From Simpsons to The Bay to Saks

Originally published on Torontoist on January 28, 2014.

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Photo taken from the skywalk between the Eaton Centre and Hudson’s Bay/Saks Fifth Avenue, December 13, 2019.

For years, the crosswalk between Simpsons and Eaton’s on Queen Street was nicknamed “the cattle crossing” because of the high volume of shoppers flowing between downtown Toronto’s rival department stores. By the end of next year, those pedestrians (along with those using the skywalk above) may be shuffling between Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

Less than two weeks after Nordstrom announced it would replace Sears, Hudson’s Bay Company announced that it will be selling its landmark store at Queen and Yonge and the adjoining Simpson Tower to Toronto Eaton Centre owner Cadillac Fairview. Under the $650-million deal, HBC will continue to lease the site for the next 25 years.

Shoppers will notice a major change by fall 2015: a fifth of the 750,000 square foot store will become Canada’s first Saks Fifth Avenue location. HBC, whose corporate parent bought the high-end American department store last year, previously indicated that the Hudson Bay store at Bloor and Yonge would be converted into Saks. According to the Star, Cadillac Fairview CEO John Sullivan convinced HBC CEO Richard Baker that, with Nordstrom coming to the Eaton Centre, Saks would be a good fit for the mall.

The changes announced this morning mark the latest chapter in the site’s history as a department store. Robert Simpson launched a dry goods business on the west side of Yonge Street a few doors north of Queen in 1872, then moved a block south in 1881. Simpson’s new store quickly burst out of its confines, and for nearly a century, the company bought adjoining properties to allow for its continued expansion.

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Robert Simpson Co. department store, aftermath of fire, March 1895. Toronto Public Library, E 9-242.

Unlike his rival, Timothy Eaton, Simpson was interested in boosting his store’s image through grand architecture. In the 1890s, he hired Edmund Burke to design a new store at the southwest corner of Queen and Yonge inspired by the wide-open interiors of American retailers like Marshall Field. Burke’s design produced what was one of the first commercial structural steel buildings in Canada when it opened for business in December 1894. Unfortunately, the building was not fireproofed, a flaw that led to its destruction during an early morning blaze on March 3, 1895. Only the ground floor piers, which had been encased in stone, were left standing. Simpson and fire officials suspected arson—a security guard reported hearing glass shatter before the blaze was called in. The noise from the collapsing walls was heard as far as College Street.

Simpson was devastated by the blaze. “The loss is the more felt because we were just beginning to settle down in our new building and getting everything into good running order,” he told the Globe. “Fire can’t kill this business. It was built by its own workers and it will be built again.”

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Mail and Empire, January 18, 1896.

And it was: ten months after the blaze, the store reopened on January 18, 1896. Burke’s design was retained, although this time around, it featured added touches like terra cotta mouldings and critical fixes like proper fireproofing.

Just as rival Eaton’s expanded rapidly on the north side of Queen Street, Simpsons built numerous extensions that stretched the store west toward Bay Street. The poshest expansion was a nine-storey, art deco–inspired addition that opened in 1929. Its centrepiece was the Arcadian Court restaurant, which Simpsons officials added to retain the lunch trade the store feared losing to the recently opened Royal York Hotel and the Eaton’s store under construction at Yonge and College (now College Park).

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Luigi von Kunits and orchestra at Arcadian Court, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 329, Series 1569, File 5.

Early ads for the Arcadian Court touted its architectural wonders:

Vaulted arches and lofty, Byzantine domes tell of a classic beauty that breathes of Grecian temples and far eastern mosques. Decorative columns and ornate friezes catch the dynamic spirit of Art Moderne. It’s framed in silver, brilliantly lacquered silver, the colour born of modernist art; with it, there is violet, wondrous deep-toned violet, the shade that has coloured a thousand romances.

It’s certainly possible that romances bloomed during the many events held at the Arcadian Court over the years—perhaps over servings of the restaurant’s signature chicken pot pie.

Simpsons finally acquired the entire block between Yonge and Bay in the 1960s and built the 33-storey Simpson Tower office complex at the west end of the site. Plans called for the entire store to be reclad in metal panels to match the tower’s base. Preservationists were relieved when officials in the late 1970s decided instead to restore the exterior, retaining its 19th-century appearance for future generations.

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View of Simpson’s with holiday decorations, Yonge Street and Queen Street West, November 22, 1973. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 17, Item 1.

In December 1978, Hudson’s Bay Company purchased Simpsons. Attempts to make the Yonge and Queen store more upscale didn’t pan out, as suburban locations maintained a middlebrow merchandise mix. The greatest impression the store may have made during the 1980s was among young viewers of TVOntario’s Today’s Special, which used Simpsons as a backdrop. How many children wandering through the store wondered where Jeff the mannequin hid during the day?

