized both candidates, declaring that Beavis was in it for “lousy reasons,” while Johnston was “a joke on the people of Toronto.” Ben nominated deputy mayor David Smith, who declined due to an informal agreement among councillors like himself who were running for mayor in the November municipal election not to seek the temporary position. Ben continued to fume, pointing to 40 civic employees watching the meeting who were indulging in “a rather disgraceful waste of taxpayer’s money.”

ts 78-09-02 beavis becomes mayorToronto Star, September 2, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

When the open vote split evenly, out came the cardboard box. The winner was drawn by Pat Murphy of the Association of Women Electors, who had covered council meetings for two decades. When Beavis’s name was pulled, it continued his recent good luck streak of winning church draws and community raffles. Johnston took her loss gracefully—she successfully motioned council to unanimously approve the result, then draped the chain of office around Beavis’s neck. She later lost to Art Eggleton in a 1985 mayoral run and was defeated as a councillor by newcomer Karen Stintz in 2003.

While other councillors toasted him with champagne, Beavis leaned back in the mayor’s chair and, true to his blue collar image, cracked open a bottle of Labatt’s Blue. “I figured something you always wanted all your life,” he told the Star, “was something you just weren’t going to get.” The only major hiccup during the transfer of power was forgetting to grab a key to his new office before his first full morning on the job. Beavis fulfilled his duties without major incidents, and was re-elected to the council seat he would retain for another decade. Crombie easily won the Rosedale by-election, while Sewell succeeded Beavis in the mayor’s seat.

sun 78-09-05 editorial Toronto Sun, September 5, 1978. Click on image for larger version.

In a municipal election day editorial, the Star reflected there was nothing wrong with Beavis having been the sentimental choice for the job. “In his years on City Council, Beavis always displayed a compassionate consideration for people of all political persuasions and a warm sense of humour. He carried these qualities into the mayor’s office too…We enjoyed having you as mayor.” We shall see if these will be critical qualities for whoever replaces Rob Ford.

Additional material from the September 2, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 3, 1978, August 27, 1978, September 2, 1978, and November 13, 1978 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

Rob Ford remained mayor until his term ended in 2014. David Crombie served as Rosedale’s MP until 1988, filling several cabinet positions for Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Fred Beavis died in 1997, Anne Johnston in 2019.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Fred Beavis, 1978. Photo by David Cooper. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Reference Library, tspa_0031446f.

When Crombie first announced his intention to run for Parliament in March 1978, the Star spotlighted three councillors expected to seek the interim mayoralty: Beavis, Johnston, and Tony O’Donohue. “I ran for mayor in 1972 and drew 58,000 votes,” O’Donohue told the Star. “I’m not going to disappoint those people now and turn around and not run for interim mayor.” He also told the Globe and Mail that he was the “logical choice.”

Beavis, who had declared he would only go for the interim position and not run for mayor in that fall’s municipal election, was stunned by O’Donohue’s decision. “Tony once stated he would support me for interim mayor,” Beavis told the Star. “First I’ve heard of him changing his mind and I don’t know if it’s a change of heart or what. We’ve had no falling out and nothing changes my mind.”

Somewhere along the line O’Donohue focused on the municipal election, where he finished second in a three-way race with Sewell and David Smith.

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Globe and Mail, September 2, 1978.

“Beavis was not sophisticated, but was trustworthy in that he did what he said, and he was genuinely liked by almost everyone on Council.” – John Sewell, on favouring Beavis for his Executive Committee following the 1978 election.

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Toronto Sun, September 3, 1978.

Additional material from How We Changed Toronto by John Sewell (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2015), the March 4, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the March 4, 1978 edition of the Toronto Star.

222 Lansdowne Avenue

This installment of my Ghost City column for The Grid was originally published on November 13, 2012.

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Toronto Star, June 24, 1936.

Over 75 years after the first cash register rolled off the line at the National Cash Register (NCR) plant at Dundas Street West and Landsdowne Avenue, the bells are still ringing. The shell of classic industrial architecture seems appropriate for the warehouse-style grocers who have taken advantage of the building’s ample room for refrigeration, storage, and merchandising since the mid-1970s.

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The Globe, June 25, 1936.

