10 Scrivener Square (North Toronto Station, Summerhill LCBO)

Originally published as a “Ghost City” column for The Grid on May 14, 2013.

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The Globe, September 10, 1915.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was tired of arguing. Negotiations with government bodies over the development of a replacement for the existing Union Station were heading nowhere fast. Fatigued by squabbling, in 1912, the CPR moved several passenger routes from downtown to a line it controlled in the north end of the city. While a train station already existed on the west side of Yonge Street near Summerhill Avenue, it hardly matched CPR executives’ visions of grandeur.

Fresh off designing the railway’s office tower at King and Yonge, architects Frank Darling and John Pearson were assigned to create a new North Toronto station. The centrepiece of their plan was a 140-foot clock tower inspired by the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The clock would be synchronized via telegraph signals from the CPR’s Windsor Station in Montreal. Also included was a grand waiting room with a three-storey high ceiling and marble facing.

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The Globe, June 15, 1916.

When Mayor Tommy Church laid the cornerstone on September 9, 1915, he praised the CPR for being “the first railway company to give Toronto proper recognition.” He hoped the station would be the first of a series of railway gateways to the city, improving inter-city commuting. When passenger service began on June 4, 1916, destinations included Lindsay, Owen Sound, and Ottawa. The most popular route was Montreal, which attracted wealthy businessmen who lived nearby.

Old and new CPR North Toronto Stations. - [ca. 1920]

Old and new CPR North Toronto stations, circa 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1748.

The station’s demise began when the new Union Station finally opened in 1927. Passengers found transfers easier downtown, while the streetcar ride between the two stations grew longer as vehicular traffic increased along Yonge Street. The final four passenger routes were scrapped in September 1930, though freight trains continued to use the facility. The station was pressed into service for the arrival of King George VI’s train during the May 1939 royal visit, and for unloading returning troops at the end of the World War II.

In the interim, the building’s long association with alcohol began. Brewers’ Retail opened a store on the north side of the station in 1931, while the LCBO settled into the south side in 1940. Not until late 1978 could liquor-store customers pick their own bottles instead of filling out forms fussed over by judgmental staff. “Often, a clerk would smugly inform you that the cheap sherry you wanted was O/S (out of stock),” Toronto Life recalled in 2003. “Another clerk might confide that the guy who just waited on you had been a teacher but had suffered ‘a nervous breakdown.’ You knew that every one of the staff had been voting Tory since before that Benedictine monk invented champagne.” Adding to the institutional feel was the lowering of the ceilings and covering up of many of the station’s grandiose touches.

North Toronto CPR station. - [1915?]

Ticket area, circa 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 930.

Talk of site redevelopment went on for years. Proposals alternated between providing improved retail space and returning to its railway origins as a GO station. Developers who talked of building homes and apartment towers on land adjacent to the building ran into neighbourhood opposition. No plan stuck until the liquor store closed in December 2001 for extensive renovation work undertaken by Woodcliffe. False ceilings were removed and wood paneling was torn off to reveal the marble underneath. New blocks of limestone were produced by the Manitoba quarry that provided the originals. The tower clock resumed service after half-a-century. What was already the busiest LCBO store in the province expanded by a factor of eight to provide 21,000 square feet of shopping space for booze connoisseurs. During the grand reopening ceremony in February 2003, Ontario Consumer and Business Service Minister Tim Hudak tipped his hat to the building’s transportation origins, promising shoppers “a journey of discovery of the world of beverage alcohol.”

While stocking up on your drinking needs, take a moment to observe the station’s railway heritage. Look up to the ornate ceiling covering the domestic and Italian wine selections. See the ticket booths nestled among the Chilean wines. While walking through the western portion of the Vintages section, imagine strolling along a walkway to your train platform. Ponder if the bottles on the shelves of the “Vins de Table” section are fine beverages or deserve to be dumped down the toilets like those which graced this portion of the station.

Sources: Toronto’s Railway Heritage by Derek Boles (Charleston: Arcadia, 2009), Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), the February 4, 2003 edition of the Canada News Wire, the September 10, 1915 edition of the Globe, the June 2003 edition of Toronto Life, and the June 3, 1916, November 26, 1978, and January 19, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

globe 15-09-10 cornerstone laid

The Globe, September 10, 1915.

Besides Mayor Tommy Church, at least two other people spoke during the September 9, 1915 cornerstone ceremony for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s new North Toronto station. CPR general manager A.D. MacTier thanked everyone for their assistance in initializing the project: “I hope that through this gathering I may be able to get to know your city officials, businessmen and the public generally, believing as I do that only by much personal friendship and knowledge of each other’s aims and needs can that mutual understanding and respect be created, without which the proper amicable relations between a large public utility and the people of a great city can neither be created nor maintained.”

Also speaking was jurist William Mulock, who referred to the ongoing conflict in Europe. According to the Globe, Mulock “observed that the Empire was engaged in a gigantic struggle, but ultimate victory for Britain and her allies was certain. The action of the CPR showed that they had confidence in the future, which had in store greater things for Canada and for the whole British Empire.”

world 1915-09-10 editorial

Toronto World, September 10, 1915.

A time capsule was placed inside the cornerstone. Its contents?

  • A city map
  • Plans showing location of station and tracks
  • CPR annual report
  • CPR shareholders report
  • A complete set of Canadian coins and stamps
  • City of Toronto annual report
  • Copies of that day’s newspapers
  • Plans and elevation of station
  • Guest list of those attending the ceremony

The time capsule was opened on schedule in September 2015.

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Summerhill LCBO, 1983. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0114596f.

An amusing side story I stumbled upon while researching this story involved an LCBO sale on unpopular items. The Globe and Mail reported on September 14, 1977 that “most customers at three downtown outlets weren’t even giving a second glance to discontinued brands of wines and spirits—both domestic and imported—selling at up to 50 per cent off until they’re sold out.” A grinning LCBO cashier at Summerhill told the paper that “you wouldn’t buy it either if you saw what was on sale.”A television director shopping for red wine agreed, scoffing that he “wouldn’t touch that stuff.”

Among the items which didn’t entice customers: Red Cap sparkling wine from France, and South African Paarl Cinsaut. The Queen’s Quay outlet noted scotch was still sitting on the shelf 24 hours after its price was reduced.

ts 92-01-18 redevelopment scheme Toronto Star, January 18, 1992. Click on image for larger version.

One of the visions for the site over the years.

Past Pieces of Toronto: The Odeon Hyland

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on December 30, 2011.

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Opening ad for the Odeon Hyland, Toronto Star, November 17, 1948.

It was a dicey proposition: testing out a brand new movie theatre, and the Shakespearian adaptation that was its opening attraction, by filling the first showing with high school students. It was especially dicey after rowdy teens had recently disrupted a recent festival honouring the Bard at the Eaton Auditorium (now the Carlu). But Odeon Theatres officials felt that filling the new Hyland theatre with students from Northern Vocational High School (now Northern Secondary) for the afternoon presentation of Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on November 22, 1948 was worth any potential mishaps.

According to the Star, the kids were alright:

The kids at the showing were well-behaved, far from rowdy, and occasionally spell-bound. But they also chose to laugh in the wrong places and spoiled, for some of us, the complete beauty of many performances…Incomplete understanding of the drama rather than any intended rudeness was undoubtedly responsible for these unfortunate outbursts.

We’re certain many other patrons laughed at the wrong time during the Hyland’s half-century of operation at 1501 Yonge Street. When the theatre closed in February 2001, the experience of moviegoing at Yonge and St. Clair vanished with it.