After enduring for nearly 120 years, the Simpsons brand was retired in 1991. “It was a judgement call,” noted HBC owner Ken Thomson. “We decided it was better to join the momentum of the Bay and start with a clean slate.” Ideas for revitalizing the store came and went over the years—from a giant food court in the basement to a pharmacy whose product lines smacked of HBC’s discount Zellers chain. In recent years, the store has remade itself through renovations, farming its restaurants out to Oliver & Bonacini, and giving space to retailers ranging from Topshop to the Drake General Store. Where Saks will fit into the store remains to be seen.

Sources: A Store of Memories by G. Allan Burton (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986), Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), The Simpsons Century (Toronto: Toronto Star, 1972), the March 4, 1895 and March 9, 1929 editions of the Globe, and the June 6, 1991 and August 22, 1991 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

Saks Fifth Avenue opened in February 2016, occupying the northeast corner of the building. We Work moved into portions of the 6th and 7th floors in 2019.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Front page illustration, Evening Star, March 4, 1895. 

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Mail and Empire, February 17, 1896.

The modest text which headlined Simpson’s grand reopening ad on February 18, 1896:

Events are relative in their value. What’s locally important to a small community has little importance to the world at large. A big fire in a small town is a small affair compared with a big fire in a big town. The great fire of March last in Toronto was an event of intense interest the Dominion over because it occurred in the second to largest city in Canada, and told of the destruction of the finest retail store that up to that time had been erected in Canada, owned by one who for 25 years had stood at the head of the retail trade of the Dominion, and whose record of success was known to the commercial world of two continents.

Apply this rule of proportion in values and it will be understood why the opening of R. Simpson’s Great Modern Departmental Store on the old familiar corner, SW. cor. Yonge and Queen Streets, is an event in which only 225,000 people in Toronto–men, women, and children–take the liveliest interest, but where the people of all Canada are enthusiastically interested.

Beyond any question, from whatever standpoint the business is viewed, it stands without a rival in all Canada. “We make way for the man who boldly pushes past us.”

The present is not an occasion for a letter-press description of the building. The time is for seeing with your own eyes. But more, the time is to learn of the great generalship of buying and selling that brings to you real bargain-giving, that, like the store and all its equipment, is unapproachable.

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Detail from advertisement for the opening week daily fashion shows at Arcadian Court, the Globe, March 9, 1929.

The teaser which accompanied this illustration:

The dream of years is nearing realization. Simpson’s Spring Fashion Revue is to be presented in the magnificent new Arcadian Court. And what a superb setting it is! Vaulted arches and lofty, Byzantine domes tell of a classic beauty that breathes of Grecian temples and far-eastern mosques. Decorative columns and ornate friezes catch the dynamic spirit of Art Moderne. It’s framed in silver, brilliantly lacquered silver, the colour born of modernist art; with it, there is violet, wondrous deep-toned violet, the shade that has coloured a thousand romances. In this background of beauty, the new mode of Spring will be presented in all its glorious chapters of fabric, fashion ans colour. There will be a promenade of fashion and tea will be served each afternoon.

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Globe and Mail, December 24, 1968.

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: Mount Hope

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published on Torontoist on October 30, 2012

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From its small gate entrance along Bayview Avenue, Mount Hope Cemetery doesn’t leave as much of an impression as nearby institutions like the Canadian Institute for the Blind or Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. But this Catholic graveyard has its fair share of interesting monuments. A walk through the grounds offers glimpses of the local ravine system and a great view of the changing skyline of Yonge and Eglinton.

History

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Before Mount Hope, the main Catholic cemetery in the city was St. Michael’s. As that burial site neared capacity during the 1880s, church officials sought a roomier place. The preferred location was somewhere along or near Yonge Street, north of the city.

The plan sat for a decade until Archbishop John Walsh asked his wealthiest advisers to buy land for a graveyard on behalf of the archdiocese.

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On July 16, 1897, former Toronto Street Railway owner Sir Frank Smith and brewer Eugene O’Keefe purchased property near present-day Bayview and Eglinton Avenues from a local merchant for $5,000. Almost exactly a year later, on July 9, 1898, Walsh consecrated the grounds and officially named it Mount Hope Cemetery. The ceremony turned into a farewell party for the ailing cleric, who died three weeks later. According to historian Michael Power, the event was also a wake for the influence of the dignitaries on hand, “the last generation of Irish grandees who would hold sway in the archdiocese of Toronto.”

After a year and a half of preparation, the cemetery was ready, and 79-year-old King Street resident Edmund Sullivan became the first person to be buried at Mount Hope. Since his interment on March 24, 1900, over 76,000 people have been buried there.

