Making and Remaking Hazelton Lanes

Originally published on Torontoist on August 26, 2013. As the original post placed its images in gallery format, this version will sprinkle them throughout, along with additional ads and photos.

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Hazelton Lanes under construction, 1976. Photo by Harold Barkley. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109033f.

When it opened in 1976, Hazelton Lanes offered a combination of luxury condos and tony retailers set amidst a cluster of former homes. Hailed as a great example of how developers and surrounding residents could work together, the mall’s fortunes later declined because of its confusing layout and an ill-timed expansion.

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Rendering of the proposed new entrance for Hazelton Lanes on Avenue Road, 2013.

Recently released renderings of proposed renovations depict a 21st-century makeover that the complex’s owners hope will draw foot traffic.

Hazelton Lanes’s roots can be traced to real estate developer Richard Wookey’s decision to purchase a number of Yorkville properties during the late 1960s. For a time, he catered to the counter culture. In one instance, he allowed a biker gang to use a Hazelton Avenue property as long as it didn’t bother the neighbours. The gang soon departed, complaining that Wookey had “domesticated” them.

Domestication was the goal of developers like Wookey, and boarding houses and coffee houses gave way to pricey boutiques. Wookey bought homes cheap, gutted the interiors, and added Victorian-style archways and windows. He was a proponent of adaptive reuse, hiring architects Jack Diamond and Barton Myers to transform a cluster of houses at Avenue Road and Yorkville Avenue into the York Square retail complex in 1968.

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Richard Wookey, March 1974. Photo by Frank Lennon. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0090040f.

With Hazelton Lanes, Wookey did something unusual. Rather than seeking immediate City approval, he consulted local residents. Three members of the Avenue-Bay-Cottingham Ratepayers’ Association (ABCRA) were invited to his home to review the plans. Despite having concerns about increased traffic, they were impressed by the sketches and suggested that Wookey hold a public meeting. “I think that Mr. Wookey has gone about this matter in precisely the right way,” ABCRA member Jack Granatstein wrote to aldermen William Kilbourn and Colin Vaughan in a March 1973 letter. “I hope that what we can all accomplish here will become the model for future development in the city.”

When the meeting was held the following month, most of the 120 people present voted in favour of the project. “Ratepayer groups don’t always oppose development,” ABCRA vice-president Ellen Adams told the Globe and Mail. “We just oppose the bad ones.” Also impressed by the meeting was Vaughan, who a quarter century later praised Wookey for ensuring that his projects were “woven into the fabric of the city, so that older buildings and site features are enhanced.” The consultation process helped the project gain council support for an exemption to a bylaw that capped development height at 45 feet.

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Hazelton Lanes rink, 1976. Photographer unknown. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109032f.

Designed by architect Boris Zerafa, the complex consisted of a series of eight former homes topped by a series of terraced condos. In the middle was a courtyard, which would be used as an ice-skating rink in the winter.

A potential roadblock emerged when Ursula Foster, who resisted attempts by Wookey to buy her home at 30 Hazelton, asked the City’s buildings and development committee to delay submitting the project to the Ontario Municipal Board. Foster, who had lived in Yorkville for 50 years, feared her sunlight would be blocked, and that therefore her garden would be ruined and her winter heating bill would rise. She met with the City’s planners, Wookey, and Zerafa in May 1974 to find a solution. All agreed to a revised plan that would move the complex’s first two storeys back 10 feet and relocate the upper-level condos to the Avenue Road side.

Apart from gripes from alderman John Sewell about the “very chi chi” project’s lack of affordable housing (condo prices initially ranged from $72,000 to $500,000), the remaining approval process was smooth. When the mall opened in October 1976, it was clear that the average Joe would be out of place. “Most of the shoppers have dressed up to walk the stores,” observed the Globe and Mail. “Several of the shop owners, exquisite in cashmere and costly boots, look like they would eat you alive if you wandered in wearing your old trousers.”

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Toronto Life, December 1984.