Opening the Hyland faced greater challenges than pleasing teenagers. During the fall of 1948, the city instituted daily blackouts due to power shortages. As opening day neared, power cuts increased to twice daily during the working week—one in the morning, and a 45-minute blackout starting at 7 p.m. These cuts affected the final stages of construction, including the installation of kitchen equipment and sales of advance tickets to Hamlet. With the front of the house not ready, ticket sales were moved to a nearby drug store which, as the Star reported, confused one customer:

A lady, who doesn’t believe in signs, joined a queue in front of the theatre, in hope of getting reservations for Sir Laurence Olivier’s screen masterpiece. Finally she got to the head of the line and was most provoked to learn that she’d wasted a half hour to be interviewed for a job as usherette.

Despite these problems, tickets for Hamlet sold quickly. By the beginning of December, the house was booked solid through Christmas.

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Toronto Star, April 12, 1950.

One of the Hyland’s greatest assets in its early years was manager Vic Nowe. His promotional skills drew people to see both the feature attraction and the award-winning tie-ins he devised. A lobby display of Victorian wallpaper designs during the run of Oliver Twist in 1949 was so popular that it toured other Odeon locations. To promote Tight Little Island the following year, Nowe saluted the film’s Scottish setting by covering the theatre’s entrance in plaid and offering performances in the lobby by highland dancers and bagpipers. When The Lavender Hill Mob ran in late 1951, the Hyland let the first 50 men wearing bowler hats a la star Alec Guinness in for free.

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Lobby of the Odeon Hyland. Archives of Ontario. 

As British cultural influences waned in Toronto, the near-exclusive programming of films from the mother country at the Hyland gave way to Hollywood blockbusters. When the theatre was split into two screens in the early 1970s, it followed a trend that affected several of the city’s remaining large single-auditorium cinemas.

By 1999, declining attendance led Cineplex Odeon to convert the Hyland into a showcase for art films. The theatre was still capable of drawing people—it grossed over $50,000 in three days in December 2000 as one of a trio of cinemas that carried the initial run of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but the move was seen as a sign its days were numbered. When Cineplex Odeon was granted interim bankruptcy protection two months later, the Hyland was closed immediately. Anyone who attempted to phone the theatre for the day’s bill on February 16, 2001 was greeted with a generic recorded message: “We are honoured to have had the opportunity of serving your community. Thank you for your patronage and support.” Those arriving at the theatre in person were advised to head to the Varsity.

Demolished in 2003, the site of the Hyland is now the entrance to a Green P lot and a walkway named after another former Yonge and St. Clair landmark, longtime CFRB morning show host Wally Crouter.

Sources: the November 19, 1948, November 23, 1948, and February 17, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, September 16, 1959.

During the late 1950s, the Hyland served as a venue for several local film societies, including the A-G-E Film Society of Toronto, the French Cine Club, and the Toronto Film Society. Until voters approved general Sunday screenings in 1961, the offerings of these societies were among the few legal ways to see a movie on the Sabbath.

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Boxoffice, October 16, 1972. 

Past Pieces of Toronto: Dominion Coal Silos

The pilot for the “Past Pieces of Toronto” series, this post was originally published by OpenFile on October 11, 2011.

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Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 125.

To some, they were a nostalgic landmark, a throwback to a time when Toronto homes relied on coal as home heating fuel. To others, they were a contemporary eyesore that should have been razed long before condos took their place. Regardless of one’s views, the nine storage silos that operated for 70 years by Dominion Coal and Wood at Merton Street and Mount Pleasant Road were a key visual element of North Toronto.

Designed by the E.P. Muntz Engineering Company, the concrete coal silos went into operation in 1929 with a storage capacity of 350 tons each. Along with the Milnes Fuel facilities at Yonge Street, Dominion Coal bookended a series of construction and industrial sites bordering the old Belt Line railway along Merton Street that served the growing population of Toronto’s northern edge. Dominion fought for the residential coal business in Toronto against long-established sellers such as Elias Rogers, and over a hundred other licensed dealers who sold the black mineral by the sack-full. When a steep decline in home coal usage caused many of Dominion’s competitors to cease business during the 1950s, the company survived by latching onto the emerging do-it-yourself home construction market. By the mid-1980s, coal and firewood accounted for only two percent of Dominion Coal’s sales, mostly to rural customers who continued to rely on old-fashioned stoves and furnaces. The company didn’t forget what built its reputation: in the 1990s, it received a merit award from Heritage Toronto for restoring the painted advertising that covered the silos.

A fresh coat of paint didn’t have much of a chance against rising land values and a site with an elevation attractive to condo developers looking to sell future residents on great views of downtown. When Dominion Coal president Bruce Chapman announced in May 1999 that the silos would close, he anticipated little resistance from the city in changing the zoning from commercial to residential as other properties along Merton Street had done. Before the last batch of construction material was sold that September, the site was purchased by Urbancorp, whose intent was replace the silos with two condo towers.

Local heritage agencies worked to preserve them. Already listed by the Toronto Historical Board as having “architectural and historical importance,” the site was granted a heritage designation that delayed redevelopment plans. City councillors debated the merits of salvaging any part of the silos. While local representative Michael Walker argued for discussions with the community about preservation, councillors like Mario Silva saw no redeeming aesthetic qualities in the structures—as he told the North Toronto Town Crier in December 1999, “I hate silos myself.” Silva felt they were “extremely ugly” and believed that “the neighbourhood would be relieved to see these silos finally go.” While Urbancorp argued about the excessive costs to build around the silos (which were considered too small to be converted into condos) and the test soil contamination levels around them, the developer devised several plans that allowed the historic structures to remain.

But none of those plans were enacted. By the time Monarch Construction acquired the site in September 2002, the silos had disappeared from the North Toronto skyline and the way was clear for the residences currently occupying the corner. One of the few reminders of their existence was found a few blocks north along Mount Pleasant Road in the window display at George’s Trains, where models of the silos were incorporated into the backdrop. Unlike George’s, which has moved on, a Heritage Toronto plaque will provide a permanent memorial and a space for people to debate whether creative reuses for the silos could have been implemented, or if they deserved their fate.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Looking south on Mount Pleasant Road from Balliol Street, circa October 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 100, Item 361.

ts 99-05-20 dominion coal closes

Toronto Star, May 20, 1999.

gm 00-03-21 debate about fate

Globe and Mail, March 21, 2000.

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Advertorial, Globe and Mail, September 13, 2002.

Past Pieces of Toronto: Uptown Theatre

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was the debut installment of the series, originally published on November 4, 2011.

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Uptown Theatre, interior, Cinema 1, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett. City of Toronto Archives, series 881, file 169, item 2.

Equipped with the latest in sound technology in its later years, the main auditorium of the Uptown was a great place to see films in which things go boom. As the action unfolded on the screen each punch or explosion reverberated in your seat. Such experiences, and the grand architecture and decor, made the demise of Uptown Theatre so painful: its final corporate parent refused to pay for wheelchair accessibility upgrade.

Loew’s Uptown opened on September 20, 1920 as a 1,600 seat theatre showing pioneering director D.W. Griffith’s film The Love Flower. As the Globe‘s E.R. Parkhurst reported, “it would be difficult to conceive of a theatre more admirably designed for the comfort of its patrons or better adapted for the enjoyment of the very best that brains, equipment and talent can provide in motion picture entertainment.” The opening gala saw appearances from leading lady (and Griffith’s lover) Carol Dempster, movie star/former Upper Canada College student Bert Lytell, theatre owner Marcus Loew, and Toronto mayor Tommy Church. A live orchestra was present, as it would be through the silent era until the Uptown became one of the first theatres in Toronto wired for talkies.

Following a fire in 1960, the theatre underwent renovations that, when officially unveiled to the public in 1962, the Toronto Star saw as a barely a nod to the new post-television reality of movie-going as a social occasion. “In New York,” noted Star writer Wendy Michener, “many houses serve coffee and have a really comfortable sitting-meeting-talking lounge. In Toronto, the only move in that direction to date has been the installation of hot-dog machines.” Perhaps theatre management sensed that Torontonians of the future would be able to snack on frankfurters anywhere downtown.

