Shaping Toronto: Centennial Projects

Originally published on Torontoist on February 24, 2016.

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A mark of the centennial at the fountain at Rosehill Reservoir.

From neighbourhood tree plantings to the international spectacle of Expo 67, Canada proudly celebrated its centennial. The stylized maple leaf logo graced everything from historical sites to reservoirs. Cities and towns applied for governments grants to spruce up parks, restore historical sites, and build attractions to last long after the centennial spirit faded.

Across Toronto, many legacies remain of, as Pierre Berton’s book on 1967 termed it, “the last good year.” There are the community centres and parks in the pre-amalgamation suburbs with “centennial” in their name. Celebratory murals lining school walls. Caribana and its successors celebrating Caribbean culture each year.

Many of these projects received funding from programs overseen by a federal commission, whose work sometimes felt like an Expo footnote. “They felt like poor cousins,” Centennial Commission PR director Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s father) observed. “Expo was so big, so appealing, so clearly headed for success that it discouraged those who were plodding away on the less focused, something-for-everyone program of the Commission.”

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North York Centennial Arena (later named in honour of Herb Carnegie), 1967. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 27, Item 7.

As is our habit, Toronto wanted spectacular major centennial projects. As is also our habit, they were mired in bureaucratic squabbles involving penny-pinching city councillors, politicians and pundits who swore delays embarrassed us in front of the rest of the country, and bad luck.

Discussions over marking the centennial began in earnest in September 1962 when the Toronto Planning Board proposed a $25 million cultural complex. With financial pruning, this evolved into a $9 million centennial program focused on the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, which included a repertory theatre, arts and culture facilities along Front Street, and a renovation of the decaying St. Lawrence Hall. Proponents also tossed in an expansion of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) and refreshing Massey Hall. Mayor Phil Givens supported the project wholeheartedly—during his re-election campaign in 1964, he said “I have never been so sincerely convinced in my life that something is right.”

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Sketch of a proposed theatre inside the St. Lawrence Centre, Globe and Mail, March 20, 1965.

A key opponent was councillor/former mayor Allan Lamport, who believed the city couldn’t afford the project, and was only willing to support the St. Lawrence Hall rehab. “He is barren of ideas concerning what the city might put in its place,” a Globe and Mail editorial criticized. “It is this sort of negative approach which could find Toronto celebrating the nation’s birthday with nothing more impressive and enduring than a pageant in the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand.”

The fate of the St. Lawrence Centre see-sawed over the next few years, as council battled over the budget. When it was clear the project wouldn’t be remotely ready for 1967, the city switched its focus to St. Lawrence Hall. When the 1960s started, the site was split among several owners, and there was at least one proposal to replace it with an office building and parking deck. Under the leadership of a committee of local architects and construction officials, the restoration of the hall appeared to be on track as 1967 dawned.

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“Searching for bodies; city firemen comb through the rubble of the east wing of St. Lawrence Hall which collapsed yesterday while being restored as a Centennial project. No one was injured and no bodies were found. Credit for this is given foreman Jack McGowan who cleared the building and sent men to stop traffic only minutes before the four-storey section crumbled in a cloud of dust.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0000233f.

On March 10, 1967, the northeast portion of the building collapsed. The press offered unanimous support to keep the project going, such as the following Star editorial:

The restoration of the old St. Lawrence Hall was one centennial project upon which everyone in Toronto was happily united. Today, when a section of the building lies in rubble, we can be sure the determination that it will live in its former glory is stronger than ever…it wasn’t until the report of the collapse that most of us realized how much the restoration of the historic old hall was coming to mean in this centennial year, troubled with apathy and dispute over other projects…Our appetite for history has been whetted and we need the completion of the St. Lawrence Hall to satisfy it. So light the torches and beat the drums, we’ve got a building to raise.

While the restoration endured further delays from a series of city-wide construction strikes (which prompted the city to sneak in concrete via the back entrance), the refurbished St. Lawrence Hall celebrated its rebirth when Governor-General Roland Michener officially re-opened it during a December 28, 1967 gala.

