A Pandemic Day’s Wanderings: An Afternoon Downtown

All photos in this post taken by and copyright Jamie Bradburn, 2020.

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Before setting out on my latest long walk, a quick stop on the way to the subway. The local Little Free Library was stocked with plays, including these titles. The boxes in my neighbourhood have been overstuffed lately, making me wonder if people have now moved into the book-culling phase of the pandemic. With traditional fundraising book sales being cancelled for this year, I’m expecting full boxes for awhile.

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On the front window of Greenwood station, a TTC-produced poster showing how to make simple face coverings. I’d say about half the riders were masked, perhaps enjoying their last moments of facial freedom before July 2, when masks become mandatory on the TTC.

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On the platform, social distancing is now marked with these stickers.

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At Yonge and Bloor, the TTC’s poster for COVID self-screening.

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Some mixed feelings shared on the window of the old Payless Shoe Source store at Yonge and Charles. It’s OK to share this during these times, as everyone sorts out their feelings.

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The old St. Charles Tavern clock tower, isolated for the moment.

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A message looking forward to the day we can enjoy theatre again, flashed outside the Ed Mirvish.

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I wandered into the Eaton Centre for the first time since winter. It was quiet, and most people looked more interested in walking around than checking out the open stores. Plenty of safety signage, starting with their self-assessment guide.

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Pedestrian traffic was directed similar to a divided highway, with northbound and southbound lanes.

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Too bad this wasn’t playing in the background…

Maybe Aerosmith and Run DMC should reunite to do a safety video on proper pandemic-era walking.

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The walkway over to Hudson Bay/Saks was also open, leading me towards my first trip into the PATH in months.

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There was a sense of being watched in the Bay-Adelaide Centre. This was one of the few sets of eyes I encountered, as the PATH was in its dead weekend mode.

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The first of many “returning to operations” plans posted through the PATH.

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A sense of how quiet Scotia Bank was around 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.

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Still no shoeshines for a while, though the note indicated they’d be back as soon as possible.

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Commerce Court.

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Something I had never noticed before in Commerce Court: this old school mailbox.

Something else I hadn’t noticed, and only took a blurry shot of: throughout the PATH, the buttons with the wheelchair logo used to open doors have been replaced with sensors activated by hand wipes.

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Like other museums around the city, the Hockey Hall of Fame is preparing to welcome visitors under pandemic conditions. The signage appears to be ready.

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Gordie Howe approves.

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Coming up the escalator in Brookfield Place, Santiago Calatrava’s Allen Lambert Galleria is still one of the most beautiful architectural sights in the city. It’s even more amazing when you have it almost all to yourself.

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Where the Movenpick/Richtree restaurant used to be, passers by could pretend they were walking through a European streetscape.

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No, thank you.

Though the quiet throughout the PATH was eerie in spots, by the time I exited I was feeling hopeful. Most of the few people out were taking health and sanitation suggestions seriously, and spaces were making decent preparations to welcome back the public. It felt like a corner was turning, and that while life still won’t be going back to the old normal anytime soon, it will feel more familiar. I felt a sense of possibility more than doom.

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Meridian Hall, the latest guise for the facility formerly known as the O’Keefe Centre, Hummingbird Centre, Sony Centre, and Fill-in-the-Blank Centre. Any bets on when it will change it name again?

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Umm…okay…

The latest in weird sandwich board sign messages along Front Street west of St. Lawrence Market.

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Traffic management sign, courtesy of Metrolinx, in Union Station.

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A reminder from GO Transit.

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Art project, or pedestrian signal hiding in the hoarding? (York Street)

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A mixture of protests at Nathan Phillips Square – a tent city calling for improved housing, and chalk/paint messages to defund or abolish the police. The next three photos speak for themselves.

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Back in the subway, my assistant Qwilly followed the seating spacing regulations.

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Some final reminders from the TTC on the way home.

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.”

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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).

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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.”

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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.

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.

The End of Eaton’s (The First Time Around)

Originally published as a “Retro T.O.” column for the online version of The Grid on August 28, 2012. This was the final installment of the column, though I continued writing for the paper under the “Ghost City” banner.

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Toronto Star, August 21, 1999.

