The Saga of the Gardiner Expressway

This post merges several pieces I’ve written about the Gardiner Expressway over the years, along with additional material. 

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Gardiner Expressway, 1962. The caption was “Ready for ’67 Centenary if weather co-operates.” Photo by Dick Darrell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115131f.

Frederick G. Gardiner was proud of the expressway named in his honour. “You know,” he noted in a 1964 interview, “I used to lie in bed dreaming in Technicolor, thinking it was too big. Now I know it isn’t. Maybe in 20 years time, they’ll be cursing me for making it too small. But I won’t be around to worry then. Right now, I’ve come up smelling of Chanel No. 5.”

When Gardiner died in 1983, few liked the scent of his expressway. They cursed him for pushing a crumbling roadway increasingly seen as a barrier between downtown and the waterfront. Decades of city reports have suggested demolishing some or all of the expressway, triggering debates that will turn anyone’s face blue. While its fate eternally hangs in the balance, millions are spent every year to keep it in service. Every time a major reconstruction project occurs that slows down traffic, you’d swear by the tone of the media that Armageddon is descending upon the city.

But there was a time when regional officials believed the Gardiner Expressway would solve bottlenecks plaguing a growing city in the early 1950s. Had it been built to its full extent via the Scarborough Expressway, drivers might have enjoyed views of Humber Bay, the downtown skyline, and the Scarborough Bluffs.

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Sketch based on suggestions by Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair on bringing the Queen Elizabeth Way into Toronto. Toronto Star, September 14, 1949.

The combination of the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way in 1939 and suburban growth had led to frequent traffic jams caused by commuters entering the city along the old Humber Bridge. Visions of a waterfront expressway were included in the city’s 1943 master plan, but it took time for plans to firm up. In 1949, Etobicoke Reeve Clive Sinclair suggested the plan shown here, which he felt would reduce congestion he feared would emerge when the Ontario Food Terminal opened on The Queensway. The key to Sinclair’s plan was cutting the link between The Queensway and the approach to the QEW. “We’ve already had too many pedestrians killed or injured trying to dodge express traffic at this corner,” he told the Star.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, taken during a photoshoot for Time magazine, April 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2262, Item 32745-3.

Enter Frederick Gardiner, chairman of the newly formed regional government of Metropolitan Toronto. As a Toronto Life article noted 40 years later, “Gardiner liked big solutions to big problems, and he brought an entrepreneurial flair to city government. He loved building things, loved to get plans pushed through and get the shovels in the ground.” As Gardiner once observed, “a municipality is no different from an industrial undertaking.” Fixing the bottlenecks at the bottom of the city was right up his alley.

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Toronto Star, July 8, 1953.

One of Metro’s first acts was to announce in July 1953 that its executive committee had unanimously approved a motion by Gardiner to meet with regional planning authorities to discuss what was soon dubbed the Lakeshore Expressway. The highway would run from the Humber Bridge to Woodbine Avenue. Two sections would be elevated (Humber Bridge to Bathurst Street, and Cherry Street to Woodbine), with surface streets handling the traffic flow through downtown. Toronto Mayor Allan Lamport urged caution with construction—“We can’t go too fast on this. It is absolutely essential.” One of the main questions was which side of the CNE grounds should the expressway be built: on the north side, along the rail corridor, or on the south via fill into the lake?

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Toronto Star, January 2, 1954.

As 1954 dawned, Gardiner and Scarborough Reeve Oliver Crockford supported a plan to extend the Lakeshore Expressway east to meet Highway 401 at Highland Creek. The route would have cut through east end neighbourhoods before proceeding along the bottom of the Scarborough Bluffs. Gardiner saw what was later known as the Scarborough Expressway as a solution to potential bottlenecks at Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road, while Crockford felt it would help halt the erosion of the bluffs. The Scarborough Expressway remained in regional plans for decades before being scrapped.

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1954. Note the proposed interchange with Strachan Avenue in the upper right corner, which was never built, which would have provided “access to the north and to local destinations on Fleet Street” (primarily, I suspect, Exhibition Park and Maple Leaf Stadium).

On May 5, 1954, Metro Council received plans for the Lakeshore Expressway. The $49.8 million project would be elevated above Fleet Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) from Bathurst Street to Cherry Street. To alleviate congestion in the core, a two-level parking facility with direct ramps would be built under the expressway between Yonge Street and Parliament Street.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

The route would run south of the CNE, and it was predicted the fairgrounds would receive 25 additional acres from the fill required for the expressway.