Under numerous owners—including William Louis-Dreyfus, father of Seinfeld actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus—the mall portion of Hazelton Lanes has had problems. A major north-end expansion in 1989 designed by Jack Diamond was affected by the recession. At desperate moments, rents were slashed in half. Existing tenants moaned about having to help customers negotiate the mall’s confusing layout. None of the marquee names touted as potential anchors during the 1990s—Neiman Marcus, Pusateri’s, Saks Fifth Avenue—materialized. The ice rink was scrapped during the late 1990s. Whole Foods opened its first Canadian store inside Hazelton Lanes in May 2002, but the mall continued to be criticized for its vacancies and its aging appearance. “Though this dreary complex has somehow managed to become synonymous with wealth and beauty,” observed Star architecture critic Christopher Hume in 2004, “it’s really about kitsch.”

 

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Rendering of south escalator area.

Current owner First Capital bought Hazelton Lanes in 2011, promising to add a broader assortment of tenants for the mall’s well-heeled customers. A company official admitted that there was “no easy fix.” The current renderings by Kasian Architecture show a mall whose appearance matches current shopping-centre styles, with a new gateway to Yorkville Avenue. The proposed renovations, which have yet to get underway, appear to tie into plans to replace York Square with a condo tower, wiping out the pioneering retail space. It remains to be seen if a revamped Hazelton Lanes can draw a major new anchor store.

Sources: the April 5, 1973, November 4, 1976, and September 27, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the April 5, 1973, March 22, 1974, May 14, 1974, March 11, 1976, July 20, 1998, October 5, 2002, and March 27, 2004 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

First up, bonus material I prepared at the time this piece was originally written…

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Toronto Star, April 5, 1973.

It was nice for a change to read about a development project where the nearby residents weren’t convinced the sky was going to fall. Unless there’s a secret back story missing from both the media coverage and the personal correspondences I leafed through while researching this article, it sounds like the developer did everything right to reassure the community that all would be well.

Besides the Avenue-Bay-Cottingham Ratepayers’ Association, the neighbouring Annex Ratepayers’ Association (ARA) was consulted. In a letter to alderman Ying Hope, an ARA representative wanted to “commend the process of community association consultation in the development of the project.”

Not that there weren’t opponents. In a letter to the city clerk, Hazelton Avenue apartment building owner Mohsen Djelweh complained about the potential traffic bottleneck along his street. He also worried that granting an exception to the 45-foot building height limit would cause Yorkville to “slowly die and convert into a canyon” instead of remaining a “highly regarded, highly attractive low-rise development” which drew tourists.

The loudest opponent to Hazelton Lanes appears to have been alderman John Sewell. When you dive into 1970s Toronto, you can create a drinking game around predicting what Sewell will rage against in the midst of the story you’re trailing. Besides the height issue (which he was only one of three councilors to vote against in February 1974), Sewell complained that the project offered no provisions for affordable housing. He claimed that developer Richard Wookey “doesn’t want to have to touch people who aren’t in a fairly high income bracket.” Sewell’s attempt to promote mixed income housing in Yorkville didn’t gain traction.

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Globe and Mail, September 25, 1976.

An example of an early Hazelton Lanes ad campaign. A different batch of tenants was profiled each week. Note the references to the mall’s hard-to-find location, which didn’t always serve it well.

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A colour view of the rink. Toronto Life, January 1980.

Here’s how Hazelton Lanes was described in The Best of Toronto 1980, published by Toronto Life:

Toronto’s most exclusive , multi-purpose structure is a spectacular complex incorporating shops, restaurants, offices and luxury condominium apartments. The courtyard is a skating rink in winter and an outdoor extension of the Hazelton Lanes Cafe in summer. You’ll find everything from delicious imported chocolates at Au Chocolat to designer fashions at Chez Catherine. It’s elegant, exclusive, expensive and not to be missed.

UPDATE

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Yorkville Village, January 27, 2020.

With the renovations came a new name. So long Hazelton Lanes, hello Yorkville Village. The entrance to Yorkville Avenue was completely revamped.

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Yorkville Village, January 27, 2020.

As for the effect of the renovations…on a recent walk, the place felt utterly soulless. The old brick might have been dated, but it had a certain warmth. While it’s nice to have bright light flowing in, the overall look is just sort of there. I felt like I could have been dropped into any generic recently-refurbished suburban shopping mall.

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Nearby advertising on Yorkville Avenue.

Hotel Waverl(e)y

This installment of “Ghost City” was published online by The Grid on June 18, 2013.