“The notice posted on the doors of the flagship Eaton’s store in the Toronto Eaton Centre on the morning of August 23, 1999 is not the usual professional presentation,” observed Eaton-family biographer Rod McQueen. “The 8-1/2 by 11″ document has been photocopied and hung in place with Scotch tape. The typescript statement, evocative of the words carved on a tombstone, reads: ‘The T. Eaton Company Limited, an insolvent person, pursuant to subsection 50.4(1) of the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, intends to make a proposal to its creditors.’”

Shoppers lined up outside the store that morning, expecting bargains galore as Eaton’s began to liquidate its stock. They were disappointed; the details were still being worked out, and the great sell-off wouldn’t begin for two more days. While some customers bought items before they vanished forever, others browsed quickly before wandering off empty-handed. Nostalgia for a faltering Canadian icon was one thing; benefitting from its misery was another.

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Rally for Eaton’s staff, 1997. Photo by Richard Lautens. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109977f.

The store’s second dalliance with bankruptcy in two years ended a dramatic week that opened with a very unlucky Friday the 13th. That day, executives were informed that a potential deal with Federated Department Stores was dead. Had the deal gone through, the American retailer would have purchased around 16 of the chain’s remaining 64 stores and rebranded them as Macy’s. Concerns about how much budget-conscious Canadians would spend and Eaton’s management playing hardball soured Federated’s enthusiasm.

On August 16, 1999, Eaton’s closed its main distribution centre on Sheppard Avenue West, throwing 300 people out of work. Advertising was suspended indefinitely. Within days, the four Eaton brothers who owned most of the company cleaned out their offices. This appeared to be a sure sign the end was coming, despite corporate statements that bankruptcy was a last resort and a libel suit filed against the National Post weeks earlier for suggesting Eaton’s would seek protection.

Frustrated suppliers who were owed millions decided they’d had enough. Armed with a court order, Tommy Hilfiger seized their merchandise from Eaton’s Montreal stores. Fearing other suppliers would take the same action, all Quebec locations were closed on August 20. The next day, the bankruptcy filing was announced. When the Toronto Stock Exchange closed on August 23, Eaton’s stock sat at 40 cents a share, down from 15 dollars during its IPO a year before.

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Globe and Mail, August 23, 1999.

The Eaton family, which had eased itself away from operations following the chain’s first bout with bankruptcy protection in February 1997, gave little public indication of their feelings. While many people publicly endorsed the fourth generation of the Eaton family to run the company, others saw their seeming detachment from the business and failure to adapt to the changing retail environment as the heart of the chain’s woes. The goodwill established with Canadians over a century had eroded through moves like killing the catalogue in 1976 and ending its operation of the Santa Claus Parade in 1982.

The 1990s saw boneheaded moves like CEO George Eaton’s implementation, despite internal criticism, of an “everyday value pricing” policy that eliminated promotional sales. Until sinking profits ended the policy in 1994, George defended it as “sensible,” and reacted to criticism of his management by declaring, “Don’t tell me how to run my store. I’ll run it any way I want.” As the decade progressed, cutbacks lowered staff morale, while creditors worried about the balance sheet. Restructuring undertaken in 1997 brought in new management who dropped traditional product lines like appliances, brought in expensive merchandise that alienated long-time customers, and tried to attract younger shoppers through its “Diversity” advertising campaign and clothing department. Trying to recast the retailer as a higher-end destination didn’t work.

As the liquidation sales proceeded in 1999, one source suggested to the Star that Toronto Eaton Centre owner Cadillac Fairview had a list of potential retailers to woo, among them Crate and Barrel and IKEA. That October, Sears Canada announced its intention to buy half-a-dozen stores and the Eaton’s name. The apostrophe and capital E were removed, and the rest of the name disappeared in 2002.

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Toronto Star, August 25, 1999.

Among the assets that were disposed of during the liquidation period was the statue of Timothy Eaton that had graced the flagship stores that bore his name for 80 years. After many rubs of his foot by consumers hoping for good luck, Timothy was donated to the Royal Ontario Museum. Family regarded Timothy as the only Eaton who was a genius, while succeeding generations grew more arrogant and made poor management decisions. The end of the chain didn’t seem to bother Fredrik Eaton, CEO during the 1980s, who told the Star in June 1999 that he had no regrets about decisions the company had made—“I mean, the world goes on.”

“The root problem,” Rod McQueen concluded, “was achingly simple. Canadians cared more about Eaton’s than the aristocratic family itself. They didn’t mind the store.”