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Uptown Theatre, 1970. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 111.

Shortly after the 20th Century theatre chain took over the Uptown in 1969, the cinema closed for four months as it was converted into a five-screen multiplex under the eye of architect Mandel Sprachman. Referring to his work on the Uptown and the Imperial Six further south on Yonge (now the Canon Theatre), Sprachman noted that “if I didn’t step in, those grand opulent cinema temples would be torn down and replaced with parking lots and high-rises. What I do is to give old cinemas a new lease on life. Architecturally speaking, I do my damnedest to help the old and new live together.” In the case of the Uptown, the result was a 1,000 seat main theatre for first-run spectaculars (starting with the musical version of Goodbye Mr. Chips), two other mainstream first-run screens, and the two “Backstage” theatres that specialized in art films. The complex was redesigned in eye-catching, playful pop-art influenced colours.

Over time, the Uptown became a key venue for the Toronto International Film Festival, especially as other Yorkville-area cinemas such as the Hollywood and Plaza closed their doors. When the Ontario Human Rights Commission ordered Famous Players to make the Backstage, Eglinton and Uptown wheelchair-accessible in 2001, the chain decided to close the historic theatres rather than incur the cost of required renovations. Famous Players cited a changing market and shifting demographics as the real reasons for the closures, but these were treated with skepticism in the press. The Backstage shut down immediately after the closures were announced in December 2001, and the rest of the Uptown lingered on until it took its final bow during the 2003 edition of TIFF. While the Eglinton survived as an event venue, the Uptown was sold to condo developers. Tragically, the theatre experienced a final burst of reverberating action during demolition work in December 2003 when a section collapsed onto the neighbouring Yorkville English Academy, killing student Augusto Cesar Mejia Solis.

Sources: the September 21, 1920 edition of the Globe and the August 16, 1962 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

globe 20-09-18 preview of opening

Globe, September 18, 1920.

globe 20-09-20 opening gala preview

Globe, September 20, 1920.

ts 20-09-20 opening ad

Toronto Star, September 20, 1920.

world 1920-09-20 opening preview

Toronto World, September 20, 1920.

globe 20-09-21 opening night

Opening night coverage by E.R. Parkhurst, Globe, September 21, 1920.

world 1920-09-21 uptown opening

Toronto World, September 21, 1920. 

ts 62-08-16 reopening article

Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

ts 62-08-16 spiral road ad

Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

ts 69-07-31 plans for uptown

Toronto Star, July 31, 1969.

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Uptown Theatre, exterior, Balmuto Street, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 169.

From an interview with Mandel  Sprachman published in the June 21, 1980 Globe and Mail:

What is the role of the architect in the world of split palaces and mini-multiplexes? “If the job involves a palace,” says Sprachman, “I respect the work of the architects before me. I know they’re going to chop away at it, I can feel all the vaudeville people who once performed there–it gets pretty schmaltzy. I don’t want to do it but better me than a parking lot or a standard high-rise apartment building. The trick is to try to make cuts as clean as possible and leave as much as possible of the original building.”

star 1970-04-04 harvey cowan on uptown

Toronto Star, April 4, 1970.

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“Exuberant graphics decorate the Balmuto St. side of the revamped Uptown Theatre on Yonge St.; where the five theatres have been fitted in. The Backstage 1 and 2; entered from Balmuto; are the best part of the whole.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the April 4, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive.

star 1970-12-12 toronto notebook

Toronto Star, December 12, 1970.

An excerpt from Doug Fetherling’s editorial page “Toronto Notebook.” “Marshall Delaney” was Robert Fulford’s film critic alias at Saturday Night magazine.

gm 2001-03-06 threatened

Globe and Mail, March 6, 2001.

gm 2001-03-14 keith norton letter

Globe and Mail, March 14, 2001. 

gm 2001-12-13 closure announced

Globe and Mail, December 13, 2001.

According to the December 12, 2001 Star, other estimated costs to the Uptown complex included $225,000 for a new sprinkler system, and $75,000 for upgrades to the Backstage. A Famous Players official admitted the theatres affected by the OHRC’s ruling would have closed anyway, but the decision “accelerated the plan.” The OHRC ordered Famous Players to pay five complainants between $8,000 and $10,000 each “as damages for loss arising out of the infringement of their rights.” One of the complainants was to receive an addition $2,000 in damages for mental anguish.

From the September 19, 2003 Star, an excerpt from Geoff Pevere’s column on the final closing of the Uptown:

The Uptown was the kind of theatre–old, deep and dark–that made even going to bad movies a little less painful. Even if the movie sucked, the floor was sticky and the guy in front of you kept shifting so you couldn’t see past his mullet, it felt good to be there. When an old movie theatre disappears, as just about all of them now have or soon will, with it go your memories of the emotions you experienced when seeing a movie there. This is what gives its disappearance a sadness that most other victims of dubious urban development lack: These were the places where you remember experiencing things intensely. You went there to feel fear, desire, laugh, pine and momentarily forget what awaited you outside.

star 2003-12-03 uptown collapse 2 knelman

Toronto Star, December 3, 2003.

As for the condo tower completed following the tragedy, Alex Bozikovic does not have kind words in Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, calling it “a tall neo-Deco mediocrity.”

Past Pieces of Toronto: Speakers Corner

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on April 22, 2012.

speakerscorner

They seemed like just another bunch of goofy guys crammed into the booth at the corner of Queen and John Streets. Paying a dollar destined for a charity gave them two minutes in the spotlight. As the camera clicked on that day in March 1991, they sang. The tune was about asking a girl to be their Yoko Ono, complete with Yoko-style shrieks. While other musicians earned little more than a brief appearance on CITY TV, a visit to Speakers Corner helped propel the career of the Barenaked Ladies.

Speakers Corner was installed sometime after CITY moved into the former Ryerson Press building in 1987 and was among the quirky innovations programmer Moses Znaimer developed at the station. The public’s views on virtually anything quickly proved a useful addition to the station’s newscasts. In 1990, producer Peter Whittington proposed a weekly half-hour show built around Speakers Corner, with clips linked by themes like politics and the battle of the sexes. Costing little to produce, the series debuted that September. The Star’s Antonia Zerbisias called Speakers Corner “a clever little show” which “covered everything from stupid tongue tricks to propositions to CITY personnel.”

In another article four years later, Zerbisias noted that in the Speakers Corner editing room, it didn’t “take long for an observer to conclude that the world is full of morons who don’t even have the sense to keep it to themselves…they want to let the world know.” Material left on the cutting room floor tended toward people left speechless once the camera clicked on, or those whose performances couldn’t be shown on television, such as a couple engaged in sexual activity in the booth who suffered from poor compositional skills. “The framing was bad,” Whittington noted. “They didn’t understand television.”

But many others understood the medium. After a game where he stomped on an opponent’s head, Argonauts wide receiver Rocket Ismail headed straight to Queen and John to record an apology asking forgiveness from football fans for his actions. He didn’t talk to the media until the following day. The booth also saw its share of poignant moments, such as a plea from one woman that led to her reunion with sisters she hadn’t seen since childhood.

The booth also attracted celebrities of varying degrees. Tuning in might have rewarded you with poet Irving Layton honouring former pupil Znaimer, Mike Myers testing out new material, Judge Reinhold improvising movie trailers, and cameo appearances ranging from Harrison Ford to Madonna. Prince was a fan during his Toronto residency—“I just love the idea of it,” he told the Canadian Press in 2004. “I am so tempted when I go by to stop the car and go into the booth and say what I have to say.” Alas, he never did.