Grounds

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The main entrance is located at the eastern end of Erskine Avenue. Pedestrians can also enter through a gate on Bayview Avenue, north of Broadway Avenue. Like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the gently rolling grounds attract many North Toronto joggers and walkers. The most scenic part is the north end, where the cemetery meets the trees of the Sherwood Park Ravine.

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Religious iconography is prominent on many of the tombstones, ranging from grand statues to small angels marking young children. Several sections are devoted to Catholic orders, whose members are commemorated by row upon row of small markers or metal rings.

Notable Names

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Mount Hope boasts a good cross-section of notables. Hockey fans will find 1930s Maple Leafs legends King Clancy (buried with a modest marker in an area the cemetery office referred to as “the flats”) and Red Horner. Laura Secord chocolates founder Frank O’Connor is here, as is Fran’s restaurateur Fran Deck. Political figures include longtime Toronto city councillor Joe Piccininni, and also Lady Annie Thompson, the widow of Canada’s first Catholic Prime Minister, Sir John Thompson. Representing the arts are writer Morley Callaghan and theatre impresario Jeremiah Shea. Notable sinners include 1930s bank robber Red Ryan, and two members of the Boyd Gang, Lennie Jackson (unmarked grave), and Steve Suchan (buried under his real name, Val Lesso).

Favourite Spots

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The monument for George J. Foy is one of the largest grave markers in the city. It’s a 40-foot-high cross crafted from a single slab of granite and anchored to the ground by large stones. It’s said to have taken a team of 24 horses to drag the monument to Mount Hope from Union Station.

Foy made his fortune wholesaling cigars and liquor. He died in October 1909 while out for a doctor-recommended after-dinner stroll along Queen Street in the Beaches. According to his Globe obituary, Foy approached a policeman and quaintly remarked, “Mr. Officer, I believe I have been seized with a slight attack of asthma” before fatally dropping to the sidewalk.

Sources: A History of Mount Hope Cemetery Toronto , Ontario 1898-1998 by Michael Power (Toronto: Catholic Cemeteries Archdiocese of Toronto, 1998) and the October 2, 1909 edition of the Globe.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Erskine Avenue entrance.

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Catholic Register, November 10, 1904.

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The Globe, October 2, 1909. 

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Sifting through the photos I took for the original article, this monument to the Puccini family stood out. Abramo Puccini (1873-1952) emigrated from Italy to the United States in the late 1880s, made his way north, and became known as the “macaroni king of Canada” with business and properties in Toronto and St. Catharines.

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Funeral ceremony for Josephine Puccini, August 2, 1922. Photo used in the August 3, 1922 edition of The Globe. Toronto Public Library. Full-size version.

The monument to the Puccini family was present by the time Abramo’s wife Josephine passed away in 1922. A portion of this photo ran in the Globe under the headline “NOVEL SCENES AT LOCAL ITALIAN FUNERAL,” which indicates how the Italian community was still considered an exotic species in Toronto.

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Toronto Star, August 2, 1922. 

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Home University Fit For an Empire

Originally published on Torontoist on March 2, 2010, though the image was long-missing there.

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The Empire, January 26, 1895.

Ah, nothing like using the bait of personal enlightenment to lure people hoping to expand their knowledge base into buying newspaper subscriptions and a set of encyclopaedias. The only cost to unlocking the “sum of all knowledge” and avoid being forever disparaged for having only attended a little red school house was to read the news of the day filtered through the official viewpoint of the governing political party in Ottawa. It may have mattered little which of the five great classes of humanity an Empire reader belonged to, as long as they ultimately used the knowledge gained to cast their ballots for the Conservatives (or, to go with the party name that was fading from official use, Liberal-Conservatives).

Based on these ads, the heart of the Empire’s library was the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Also known as the “scholar’s edition,” this incarnation of the popular series was published in twenty-four volumes between 1875 and 1889. Perhaps special note was made of this version being the “Edinburgh Edition” to distinguish it from the cheap forgeries that floated around the United States.

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 17, 1887.

As for the newspaper offering the means of expanding one’s knowledge, the Empire was launched when the Conservatives found they could no longer trust the Mail (which the party had backed since the paper’s founding in 1872) to always push party policies. The editorial direction of the Empire was clear when the first edition hit the streets of Toronto on December 27, 1887:

It is proposed to strengthen by all legitimate means the hands of the Party and the Government that have controlled the politics of the Dominion (with the exception of a term of five years) ever since the foundations of Confederation were laid. Believing that the public affairs of Canada have been, on the whole, wisely and ably administrated under the premiership of Sir John A. Macdonald, and holding that the remarkable progress of our country has been due in large measure to his far-sighted and patriotic administration, The Empire will extend to the Leader and his Government its fullest confidence and heartiest support.