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College and Spadina, looking northwest, May 13, 1927. The Waverley is in the background (click on photo for larger version). Photo by Alfred Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 4888.

“If you really want the best, dine at the Waverley,” a person by the name of W.M. Canning advised a friend on the back of a postcard depicting a refined dining room at the Spadina Avenue establishment circa 1908. Hard to believe, but there was a time when the Waverl(e)y was considered a hotel worthy of formal dances, organizational lunches, and tourism offices.

Built by John J. Powell in 1900, the Hotel Waverley replaced a structure that once housed the local YMCA. For the next half-century, the hotel was operated by the Powell family, whose members were active in hospitality-industry associations—Egerton Powell served as president of the Ontario branch of the Greeters’ Association of America during the mid-1920s. That decade also saw the Waverley house the Toronto Convention and Tourist Association’s office and a Canadian Pacific ticket outlet.

Major changes came during the 1950s. The Powell family’s involvement appears to have ended following the 1954 death of Egerton’s widow, whose estate was battled over by 53 cousins. The hotel gained its first lounge licence the following year, then fell into liquidation in 1957. Newspaper ads in January 1959 proudly announced the opening of the “fabulous Silver Dollar Room,” whose debut act was “Canada’s Top Variety Group,” Tommy Danton and the Echoes. The venue soon settled into presenting local jazz musicians and bluesy singers like Olive Brown (whose selection of standards included venue-appropriate songs like “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”).

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1959.

However, in the ensuing years, the Waverley site acquired more dubious associations. During the early morning hours of November 17, 1961, a guest named Arthur Lucas made two telephone calls from his room to 116 Kendal Avenue. Just after 3:30 a.m., Lucas left the Waverley and headed north to meet Therland Crater, a drug dealer on the run from the Detroit underworld for working as an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. While Lucas claimed he was meeting Crater to discuss opening a bawdy house in Toronto, his true mission was murder. Lucas killed Crater and his wife Carolyn Newman, then returned to the Waverley around 6 a.m. to say goodbye to his roommate. He was captured in Detroit the following day. Lucas was convicted and hung alongside Ronald Turpin during Canada’s last execution in December 1962.

Another infamous killer was reputed to have checked into the Waverley during the 1960s. After assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, James Earl Ray spent part of his time on the lam in Toronto. Legend has it the Waverley was one of his stops, even though he told the Ottawa Sun that he spent his time ping-ponging between a pair of rooming houses in the Dundas-Ossington area. This didn’t prevent two men allegedly representing the American government from asking Waverley management in the mid-1990s about the hotel’s connection with Ray.

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Corner of Spadina Avenue and College Street, looking northwest, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 55, Item 34.

If Ray enjoyed a drink at the Silver Dollar Room, he might have watched the entertainment Bill Cameron described in a Star profile that fall about Spadina Avenue. “The Silver Dollar Room,” Cameron observed, “is a bouncy rowdy little place with a busty tone-deaf singer and bored trio band and the greatest stripper I have ever seen, thin and not very pretty but with a splendid lascivious skill at detecting the rhythms of the house, of putting what she has just where it should be at precisely the right moment to get everybody there up just underneath the point of a riot.”

In 1970, poet Milton Acorn moved in for a long stay. “The Waverley Hotel was full of character and characters,” he noted. “It was a place for all sorts of strange but true types. People who were certainly down but not out.” The flophouse-like atmosphere suited the foul-smelling, highly-opinionated Acorn, who was named “The People’s Poet” by his peers soon after moving in. Acorn paid the daily rate rather than the monthly rent in case he ever decided to pick up and leave, and constantly changed rooms out of fear he was being bugged by the RCMP. Though he moved out in 1977, Acorn kept a writing room at the hotel until he left Toronto in 1981. His stay is commemorated with a small plaque.

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Toronto Star, January 8, 1992.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the hotel was subject to periodic police raids and other woes. A bust in February 1978 netted 233 charges related to selling liquor to intoxicated persons. It was among the local bars hit by a two-week servers’ strike in September 1981, prompting the owners to personally serve trays of beer. A 1987 bust saw 16 people arrested for prostitution. Somewhere along the line, a new sign dropped the second “e” from the hotel’s name. Its rough atmosphere provided a great backdrop for Elmore Leonard, who set part of his novel Killshot at the Waverly. By the 1990s, management posted a sign reading “rooms should not be used for nefarious, wrongful or unlawful purposes.”