Despite the avalanche of complaints directed at them, politicians latched onto Speakers Corner. Whether it was fringe council candidates outlining their platforms, then-prime minister Jean Chretien encouraging viewers to vote, or federal justice minister Kim Campbell promoting the Charlottetown Accord, the booth proved a satisfying pulpit. Campbell’s appearance, during which she was hugged by a young, robed bearded dude telling her how beautiful she was, prompted CITY reporter Colin Vaughan to remark “Now I’ve seen everything.”

But like many elements of the Znaimer era, Speakers Corner gradually fell by the wayside after he left the premises. When CTV purchased CITY in 2006, the booth was closed while the fate of the station was determined. After the CRTC forced the sale of CITY the following year, new owner Rogers temporarily installed a new Speakers Corner at the Rogers Centre, with the intention of permanently relocating it to the station’s new home at Yonge-Dundas Square. But that never happened: in June 2008, Rogers cancelled both the television show and the new booth.

The demise of Speakers Corner could be seen as just another example of corporate bean counting at work. It could also be viewed as a casualty in the rise of internet sites like YouTube, where anyone can post their own video rants and stories. What it allowed, and may be missed by some, is the opportunity to express your thoughts and talents in a public space with no guarantee that anyone other than an editor would watch your two minutes of fame.

Sources: the October 16, 1992 edition of the Globe and Mail, the August 27, 1991 edition of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, and the September 21, 1990, September 24, 1992, September 10, 1994, and June 12, 2008 editions of the Toronto Star. Full episode of Speakers Corner from October 1990 posted on YouTube by Retrontario.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, September 21, 1990.

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The original Speakers Corner machine, displayed at MZTV when it opened at the ZoomerPlex in May 2014.

The Gladstone Hotel

Originally published as a gallery post by Torontoist on September 25, 2014 to mark the Gladstone Hotel’s 125th anniversary.

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Gladstone Hotel, fall 1952. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library.

As Toronto’s oldest continuously operating hotel, the Gladstone Hotel has seen much over its 125 years. When the doors first opened in 1889, it was a place for travelling businessmen to rest and for local athletic and social clubs to gather. Its proximity to Exhibition Place made it ideal for visitors and exhibitors. Through the late 20th century its reputation diminished, reflecting the economic and social decline of Parkdale to the west. But although it came to be perceived as a flophouse, it offered a sense of community to patrons and residents, giving them a place to relax with a drink and a bit of country music.

Over the last two decades the Gladstone has reawakened, becoming one of the city’s major cultural hubs as the neighbourhood around it has transformed. “Gladstone Hotel now stands as an epicentre of cultural incubation in Toronto’s west end, fostering creativity and community in everything it does,” its website notes. “Renowned for twisting perceptions and giving canvas to underrepresented and marginalized groups, Gladstone Hotel aims to raise the profile of subcultures and subvert the mainstream, creating a unique and open-armed narrative around its historic stature.” Art installations, burlesque, dancing, dining events, music, theatre, trivia nights, and many other forms of entertainment have found a place within its walls.

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The Globe, December 31, 1880.

The current Gladstone Hotel is the second building at the northeast corner of Queen and Gladstone bearing that name. The first, constructed in 1879, aroused the wrath of councillors in neighbouring Parkdale (then an independent municipality), who tried to block its liquor license. Originally known as Brady’s Hotel, it became the Gladstone in 1880 after the Robinson family purchased it. Proprietor Susanna Robinson was a widow with 13 children whose late husband had run hotels in Kleinburg and Yorkville. An 1887 advertisement offered guests the “finest brands of wines, liquors, and cigars,” plus Guinness Stout. James Britton might have required several pints after he lost to William McMurrich in the 1881 municipal election.

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The Empire, June 23, 1894.

Designed by architect George M. Miller, whose other works included the chapel at Wycliffe College, the second Gladstone Hotel opened in 1889. As Toronto Life observed over a century later, “the hotel aped the style of the time, a graceful, if unremarkable, Richardsonian Romanesque of red brick, arched passageways and gargoyles in stone relief.” A cupola located on its southwest corner was removed in the 1940s.

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Queen Street subway looking east, November 17, 1897. The Gladstone Hotel is in the background on the left. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 2, Item 8.

The hotel’s location across Queen Street from the Parkdale railway station helped business in the early days, as did its proximity to the Toronto Industrial Exhibition (the forerunner of the CNE). It provided a comfortable base for fair exhibitors and military performers. “The most striking feature about the hotel,” the Globe observed in 1904, “is the absolute cleanliness and neatness which is to be observed in each and all of its departments, whether in the collars, parlors, or dining rooms.” During the 1905 fair a full floor was occupied by 40 members of the Irish Guards, whose presence was honoured with a commemorative light display on the front of the hotel.

During extensive renovations made by owner Turnbull Smith an electric Otis elevator was installed in August 1905. Covered up for years, it was rediscovered during 21st century renovations when a hole was knocked in the wall. Refurbishing took nine months. Longtime regular Hank Young (1941-2009) was hired to operate the elevator upon its return to service. Known as the “Gladstone Cowboy,” Young first sang in the hotel as part of a country band in 1961, and eventually became a karaoke fixture known for his rendition of “Hey Good Lookin’.” Christina Zeidler felt his hiring was “a match made in heaven…He was a great storyteller.” Young was contractually obligated to wear outfits drawn from his collection of cowboy boots, hats, and bolo ties.

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Toronto Star, April 28, 1911.

Hans Waldheim (as spelled in accounts other than the one above) had very itchy fingers. Reputedly related to Prussian nobility, he was sent to Kingston Penitentiary in 1904 for a string of break-and-enters in Toronto. Incarceration failed to curb his criminal tendencies, as outbreaks of minor burglaries accompanied his travels. Around 1910 he was employed by the Gladstone as a porter and night clerk. After leaving the hotel, he used his knowledge of nightly routines to plan the perfect time to empty the till—the moment the clerk went to attend the main floor fireplace. He almost got away with it in April 1911, but was noticed and fled. Waldheim was on the run for a week, until police caught him trying to break into a home on Indian Road during the early morning of April 28. During his hearing on May 29 he claimed he broke into the Gladstone to pay a fine, fully intending to refund the stolen cash. Magistrate Rupert Kingsford didn’t buy the sob story or his lawyer’s request deport Waldheim to his native Germany. Kingsford sent Waldheim back to Kingston Pen.

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Queen Street subway east from Dufferin Street, April 22, 1915. The Gladstone Hotel is on the left, the Parkdale train station on the right. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1409.

Disaster nearly struck when a fire forced 75 guests and boarders to evacuate the hotel on January 17, 1918. The blaze began in a rubbish heap in the basement underneath the kitchen. A night watchman called the fire in just before 5 a.m. When firefighters under the guidance of fire chief Duncan McLean arrived, the hotel was filled with smoke. That fatalities were avoid was thanks to swift thinking 20-year-old Union Station employee Stanley Condy. He was preparing to go to sleep when he heard someone yell “fire!” He ran to each floor, opening fire windows and guiding groggy guests to escape routes. “With a handkerchief over his mouth to prevent him from swallowing the smoke,” the Star reported, “he worked like a little hero running the elevator up and down till he was overcome by smoke and had to give up his task and seek fresh air.” McLean praised the calm evacuation. “There was absolutely no panic and everyone did the right thing at the right time,” he told the Telegram.

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Gladstone Avenue, looking north from south side Queen Street, March 23, 1949. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1881.

The Gladstone’s decline was long and slow. By the mid-1980s, most of its permanent residents were cabbies, pensioners, or truckers. “They are not necessarily down-and-out,” a Globe and Mail feature on the city’s hotel residents observed in 1985, “but they clearly march to a different drummer.” Regular patrons drank in the Melody Bar or caught country acts at Bronco’s (the current ballroom space). By the 1990s, the Art Bar offered space for performers and weekly drawing classes. Observers wondered how long it would be before the creep of gentrification westward along Queen Street would hit the Gladstone.