In short, if you liked new Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, the Empire wasn’t going to be high on your daily reading list. Based on random flips through its pages, we recommend the Empire to those readers who have deep interests in the National Policy, coverage of the death of Sir John A. in 1891, and gatherings of late nineteenth-century cheese producers.

Faithful readers who dithered about buying a set of encyclopaedias had little time to ponder a purchase. Two days after the last of today’s ads appeared, the Empire published its final edition and merged with the Mail to form the Mail and Empire (which merged with the Globe in 1936). The newspapers on the left were mixed in their reactions to the Empire’s demise—the Star noted it was a “sorry good-bye” but that Empire staff “know how the chicken felt” on this “cold day” before the Star editorial writer criticized the Tories, while the Globe gave a front-page thank you to Empire staff for temporarily housing their paper after a fire in January 1895 destroyed the Globe’s office.

Additional material from the December 27, 1887, edition of the Empire and the February 6, 1895, edition of the Toronto Star.

Happy Anniversaries, Globe and Mail!

Besides reading this piece, check out my article for Canadaland on some of the rougher moments of the Globe and Mail’s history, and the related podcast.

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Reprint of the front page of the first edition of the Globe from March 5, 1844, published in the March 5, 1994 edition of the Globe and Mail. It should be noted that ProQuest and many microfilm runs begin with the May 8, 1844 edition.

The Globe and Mail turns 175 today. Like any institution around for that length of time, it has celebrated many milestone anniversaries, in ways that reflect the views of the times those celebrations were written.

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The largest ad on the 50th anniversary editorial page. The Globe, March 5, 1894.

For the Globe’s 50th anniversary in 1894, a lengthy retrospective editorial was published. It began by celebrating George Brown’s role in Confederation and the development of Canada, then discussed the political evolution of Great Britain over the previous half-century. Those hoping for any insight into the development paper itself will be disappointed—instead, there’s a whole paragraph devoted to how British colonization spread civilization around the world:

Though in the extension of her colonial empire grave faults can be ascribed to Britain, it must be conceded that her aim has been higher than conquest and plunder. The aim of her statesmen has been to plant colonies, to extend civilization and to establish free institutions. Under this policy Canada has grown into complete self-government, and so have the Australian colonies, whose growth since the discovery of gold has been phenomenal. A far more difficult problem for statesmanship is India, with its teeming population diverse as to race, religion, caste, education and intellectual power, jealous of each other and of the dominant race, and as yet far from being prepared for self-government. The progress of exploration and discovery in Africa has been marvelous and has involved Great Britain in new and weighty responsibilities.

After discussing European history, the editorial ends with scientific and social changes. This section has a distinctive whiff of “Toronto the Good” about it, such as the observation that “the temperance movement has brought about an immense improvement in the drinking habits of the people.” It concluded by noted that “scientific theory and theological dogma have sometimes clashed; but the mightiest achievements of the age are due to the happy union of practical science with practical Christianity, and what has been done is only an earnest of what may yet be done by the combination of these forces.”

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Illustrations by C.W. Jefferys, the Globe, March 5, 1919.

The paper was in a far more celebratory mood when it marked its 75th anniversary in 1919. A special section kicked off with a series of C.W. Jefferys illustrations marking changes in agriculture, commerce, industry, and transportation. Globe president William Gladstone Jaffray wrote a statement. A pair of excerpts:

It costs over $2,400 per day to produce The Globe. This amount has to be found, and something more for interest on capital. It is obvious, therefore, that a paper must earn money, and a goodly amount thereof, to meet its daily expenses. If to make ends meet, and something more, is necessary to every successful enterprise, it is particularly necessary in the newspaper business, because the daily paper is entrusted with the guarding of public interest as well as the influencing of public opinion. Such great responsibility can be successfully undertaken only by that newspaper which rests upon a firm foundation. If handicapped by deficits and debts, sooner or later it is in danger of falling into the hands of or becoming the prey of those who will use it more or less against the public welfare.

We have seen many times over the ensuing decades the mischief resulting from media which fell into those who use their publications to harm public welfare.

In this second excerpt, Jaffray describes how he tried to keep the Globe financially independent and less susceptible to outside influence:

It is my conviction as publisher of The Globe that I should hold aloof from any financial investments, the advancement of which possibly might conflict with the public interest. As chief owner of The Globe, it has been urged upon me to state, in the first place, that the control of the capital stock of The Globe is in the hands of myself as the largest shareholder, and that the remaining shares necessary to constitute the majority holding are held by other members of the family of the late Senator Robert Jaffray; in the second place, that my holding of stocks other than Globe stock is limited to a very few shares of small value in two or three privately owned companies, which shares have been and still are for sale at the first reasonable market. This statement should convince readers of The Globe that there are no financial relationships to influence its direction and its policies.