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Globe and Mail, May 4, 1954

A Globe and Mail editorial predicted that the new road “ought to eliminate the worst of the waterfront traffic problems, at least for some years to come.”

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 13.

Two other road projects were rolled into the Lakeshore Expresseway. In the west end, Queen Street was extended westward to meet up with The Queensway via a new bridge across the Humber.

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Construction of Queen Street West extension, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 137, Item 10.

This stretch, which opened in December 1956, was eventually treated as an eastern extension of The Queensway.

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Construction of Woodbine Avenue extension, circa 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 115, Item 15.

In the east end, Keating Street (now Lake Shore Boulevard) was extended from Leslie Street to Woodbine Avenue to provide an eventual end to the expressway. Opened in December 1955, residents soon dubbed the tight curve leading Keating onto Woodbine a “death trap.” Eastbound drivers going 55 miles an hour often found themselves driving into the southbound lanes of Woodbine or climbing onto the northbound sidewalk. Local councillors received complaints from residents ranging from smashed fire hydrants to a car hitting one home’s veranda. Over 60 years later, this curve remains problematic.

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Globe and Mail, May 19, 1954.

One east-end vision which never materialize was a plan to build a ramp on the west side of Woodbine Racetrack, which would have connected the Lakeshore Expressway to Kingston Road and Dundas Street East (which was still being stitched together from local side streets).

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Empress Crescent, looking east from Dowling Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard West, 1956. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-912.

Construction on the Lakeshore Expressway began on April Fools Day 1955, concentrating on the stretch between the Humber and Jameson Avenue. Around 150 homes were demolished to make way for the expressway and its related projects, mostly in south Parkdale around Dowling Avenue and Jameson Avenue. Streets like Empress Crescent vanished from city maps. When the Globe and Mail printed pictures of the rubble left behind by demolitions in 1957, it described the scene as “ruins reminiscent of a Second World War bombing raid.”

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Gardiner Expressway, looking west from east of the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue, during construction, showing Lakeshore Road bridge over CNR tracks, south of King Street and Sunnyside Railway Station, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-934.

Construction also brought an end to Sunnyside Amusement Park, which would be revamped as a city beach. The nearby bridge connecting Lakeshore Road (now Lake Shore Boulevard) with the King/Queen/Roncesvalles intersection also met its demise. The Sunnyside train station survived the building of the expressway, but ceased passenger service in 1967.

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Parkside Drive, looking north from Lakeshore Road, July 21, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-1714.

A new bridge waiting for the Lakeshore Expressway to cross it.

A December 1956 front page story in the Globe and Mail predicted that by 1980 the city’s expressway system (then projected to include the Crosstown, Don Valley Parkway, Lakeshore, and Spadina) would be dominated by buses, as some Metro officials hoped to ease future congestion by banning parking downtown. The idea was that suburban commuters would leave their cars in giant lots next to the expressways, hopping on buses to finish their journey.

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Toronto Star, July 2, 1957.

As construction proceeded, there were concerns that the expressway might permanently stop at Jameson Avenue. Metro was having problems convincing higher levels of government to help fund the proposed subway line along Bloor Street. Gardiner believed Metro couldn’t raise enough money to fund its expressway and public transit plans. “You simply cannot provide sufficient highways and parking space to accommodate every person who desires to drive his motor vehicle downtown and back each day,” Gardiner noted in January 1956.”Additional rapid transit is the only answer. It is a snare and a delusion to keep on spending millions of dollars on highways because the province will subsidize them 50 per cent. We know that beyond a certain stage $1 spent on more arterial highways and parking facilities.”

Problem was that Metro council preferred spending money on roads than transit. Eventually, outside funding for the subway came through.

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Copy of a cartoon by Bert Grassick published in the Telegram, August 29, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567. Series 648, File 26, Item 1.

On July 29, 1957, based on a suggestion from Weston Mayor Harry Clark, the Metro roads committee renamed the Lakeshore Expressway the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway. Clark felt it was a gesture of appreciation for leading Metro through its formative years. The tribute pleased Gardiner.