The Silver Dollar Room maintained a steady diet of blues and rock. For a time, it was home of the Elvis Monday music showcase. Around 1992, it changed its name to Jonny Vegas and briefly took down its signature sign. “I advised the new tenants against changing the sign,” property owner Paul Wynn told the Star. “I have a deal with them that, if the place fails, they’ll have to put up the Silver Dollar sign again.”

Time may be running out for the Waverly. The Wynn Group, which has owned the site since the mid-1980s, has released plans to replace the crumbling hotel with a 20-storey residential tower targeted to students that would include a gym and a rebuilt Silver Dollar Room. The project was criticized by Councillor Adam Vaughan, who called the plan “effectively a high-rise rooming house.”

Sources: East/West, Nancy Byrtus, Mark Fram, Michael McClelland, editors (Toronto: Coach House, 2000), Toronto: A Literary Guide by Greg Gatenby (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 1999), Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1999), the June 12, 2013 edition of BlogTO, the December 12, 1923 edition of the Globe, the July 19, 1957, October 29, 1963, April 7, 1976, and April 7, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 28, 1955, January 2, 1959, October 12, 1968, February 2, 1978, September 2, 1981, December 4, 1987, January 8, 1992, and June 11, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

The Silver Dollar Room received a heritage designation in January 2015. While city council rejected a demolition proposal in January 2014, the Waverly eventually had its date with a wrecking ball. The bar closed in spring 2017 and was demolished the following year.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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A pamphlet (uploaded by the Toronto Public Library) enticing travellers to stay at the Waverley, circa 1920. One can safely place College and Spadina into modern Toronto’s “congested traffic district.”

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Toronto Star, December 12, 1923.

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Globe and Mail, April 29, 1964.

From Simpsons to The Bay to Saks

Originally published on Torontoist on January 28, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mail and Empire, January 18, 1896.

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

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

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

Early ads for the Arcadian Court touted its architectural wonders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

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Mail and Empire, February 17, 1896.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teaser which accompanied this illustration:

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

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Globe and Mail, December 24, 1968.

Lying in State at Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on August 26, 2011.

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“Some of the thousands of citizens who passed through City Hall today to pay their final respects to Mayor Sam McBride as he lay in state are shown above with a few of the many handsome floral tributes and the solemn procession inside the building.” The Telegram, November 16, 1936.

While the state funeral planned for Jack Layton tomorrow is unique for being the first held for an opposition leader, it won’t be the first time a former councillor lies in state in Toronto’s seat of government. That honour was also bestowed upon two men who rose from council to the mayor’s office but died before the end of their mandate. Old City Hall served as the venue for the public to remember Sam McBride and Donald Summerville in a way that may be similar to that we will see at the new City Hall today.

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The Telegram, November 14, 1936.

Fiery Sam McBride returned to the mayor’s chair in 1936, seven years after his first term ended. Described by the Star as “a two-fisted, red-blooded, go-getter who was ready on a second’s notice to fight for what he believed to be right and to champion the cause of the common citizen,” his second stint was marred by ill health related to a blood infection caused by a teeth-pulling. Though he continued to look after city affairs, his public appearances declined. On November 10, 1936, McBride suffered a stroke and remained unconscious until he died four days later. City council decided the appropriate venue to remember McBride, who was born in the nearby Ward neighbourhood and who had been involved in municipal politics for 30 years, was Old City Hall. Inspired by the funeral held for Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill in 1891, the plan was to have McBride lie in state at the base of the grand staircase of the building for four hours on November 16, followed by a funeral in the lobby at 2:30 p.m.

A long line of mourners stretched along Queen Street to grieve McBride that day. As members of city council took turns attending the casket, around 25,000 people passed through to pay their final respects. City offices were closed for the day, while courts ceased their sessions at 1 p.m. When the funeral began at 2:30 p.m. buses, ferries, and streetcars across the city ground to a halt to observe two minutes of silence. Officials requested that during that quiet time, local motorists should avoid honking their horns. For the overflow crowd in front of Old City Hall, loudspeakers were set up so they could hear the 45-minute service, while the rest of the city tuned into CFRB. The eulogy was given by Reverend W.J. Johnson, who noted that if the mourners could open McBride’s heart, they would see, “written in letters of gold, Toronto.” A procession led by 20 mounted police led McBride to his final resting place in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

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Toronto Star, November 21, 1963.