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Globe and Mail, April 28, 1965.

The St. Lawrence Centre finally opened in February 1970, several months after another delayed centennial project. When the province announced a science museum in 1964, it chose 180 acres of parkland at Don Mills and Eglinton. The city opposed the suburban location, preferring the CNE grounds, where Givens felt there were better connections to highways and transit. Unless the province provided compelling reasons regarding the CNE’s unsuitability, he threatened to hold up the transfer of the Don Valley site. The province wasn’t moved. Initially known as the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, the project suffered numerous construction delays and bureaucratic bickering before opening as the Ontario Science Centre in September 1969.

Other local centennial projects had smoother rides, even if they occasionally ruffled egos. Leaside was the first to complete theirs, a community centre in Trace Manes Park which opened in September 1966, mere months before the town was absorbed into East York. The latter unveiled their major project, the restoration of Todmorden Mills, in May 1967. Mayor True Davidson scornfully called Leaside’s project “a change house for tennis players,” while touting Todmorden as “one of the most ambitious projects in Metro.”

The work on St. Lawrence Hall and Todmorden Mills demonstrated what Pierre Berton later called the true legacy of the centennial: recognizing the value of local heritage.

In 1967, the idea of preserving something of the past by restoring old buildings and preserving historic landscapes was a novel one at a time when local governments were still applauded for bulldozing entire neighbourhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” The Centennial marked the beginning of the end of that philosophy. “Heritage” had come into its own when Victorian mansions that had once seemed grotesquely ugly began to be viewed as monuments to a gilded age. Old railway stations, banks, even 1930s gas stations would be seen as living history lessons.

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Globe and Mail, May 20, 1967.

So far, the upcoming Canada 150 celebrations show little of the fervour associated with the centennial. An August 2014 city report recognized that the influx of legacy projects associated with the Pan/Parapan Am Games made it unlikely there would be similar scale construction to mark the country’s 150th birthday next year. A more recent report promotes marking the occasion through cultural festivals and community heritage programs. Unless an enduring celebration like Caribana/Caribbean Carnival emerges, it’s likely the reminders of 1967 will outlast those of 2017.

Additional material from 1967: The Last Good Year by Pierre Berton (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997); The Best Place To Be: Expo 67 and Its Time by John Lownsbrough (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2012); St. Lawrence Hall (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969); the December 27, 1963, September 2, 1964, June 17, 1965, and May 23, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star.

Forget Expo 67, It’s the ’67 Ex!

Part One: Advertising the ’67 Ex

Originally published on Torontoist as “Vintage Toronto Ads: Ex 67” on August 31, 2010.

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Globe and Mail, August 8, 1967.

The 1967 edition of the Canadian National Exhibition was not going to be an easy one to market to the public. How could it compete with the once-in-a-lifetime hoopla surrounding the year’s main celebration of Canada’s centennial, Expo 67? Would a trio of entertainers with Canadian roots help?

While the CNE rolled on with its traditional attractions in 1967, City officials who visited Montreal realized changes needed to be made for future editions of the CNE to make it feel less dowdy. Controller Fred Beavis proposed that beer and liquor sales should be allowed, while Mayor William Dennison pondered loosening restrictions that prevented the fair from opening on Sundays. In an editorial, the Star noted that these would be minor changes compared to what it felt the Ex really needed: a major freshening up and the creation of a greater sense of awe and wonder like that experienced at Expo 67 to bring it into the modern age.

It has settled into a rut, with no substantial change for generations. The visitor who goes through the gates each year knows in advance pretty much what he will see. There will be the same dull, unchanging buildings; the same masses of goods for sale—making some pavilions look like second-rate department stores; the same miles of booths with junky merchandise and dubious gambling games; the same bellowing pitchmen. There are, of course, better things than this at the “Ex” every year—but they are smothered in a sea of shoddy carnival gimmicks. This sort of thing may have been good enough 60 years ago, and indeed the CNE has a certain nostalgic charm for many people because it is so old-fashioned. But the CNE has no future as a big city country fair. That is not the way to attract younger people—especially when so many of them have seen “Expo” and know what a fair can be.