Sources: The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family (revised edition) by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), and the June 16, 1999, August 17, 1999, and August 25, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star.

Opening the Eaton Centre

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on February 11, 2017.

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Toronto Star, February 10, 1977.

9:10 a.m., February 10, 1977. Chaos reigned on the platforms of Dundas station, which was jammed beyond capacity with people eager to attend the opening of the Eaton Centre. “Passengers got close to hysteria as they were dumped out into dense crowds that couldn’t get through the single open exit fast enough,” the Globe and Mail reported.

Up above, by the entrance to Trinity Square, around 4,500 gathered for the official opening ceremony. A group of trumpeters descended from a balcony, along with 16 costumed representatives of the city’s ethnic communities. Pipers from the Toronto Scottish Regiment led in the official party, then the 48th Highlanders escorted Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon, who received the loudest cheers from the crowd. McGibbon, Mayor David Crombie, and other dignitaries cut a red ribbon with scissors presented on blue velvet cushions by Girl Guides. A planned salute to the new mall by the Fort York Guard was scratched when, following a rehearsal, it was felt musket fire would frighten elderly patrons.

The Eaton Centre was still a work in progress. The festivities marked the opening of its first phase, which consisted of an office tower on Dundas Street, Eaton’s new flagship store, and a glass-covered galleria stretching from the store south to Albert Street. The next phase, which would extend the mall to Queen Street, link it to Simpsons, and toss up another office tower, would soon begin with the demolition of Eaton’s old main store.

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One version of the 1960s Eaton Centre, which in this case retained the Old City Hall clock tower. The Eaton Centre: a project dedicated to the revitalization of downtown Toronto. (Toronto: c.1966).

For Eaton’s executives, the day culminated two decades of controversy surrounding the $250 million complex’s development. A mid-1960s plan aroused public opposition when it proposed demolition of Old City Hall. For a time, the idea was scrapped entirely. There were two years of negotiation with Church of the Holy Trinity before an agreement was reached between the congregation and developers to protect the historic church’s access to sunlight. City Council placed several conditions on its approvals for the project, from timeframes for when construction had to begin to ensuring cars parked in the garage weren’t visible to pedestrians along Yonge Street. There were some councillors who didn’t warm to the Eaton Centre—Elizabeth Eayrs called it “a plastic temple of consumerism,” while John Sewell didn’t want to give the developers too much leeway. ”It’s the old question of who is running this place—Eaton’s or council,” Sewell noted in February 1974.

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 1972.

When the building permits were finally approved a month later, Crombie reminded councillors that they should abide an earlier agreement with developer Cadillac Fairview that discouraged a shopping list of design changes. “Some want it black and others want it green,” Crombie noted. “I worry about that sort of thing after watching what has happened in this debate.” Construction pushed ahead, with shovels in the ground by the end of spring.

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“In front of statue of Timothy Eaton, the store’s founder, the Eaton brothers discuss their store’s future. They’re in the foyer of new Eaton Centre at Yonge and Dundas Sts. From left: John Craig, 39, Thor, 34, Fredrik Stefan, 38, and George, 31. Once a week, formally, they meet in Fred’s office to discuss business. They’re among Canada’s wealthiest men, just how wealthy they are is moot. Eaton’s is a private company. Its balance sheets are not for public scrutiny.” Photo by Jeff Goode, 1977. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0045241f.

As opening day neared, Eaton’s chairman of the board John Craig Eaton told a press conference that the new store would be “the model for all department stores that will be built over the next 20 years.” An ad published in January 1977 whetted shoppers’ appetites with a lengthy guide to the new store’s nine retail floors. At the bottom was 3 Below (the current food court), which catered to youth via fashions, records, live performances, pizza, and subs. While the lower subway level offered a marketplace, the upper subway floor promised “male liberation” with stereotypically manly services, including a barber shop and Sir John’s, described as “a thoroughly masculine steak-style self-serve restaurant licensed under the L.L.B.O.” After two floors geared to women, the third featured an event space. The sixth floor included the largest of the store’s six eateries, the 1,000 seat Marine Room.

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View of exterior of Eaton Centre construction site, with sign. The Queen Street Eaton’s store can be seen in the background. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor, April 18, 1975. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 84, Item 60.