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Next, editor Stewart Lyon provided a retrospective, reflecting on the Brown era, followed by a vow that the paper, even though it supported the Union government during the 1917 federal election, “has not gone over to Toryism.” As Lyon put it:

That would be a betrayal of all for which this paper has stood during seventy-five years. Its association with Liberalism is not that of a mouthpiece, but of an ally in the promotion of all good causes, and of an honest critic when the leaders of Liberalism lag in the advance, or turn aside into what seem to be unprofitable by-paths.

Lyon also notes the social ills the paper would like to vanquish:

The Globe most sincerely believes that in this land of opportunity the door of hope should be flung wide open. No child should be permitted to go hungry or unlettered. No one in the vigor of life should be without useful occupation. No aged person having faithfully performed the duties of a good citizen should be neglected and forgotten when the shadows begin to fall. To the furtherance of these and all other good causes the Editor pledges his best endeavors.

There was a greeting from Brown’s son. Biographies of the paper’s directors. A tiny reprint of the first front page. More greetings from Canada’s three oldest newspapers (Quebec Chronicle, Montreal Gazette, and Halifax Recorder). Accounts of the life of farmers in Canada West in 1844.

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Excerpt of Mackenzie King’s contribution to the March 5, 1919 Globe.

Among the dignitaries asked to provide their memories of working for the Globe was William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was just months away from becoming federal Liberal leader. King joined the paper in fall 1895 as one of several reporters hired in preparation for the upcoming federal election. By the mid-1920s, King’s relationship with the paper was strained.

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The Globe, March 5, 1919.

Music and drama editor E.R. Parkhurst recalled an incident early in his career which happened at a rival paper (which later merged into the Globe) when a prank went horribly for the local food industry. Cat lovers may want to skip this one.

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The Globe, March 5, 1919.

One of several articles about families who had read the Globe since the paper began. The section also included a long list of “charter subscribers whose descendants are on the Globe’s lists to-day” or whose patronage of the paper stretched back at least 50 years.

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Globe and Mail, March 4, 1944.

The paper’s 100th anniversary celebration in 1944 began with a front page salute from publisher George McCullagh.

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There was an editorial cartoon…

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…the inevitable poem…

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…and a history of the paper’s physical locations. It would subsequently move to the Telegram’s former offices on Front Street west in 1974, and its current location on King Street East in 2016.

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Click on image for larger version.

C.W. Jefferys returned for an anniversary illustration, depicting the paper’s original home on King West. If you look carefully, you may notice a top-hatted George Brown emerging from the office with a paper under his arm. Below the drawing, veteran journalist Hector Charlesworth outlined the paper’s history. In the sports section, columnist Jim Coleman noted that the paper ignored sports during its first quarter-century, as “the only game in which George Brown…was interested was politics, and he confined his athletic activities to throwing curves at his political opponents.”

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Globe and Mail, March 4, 1944.

A few words from the “oldest Globe reader” Sir William Mulock, who passed away a few months later. At the time, the Mulock (who, depending on the source, was either 100 or 101) was still serving as chancellor of the University of Toronto.

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Advertisement highlighting the Globe and Mail’s staff and syndicated features, March 4, 1944. 

I’d share material related to the paper’s 125th anniversary in 1969, except that there isn’t any. A search for “George Brown” during the anniversary week that March only finds articles related to the college bearing his name. There was a lone article in November 1986 marking the 50th anniversary of the merger of the Globe and the Mail and Empire.

For the 150th anniversary in 1994, Cameron Smith wrote a three-page story outlining the paper’s biggest stories, followed by a masthead listing 800 employees.

Unfortunately, an anniversary magazine celebrating the occasion does not appear to have been preserved on ProQuest, leaving us with the editorial above, and a Margaret Wente column on women and the G&M. “The world can change fast,” she concluded. “Back when we were 16 years old, none of the women who write and edit the ROB ever dared imagine we would be here, doing this. I hope I’m still around 20 or 30 years from now when today’s 16-year-olds are running the paper, to see whose stories they’ll be telling then.”

Trash Panda Thursday: Tales from the Naughty Nineties

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Raccoon furs were frequently advertised in Toronto newspapers during the late 19th century. Among the vendors was the original location of Fairweather. The Globe, March 10, 1896.

A pair of short stories from the 1890s this week…

From the May 21, 1895 edition of the Toronto Star, under the possibly-a-racist-joke title “A New Coon in Town.” We do not recommend risking your life the way one participant in this story did.