Before NCR purchased the property during the mid-1930s, site occupants included the original home of St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church (which moved a block east) and, during World War I, army barracks. On November 27, 1935, Canadian Manufacturers’ Association president W.S. Morden turned the sod for the $300,000 plant. Opened in June 1936, the 75,000 square-foot facility included a machine shop, assembly area, and stock department. It was intended to supply cash registers and other business machines to Canada and the rest of the British Empire. The yellow-bricked Art Moderne façade was designed by architect Thomas E. Muirhead, whose other works included the Kenson Apartments on Grosvenor Street. The Star noted that the plant offered employees “comfortable working conditions and lighting of the most modern kind.” NCR also provided a generous Christmas bonus—employees who had worked more than three months for the company by the end of 1936 received $25, with an extra buck per year of service. The company’s growth prompted two additions built between 1947 and 1950.

The site switched from building cash registers to utilizing them when Knob Hill Farms bought the building in the mid-1970s to serve as its first warehouse-style “food terminal” location within the City of Toronto. Customers could watch trucks unload fresh goods in the middle of the produce department and butchers practise the fine craft of meat-cutting. “I don’t like to do things behind closed doors,” noted chain proprietor Steve Stavro. “I want the customers to see everything and feel part of it. If you’re selling proper merchandise, you should have nothing to hide.” Among the perks the store offered were late shopping hours and a courtyard statue of Neptune Stavro imported from Italy. It wasn’t the prettiest store, but it offered affordable prices and a deeper selection of multicultural foods than other chains.

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Toronto Star, August 28, 1975.

Knob Hill Farms was packed from the moment it opened in September 1975. The 200-space parking lot barely coped with the 50,000 customers who filed through during the store’s first week. The store easily absorbed the $25 fines it received for violating the Lord’s Day Act by staying open on Sundays. Stavro felt it was the only day of the week many of his customers could grocery shop, a position still vindicated by the long lines seen at any supermarket on an average Sunday. The combination of weak financial penalties and traffic jams led Toronto city councillor Tony O’Donohue to call for tougher bylaws on Sunday openings if Queen’s Park didn’t enact promised legislation surrounding the issue. The province soon passed new Sunday opening laws that resulted in Knob Hill Farms, along with other non-convenience-store food purveyors, locking its doors during the official day of rest. Not until 1992 did the store open on Sunday without worrying about fines.

After a quarter-century run, the store closed along with the rest of the Knob Hill Farms chain in 2000. Near the end, customers complained about wide pools of water streaming from aging refrigerators. The store sat vacant for several years, during which it was designated as a heritage property, before reopening as a No Frills, which provided a modernized take on Knob Hill’s low-cost warehouse concept.

Additional material from the September 18, 1975 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the November 27, 1935, June 24, 1936, December 16, 1936, August 28, 1975, and October 1, 1975 editions of the Toronto Star.

Family Living, Downtown Style

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” column for The Grid was originally published on July 17, 2012.

Last week, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday mused that the city’s core “is not the ideal place” to raise a family. His sentiments about children playing in traffic on busy arteries aren’t anything that hasn’t been heard before, however wrong they are: families who have chosen to live deep downtown have long heard arguments about the suitability of such an environment for their children, especially from committed suburbanites like Holyday.

During a meeting of the Washington, D.C.–based Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Toronto in May 1985, planners, developers, and investment advisors reviewed the city’s plans to redevelop the railway lands north of the Gardiner Expressway. They concluded that the city’s vision of having families eventually living there ran counter to the ways in which downtowns ought to be saved. Sounding not unlike Holyday, ULI president Claude Ballard said that children should be raised outside the core, in neighbourhoods where they could walk to school or rescue balls that rolled out into the street with minimal fear of being run over. Downtown living of the future, the argument went, was for empty-nesters who required less space once their offspring left home. In a rebuttal printed in the Globe and Mail, Toronto-based planner Ken Greenberg rejected Ballard’s vision, noting that “it is Toronto’s unwillingness in the past to follow conventional North American wisdom” on issues like encouraging families to live downtown that “goes a long way toward explaining why we have the much admired vitality, safety, and cleanliness on our streets.” Greenberg was likely referring to recently developed neighbourhoods like St. Lawrence, where mixed incomes and a large number of co-ops let its residents foster a community where children could enjoy a less homogenous upbringing than their parents had.