Room description, 2000, courtesy of Now:

The nightly rooms are on the lowest floor. I put my shoulder to the door that’s stuck on a lump of filthy shag carpet. Big ridges under the rug make walking on it precarious. This $49.25 room has a double bed, bath, TV and a phone to the front desk. It overlooks a roof covered in glass shards and the Price Chopper parking lot. It’s not a bad room, but the dispute between the hotel owners has prevented investment in upgrading. I have to pull the door hard to close it. This brings an all-swearing condemnation of door-slamming from an unseen neighbour.

In late 2000, after a bitter sibling rivalry resulting in death threats, longtime owners Allan and Herb Appleby sold the Gladstone. The new owners were Michael Tippin (who specialized in heritage renovation projects) and the Zeidler family. Plans called for the number of rooms to be downsized during renovations, and new programming catering to an artsier crowd a la New York’s Hotel Chelsea. Relations between the partners quickly soured. The low point may have been Tippin’s decision in February 2002 to send in security to lay off staff and evict the remaining long-term residents. Police mediation resulted after Margie Zeidler arrived to support those getting the boot. After legal battles and a bout with receivership, the Zeidlers were awarded full ownership in late 2002. The residents stayed on for two more years, then were offered assistance (including several days of free rent) in finding new homes elsewhere when the pace of renovations increased. The documentary Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel captured the changes during this period, as management juggled the needs of longtime regulars with a newer, younger, artier clientele.

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Photo by Sandy Nicholson, Toronto Life, June 2005. 

Management of the hotel passed on to filmmaker Christina Zeidler. The slow pace of renovations picked up as the hotel’s infrastructure succumbed to years of neglect. “We wanted to keep as much of the original building as possible,” Zeidler told the Star in 2005. “But the place was on its last legs. We had to redo everything—mechanical, electrical, floors and walls. Every time we started one job, we’d find more work that needed to be done.” Thirty-seven artists were hired to make over the guest rooms into individual works of creativity. A December 2005 gala served as the official relaunch.

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Gladstone Hotel, February 2009. Photo by Wil Macaulay. Creative Commons.

A longtime Gladstone tradition which wound down in 2014 was weekend karaoke in the Melody Bar. Hosted for nearly 15 years by Peter Styles, the chance to sing your heart out provide a venue for different generations of patrons to mingle. “Character types (Parkdale elders, skinny Queen West aesthetes and tables of birthday partiers) who normally wouldn’t be within the same three-block radius all manage to cohabit an irony-free zone where everyone fights for the mike and four minutes of fame,” Toronto Life observed in 2003. Among the props Styles used was an applause sign, which he felt helped those onstage. “The best thing to do is encourage energy in the audience for the singer,” he told the Star in 2012, “and of course they give it back.” A pipe burst during the intense cold of January 2014 wrecked the room’s audio equipment and soundproofing, which management saw as a sign it might be time to bid karaoke adieu.

Sources: Parkdale in Pictures by Margaret Laycock and Barbara Myrvold (Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1991); the August 22, 1904, August 21, 1905, and May 30, 1911 editions of the Globe; the April 11, 1985 and February 20, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 28, 1911 edition of the News; the August 24-31, 2000 edition of Now; the April 28, 1911, January 17, 1918, September 30, 2000, February 21, 2002, October 14, 2002, June 23, 2004, November 15, 2005, October 31, 2009, August 31, 2012, and March 20, 2014 editions of the Toronto Star; the January 17, 1918 edition of the Telegram; and the October 2001 and September 2003 editions of Toronto Life.

UPDATE

In early 2020 the Gladstone was sold to Streetcar Developments, whose other historical projects have include the Broadview Hotel and the Distillery District.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, August 21, 1905.

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The News, April 28, 1911.

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The Globe, April 10, 1914.

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The Globe, July 21, 1914.

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The Telegram, January 17, 1918.

471 Bloor West (Hungarian Castle/BMV)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published online on September 18, 2012.

Bye Bye Black Hole of Bloor (1)

The Hungarian Castle undergoing renovations to transform into BMV, May 4, 2006. Click on image for larger version.

When it opened in 2006, the Bloor Street branch of BMV represented more than just a giant bookstore. Its bright blue exterior and large street-level windows removed an eyesore known to nearby businesses and residents as the “black hole of the Annex.” After nearly two decades of rot, any new owner or tenant occupying the former Hungarian Castle restaurant would have been greeted with open arms.

Why 471 Bloor St. W. appeared abandoned for so long is subject to rumours and urban legends. Elusive landlord Annie Racz didn’t provide answers during her lifetime. When she died in 2004, she left an estate consisting of millions of dollars worth of real estate centered around Bloor Street and Brunswick Avenue, some of which remains empty under the stewardship of her heir. Despite high interest from potential buyers, Racz threw up barriers that months of negotiation couldn’t breach. Theories on why she hung onto these properties without maintaining them included attempts to prevent higher tax assessments, an inability to trust anyone, and sentimental reminders of her late husband.

True Patriotism

Toronto Star, January 14, 1915. W.J. Parks’ grocery at 473 Bloor West eventually became part of the Hungarian Castle/BMV building.

When Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan profiled Racz in 2003, he found that, after six weeks of trying to track her down, he didn’t feel any wiser than at the beginning of his investigation. He heard rumours that had her living anywhere from above By the Way Cafe to Richmond Hill, that she resembled a bag lady, and that her legs had been amputated. Annex Residents Association chair Eric Domville was so frustrated by Racz’s refusal to do anything with 471 Bloor that he began to wonder if she was “a figment of somebody’s imagination. Does she live in a cave, or in a secret hideaway like Lex Luthor?”

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Toronto Star, December 3, 1973.

Racz hadn’t always been so shadowy or seemingly neglectful. Before she and her husband Leslie purchased the building, the site housed a variety of tenants. During the first half of the 20th century, it was occupied by several grocers, a drug company, and residents who enjoyed five-bedroom flats. After a succession of furniture stores operated there during the 1950s and 1960s, the Raczs spent two years transforming it into the medieval-styled Hungarian Castle. When the restaurant opened in 1972, it joined the large number of Hungarian eateries along the Bloor strip owned and patronized by fellow refugees who fled Hungary after the Soviet Union crushed the revolution in 1956. To make their eatery stand out, the Raczs hired Oscar Berceller, former proprietor of legendary King Street celebrity hangout Winston’s, as an advisor.

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Toronto Star, December 28, 1973.

During the years it operated, the Hungarian Castle was known for its kitschy decor and windows covered in wrought-iron crests and gates. A basement bakery drew praise from customers for its goodies and scorn from health officials for its filth. The upper floors housed a series of bars ranging from the Spanish-themed El Flamenco to student watering hole Annie’s Place.

Following her husband’s death during the 1980s, Racz closed the Hungarian Castle. Those interested in the space received calls from Racz in the middle of the night to meet her at doughnut shops. Book City owner Hans Donker’s enthusiasm to move his store a few blocks east dimmed after such encounters, along with Racz’s insistence that he retain the restaurant’s furnishings. When he toured the space with Racz circa 1990, he noticed that display cases were filled with rotting pastry.

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Toronto Star, June 11, 1978.

BMV owner Patrick Hempelmann was equally frustrated by his dealings with Racz. “We’d set up a meeting, come to a verbal agreement, and then she’d find some reason to pull out,” he told the Globe and Mail. When he purchased the building from her estate in September 2005, he found its interior resembled a horror-movie set. Liquor bottles still lined the bar and tables were set for dining. Pots were left on the stove and dishwashers were filled with plates. Grand pianos and raccoon corpses had rotted. The bakery was buried in four feet of water. It took three months, a crew of workers wearing ventilation masks, and 40 large dumpsters to clean the place out. Despite the decay, Hempelmann was relieved when the building was found to be structurally sound. A year after he bought it, book browsers filed in to spend hours looking for finds.