To prepare for the big day, two-week closing sales were held at Eaton’s Queen Street and College Street (now College Park) stores. Past and present employees previewed the new flagship on February 6. “My God, it’s huge,” noted retiree Alf Ryan. “You need a compass to get around. I think I like it. There were all kinds of memories in the old place but I suppose after a few Christmases, this store will look more lived-in. You gotta keep up with the times, I guess.” A two-day soft opening followed, allowing staff to familiarize themselves with the space.

At the opening ceremony, emcee William Davis joked to the audience that he and the provincial treasurer were eager for Eaton’s new store to open so that they could begin collecting sales tax. The premier got his wish at 10 a.m., when the doors slid away. Salespeople were, according to the Globe and Mail, “decked out as if for a birthday party” with many female employees wearing “braver makeup than they were accustomed to.”

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Globe and Mail, January 1, 1977.

Public reaction was positive. “It’s very easy to shop here if you just follow the instructions they gave in their advertisement,” shopper Isabel Ferguson told the Sun. “I’ve shopped at Eaton’s for 20 years but that’s no reason to get nostalgic about the old store, because looking in the past can cause you trouble.”

Out in the mall, shoppers received giveaways ranging from bags to shoe horns. Of the 150 spaces available in phase one, 120 were leased. Around 25 stores had to miss opening day while conducting appeals related to new federal quotas on clothing imports, which affected their inventories.

The three levels of the main galleria were themed by offerings, as one ad outlined.

Level One will feature fast turnover items, such as records, books, stationery, drugs, food, and impulse buys, as well as banks and other services. Level Two is primarily fashions and accessories. Level Three is made up of specialty shops, fashion boutiques and the better quality outlets of Canada’s major chains.

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“Pipers parade in dignitaries down esclators watched by hundreds in Galleria balconies.” Photo by Dick Loek, originally published in the February 10, 1977 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0109998f.

The Sun sent over writer Margaret Haddrick to provide the female perspective on the mall:

From pre-teens to grandmothers, they’re all there, leaning against the white iron rails, waiting expectantly for the fountain to do its number. Whoosh. Suddenly, up like a geyser shoots a jet of water 45 feet high, splattering it on the stone and glass surfaces around it. The spectacle is brief. The crowds move away and get back to the business of shopping at the Toronto Eaton Centre. Fountain-watching rivals people-watching at the centre. Third subject of study is the mass of exotic plants bathed in sunlight and artificial light. Why, in that warm, bright atmosphere, the philodendron might have a baby leaf by the time it takes to climb from the subway level to the top of the galleria.

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Previewing the Eaton’s store design, Toronto Sun, February 4, 1975.

The paper also provided a male perspective from Ken Becker:

Whether you’re a serious shopper, a browser, a bargain-hunter, or merely one who likes to gaze at pretty sights, the new Eaton Centre has something for you. If you’re looking for a five-foot-two brunette, or a six-foot blonde, you can’t go wrong there. For the new giant climate-controlled city-within-a-city may be the largest single hangout for beautiful women this side of the beach at Rio de Janeiro. The place is lousy with them. They’re hanging over the railings in the multi-levelled mall, sitting at the fountain, sipping coffee in the cafes. And they’re strolling. Always strolling. The stream seems endless.

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Interior view of tables and some stores in new Eaton Centre. Photo by Harvey R. Naylor, May 25, 1977. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 92, Item 5.

The architecture drew notice. Designed by the Zeidler Partnership, its highlights included the 90-foot-high glass galleria, sunken gardens, and the exposure of its internal building and environment infrastructure. “It responds, with the materials of the seventies, to a long-felt public reaction against the severe, monumental buildings produced in the so-called international style during the sixties,” James Purdie observed in the Globe and Mail. “Zeidler’s solutions are mixture of innovation and proved suburban shopping centre technology.”

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Photo by Dick Loek, 1977. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0110001f.

While the Eaton Centre quickly proved itself a financial success and a tourist magnet, it compounded the decline of its adjoining stretch of Yonge Street. The outdoor pedestrian mall had fizzled out a few years earlier, and the new Eaton Centre “protected” some shoppers from the tinge of sleaze they felt was descending onto Yonge. Some retailers, like Birks, abandoned the street for the mall. It didn’t help that little of the Eaton Centre’s Yonge Street frontage provided access from the outside. “All the razzle dazzle that should be outside is hermetically sealed inside,” Sun columnist Joey Slinger noted on the eve of the grand opening. “Outside, pedestrians, neighbouring shops, the life that ought to be rocking and rolling on Yonge Street is all alone and feeling blue, stranded under Fort Commerce’s pitiless façade.”