The paper recommended that older buildings be gradually replaced by modern structures that could be easily modified for different purposes, that the fair promote national artistic competitions, and do away with the “junk booths and ‘gyp’ shows” (conversely, a Globe and Mail editorial stated that, in a year where Charles DeGaulle gave fuel to separatist sentiments during his visit to Expo, “we should be thankful, in this shattering season, for something familiar and temperate”).

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Globe and Mail, August 14, 1967.

For the 1967 Grandstand spectacular, fair officials brought in three expats as headliners: Bonanza patriarch Lorne Greene, daytime variety show host Art Linkletter, and easy listening music maestro Percy Faith. This did not sit well with Globe and Mail columnist Dennis Braithwaite, who hoped any future reforms to the fair would eliminate “spurious Canadianism” as represented by importing talent that was more popular at the time south of the border. Braithwaite didn’t blame Grandstand programmer Jack Arthur, who had brought many popular performers from elsewhere in previous years despite being urged to use homegrown talent.

An invitation from Lorne Greene to visit the CNE in 1967. CNE Archives.

Greene, the one-time “voice of doom” for CBC, was recruited to help pitch the fair in a spot that is among the films placed onto YouTube by the CNE Archives.

Globe and Mail reviewer Blaik Kirby found Greene one of the highlights of a disjointed evening at the Grandstand. Despite one too many jokes about Bonanza, Greene proved to be “a first-class singer and an adept, relaxed comedian” who electrified the audience when he arrived onstage atop a white charger. As for the other headliners, Kirby felt Faith was engaging in his understated conducting of the CNE orchestra (even if the material was overly schmaltzy), while Linkletter was criticized for spewing “the worst of daytime audience participation TV fare onto the CNE stage.” To Kirby, the biggest mistake of the show was allowing the RCMP Musical Ride to be its finale, as the horses were kept too far away from the audience and showcased at too late an hour (after 11 p.m.).

Despite a sluggish start, attendance increased by 31,000 over 1966 to help break the three million visit mark for only the third time in the fair’s history.

Additional material from the July 31, 1967, August 14, 1967, August 21, 1967, September 5, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the August 2, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star.

Part Two: Moving, Grooving, and Redesigning the CNE

Originally published on Torontoist on August 19, 2011.

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Architect Harvey Cowan takes the CNE for a stroll. The Telegram, August 5, 1967.

Amid the lines starting today for doughnut cheeseburgers and deep-fried cola at this year’s Canadian National Exhibition, you might hear an eternal argument: is the CNE a charming anachronism that has provided generations of Torontonians a final taste of summer fun, or an outdated relic that has little reason to continue?

Back in 1967, compared to the stylish, imaginative concepts on display at Montreal’s Expo 67, the CNE seemed so old-fashioned that it prompted one local media outlet to survey Toronto-based architects, designers, and filmmakers involved with Expo: how would they revitalize the old fair two weeks before it opened?

Flipping through the articles about the CNE in the August 5, 1967, edition of the Telegram, it’s clear both writers and interviewees weren’t impressed with the current state of the fair. Nearly all felt the CNE was a tatty, lowbrow, Victorian-era embarrassment lacking a compelling vision for the future. As architect Robert Fairfield (who designed the Festival Theatre in Stratford) noted, the CNE “failed to enter the 20th century, by clinging to the idea that it’s an institution. Like a beloved friend, it has been allowed to grow old, sentimental, eccentric, and untidy.” One major problem was finding solid financing to allow for innovative and interactive exhibits, especially from large industrial sponsors. Another issue was how to better utilize the grounds during the other 50 weeks of the year, with ideas ranging from a longer summer schedule of concerts and events to year-long exhibits. Restaurant designer Chet Borst proposed turning the grounds into a year-round restaurant district with eateries at all price ranges offering menus that represented all regions of Canada and themed after different Ontario cities or time periods (a rough-and-tumble bar from Windsor, a stately government house from Ottawa, a futuristic cocktail lounge, etc.).