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Aerial view of the Gardiner Expressway, August 14, 1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 1.

At 3 p.m. on August 8, 1958, dignitaries including Gardiner, Ontario Premier Leslie Frost, and Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips officially opened the first section of the expressway, which ran from the Humber to Jameson Avenue. Frost praised Gardiner for his leadership. “Fred, you were the obvious man to do the job.”

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Toronto Star, August 7, 1958. Note optimism about cutting driving time by 10 minutes.

The road experienced its first traffic jam that day, a mile-long backup which would seem mild compared to present-day gridlock. As the Globe and Mail’s Ron Haggart put it, “the traffic jam was the best tribute of the day to the need for the Frederick G, Gardiner Expressway.”

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East end of Gardiner Expressway at Jameson Avenue/Dunn Street, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 3.

In an essay in the commemorative book published for Toronto’s 125th anniversary, Toronto ’59, Nathaniel A. Benson placed the Gardiner in the context of the evolution of Toronto’s shoreline.

The lakeshore once was open, save for a staunch little lighthouse and an old-fashioned yacht club. Today there rise the towers of a great Molson brewing plant, the imposing Tip Top Tailors Building, the head offices of Loblaw’s, and the multi-million dollar home of the Toronto Baseball Maple Leafs. The garish lights of the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway cut spectacularly along the railway tracks, with its day-and-night ceaseless whizz of traffic shaking the peace of the ancient graves in the old military cemetery on Strachan Avenue, grazing the heroic battlements of old Fort York.

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Plans considered for Fort York, Toronto Star, October 4, 1958.

After further study, the route of the Gardiner was switched to the north side of the CNE. This placed Fort York in the path of the expressway, which lead to protests throughout 1958 from groups ranging from historical societies the Toronto Women’s Progressive Conservative Association. The tide of voices against proposals to move the fort led to one of Gardiner’s few losses when it came to the expressway.

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Construction of the new Dufferin Gate, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 58, Item 8.

While Fort York was saved, the CNE’s Dufferin Gate wasn’t. Fairgoers passed under the old landmark for the last time in 1957. Two years later, construction was well-underway for its replacement.

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Construction of the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, 1959. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 37, Item 19.

By the end of the 1950s, some politicians and local media grew impatient with the slow pace of construction, which wasn’t scheduled to end until 1965. “At such a pace,” noted a December 1959 Globe and Mail editorial, “Metro might not bother at all. The growth of traffic will far outstrip the growth of the road, and at the end of 10 years congestion will be worse than when the work was started.” Part of the blame was placed on Frederick Gardiner’s refusal to borrow more than $100 million a year to fund all Metro capital works projects.

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Globe and Mail, November 3, 1960.

By the end of 1960, designs were close to being finalized for the expressway’s connection with the Don Valley Parkway. Hopefully Frederick Gardiner and Nathan Phillips didn’t collide into each other. This cartoon also shows the streets (Fleet and Keating) which soon became Lake Shore Boulevard East.

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Eastbound Spadina Avenue ramp, Globe and Mail, July 31, 1962.

The Jameson-Spadina section opened during morning rush hour on August 1, 1962. Despite the potential bottleneck at the eastbound Spadina ramp, one travelled noted that his evening rush journey on opening day from the Humber to Spadina and Front took 10 minutes.

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Jarvis Street, east side, looking northeast from Lake Shore Boulevard East, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, 1963. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5603.

Note the billboards in the far background. The distraction provided by advertising was a growing safety concern, which led Metro’s transportation committee to recommend that no ads be placed within 150 feet of the Gardiner or the Don Valley Parkway.

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Lake Shore Boulevard East, looking west from Cherry Street, showing Gardiner Expressway under construction, between 1961 and 1964.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5619.

John Bentley Mays writing about the Gardiner (in this case, describing wandering underneath the expressway near Fort York):

Few sites more forsaken lie this close to Toronto’s busy, dense downtown mountain-range of glass. Overhead, the wide steel belly of the Gardiner’s traffic level lies like a flat green snake on a series of tall, water-stained concrete brackets. Underneath spreads the expanse of loose gravel, some of it used as a gathering place for trucks, some of it the dusty yard of a factory in which big cement blocks are fabricated.