Sources: The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999); the January 14, 1977, January 15, 1977, February 11, 1977, and February 12, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail; the February 19, 1974, March 5, 1974, February 7, 1977, February 8, 1977, and February 10, 1977 editions of the Toronto Star; and the February 9, 1977 and February 11, 1977 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, June 21, 1974. Click on image for larger version.

Based on the following description published in the November 24, 1972 Star, the Eaton Centre replaced what was then a barren stretch of Dundas Street.

The south side of Dundas between Bay and Yonge at present offers one of the more dismal views downtown. Two Italian restaurants are the only bright spots on a block made up chiefly of parking lots and a rent-a-car lot and garage. The vista through the parking lots is of Eaton’s drab box-like warehouses.

The same article mentioned an interesting land trade that didn’t happen, which some people might interpret as an early 1970s example of “the war on the car” and definitely indicates the regular tension between the city and Metro levels of government. Parkland that was set aside near Trinity Square could have been somewhere else on the property…

The developers had originally offered the city a strip of land along Dundas, but the city rejected the proposal because this land would simply have been acquired by Metro Toronto (which controls Dundas St.) to widen Dundas to six lanes. Metro planners had called for the street widening to support the increased traffic Eaton Centre might be expected to generate; but the city objected, because a widened Dundas on the other side of Bay would have wiped out Chinatown.

(Chinatown moved west along Dundas to Spadina over the next few years, but that’s another story…)

In a victory for the city, Metro reversed itself and Dundas will only be widened 14 feet along the Eaton Centre stretch, to provide one extra turning lane for cars entering the development’s parking garage. On the insistence of Alderman John Sewell, the city also required Fairview to set its buildings back 10 feet from the street, so that the sidewalk can be widened.

gm 1977-01-08 eatons ad Globe and Mail, January 8, 1977. gm 1977-01-11 eatons ad

Globe and Mail, January 11, 1977.

gm 1977-01-13 eatons ad Globe and Mail, January 13, 1977.

A sampling of the ads Eaton’s published in the weeks leading up to the opening of their new flagship store. gm 1977-01-15 eaton store preview ad

Globe and Mail, January 15, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

A guide to the new Eaton’s store, floor by floor. There would be some tinkering; the “Annex 7” floor opened in October 1977 to clear out items a la the old bargain store behind Old City Hall. The space, which had been buying offices, was converted, as a store executive put it, into “an adventure area for bargain hunters” that included opportunity buys and scratch-and-dent items.

I’m not sure at what point 3 Below (which was located where the food court currently sits) closed. I don’t recall ever going into it as a kid in the late 1970s/early 1980s (eager-beaver me would have wanted to visit every floor), and dimly recall signs indicating it was an employee-only area.

gm 1977-02-09 photo Globe and Mail, February 9, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto Sun, February 9, 1977. Click on image for larger version.

The next series of images are taken from a 12-page advertising supplement published in the Star on February 8, 1977, two days before the grand opening. For ease of reading, I’ve merged the diagrams which were pages 6 and 7 of the original version.

star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p1 star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p2 credits for who built the store

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star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p5 star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p6-7

star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p8 great pic headline star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p9

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star 1977-02-08 opening supplement p12

Shaping Toronto: Reusing an Old City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on September 30, 2015.

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

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

Take a moment to breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEHIND THE SCENES

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

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

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

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

Vintage Toronto Ads: Discover the Mug

Originally published on Torontoist on January 11, 2011.

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Tribute, Winter 1982.

It’s December 1982. You’ve planted yourself in a seat at the York cinema on Eglinton Avenue, arms loaded with popcorn and soda for fuel while watching Sir Richard Attenborough’s epic biography of Mahatma Gandhi. As the theatre fills up, you flip through the issue of Tribute devoted to Gandhi that you picked up on the way in. The short cast bios and puff pieces don’t hold your attention long, so your mind drifts elsewhere. You observe your fellow moviegoers, none of whom appear interesting or seem like they could be potential cause for concern during the movie. After polishing off your Coca-Cola and long before the trailers start, you flip through the magazine again to keep your hands and mind occupied.