In some respects, the long decay of the Hungarian Castle mirrored the demise of the Hungarian community along Bloor West. Where it was once, as writer John Lorinc once termed it, “a veritable Budapest of eateries,” only the Country Style in the heart of the strip and the Coffee Mill in Yorkville survive. Perhaps the medieval warriors who graced the building’s exterior were fighting as best they could until they had to give in to the changing landscape.

Additional material from the February 27, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the August 28, 2004 and December 10, 2005 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the September 30, 1972 and June 11, 2006 editions of the Toronto Star. Since this article was originally published, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Mary Walpole advertorial, Globe and Mail, November 25, 1972.

 

 

 

The Dying Days of the Eaton Centre Sears

When The Grid’s website entered its terminal phase following the publication’s shutdown, there were several stories I was unable to capture screen grabs of because they had already vanished. This was one of them. I suspect it went MIA first because it was a photo essay.

Lesson: always take screen captures of your online work as soon as it is published!

Based on my social media feeds, this story was originally published online on February 4, 2014, and was referenced in the February 13, 2014 print edition. This version is based on the draft I submitted, with additional thoughts and photos.

All of the photos used in this post were taken on January 25 and January 31, 2014.

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With less than a week to go before Sears closes its doors for good at the Eaton Centre, the final days of the department store’s blowout sale have offered shoppers more than hunting for deals amongst the dwindling merchandise. Walking through the store provides an education in how department store design has evolved since the space opened as Eaton’s in 1977, including elements that were around when the ribbon was the cut.

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The final days have contrasted Sears’s higher-end pretensions for the store and the flea market atmosphere of a closing sale, reflecting the widening divide in the department store sector between luxury retailers and discounters.

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While upper levels are filled with abandoned aspirational signage for kitchenwares and phantom cosmetics counters, the bottom floor lures shoppers to demonstrations of a Shamwow-esque cloth via a P.A. announcement promising a free gift.

After Sears closes its doors for good on February 9, the remaining armies of mannequins will march off as the site undergoes two years of renovations before Nordstrom opens in fall 2016.

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The store witnessed its first closing sale when Eaton’s declared bankruptcy in 1999. Sears Canada briefly kept the old brand alive as “eatons” but switched the nameplate to the Sears in 2002. The retail space has shrunk from 10 floors in 1977 to the current four-and-a-half—Sears Canada’s head office occupies the top three-and-a-half floors, while the bottom two were turned over to the Eaton Centre.

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The brown-hued escalators are the most prominent remnants of the store’s Eaton’s era. The 1970s diamond logo lingers next to the escalators on the second floor.

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The lower-case “e” logo used during the eatons phase marks each floor in the elevator bank.

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On the fourth floor, I discovered a box of tiles marked “T. Eatons (sic) Company,” which hasn’t existed since 1999.

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The women’s fashion area on the second floor was divided into fixture sale space and a cordoned-off wasteland of walls bearing the brand names which held court here. The backdrop of columns set against emptiness appealed to some visitors—one evening I observed a romantic photo shoot taking place.

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Rows of well-worn office fixtures made parts of the second floor resemble IKEA’s “As Is” section. Among the heavily used items was a lonesome $50 microwave. Inside were remnants of past meals baked onto the rotating centrepiece. Discoloured grains of rice threatened to spill onto the floor. As I closed the door, an associate informed me that it had already sold. It served as a sad reminder of all the jobs lost with the store’s closure.

Note from 2019: It’s too bad I didn’t photograph the microwave, which was possibly the best representation of the depressing atmosphere. For a fixture in such poor shape, couldn’t management have raffled it off to employees or allowed them to express their frustrations by whacking it with baseball bats rather than hand it over to the liquidator?

On second thought, it’s the sort of the strip mining and ultra-capitalism Eddie Lampert, the Ayn Rand-obsessed hedge fund operator who oversaw the terminal decline of Sears across North America, might approve of.

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Plenty of marketing materials were up for grabs. For $75, you could take home this promotional image for Eva Mendes’s home décor line. Never mind that someone went wild with a black magic marker in a vain attempt to cover up the branding details.

Would a proud new owner have painted over the marker-covered areas? Sliced the panel neatly to remove the left side? Left it as an artistic/political statement?

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Apart from the Tim Horton’s tucked into the cafeteria, the fourth floor was a ghost town of appliance and kitchenware displays.

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Colorful signs for Keurig, Hamilton Beach, and other kitchen brands hung above empty displays.

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There were vacancies galore in the refrigerator section.

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An electronic display which was still functioning last week offered an energy-savings calculator based on products no longer nearby.

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The “NOTHING HELD BACK” signs weren’t kidding. Apart from some fixtures destined for other stores, everything else was available for a price, including these faux fragrance holders filled with mysterious liquid.

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Nearby were a homemade-looking Halloween mix CD ($1) and a box of coffee stir sticks. I didn’t check if they had been used.

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On the main floor, mini Christmas trees could be yours for 43 cents!

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Apart from security passes needed to board at 3 Below (now the Urban Eatery food court) and the removal of the 2 Below stop, you can ride the elevators to all of the former Eaton’s floors.

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Checking out the seventh floor, which once served as Eaton’s bargain annex, I found this friendly piece of advice to Sears Canada head office employees. A cynic might wonder if this was an effort to boost floor traffic.

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Armies of mannequins were among the fixtures for sale.

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Prices varied depending on much body you wanted—a painted head/torso combination would set you back $100.

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Standing alone next to large faceless collections of mannequins made me fear when they would awaken and launch their invasion of downtown Toronto.

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Sometimes all you need is a mannequin arm. These dismembered limbs are ideal for fixing old mannequins, as a canvas for horrific props, as a joke item, or as a back scratcher.

The original article draft ended here.

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There were so many mannequin parts laying around. How many of these pieces wound up in stores, studios, or homes around the GTA?

The leather “Judys” on the right may have dated from the eatons relaunch in 2000. “Mannequins, like runway models, should bear no resemblance to most mortals,” Phillip Preville observed in Saturday Night magazine. “Eatons will have some of retail’s funkiest dummies, including leather-upholstered headless torsos, and, in the junior women’s section, urban punk girlie-quins.”

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Some mannequins still found time to strike a pose in front of displays, even if those displays were cluttered with shopping bags.

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NOT FOR SALE.

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The kitchen demonstration area, dubbed the “Great Kitchen” during the eatons era.

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1970s phone casings with later payphones. Never mind the retro stylings, by 2014 an attached phone book was a rare citing (I didn’t check how outdated it was). Did the light above the phone signal that it was available for use?

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Salon equipment was mixed in with leftover furnishings.

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$389 for a ripped couch. $389…

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Artwork from the optical department?

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The other three store closings listed on this sign were leases Sears sold back to the individual malls in 2013. As of December 2019, these are the primary replacements for those stores:

Eaton Centre: Nordstrom, Samsung, Uniqlo, and a corridor on the mall’s second floor

Sherway Gardens: Saks Fifth Avenue, SportChek

Square One: Simons, SportChek

Yorkdale: Restoration Hardware, Sporting Life

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By my second photoshoot, access to upper floors was more difficult.

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A sampling of the fixtures available on the second floor.

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Were any of these people asked if they wanted the remains of this cupboard bearing their names? Or was this a relic from the Eaton’s era?

Otherwise, it could have been yours for $30.

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Matthew McConaughey and his clothing line were exiled to Barrie, a location closed when the remaining Sears Canada stores shuttered in January 2018.

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Nothing to watch here.

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These display cases, placed in the corridor leading out to the passageway between Trinity Square and Dundas Street, were reserved for Sears Canada’s archives. They definitely appeared to be from at least the 1970s, but I wondered if they were first used at an earlier point in Eaton’s history.