Almost exactly 27 years after McBride’s passing, the public again converged on Old City Hall to remember a fallen mayor. After 10 months in office, Donald Summerville’s intensive work schedule worried his city council colleagues. Though only 48 years old, Summerville had suffered a heart attack two years earlier. When it was suggested that city hire an official civic greeter to lessen his workload, Summerville, who often put in 16-hour days, insisted that he should make a special effort to be available to community groups who requested a mayoral presence at their functions. On November 19, 1963, the one-time practice goalie for the Maple Leafs donned his pads for a charity game at George Bell Arena to support victims of a flood in Italy (where he was scheduled to fly to the following day).

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The Telegram, November 20, 1963.

He played for five minutes, clowned for the cameras, then complained of fatigue. Summerville went to the dressing room and collapsed from a heart attack, unable to reach his nitroglycerine pills. “Don Summerville died trying to be nice to people,” noted Telegram columnist Frank Tumpane. “As we all must die, it is a good way to go, better, by far, than to meet life’s end wrapped in bitterness or striking a selfish blow.” The Star ran a tasteless headline the following day: “MAYOR SUMMERVILLE SKATES OFF ICE TO DIE.”

Summerville lay in state inside the council chamber close to the mayor’s chair. Despite requests from his family to send donations to Variety Village in lieu of flowers, bouquets were piled high within the room. Before his casket was moved to Old City Hall, a wake was held at former mayor Ralph Day’s funeral home on Danforth Avenue, where mourners included federal opposition leader John Diefenbaker. The length of visitation hours at City Hall were similar to those planned for Jack Layton this Friday and Saturday: 12 hours on November 21, then two hours on November 22 before the funeral was held at St. James Cathedral. A book of sympathy was placed at the entrance to the chamber, but Alderman Allan Lamport had it moved when it slowed the flow of people.

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The Telegram, November 21, 1963.

The Globe and Mail described some of the 30,000 people who paid their final respects to Summerville over those two days:

Women curtsied, old veterans saluted, many crossed themselves. Men and women dropped to their knees before the coffin to pray. Some reached forward to pat the mayor’s hand. A clergyman put a hand on Mr. Summerville’s forehead and murmured a brief prayer. A motorcycle policeman in uniform looked at the body of the chief magistrate, snapped in attention, and saluted

One imagines the mood during Summerville’s funeral became even more sombre after mourners heard the news out of Dallas that afternoon: John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

To date, McBride and Summerville are the only Toronto mayors to have died in office. Unless a respected municipal politician reaches the same level of national prominence as Jack Layton, or there are extraordinary circumstances surrounding the demise of a public figure, we suspect the next person to lie in state within City Hall will be another mayor who is tragically unable to fulfill his or her electoral mandate.

Additional material from the November 16, 1936, and November 22, 1963, editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 14, 1936, November 16, 1936, November 20, 1963, and November 21, 1963, editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 14, 1936, November 16, 1936, November 20, 1963, and November 21, 1963, editions of the Telegram.

UPDATE

In March 2016, Rob Ford lay in state for two days at City Hall, the first time a former mayor received the honour.  City staff rejected several requests from the Ford family, including an open casket and displaying a “Ford Nation” flag.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, November 17, 1936.

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Toronto Star, November 20, 1963.

Inside coverage included a picture of Summerville lying on a stretcher before he was removed from George Bell Arena (which, so far, is not among the Star photos digitized for the Toronto Public Library).

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The Telegram, November 20, 1963.

Zellers: Where the Lowest Price Was the Law

A merger of two Torontoist posts, one written when Target bought a pile of Zellers leases (published January 13, 2011) and one when Target Canada called it quits (published January 23, 2015), along with a few extras tossed in.