Eighteen years later, the Star profiled several families who had moved into condos and lofts in the core. Parents interviewed in the May 2003 article praised, as one parent put it, the “complete and full spectrum of life in the city” that their kids enjoyed steps away from home. Shorter commutes to downtown jobs provided more time for families to spend together during the work week. All enjoyed the ability to walk everywhere, which was a big draw for former Brampton resident Lisa Voutt. Despite friends and relatives in the burbs thinking she was “kind of nuts” for moving her family into a loft near St. Lawrence Market, Voutt enjoyed being freed from a car-centric lifestyle and noted the confidence with which her preteen daughters got themselves around the core by foot or TTC, and the large number of nearby activities they participated in.

Also interviewed for the article was Adam Vaughan, who had recently moved with his daughter into a condo not far from his job at the time as a CityTV reporter. “I wanted a place that was close to the culture of the city, the galleries, the music, and close to the politics of the city,” he told the Star. “All the things that were important to me. I wanted my daughter to understand how her father related to the city and have her relate to the city.” After he was elected to city council three years later, Vaughan advocated a 10 per cent requirement for three-bedroom units in developments to aid families experiencing problems with finding enough space to live in. Developers shot back that they had trouble competing with suburban projects on price, which meant the larger units were often among the last to sell.

Doug Holyday’s long-held views on where families should live, and his belief in the supremacy of market forces on determining housing stock, shouldn’t make his most recent comments a surprise. As an Etobicoke alderman in the mid-1980s, he opposed that city’s proposals to limit the number of apartment buildings that were designated for adult occupancy only. In a period where vacancy rates were low, families looking for apartments in Etobicoke—especially those with lower incomes—sometimes settled for sub-par dwellings as one landlord after another rejected their applications. Holyday blamed provincial rent controls, and housing activists who he felt exaggerated the problems that tenants faced.

His views didn’t win the day, as the provincial government banned adult-only apartment buildings (apart from seniors’ complexes and structures with four units or less) in December 1986. Holyday’s hate-on for rent controls didn’t fade—when Toronto city council voted in April 1999 to establish a task force to make the restoration of controls scrapped by Premier Mike Harris’s government an issue during the next provincial election, Holyday was the lone councillor to oppose the motion.

Additional material from the March 5, 1985, May 6, 1985, and May 14, 1985 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the May 11, 2003 and June 26, 2008 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Editorial comment: It’s easy to notice my contempt towards Doug Holyday in this piece. His political persona represented much of what I hate in a certain strain of suburban conservative politicians, especially in the knows-the-cost-of-everything-and-the-value-of-nothing department. His son Stephen carries on his proud tradition of Etobicoke troglodytism (that should be a word) as a current Toronto city councillor.

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Toronto Star, February 21, 1985.

Ardwold and Ardwold Gate

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on February 19, 2013.

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Ardwold, 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3087.

Things were going well for John Craig Eaton as the first decade of the 20th century ended. He inherited ownership of the family department store following the death of his father, Timothy, in 1907. His wife, Flora, was developing a reputation as a cross-Atlantic socialite. With his elevated social status and growing family, Eaton decided to build a grand mansion.

In January 1909, he purchased an 11-acre estate on Spadina Road north of Davenport Road that possessed a great view of the city and lake. Wanting to keep the purchase price discreet, he delivered a valise filled with $100,000 worth of bills to the bank to close the deal. His new home joined a collection of neighbouring fine residences, including Rathnelly, Spadina, and the under-construction Casa Loma. Eaton hired A.F. Wickson to design a 50-room home inspired by English and Irish country homes of the early Stuart era. The residence was dubbed Ardwold, which was gaelic for “high green hill.”

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Entrance to Ardwold, Eaton family residence, Spadina Road, September 18, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 2072.