One hesitates to use the word beautiful of such a forbidding place, though the word fits the hill. There is a strong visual surge and power here: in the dignified rhythms of the expressway’s tapered reinforced-concrete supports, marching away into the distance like an immense Baroque colonnade, in the tough muscularity, in the ensemble of cement factory and rumbling trucks. There is a gruff beauty here that swank towers nearby can’t touch.

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Constuction of the Gardiner Expressway, 1964. Photo by Frank Grant. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115133f.

The caption for this photo reads “Full speed ahead: Workmen are busy levelling the groun underneath the concrete arches which will carry the expressway in the York-Jarvis area. By 1967 the Gardiner is expected to be extended still further to Leslie St.; and by 1972 will stretch out across Scarboro to link with Highway 401.”

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Globe and Mail, November 6, 1964.

Besides the link between the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway, November 6, 1964 also saw the opening of most of the Eastern Avenue flyover.

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Globe and Mail, May 5, 1966.

What proved to be the final stretch of the Gardiner, from the Don Valley Parkway to Leslie Street, was opened on July 15, 1966. Intended to be the first phase of the Scarborough Expressway, it would have intersected with Highway 401 at Highland Creek. Had a request to the Ontario Municipal Board from a citizen group inspired by the fight against the Spadina Expressway not delayed work, the next approved phase of the Scarborough Expressway would have extended it to Birchmount Road and Danforth Road. While Queen’s Park cancelled Spadina in June 1971, provincial officials were willing to fund a short extension of the Scarborough Expressway to Coxwell Avenue if the OMB approved. There was also the matter of purchasing homes (1,000 in the original plan, 500 after a revision) in the path of the projected route.

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Photo by Boris Spremo, originally published in the November 21, 1973 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0011711f.

The original caption for this photo:

Opponents of the proposed Scarborough Expressway arrive at The Star Forum by bus last night, practising what they preach on the desirability of transit over private cars. Members of action groups left their cars at home and chartered a double-decker bus and one from Toronto transit Commission. They brought signs proclaiming their beliefs but a policeman made them leave them outside.

The “Star Forum” was a session held at the St. Lawrence Centre on November 20, 1973 to discuss whether the Scarborough Expressway should be built. Metro chairman Paul Godfrey indicated he’d support the project based on what he knew up to that point, but wouldn’t commit himself to a position until a Metro report was issued in February 1974. TTC chairman Karl Mallette felt further development of public transit in Scarborough would make the expressway obsolete (if only he knew the battles and delays to come on that front…). “The plain fact is that expressways don’t solve urban transportation problems,” Mallette observed, “they create more of them. They’re becoming prohibitively expensive and are an intolerable intrusion in and near residential areas.”

The next year, Metro Council scrapped further construction.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking west from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 2.

The first cracks in the Gardiner were observed in 1962. Metro roads commissioner George Grant blamed heavy traffic, while the province claimed a thinner-than-normal coat of asphalt was used while building the expressway’s first section. A year after Frederick Gardiner died in 1983, an ongoing repair program began to attack the effects of expansion and contraction on the concrete.

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View of Gardiner Expressway looking east from the CN Tower, between 1976 and 1981. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 13, Item 13.

Chaired by former mayor David Crombie, The Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront’s 1992 report provided a good summary of the issues many Torontonians have with the Gardiner Expressway: “The combination of the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway, Lake Shore Boulevard underneath it, and the rail corridor beside it has created a physical, visual, and psychological barrier to the Central Waterfront. It is a constant source of noise and air pollution, a hostile, dirty environment for thousands of people who walk under it daily, and a barrier to thousands of others who risk life and limb to get across or around it. The Gardiner/Lake Shore is not only a road; it is a structure. As it processes traffic, it stunts land use; meant to move us along, it limits our opportunities.” That commission recommended a mixed approach to the Gardiner, where some elevated sections remained, some were moved, and some were buried.

Speaking of burying the Gardiner…

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Construction on the Gardiner Expressway, 1996. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115149f.

Like clockwork, every few years a plan to bury or replace the freeway emerges. Each plan is initially greeted with relief that the waterfront will soon be rid of what many people perceive as an eyesore and barrier. Just as predictable is the backlash, which usually involves fears about runaway costs and traffic Armageddon during construction.