Let’s begin with the expectations some people had when Target announced it was coming to Canada…

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

For several years, local lovers of Target (or, as some preferred, Tar-zhay) drooled at periodic rumours that the American discount retailer would set up shop north of the border. Time and time again they were let down by failed courtship attempts between Target and Zellers — until today’s revelation that Target has agreed to take over the leases of most Zellers locations. To those infatuated with the new arrival’s offerings, this may be equivalent to an early Valentine’s Day gift. While it might not be heartbreaking to some when the eighty-year-old Canadian discounter disappears from the local landscape in 2013, we’ll take a moment to look at its hopeful beginnings.

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.

Walter Zeller entered the retail business through the stock room of a Woolworth’s in his native Kitchener in 1912. Over the next two decades he rose steadily in the five-and-dime field on both sides of the border, working at store and corporate management levels for the likes of S.S. Kresge and Metropolitan Stores. In 1928 he launched his own small chain with locations in Fort William, London, and St. Catharines. By the end of that year, the original incarnation of Zellers was purchased by American retailer Schulte-United, who rebranded the stores under their banner. Dreams of opening two hundred stores were quashed by the economic crash, which resulted in Schulte-United’s bankruptcy in January 1931. The bankruptcy trustees called in Zeller, who decided after several months of examination to buy the dozen or so stores left in Canada.

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

Zeller sounded optimistic about the chances for the new Zellers Ltd. when he announced its formation in November 1931. “In building our new company,” he told the press, “one important thought has been borne in mind—that the buying public to-day is more discriminating and thrifty than ever before. It knows and demands style merchandise of good quality. It insists on popular prices.” Among the first stores to carry the new banner was the chain’s sole Toronto location at Yonge and Albert streets (now occupied by the Eaton Centre). Prior to its grand opening on November 11, store manager F.C. Lee told the Star both he and the employees that had been retained were confident about the prospects for Zellers, due to the retail experience, managerial skills, and financial backing of the new corporate overlords. “While Zellers is extending a chain of stores throughout Canada,” Lee noted, “nevertheless the business is founded on the principle that the local success depends on catering to local conditions and preferences—and local managers are empowered to operate on this basis.”

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Globe and Mail, March 8, 1950.

Torontonians didn’t bite, as its first location closed within months. That first store was ignored in the PR for Zellers’ return to the city in March 1950. “Even if many Torontonians hear the news at first with indifference,” Globe and Mailbusiness columnist Wellington Jeffers wrote, “I am convinced that later on they will know it is something of an event that Zeller’s Ltd will this year open a Zeller store on Bloor Street.”

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1950.

The branch at 24 Bloor Street West (now the site of the Holt Renfrew Centre) was hailed by City officials as the beachhead for larger stores moving onto Bloor between Yonge and Bay.

Zellers quickly took advantage of the explosive growth in suburban shopping, placing stores in pioneering shopping centres like Golden Mile Plaza and Lawrence Plaza. The stores gradually evolved into modern discount department stores, though unlike its competition (Kresge’s Kmart and Woolworth’s Woolco chains), Zellers didn’t rebrand its larger locations.

Within two years of Walter Zeller’s death in 1957, a majority interest in the company was held by American discounter W.T. Grant. The Hudson’s Bay Company became sole owner in 1978. Later acquisitions included many Toronto locations of K-Mart and Towers.

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Toronto Star, October 15, 1986.

In August 1986 Zellers launched its Club Z customer loyalty program. Initial press reports depicted it as a computerized version of old “green stamp” schemes, complete with gift catalogue promising decent merchandise for a large number of points—a 28-inch colour TV could be yours for only 1.5 million Club Z points. Targeted consumers were women aged 25 to 55 who frequently shopped at Zellers for basic clothing and other staples for their families.

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Toronto Star, February 24, 1987.

The following year, Zeddy debuted. In his early days, Zeddy taught kids to be safe via colouring books, and lent his assistance in finding missing children. Zeddy later upheld the “law of Toyland,” joining the likes of Batman and Robin in crusading for lower prices on kids’ goods. After being dumped in the woods in a humorous ad campaign in 2012, Zeddy became a mascot for Camp Trillium.