Built between 1909 and 1911, Ardwold included 14 bathrooms, an elevator, Italian-inspired gardens, and an indoor swimming pool connected by a basement tunnel. The centrepiece was a two-storey great hall outfitted with a pipe organ that Eaton frequently played. When Eaton introduced the family to the completed home upon their return from a long European tour, his two-year-old son John David moped at the bottom of the grand staircase. “I don’t like this hotel,” he cried. “I want to go home.” Perhaps the boy reacted to what architectural historian William Dendy described as the home’s “air of empty pretentiousness.”

When the family fell ill, they used the on-site hospital room, which could be converted to an operating room during emergencies. Unfortunately, Eaton spent much of the last two months of his life there before dying from pneumonia in March 1922. His wife, by now Lady Eaton, spent little time at Ardwold afterwards, preferring to reside in Europe, Muskoka, or in Eaton Hall near King City.

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Wedding fashion parade at Ardwold, circa 1926. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1855.

By 1936, Lady Eaton thought it was “wasteful” to maintain the property. Telling the Star that it was “too large for the needs my family,” she demolished the house. Eaton family biographer Rod McQueen believed that “such a destructive approach can only be described as desecration, or at best, wildly eccentric.” Dynamite was required to bring down the thick walls. While some furnishings were moved to Eaton Hall, the rest were auctioned off. Only elements like a stone-and-wrought-iron fence survived.

After considering an apartment building, real-estate agent A.E. LePage subdivided the property along a new road, Ardwold Gate. “We plan to develop the whole 11-acre area with homes of Georgian design to harmonize, as is done in many of the finer residential sections of England,” LePage told the Star in 1938. The average cost of the new homes was $30,000, or just under $500,000 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation.

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ts 38-05-20 plan for homes at ardwold gate article

Toronto Star, May 20, 1938.

The community became an exclusive residential enclave for well-heeled businessmen. Among them was George Beattie, an Eaton relative whose career with the department store ended over an expletive-filled argument. Nursing a grudge, Beattie watched gleefully when Ardwold was demolished. Soon after buying a home on Ardwold Gate in 1947, he peed on one of the remaining cornerstones of the old house.

Residents engaged in several battles to maintain their peace during the 1970s. After initially approving the nearby placement of the Spadina Expressway, they joined the opposition against the freeway. As construction began on the Spadina subway line in 1973, they feared their homes would be damaged by vibrations similar to those that inconvenienced home owners along the recent extension of the Yonge line north of Eglinton Avenue. (The problem was reputed to be thin tunnel shields.) In April 1977, residents pressured City Council to reject a proposal to build non-profit housing units for 14 families along Ardwold Gate on land that had been reserved for the freeway; those who feared that the project would ruin the neighbourhood jumped into full reactionary mode. One complaint the City received observed that such housing “contributes to the general weakening of our democratic system.” The proposal was defeated and, as a Globe and Mail editorial observed, residents could sleep easily without worrying about sharing the neighbourhood “with people who didn’t own even one Mercedes.”

The street remains a quiet residential cul-de-sac. Among its notable homes is the Brutalist concrete residence designed for Harvey’s founder Richard Mauran at 95 Ardwold Gate. The home was the final project of architect Taivo Kapsi, who was killed in an encounter with trespassers on a friend’s property near Lake Wilcox during the summer of 1967. Finished the following year, the heritage-designated site includes impressions left in the concrete by construction boards.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993), The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), the April 14, 1977 and April 18, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 2, 2012 edition of the National Post, the February 26, 1936, July 3, 1936, May 20, 1938, May 4, 1970, and February 10, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 1999 edition of Toronto Life.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Ardwold Estate. - [ca. 1920]

Ardwold, circa 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3016.

Lady Eaton’s description of the area which surrounded Ardwold, from her book Memory’s Wall (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1956):

We had agreeable neighbours around us at Ardwold, and several of them became our good friends. Probably we came to know each other better because of the rather isolated community we formed. St. Clair Avenue was not paved, of course, and often vehicles sank down to their axles in the mud. A very rickety old bridge crossed the ravine on Spadina Road, which was the street giving main access to Ardwold, and the few other big houses on “the hill.”

ts 77-04-14 editorial

Toronto Star, April 14, 1977.

gm 77-04-18 editorial

Globe and Mail, April 18, 1977.

Two editorials on the failed subsidized housing proposal – an issue still playing out in neighbourhoods across the city.