One of the first serious proposals to knock it down was in the fall of 1983, when Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton asked city staff to investigate burying the Gardiner. Eggleton was supported by Godfrey, who saw a golden opportunity for a new route through the not-yet-redeveloped railways lands to the north. Godfrey feared that “with all the bureaucracy and red tape involved in putting a roadway of that magnitude through, I really wonder whether we’ll all be alive to see it, even if all the money is available.”

The opportunity to use the railway lands soon evaporated, but other ideas abounded. City planning commissioner Stephen McLaughlin described to the Star three plans submitted to the city: “modest” ($25 million to demolish the Jarvis and York ramps and build a new exit at an extended Simcoe Street); “grand” (place the Gardiner in a trench or tunnel between Bathurst and Jarvis); and “visionary” (for $1 billion or so, re-route the Gardiner into a tunnel under Lake Ontario).

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Sam Cass standing on the bridge over the Don Valley Parkway by Riverdale Park, 1971. Photo by Reg Innell. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0125807f.

Such plans were hooey to Sam Cass, Metro roads and traffic commissioner, and staunch defender of the Gardiner. Cass, who still promoted the completion of the Spadina Expressway in 1983, called the Gardiner “a beautiful structure that’s still doing what it was designed to do.” His contention that maintaining it wouldn’t cost much proved incorrect. Cass boasted that the Gardiner required no repair during its first decade-and-a-half and figured once a modestly priced five-year program to fix salt damage was completed, the elevated section wouldn’t require further repair for a quarter-century.

As annual repairs became a reality, calls for the Gardiner’s burial increased, especially as other cities contemplated demolishing their elevated highways. In a lengthy 1988 piece on why the Gardiner should come down, the Globe and Mail’s John Barber likened it to a Cadillac in a scrapyard. As chunks of concrete fell and its steel skeleton rusted, Barber declared “the highway that began life as a heroic symbol of the city’s progress is now just an overflowing traffic sewer.”

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Toronto Star, January 20, 1988.

Among those Barber spoke with about alternative options was developer William Teron, whose company was covering over a section of the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris. Bringing his plan to municipal officials in 1990, Teron proposed an eight-lane Gardiner buried along the waterfront and a revamped, landscaped Lake Shore Boulevard. He promised to deliver the highway in less than three years and cover the $1 billion cost in exchange for development rights for housing and offices along the Gardiner’s former route, which Teron figured would recoup his costs. Naysayers included Metro traffic officials, who warned of cost overruns, overstatement of green space, massive traffic tie-ups during construction, and disruptions to TTC service.

Teron’s plan went nowhere, as have numerous other proposals since then (such as this one from 2013).

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“Bumping the Humber Hump. Robert Balen works on 30 tonne steel beams for a new bridge over the Humber River, which will replace the westbound lanes of the notorious hump on the Gardiner Expressway.” Photo by Boris Spremo, 1998. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0115144f.

Until 1998, one of the Gardiner’s distinguishing characteristics was the “Humber Hump.” Created by settling bridgework near the Humber River, it was a roller coaster ride that either thrilled or terrified. One of the best ways to experience the hump was riding near the back of a school bus, where the combination of position and speed would send you flying. During my university daze, I took a drama criticism class which included field trips into Toronto, and my classmates eagerly anticipated who’d hit their head on the roof when we rode over the hump.

But it wasn’t always fun. The hump witnessed several fatal accidents over the years, and going too fast could send your entire vehicle flying. After years of failing to remedy the settling, the bridge was replaced in 1998. The remnants were sent off to the Leslie Spit.

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Demolition of Leslie Street ramp viewed from north side of detour, looking south-east. Photo by Peter MacCallum, January 20, 2001, City of Toronto Archives, Series 572, File 77, Item 4.

By the late 1990s, poor maintenance of the section east of the Don Valley Parkway prompted calls for a teardown. Opposition to the demolition came from two groups: film studios concerned about dust and noise that was factored into the final demo process; and local residents who worried about traffic spilling onto side streets and into the Beaches, even though drivers would be able to follow essentially the same route into the lakeside community. City councillor Tom Jakobek resisted demolition, devising several compromise plans that would have preserved part of the stump. “Cars are an important necessity in this society,” Jakobek noted in 1999. “Why would anyone want to eliminate road capacity anywhere, when it’s located in the middle of an industrial area and people use it?”