The influence of Target hovered over the chain from the 1990s onward, via revamped presentation in some stores, stocking common brands like Cherokee and Massimo, and periodic rumours the American discounter was about to take over. Yet model stores, as Canadian Business discovered at an Ajax location in 1996, could not escape complaints about messiness customers grumbled about for years:

Pieces of children’s clothing are strewn about the floor. The cosmetics counter is in hopeless disarray. A snorkel and mask are lying in the stationery section. A bucket of dirty water sits next to a mountain of tinned ham. Empty cardboard boxes and abandoned shopping carts block the aisles.There are rows of empty shelves in almost every department of the store. Some of the goodies bins around the checkout area sit empty—a cardinal sin in the retailing world, where impulse buying accounts for a significant percentage of sales. A female clerk swears loudly as she sets up a display. Another gives a visitor a sour look when he asks for directions to the washroom. Needless to say, this is not the ultimate shopping environment. And yet Zellers is counting on “model” outlets such as this to save it from oblivion.

Facts of Interest to the People of Canada about Zellers

Maclean’s, June 1, 1944. 

To put it mildly, Target Canada didn’t live up to expectations. Its failure will probably be a case study in business textbooks for years to come. One side effect was a wave of nostalgia for Zellers, which left a void in the marketplace that is still being filled.

When Target announced its decision to pull the plug on its Canadian misadventure, it provoked a wave of nostalgia for the discount chain it supplanted. Memories and laments for Zellers made it a trending topic on social media, and the textbook case study of Target’s mistakes led people to forgive past complaints about the home of Club Z and Zeddy.

“Zellers, for most of its history, was quite simply the major discount store in the country,” retail expert Ed Strapagiel noted when Target purchased Zellers’ leases in Janaury 2011. ”It really was quite phenomenal—it didn’t necessarily offer the most fashionable items, but it had a reputation for good and sturdy clothes.”

Anyone with pangs of nostalgia, or wishing to have a last laugh on Target, can still shop at Zellers in Toronto, though the lone remaining store in the city at Kipling and Queensway is effectively a Hudson’s Bay outlet.

Sources: the September 1996 edition of Canadian Business; the October 21, 1939 edition of the Financial Post; the February 2, 1950 and January 14, 2011 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 7, 1931, November 10, 1931. March 9, 1950, and August 10, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

It appears that Zellers will disappear (again) by the beginning of 2020, as its last two locations will be closing. 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Corner of Balmuto St. and Bloor St., looking north

Corner of Balmuto and Bloor, looking north, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 66, Item 21.

From a 1939 Financial Post profile of Walter Zeller:

On the business side of the balance sheet, Mr. Zeller knows as much about the variety store business as any man in the business. On the personal side, he is forthright, hard-hitting and, when asked his opinion, gives it without reserve. What he has accomplished in a relatively short space of time implies a businessman of the “dynamo” type. He is all of that. And to back up his boundless supply of energy, is a knowledge of his own business and capabilities that commands respect.

The profile ended with this odd tidbit: “He has only two hobbies: business and Kiwanis.”

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Globe and Mail, February 2, 1950.

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Canadian Champion, February 9, 1972.

“County Fair” malls and plazas anchored by Zellers dotted the Canadian landscape during the 1970s. I wonder if the one closest to where I grew up (Leamington, now anchored by FreshCo) ever held a “stagnite” like the Georgetown location.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 22, 1903. Click on image for larger version.

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Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1903.

I considered including a brief history of Target in one of the original articles. These two ads show the birth of Minneapolis-based Dayton’s, out of which Target emerged as its discount division in 1962.

Remembering Boblo

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2012.

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The band from Boblo. Photo by Abhishek Chandra.

***1/2 out of *****

A suggestion while watching Boblo: buy a can of Faygo soda from the theatre’s concession stand, preferably a tooth-rotting flavour like Redpop or Rock & Rye. Keep it handy for swaying when the band plays the nostalgia-laden jingle used in 1970s Faygo TV ads shot on the large Bob-Lo Island ferry boats, which made daily runs along the Detroit River from the Motor City to the island amusement park.

Faygo may be sticky sweet, but Boblo isn’t. Billed as “A Rock-n-Roll Concert, A Final Transmission,” Kitchenband’s live theatrical performance reflects on the fleeting nature of memory within the context of a former theme park. Like radio waves floating across the universe, memories of Bob-Lo Island may be drifting away, but—even 20 years after the last screams from the midway echoed across the water to Amherstburg, Ontario—they continue to surface.