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Had several of those interviewed by the Telegram had their way, the Princes’ Gates would not be greeting visitors this year. Car 305, leaving CNE grounds via Princes’ Gates, at start of CNE’s first marathon car rally, 1965. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5802.

For designer/Marshall McLuhan associate Dr. Daniel Cappon, the CNE should have moved forward as a national fair like Expo, not a northern version of Coney Island. “Use the psychedelic stuff of Expo, the participating stuff, and not just be passive and visual,” noted Cappon. “Involve the public in half an hour of playing soccer. Involve them with sculpture, with music. Install IBM machines, ask the people a lot of questions, get them involved in the answers. Let them know we’re interested in how they react.” Other suggestions from the interviewees ranged from tearing down the viewed-as-a-boring-gateway Princes’ Gates (which we think is one of the site’s highlights) to building internal transportation systems like monorails. One of the few people to admit liking the CNE was industrial designer Morley Markson, who enjoyed the energy of the midway and its pitchmen and wished the displays captured that excitement.

The Telegram also asked architect Harvey Cowan to write a two-page spread on what was wrong with the CNE (which he compared to an old lady on its deathbed) and how he would fix it. High among the liabilities: dismal streetcar stops that should have been sold to the nearby Canada Packers plant. “It should be inherent to the design of an arrival station that the space says ‘Welcome,’” Cowan noted. “The CNE stations say ‘Go home, who needs it.’” Cowan also found the existing buildings an aesthetic mishmash, the displays dull, the central location of the midway a bottleneck, the entrances mundane, and the formal restaurants displaying “all the gaiety and excitement of open house at the City Morgue.”

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Map of architect Harvey Cowan’s vision for improving the CNE. The Telegram, August 5, 1967.

So how would have Cowan improved it? Via various methods that, had they come anywhere near reality, would have dramatically altered the western waterfront and made a few people unhappy. Cowan’s vision saw the demolition of all buildings at Exhibition Place except for the Grandstand. Their replacements would have included terraced, well-landscaped parking garages, a domed stadium, and a sports centre. Down by the water, an aquarium and Olympic pool would rise. Fort York would have been moved to the shore by the Western Gap, with a public marina beside it. Existing yacht clubs would have been relocated further west along the shoreline. Over on the Toronto Islands, Cowan envisioned the airport moved, with the help of infill, to what would have no longer been Algonquin and Ward’s Islands (at the time, Metro Toronto was determined to remove the remaining residents). The airport’s former location would become the main exhibition area, covered in a plastic, tent-like structure similar to the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67. The midway would have found a new home on Muggs Island. To handle visitors, the Yonge subway line would have extended along the railway lines to the new mainland sports facilities, with a stop at the foot of Bathurst that connected to a monorail service to the islands.

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A design proposal for the main exhibition space on the Toronto Islands. The Telegram, August 5, 1967.

Some suggestions in the Telegram articles may have lingered in the minds of CNE officials. A master plan approved in 1971 called for the demolition of 12 major buildings to make way for new facilities for trade shows and conventions, though only a few, like the Shell Tower, were torn down. While the same year saw Ontario Premier William Davis announce provincial funding for a monorail or other public transit link between Union Station and the CNE, a permanent link didn’t exist until the Harbourfront streetcar line reached the grounds in 2000. Design ideas from Expo 67 were utilized for an exhibition and entertainment space close to the CNE grounds but not part of it: Ontario Place.

Despite the criticisms aimed at the CNE during 1967, the fair broke the three million visit mark for only the third time in its history. Though attendance has dropped to an average of around 1.3 million visitors per year over the past decade, and the fair now relies on gimmicks like novelty caloric nightmares to draw customers, something wouldn’t be right if the CNE wasn’t around as a nostalgic link to Toronto’s past or to argue about the quality of over time.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Telegram, August 5, 1967.

After presenting its articles speculating on the CNE’s future, the Telegram presented a traditional preview of that year’s fair.

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The Telegram, August 15, 1967.

The Telegram also offered its own attractions at the fair, including tie-ins to its popular “Action Line” service and “After Four” teen section.