While turning the pages, an ad catches your eye, though you’re not sure what draws you to it: the young server with flowers in her hair and a burger platter in her hand, or the mug filled with a healthy-headed beverage that may or may not be alcoholic. Mental note to self: suggest The Mug to your friends as a place to go after Christmas shopping at the Eaton Centre?

And then the movie begins…

Postscript: By the end of 1985, The Mug appears to have evolved into the J.J.Muggs chain. Of the locations listed in this ad, 500 Bloor Street West currently houses Aroma Espresso Bar, while the 1 Dundas Street West branch awaits its reincarnation as Toronto’s second Joey Restaurant. The next feature at the York will be a 3D showing of My Date With a Wrecking Ball, as the building (later used as an event venue and fitness club) will be demolished to make way for a condo.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Short Cuts 3

Listerine Kills Germs and Body Odour

Originally published on Torontoist on July 21, 2009.

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Maclean’s, July 15, 1923.

If Listerine can freshen your breath and kill bacteria in the mouth, why can’t it do the same to the rest of your body? It’s safe!

Deodorants and antiperspirants were still in their early stages of evolution when Listerine made today’s pitch—the first commercial underarm deodorant, Mum, had arrived on the market in 1888, with the first antiperspirant, Everdry, following fifteen years later. After you read descriptions of the composition and application of early antiperspirants, Listerine’s claims begin to make sense. Early products were wet, clammy, aqueous alcoholic solutions of aluminum chloride that were poured onto a cotton ball before being dabbed on the body, a technique that Listerine’s model appears well acquainted with. Drying was a slow, sticky process that, once you got past the skin irritations and damaged clothing, reduced one’s stink.

Is That Landmark Sealed with Polysulfide?

Originally published on Torontoist on August 4, 2009.

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Canadian Architect, January 1985.

These three local towers were…

While searching for information regarding Morton Thiokol and polysulfides that didn’t involve deep scientific analysis of the chemical composition of the sealant used in these Toronto landmarks, we ran into an interesting tidbit from the current manufacturer: the sealant should have a “twenty-year service life under normal conditions.”

Makes you want to watch your head while passing by any of these structures, doesn’t it?

Why You Shouldn’t Steal a White Glove Girl

Originally published on Torontoist on September 1, 2009.

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Time, February 10, 1967.

Translation: the “temporary” relationship clause in a White Glove Girl’s contract refers to the amount of time she has remaining on this mortal plane. Until then, we’re happy to shuffle temps around from employer to employer, keeping our White Glove Girls under lock and key until the next call comes in. Sometimes we’ll let them out of the dunge…asset pool for a few minutes to take care of their “happy homemaker” duties. Anyone thinking of stealing one of our assets should be aware that we’ve spent years working on glove-tracing technology—we’ll know when you’ve stolen our assets!

A Toast to Good Hydro Services

Originally published on Torontoist on December 8, 2009.

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(Left) The Globe, November 1, 1929, (right) Toronto Star, November 19, 1936.

We’re not sure which of the images conjured up by today’s ads is more disturbing. Is it the trio of factory workers depicted in a manner usually reserved for nursery rhyme characters or World War I casualties? Or is it the deified toaster (whose cost, if translated into modern money, would start at around $228) trained to act with the utmost style and refinement for a classy late-dinner gathering?

Both ads are fine examples of the large quantity of newspaper advertising the Toronto Hydro Electric System bought during the 1920s and 1930s. Besides trained toasters, the utility’s retail arm offered customers technological marvels for the home such as electric ranges.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Live Together in Perfect Harmony

Originally published on Torontoist on July 15, 2008.

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Bravo, November-December 1982.

Imagine that you’re an advertising representative assigned to handle a spot for Eaton’s in a magazine distributed to audience members enjoying classical music at Roy Thomson Hall in 1982. The department store giant wants to spotlight their fine collection of pianos. As you struggle for ideas, you flip on the radio and hear Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder join forces to sing about the joys of piano duets and racial harmony.

A light bulb appears over your head.

Released as a single in March 1982, “Ebony and Ivory” spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Its reputation has taken a beating in recent years—a 2007 BBC 6 Music listener poll rewarded the song with the distinction of the worst duet of all time.

Other offerings on the sixth floor of the Toronto Eaton Centre store included the home entertainment department, a portrait studio, optical and hearing aids, lost and found service, and the Marine Room restaurant.