Boblo was an amusement park that operated From 1898 to 1993 on Bois Blanc Island, a small piece of land situated between Amherstberg and Michigan, a little south of Detroit. (Before providing a summer day’s getaway for generations of families in the Detroit-Windsor region, the island saw action during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and as one of the final stops along the Underground Railway.) Over the years it boasted the typical array of roller coasters, bumper cars, midway games, and fast-food stands, along with attractions like a dance pavilion, an observation tower, and its iconic steam ferries. Since the park’s demise, part of the island has been developed into a private residential community.

The park’s fadeout is well reflected by Boblo‘s ghostly feel. Spectral figures sway in the background behind the plastic wrap circling the stage, while certain touches, like old-fashioned microphones, add to the out-of-time feeling. These elements echo the current state of the island, where the ruins of 19th-century blockhouses and park structures remain. Ghostly memories will also stir among those, like co-creators Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, who visited the park during its century of operation or who, like me, were among the generations of Amherstburg teenagers who worked at the park every summer. I can vouch for the uniforms being as bad as described.

Anchoring Boblo is its music, which mixes originals by Penner and songs, like the Faygo ad, associated with the park during its century of existence. Ranging from melancholy string-heavy songs related to tragic events in the island’s history to energetic dance tunes the audience tapped its toes to, the diverse nature of the score combines with the multimedia stage effects to simulate something like the experience of riding a roller coaster. The acting creates a similar impression, with Sophia Walker demonstrating a chameleon-like versatility, going from a girl mapping out her experiences on the island to a slightly sinister carny whose light-swinging suggests a spinning wheel from which no one will win a prize.

Like any swooping ride, Boblo dips between its peaks. The multimedia nature of the show leads to serious sensory overload, like going on a ride after eating too much. Some background choreography and special effects could have been reduced to allow more focus on the foreground action. The use of crackly radio voices alternately adds to the dream-like atmosphere and grates when the dialogue borders on unintelligible.

A production about a bygone era is appropriate for The Theatre Centre’s final presentation in its home at the Great Hall. Following Boblo, the organization is moving into a “pop-up” location a few doors west, then into its first permanent home at 1115 Queen Street West.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

This may have been the only time I worked my hometown into a Torontoist piece (though articles about Ann Arbor and Detroit came close).

A month after writing this review, I visited Boblo Island for the first time since the park closed down two decades earlier. Here are some pictures from that trip – for the full set, check out this Flickr album.

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One of the first sites when you come off the current ferry is this monument. The following plaque was placed on it in 1948:

DEDICATED TO 134 YEARS OF AMERICAN-CANADIAN FRIENDSHIP

ACROSS FORTY FIVE HUNDRED MILES OF UNFORTIFIED BORDER, PROTECTED ONLY BY THE MUTUAL RESPECT AND UNDERSTANDING ONE NATION HOLDS FOR THE OTHER

COMMEMORATING THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BOB-LO EXCURSION COMPANY AND THE FIFTY YEARS OF CANADIAN-AMERICAN USE OF BOB-LO ISLAND AS AN INTERNATIONAL RECREATIONAL AREA

A second plaque notes the monument was “erected as a tribute to the sailors of the Great Lakes.”

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Opened in 1913, the Dance Pavilion was commissioned by Henry Ford and designed by architect Albert Kahn, whose work shaped the look of Detroit during the automotive boom era.

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Snow covering the former bumper car area. As of December 2012, one could still see traces of this ride, along with the antique cars track and mini golf course.

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The base of the observation tower.

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A ghost of the antique car ride track.

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One of the surviving blockhouses built in 1839 following the Mackenzie rebellions. On the day I visited, restoration work was underway, and I was given a mini-tour.

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The blockhouses and this lighthouse form the Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse and Blockhouse National Historic Site of Canada.

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The old ferry dock. The left side serviced the giant steam ferries from Detroit until the end of the 1991 season. For the amusement park’s last two seasons, visitors had to arrive from Amherstburg or Gibraltar, Michigan (one of Detroit’s far southern suburbs).

The Wimpy Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

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

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Toronto Star, March 16, 1983.

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

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

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

In alphabetical order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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