But Jakobek was in the minority: most attendees at public deputations wanted it to go away. City council approved its demolition in 1999. Only a few pillars remain, while land opened up for a bike path, big box shopping, and the TTC’s Leslie Barns facility.

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Frederick G. Gardiner, 1961. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 220, Series 65, File 175, Item 17.

“I’ve looked at this darn thing from one end to the other,” Frederick Gardiner observed in 1964, “and I can’t think of anything I would like to change.” Many Torontonians have and will continue to disagree. For years, the arguments over the Gardiner Expressway have boiled down to either maintaining it in some form to prevent excessive disruption to motorists, tear it down and redirect the traffic, or find creative uses to rehabilitate the existing structure.

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The Bentway, as used for exhibits during Nuit Blanche, October 2019. 

The latter has found favour in recent years, leading to artistic projects such as The Bentway. Housing and office towers have grown around the expressway in the core (but please, don’t throw your furniture toward the road!).

For as much as the Gardiner is maligned as a waste of money and an obstacle to the waterfront, I’ll admit it’s still thrilling to cruise into downtown at night along the elevated section, radio cranked to 11 to a song like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” and soak in the lights and cityscape unfolding around you.

As Toronto Life concluded in 1993, “No matter what Toronto decides to do, it will be a prodigiously difficult project, politically and financially. It sounds as if it might require the skills of a politician as powerful and shrewd as, say, Fred Gardiner.”

Sources: Regeneration: Toronto’s Waterfront and the Sustainable City (Toronto: Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, 1992); Toronto ’59 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1959); Emerald City: Toronto Visited by John Bentley Mays (Toronto: Penguin, 1994); Unbuilt Toronto 2 by Mark Osbaldeston (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); the May 4, 1954, May 17, 1956, December 8, 1956, March 23, 1957, July 30, 1957, August 8, 1958, August 11, 1958, December 3, 1959, February 6, 1962, October 20, 1988, May 12, 1999, and May 15, 1999 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 14, 1949, July 8, 1953, January 2, 1954, May 3, 1954, July 2, 1957, November 21, 1973, September 30, 1983, September 13, 1989, April 24, 1990, May 18, 1999, April 28, 2000, May 6, 2000 and July 15, 2000 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 1993 edition of Toronto Life.

Articles I’ve written that were incorporated into this post were originally published by The Grid on March 17, 2012 and July 24, 2012 and Torontoist on February 7, 2014.

Lord Simcoe’s Folly

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on August 20, 2011.

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The Telegram, May 14, 1957.

When the Lord Simcoe Hotel permanently closed its doors in October 1979, a carpenter on the crew hired to dismantle the building reflected on why it had failed after operating for just 22 years: “No one thought ahead for the future when it was built.” While its original owners prided themselves on going from sod-turning to ribbon-cutting within 17 months, they might have thought more carefully about how the business would survive in the long term. Mistakes like overpricing its luxurious eateries and not including amenities expected of modern hotels like central air, combined with increasing competition and land worth more than the building atop it, shortened the life of a hotel that promised to provide its first guests modern accommodations with old-world charm.

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Globe and Mail, September 23, 1955.

 

The inspiration to build a hotel at 150 King Street West came to future Lord Simcoe Vice-President W. Harry Weale during Mayor Nathan Phillips’ inaugural address in January 1955, when the city’s new chief executive noted that Toronto lacked the hotel space required to become competitive on the global convention circuit. A consortium of investors led by National Management was assembled and by that December Ontario Premier Leslie Frost turned the sod. The new hotel was named in honour of John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe was never elevated to a peerage but management decided to bestow one upon him so that the hotel’s name would match those of their other lordly properties (the Lord Elgin in Ottawa and the Lord Beaverbrook in Fredericton). Simcoe was also honoured in the decision to use the colours of the Queen’s York Rangers, the military unit he commanded, as the decorating scheme for the Sentry Box lounge.

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One chef in the kitchen, one surveying the menu. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2439, Item 34565-1 (left), City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1653, Series 975, File 2439, Item 34565-2 (right).