Does anyone know the current location of items like this or the rest of the Sears Canada archives?

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A final exit into the alleyway.

From a Facebook post I wrote on February 13, 2014:

Wandering through Eaton Centre before heading home to find store still open, when several sources had indicated its end was going to be last weekend. Appears management is trying to milk as much out of the place as possible – the well-worn fixtures on the second floor were going for 50% off today, while the flea market/trade show styled demonstrations of products continue on the lower floor. PA announcement reminded shoppers they have less that two weeks to walk home with whatever remains.

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Reader reaction to the original “rather depressing” story.

Reconstruction soon began, as the bottom floor (the old Eaton’s 1 Below) became mall space, while the remaining three retail floors reopened as Nordstrom in September 2016. The upper floors remained Sears Canada’s head office until the chain wound down in early 2018.

With the store’s closure, part of my childhood passed on. Up until the end there were still plenty of reminders of the Eaton’s store I loved roaming through as a kid, from forgotten vintage signage to old logos to the escalators that retained their 1970s shades of brown. Windsor didn’t have department stores as large as downtown Toronto’s, and I never experienced Hudson’s Detroit flagship during its dying days, so visiting Eaton’s (and Simpsons) felt special to a kid overwhelmed by so much space. Eating in the marine-themed cafeteria. My dad indulging my need to ride every escalator as high or low as we could go. Wondering what mysteries lay in the closed off 3 Below floor.

Not that I’ll complain about what has happened to the site. Nordstrom performed a much-needed overhaul of the remaining space. Most of the merchandise is beyond my budget, but I like the modern-yet-traditional department store feel while walking through.

the short, aubergine-coloured, lower-cased life of eatons

Viewers tuning into CTV’s airing of Tomorrow Never Dies on October 22, 2000 might have scratched their heads during the commercial breaks. Of the 29 minutes of ad time during that evening’s Bond thriller, 24 were dedicated to promoting a shade of purple which shared the French name for eggplant. The longest spot, running four-and-a-half minutes, was a stylish ode to classic Hollywood musicals.

Aubergine: the colour and driving spirit of the new incarnation of Eaton’s. Or, as it would now be known, eatons.

The ad campaign, created by the Ammirati Puris agency and anchor by director Floria Sigismondi’s TV spot, created a lot of buzz. But the expectations it created among consumers, and the disappointment they experienced when faced with reality, led to the quick demise of the eatons experiment.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

In Fall 1999, Sears Canada picked up the remains of the T. Eaton Company for, depending on the source, either $50 million or $80 million. Of the 19 locations acquired, 12 were converted to Sears stores. The remaining seven—two in Toronto (Eaton Centre and Yorkdale), along with locations in Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg—would form a new, upscale chain. It would be a change of pace for Sears, whose base was mid-market suburbia.

Retaining the “circle e” logo Eaton’s had introduced during a last-ditch “Times Have Changed” revamp in 1997, the new branding was introduced in April 2000. Sears Canada executive VP of marketing Rick Sorby explained the decision to use a lower-case name:

The design of the name, which features a small “e” and no apostrophe before the “s,” reflects the evolution from a family name to a true brand name. The execution of the identification utilizes easy-to-read lower-case typography and a powerful icon—the circled e—to give us a branding device that works on all applications from TV commercials to store signing…The lower-case letters are more contemporary, cleaner and more reflective of the style of the new Internet age.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

During focus group sessions with upper middle-class female shoppers, Sorby envisioned a store they would shop in if they had only three hours to live. “It’s not going to be, it’s going to be sophisticated. But not to the point of scary.”

Initial plans called for reviving lines dumped by Eaton’s during its final years, including furniture and appliances. Also resurrected was the catalogue, whose discontinuation in 1976 had caused a national uproar. If all went well, the seven eatons stores would see $1 billion in annual sales by 2003.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

All promotional material dripped with aubergine, a colour executives hoped the public would associate with eatons as they did orange with Home Depot or green with TD. “Aubergine,” Ammirati Puris creative director Doug Robinson explained to Marketing Magazine, “has been associated with royalty. We simply struck on the ideas of taking that forward, of taking it into some sort of musical, very high-fashion, very entertaining positioning-without getting too sophisticated with it.”

The aubergine jokes began as soon as the first ads aired in October. “Don’t think purple, which only comes close to aubergine,” Peter Goddard observed in the Toronto Star. “Purple is for the suburbs. Aubergine is so very downtown, so very sophisto, so very the new eatons.” Eaton chronicler Rod McQueen wondered if the brand had found a new path to bankruptcy (“Aubergine? Doesn’t that rhyme with might have been?”).

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

Checking out the renovations to the Eaton Centre flagship for Saturday Night, writer Jennifer Wells smelled “the scent of fabulousness.”

Perforated metal drop-panel ceilings. Steel floor inlays under archways. Chrome yellow tile with flecks of faux Inca gold. Three sets of escalators have been opened so that shoppers on these floors will no longer feel they are being fed up and down cattle chutes. Shoppers on floor five (fine china, drapery, flooring) will be able to peer down to four, where visiting chefs in the Great Kitchen will be preparing something sensational. There will be restaurants in all the stores featuring a variety of food stations. Alas, they are self-serve and bear the un-hip name Cuisine Scene. And you won’t be able to take home a box of petits fours or those twee pinwheel tea sandwiches. (Does anyone else remember the divine Charlotte Russe?) Those days are forever dead. Still, Sorby likens the hoped-for consumer experience on these top floors to a sensory journey. All sights, sounds, smells.

The “Historical Rooms of Distinction,” wood-panelled rooms partly preserved from the College Street store closed in 1976, were installed. The wall along Yonge Street was replaced with fashion boutiques for Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Polo, Kenneth Cole, and BCBG Max Azria with doors open to outside foot traffic. Aisles were two feet wider than a standard Sears store. Greeters would be dressed in aubergine jackets. Granite and marble was used to create a sense that the new eatons was here for the long run.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

“From the outset,” Sears CEO Paul Walters told the Globe and Mail, “our objective has been to offer exceptional stores that meet all of the needs and wants of our primary customer—the time-pressed urban customer who enjoys shopping, wants the latest styles and trends, demands service expertise and wants an exciting entertaining environment to shop in.”

There were troubling signs. Grand openings originally projected for October 2000 were delayed a month partly due to construction strikes, missing up to $40 million in sales during the early part of the holiday shopping season. Renovations went over budget. Overall consumer confidence was sinking, with fears of a recession around the corner. Some of those who attended sneak previews felt too much space was given to brands available everywhere else.

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 2000.

As for the target market, did the brand itself retain any resonance? “Can it draw crowds who are prepared to spend?” McQueen observed in the National Post. “Maybe among the 60-year-old women who grew up going to the Georgian Room in Toronto or the Grill Room in Winnipeg. But the target market of tomorrow is not women of a certain age. Eatons badly needs the 18-to-49-year old who may find switching difficult because her buying habits are already well established elsewhere.”

“These days, mimicry is mediocrity.”

The competition barely flinched. “People talk about eatons reopening as if it was Eaton’s reopening,” HBC CEO George Heller told Maclean’s. “It’s not. We’re talking about a totally different animal here.”

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Toronto Star, November 25, 2000.

When the stores opened on November 25, reviews were positive about the look and customer service, mixed about the merchandise. “I love it,” shopper Theresa Macas told the Star. “They have very luxurious clothes and good lighting. I thought it was going to be like Sears, but it’s not.”