At the corner of Queen and Berkeley Streets at eight o’clock this morning five hundred people congregated to witness the antics of a raccoon that had escaped from its owner and had taken refuge on a telegraph pole. A man climbed the post with a bag to capture the animal, and narrowly escaped breaking his neck. The coon finally jumped from the top of the pole without suffering serious injury.

(Among the many reasons I’m wondering about the nature of the article’s title? Near the top of the same page is an ad for a Yonge Street clothier depicting a baby in blackface.)

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The Globe, December 16, 1896. 

From the May 2, 1899 edition of The Globe, under the heading “Want a Game Preserve,” it sounds like raccoons were not the only urban wildlife found near The Annex:

People in the north end of the city are beginning to think a menagerie has been turned loose in that vicinity. On Saturday a raccoon was captured on Bloor Street and the incident caused some talk. On Sunday afternoon Miss Jessie Alexander, while walking down Brunswick Avenue, met a young bear, who was taking a stroll. The presence of the cub was reported to the police, and he was taken into captivity, and now the residents of the street are waiting for a boa constrictor or a monster lion.

A Gooderham Gallery

Originally published on Torontoist on October 13, 2011

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Gooderham Building, 1996. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

An iconic image of Toronto: a photograph looking west from the intersection of Church, Front, and Wellington Streets, with the Gooderham Building (a.k.a. the Flatiron) as the focal point. The unusual skinny, triangular shape, which predated New York’s flatiron by a decade, was the result of the clash between Wellington Street’s adherence to Toronto’s square grid and Front Street’s looser paralleling of the 19th century shoreline. In the 120 years since George Gooderham first surveyed his business empire from his fifth floor office, the building that bears his family’s name has evolved into a Toronto landmark.

And it’s a landmark that theoretically could be yours. Current owner Woodcliffe started the bidding process this week to find the next custodian for the historical site, which provides an opportunity to look back at how it became one of Toronto’s most beloved buildings

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Coffin Block, Front and Wellington Streets, 1873. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7335.

Before the Gooderham Building was erected in 1891, another flatiron-shaped structure occupied the block. Consisting of three connected units, the structure was known as the Coffin Block due to its resemblance to the end of a funeral box. Among its tenants were a telegraph office, a stagecoach booking office, and additional guest rooms for the Wellington Hotel, whose main premises were located on the northwest corner of Church and Wellington.

Whoever archived this image determined that notes written on the side of the photo weren’t enough for future researchers.

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Gooderham Building, circa 1893. Toronto Illustrated 1893 (Toronto: Consolidated Printing, 1893).

Here’s a wealthy person the Occupy Wall Street movement might respect: when George Gooderham died in May 1905, he purposely left most of his fortune in the hands of the Ontario government. He decided against selling any of his stocks to anyone else due to his belief that it was unconscionable to evade provincial succession duties. The portion of Gooderham’s $25 million estate that the government received wiped out the provincial deficit.

Though Gooderham’s fortune was based on the Gooderham and Worts distillery, he built it through investments in banking, insurance, and railways. He was among the founders of Manufacturer’s Life (now Manulife), served as president of the Bank of Toronto (an ancestor of TD Canada Trust), and backed the construction of the King Edward Hotel. His philanthropic interests included key financial and managerial roles at Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto.

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Gooderham Building, 1890s. Photo by F.W. Micklethwaite. Library and Archives Canada, RD-000335, via Wikimedia Commons.

Architect David Roberts Jr. was no stranger to the Gooderham family when he was chosen to design the new building. Among his other commissions was Waveney, George Gooderham’s mansion at Bloor Street and St, George Street, which currently houses the York Club. To replace the demolished Coffin Block, Roberts designed a five-storey red brick office building trimmed with Credit Valley stone. Gooderham’s personal office was located at the top of the semi-circular tower in the front, where he could view of many of his business interests. Also included for Gooderham’s benefit was a tunnel under Wellington Street to the head office of the Bank of Toronto (now the site of Pizza Pizza).

The effect the building created was summed up by Patricia McHugh in her book Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989), “With a richly textured facade and kingly chateauesque towered roof that still dominates this busy corner, the building stands as an apt symbol of the Gooderham family’s powerful position in the community.”

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Gooderham Building, between 1966 and 1972. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 65.

Gooderham and Worts maintained offices in the building through the early 1950s. By the 1960s, despite its growing status as a local landmark, its future seemed in doubt. As plans evolved for a Centennial-related series of arts complexes in the neighbourhood, the buildings that occupied the rest of the Gooderham’s little island were razed for a temporary parking lot. By 1966, the orphaned building was the temporary headquarters for the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts rising to the west. As the 1960s, the Gooderham provided office space for arts organizations like the Mendelssohn Choir, the Shaw Festival, and the Folk Arts Council.

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Globe and Mail, September 19, 1973.

But the Gooderham Building managed to survive in an era when one aging downtown building after another fell to the wrecking ball. New ownership in the mid-1970s poured money into renovations. Instead of building arts schools or small concert halls beside it, the City of Toronto approved the public space that officially opened as Berczy Park in 1975. That same year, the Gooderham Building was declared a historic site.

Two attempts were made to dress up the west wall, which had actually belonged to a long-gone neighbouring building. A mural of clouds painted by Daniel Solomon during the early 1970s was eventually covered over—allegedly the wall was too poorly prepared to handle the piece. Attempt number two began with a suggestion from the city’s heritage agencies that any future artwork should incorporate the architectural stylings of the surrounding 19th century buildings. A combination of commercial donors and funds from the Wintario lottery provided artist Derek Besant with $80,000 to come up with a durable piece of art. The result: 49 panels of a polyethelene-based construction material called Alucobond that formed a trompe l’oeil special effect of a wall curling at its edges.

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Berczy Park looking east at the Gooderham Building, before and after landscaping. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 623, Item 5.

When Besant’s piece was unveiled on September 19, 1980, the Globe and Mail’s John Bentley Mays called it “an engineering masterpiece and an artistic triumph that will be flying high on the Flatiron Building for years.” Two restorations later, the piece is as much a Toronto landmark as the building itself.

The building’s landmark status has grown with time. As larger office towers filled the skyline to the west, it has provided photographers with an interesting contrast of past versus present. The site has consistently been one of the most popular attractions during Doors Open. Any new owner would risk a public outcry if they messed with the flatiron shape or the well-restored building’s other unique attributes.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The building was purchased by Commercial Realty Group.

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Editorial on what would become Berczy Park, Toronto Star, August 8, 1972.

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Globe and Mail, September 19, 1980.

Shaping Toronto: Reusing an Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on September 30, 2015.

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Crowd gathered at the opening ceremony of (Old) City Hall, 1899. Photo by Galbraith & Lewis. Toronto Public Library.

From Old City Hall to mall?” To some web denizens interested in heritage and urban affairs, headlines along those lines have likely induced fits of anger lately. On the surface, you’d suspect the denigration of a National Historic Site was upon us.

Take a moment to breathe.

The suggestion in the city staff report to the Government Management Committee to convert Old City Hall into a retail centre as a future source of rental income is tempered by other recommendations to replace the provincial and municipal courts when they vacate the premises. Based on analysis from real estate brokerage Avison Young, stores could be part of a multi-use facility incorporating food, event, and civic uses. Such a fate is not unusual for other cities across North America dealing with historic city halls, or even our past municipal battlegrounds.

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City Hall on Front Street, 1895. Picture by Frank William Micklethwaite. Toronto Public Library.

When the city’s second city hall opened at the southwest corner of Front and Jarvis in 1845, it was intended as a mixed-use complex to ease overcrowded, unsanitary conditions across the street at St. Lawrence Market. While Henry Bowyer Lane’s design included a clock tower that visitors recognized as they sailed into the harbour, it lacked the imagination of its successors. Architectural historian William Dendy assessed it as competent, but hamstrung by “providing for too many functions with too small a budget.” The building was outfitted with more retail space than planned, as City Council desired more rental income.

Their greed may have been hasty. Merchants felt their shops were too small. Structural faults emerged as the building settled into the ground. Lane soon left town, leading a contemporary observer to reflect that it was “a very strange building and it was unfortunate for the reputation of the architect that he had not left the province before he completed the building instead of afterward.” The city stepped in to improve the building’s structural integrity.

By the end of the 19th century, the site was too tiny to meet the needs of a growing municipal bureaucracy, and too old-fashioned to meet contemporary ideas about grand civic architecture. The city decided to integrate it into an enlarged south St. Lawrence Market. While its wings were demolished, the centre was encased within the new façade. After decades of disuse, the old council chamber was reborn during the 1970s as the Market Gallery.

Replacement proposals during the 1870s and 1880s faced Toronto’s deathly fear of spending one cent too many. When the city purchased the site that would become Old City Hall in 1884, it was intended as York County’s new courthouse. But a committee viewing of Buffalo’s combined courthouse/city hall prompted a public referendum to borrow $200,000 to build a similar duo here. Opponents such as the Board of Trade and the Globe raised the spectre of spiralling costs due to potential political corruption and argued that a new trunk sewer was more pressing. The vote failed. Years of wrangling ensued until the cornerstone for E.J. Lennox’s design was laid in 1891.