The wheels fell off quickly. After 13 straight quarters of record earnings, Sears Canada’s stock price fell and earnings dipped into the red. Customers expecting merchandise lining up with the adventurous advertising were disappointing. The 100-page catalogue delivered to 4.2 million homes was uninspiring. It didn’t help that it was sent via Sears’ traditional mailing list, which skewed older, lower-income, and in smaller communities than the audience eatons wanted to attract. It looked and felt nothing like the legendary Eaton’s catalogue of yore. Some industry observers also noted how much Canadians hated paying for shipping. The eatons website looked impressive, but was slow-loading and difficult to click on. Though aubergine was retained as a theme, a second television ad campaign featuring the mini-musical’s characters with a funky 1970s soundtrack failed to capture the public’s imagination. Retail consultants experienced déjà vu, seeing similar mistakes the old Eaton’s made in creating a new marketing image that wasn’t delivered in store.

Shorter version of the Floria Sigismondi aubergine ad.

“I think that we thought that these stores would open and be perfect,” Sears executive VP of marketing Bill Turner told the National Post. “In truth, it’s been a lot of work.”

By the end of January 2001 Walters, the architect of the eatons revival plan, was gone. Sears stock fell 16% over the following weeks. The catalogue and online sales were killed in early April. New CEO Mark Cohen spoke to the media in mid-June. He admitted that because of $175 million in tax write-offs acquired with Eaton’s, the new stores had to open within a year. He also admitted that “there aren’t enough truly upscale customers in Canada for half-a-million square feet of upscale goods.” Advertising would be reduced, as “it’s never going to make sense speaking to large levels of customers who geographically are never going to visit these seven stores.” Cohen expected that, as consumer spending dropped, it would be several years before Sears would pour significantly more money into eatons, and that it would take several seasons to settle on the contemporary style the chain stood for. Private labels shared by the two chains, such as Nevada men’s clothing, would be phased out of eatons.

Cohen dismissed speculation that the chain would be sold or converted into Sears stores. “I’m not going to give you a categoric no, but it’s highly unlikely that’s going to happen.”

gm 2001-12-15 eatons magic ad

Globe and Mail, December 15, 2001.

Christmas 2001 stood in stark contrast to the previous year. No TV ads ran, while newspaper ads simply showcasing products with the trademarked tagline “eatons magic.” No pizazz, no excitement.

On February 18, 2002, the axe fell. “We did not do well last year,” Cohen told the press. While partly blaming the recession and effects of 9/11, “at the end of the day, we lost a lot more money than we had originally planned when this investment was first made.” Except for the Winnipeg and Yorkdale locations, the stores would be converted to Sears. A few high-performing brands would be sold at a select number of Sears locations. Cadillac Fairview indicated that the Eaton Centre name would remain on its malls in Toronto and Victoria (though the latter has since been renamed).

gm 2002-02-19 sears abandons eatons 1

Globe and Mail, February 19, 2002.

Retail consultants were harsh in their final assessments of eatons, blaming its end on everything from too few stores spread too far apart to over-emphasis on the aubergine ad campaign to overall poor execution. Among the comments:

“Those eatons stores were like stores without a soul.” – Wendy Evans.

“I don’t think the strategy was wrong, I think just the execution was wrong…Instead of calling it aubergine, if they’d called it eggplant it would have been closer to the truth. You can’t call an eggplant aubergine.” – Richard Talbot.

“They just went back to the easiest, simplest tool to drive business, which is price. Everybody else is doing the same thing. In the end, what really made eatons different? – Sam Geist.

“Disappointment is too kind a work for when you got there.” – Gary Prouk.

“Those really are winner locations. It’s just amazing they managed to screw them up.” – John Williams.

Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick summed up the chain’s demise:

What put an end to eatons’ brief resurrection was the smell of shopping death….We’ve all noticed it: it’s actually an odour of embarrassment rather than expiry. It fills the main floor when you, the shopper, find yourself empathically alone with 400 red-white-and-blue thingies by Tommy Hilfiger, 12,000 bottles of unguents and six salespeople who try too hard because they have been trained to try too hard. You know it’s not working, they know it’s not working, but you both do the time. They greet, aid, chat and wrap in such a false un-Canadian manner that you are wrenched with sympathy and impatience.

Even members of the Eaton family were critical. “When Sears started up the ‘new Eatons’ with the ‘aubergine’ campaign, I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s the wrong way to open a store,’” observed Fredrik Eaton, who ran Eaton’s during the late 1970s and early 1980s, told Canadian Business in 2005. “I had always been advised by buyers to be careful when someone offered anything in aubergine.”

star 2002-08-21 sears sign being put up

Toronto Star, August 21, 2002.

The conversions were finished by summer. The Toronto Eaton Centre Sears operated until February 2014, and would be replaced by one of the chains eatons aspired to provide the same wow factor as, Nordstrom. A recent walk through the store revealed little aubergine.

Sources: the December 11, 2000 and June 20, 2005 editions of Canadian Business; the October 27, 2000, November 25, 2000, December 14, 2001, February 19, 2002, and February 23, 2002 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 20, 2000 edition of Maclean’s; the November 6, 2000 edition of Marketing Magazine; the April 17, 2000, November 15, 2000, November 22, 2000, April 4, 2001, April 9, 2001, June 14, 2001, and February 19, 2002 editions of the National Post; the November 11, 2000 edition of Saturday Night; and the October 29, 2000, November 26, 2000, and June 14, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Coming Christmas Day—The Odeon York!

Originally published on Torontoist on December 20, 2011.

20111220york

Toronto Star, December 24, 1969.

Things opened on Christmas Day: presents under a tree, cards from dear friends, bottles of wine at the dinner table, old family wounds, and movie theatres.

Yes, movie theatres.

Catching a film on December 25 is a tradition for lonely souls eager to escape painful reminders of the holidays, for families and friends to flee chaotic Christmas celebrations for a few hours, and a shared cultural experience for those who don’t celebrate Christmas in the first place. With a large pool of customers to draw upon, especially on a day when few other businesses are open, why not use Christmas to debut a splashy new cinema?

Parents may have welcomed the York Theatre’s opening bill on December 25, 1969, since neither of the main attractions was suitable for younger audiences. We suspect kids were content to stay home and play with Santa’s deliveries. Viewers could take the theatre’s spiral staircase to see a farce (Cactus Flower) or a foursome (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice).

Blockbusters graced the screens of the York until 2001. After operating as an event venue and fitness club, the site became the Madison condo project.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

star 1984-09-19 amadeus ad

Toronto Star, September 19, 1984.

The York occupies a sentimental spot in my heart, as it was the first place I saw a drama intended for grown-ups, as opposed to family-friendly blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. We ate dinner at Harvey’s on the northeast side of Yonge and Eglinton, then walked over to see Amadeus. Nine-year-old Jamie was impressed, following along without being bored.

Best of all, I was a big boy now! Bring on the non-kiddie films!

(I went to kid-friendly flicks for a few more years)

I wonder if my father thought it might spur me to share his love of classical music. If so, it didn’t, though I briefly explored his Mozart records when we returned home.

Given the timing of Amadeus‘s release, this may have occurred either on my last trip to Toronto before my grandmother moved down to Amherstburg or the first visit there after she left the city.

By the time I moved to Toronto in 1999, the York was nearing its end. At the time, the few remaining non-rep house single or double screen cinemas in the old City of Toronto were heading toward their demise. A survey of the scene by the Star in January 2001 indicated that Cineplex Odeon was operating the York on a month-to-month basis and a “For Lease” sign was already out front. Elsewhere, Famous Players did not renew the lease at the Plaza in the Hudson’s Bay Centre, while the fates of the Eglinton and Uptown waited for a ruling in a human rights complaint regarding accessibility (the result of which was used as an excuse for their closure).

Sometimes when an old movie house closes, we can’t help feeling that there’s something more being demolished than the broken seats and torn carpets in the lobby. For some of us, our vivid memories of movies that mattered to us long ago are all wrapped up with memories of the way we were, who was with us at the time, and, of course, the odd little details about those places where we gathered long ago waiting in the dark for something wonderful to happen. – Martin Knelman, Toronto Star, January 21, 2001.