When it opened in 1899, Old City Hall joined a wave of Richardson Romanesque landmarks emerging within the city’s landscape. These included the parliamentary buildings at Queen’s Park, the Confederation Life Building at Yonge and Richmond, and Victoria College. It was also well-placed near the city’s early skyscrapers, such as the Temple Building a block south. “Its clock tower soaring above the vista from the lake,” historian J.M.S. Careless observed in his book Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History, “this edifice was a testament in lavishly worked buff sandstone to the metropolitan dignity of the High Victorian city.”

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Before Eaton’s revealed models of its proposed Eaton Centre, local cartoonist drew their own visions based on early descriptions. Here’s Andy Donato’s from the September 10, 1965 edition of the Telegram.

Such dignity was less appreciated by the early 1960s. Once the current City Hall was approved, the future looked gloomy for its predecessor. In October 1965 a delegation from Eaton’s department store proposed to buy the building for $8 million from Metro Toronto, who had purchased it from the city four years earlier. Eaton’s, encouraged by city planners, intended to transform the mega-block of Bay, Dundas, Yonge, and Queen into the Eaton Centre a complex of office towers, a hotel, shopping mall, and new flagship store. Officials on the project claimed that Old City Hall was “an insuperable barrier” which, no matter how much they tried, was a square peg in the plan. Their solution was to demolish all but the clock tower, as well as getting rid of nearby Church of the Holy Trinity because of the march of progress.

While many politicians were dazzled by the plans—Swansea Reeve Lucien Kurata said it was “so gorgeous, it’s almost sexy”—public outcry arose. When revised plans called for the full demolition of Old City Hall to make room for the podium of the closest office tower, questions were raised. A lobby group, Friends of Old City Hall, formed, performing actions such as cleaning off a portion of soot to show the beauty of the original walls. Eaton’s suddenly cancelled the project in May 1967, blaming unreasonable municipal demands. John David Eaton, head of the retail empire, bitterly remarked to an associate “let’s walk across the street and tell [Mayor William] Dennison he can shove the Old City Hall up his ass.” The irony is that the building Eaton wanted to vanquish outlived his department store.

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Old City Hall, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 651, Item 18.

While our former City Hall carried on as a courthouse, other cities across North America found mixed uses for their former municipal sites, or are struggling with solutions. Boston’s 1865 Old City Hall houses tenants ranging from heritage agencies to law firms to a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. In Indianapolis, the old building housed the state historical museum for four decades, then served as a temporary home for the city’s central library. Vacant since 2007, the city recently entered a lease agreement with boutique hotel operator 21c Museum Hotels to restore the building as arts-related spaces and a museum, and provide a physical link to a new hotel being built in the neighbouring vacant parking lot.

Like Toronto, Tacoma, Washington nearly lost its Victorian-era city hall to demolition in the early 1970s. A remodelling with space for businesses and restaurants fell prey to the real estate market collapse. Falling into the disrepair, Tacoma bought the building from a private owner for $4 million earlier this yearafter a failure to meet repair deadlines. This week, the city is showing it off to potential investors, hoping to attract office use or a hotel.

Being a National Historic Site, it’d be a difficult, protracted process to radically overhaul the building, so anyone fearing a mini-Eaton Centre can probably relax. If such plans went ahead, public outcry would alter them (though the cleaning the soot stunt might not work a second time). What is required is a strong vision which, fingers crossed, can survive the inevitable petty political wrangling. Ideally, the building would house a long-needed city museum or other historical exhibition spaces accessible to the public. Retail tenants could integrate nods to our past a la the current occupants of Maple Leaf Gardens, and include businesses offering Toronto made or inspired products. The city report hints at possible trendy office uses such as a business or technology incubator. Given its long service to the city, whatever goes in the building should celebrate Toronto while continuing to respect Lennox’s enduring design as much as possible. It’s a site with plenty of potential that would be foolish to waste.

Additional material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986); Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993); The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999); and Unbuilt Toronto by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2008).

BEHIND THE SCENES

Shaping Toronto looks at the decisions, processes, and trends that form the city we know and love.”

Shaping Toronto was my last ongoing series for Torontoist. It was proposed by new EIC David Hains as a means of looking into the mechanics of Toronto history, how our present landscape was shaped, and what examples could we draw on from elsewhere.

While envisioned as being less labour-intensive than Historicist, my work habits prevented that. Ultimately, the series diverted too much time from better-paying gigs, and, likely in a state of burnout, I pulled the plug in March 2016. In retrospect, ending Shaping Toronto began my gradual withdrawal from the site, a process which took a year to complete.

It’s still a great concept, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to doing something similar either on this site or elsewhere (send your pitches now!).