 

The key entertainment space in the hotel was the Pump Room, which was inspired by both the 19th-century eatery in Bath, England, and the restaurant that the Lord Simcoe’s ownership group ran at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. An introductory ad boasted that “meals are prepared to meet the demanding taste of the gourmet: exotic meats, game and fish are served on flaming swords or by wagon.” Waiters were dressed in ostrich feather–topped turbans to “add to the old-world atmosphere” (other dining venues in the hotel forced staff to dress in naval costumes or other 18th century style clothing). As head porter Roy McIntosh later remembered, “All the posh weddings and bar mitzvahs were held there and I remember some weddings came down just to have their pictures taken, then leave. It was that kind of place, the best.”

20110820craneadGlobe and Mail, May 15, 1957.

When opening day arrived on May 15, 1957, half of the $10 million hotel’s 20 floors were ready for use. The press weren’t able to preview any of the Lord Simcoe’s 900 rooms, but as Telegram columnist Alex Barris noted, “It’s questionable whether any visitor is likely to get past the street floor, unless he’s just plain sleepy.” Had the media been able to check them out, they would have found rooms decorated in “three basic and interchangeable colours—gold, blue and sandalwood.” Among the in-room amenities were television sets and desks supplied by Eaton’s that included built-in radio controls. Management was upbeat about having booked every room in the hotel for the upcoming Grey Cup game in November.

But it wasn’t long before the hotel ran into financial trouble. The opening of the Westbury Hotel (now the Courtyard Marriott on Yonge Street) and a 400 room addition to the Royal York cut into business. As Star columnist Ron Haggart discovered in the spring of 1960, the Lord Simcoe had become Toronto’s most delinquent taxpayer. As of April 25 of that year, the hotel owed $424,000, which was 10 per cent of all overdue taxes the city awaited. What surprised Haggart was that unlike Toronto’s second-worst tax offender, commercial developer Principal Investments, a bailiff had not been sent after the hotel. The reason why soon became public: Mayor Phillips interceded on behalf of the Lord Simcoe’s investors to convince the city treasurer to defer the hotel’s tax bill until new financial arrangements were made. “They informed me they were arranging for new financing and merely asked the city not to embarrass them during a trying period. I did what I would do for any taxpayer,” Phillips told the Star. “I explained the situation to the city treasurer and, without loss to the city and any embarrassment to anyone, they made a satisfactory arrangement for the payment of arrears with interest.” On May 26, 1960, the city received a cheque for the entire amount owed.

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Toronto Star, January 28, 1963.

 

Once the tax troubles were cleared up, other business problems came to the fore. As losses mounted, there were many rumours about the building’s future. Conrad Hilton was said to be interested in the hotel, the site was to be converted into a hospital, and so on. Several founding members of the management team passed away. Dining and lounge facilities designed to cater to “Toronto’s palate in ultra-deluxe fashion” proved too expensive for local tastes. By the time Globe and Mail owner R. Howard Webster’s Imperial Trust gained primary control of the Lord Simcoe in 1963, three floors were available as office rentals. The swanky Pump Room became the less swanky Flaming Grill, which flamed out within two years.

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Parking lot, University Avenue, east side, at Adelaide Street West, with Lord Simcoe Hotel in the background, early 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 5668.

 

By the end of the 1970s, the lack of both central air and a proper convention-sized meeting space made it difficult for the Lord Simcoe to compete with other downtown hotels. Webster and the other shareholders were ready to stop the never-ending losses and sold the property to National Trust in June 1979. The new owners immediately announced their intention to close the hotel, which saw its final guests (a group of Swedish tourists) check out on October 28, 1979. After their departure, the hotel’s assets were prepared for a liquidation sale that occurred in February 1980. Former head porter Roy McIntosh found himself back at the hotel working for demolition firm Teperman and Sons and felt sadness as the hotel disappeared one piece at a time. “I look at it now,” McIntosh told the Star, “and some guy’s ripping out something and I want to say, ‘Hey, don’t do that!’ But I’ve got to stop feeling personal about it.” Wrecker Marvin Teperman kept some mementos from the site—a red leather couch and chairs from the hotel’s lobby wound up in his office. Less sentimental was Star columnist Joey Slinger, who declared in his Leap Day column that the building was a grey architectural eyesore that couldn’t disappear fast enough. Slinger declared that “The Lord Simcoe was disposable… It was no more meant to endure than a used Styrofoam coffee cup.”

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The Lord Simcoe Hotel awaits demolition, circa 1980. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 74.

 

There was suspicion after the sale that National Trust stood in for another party, suspicion that was fuelled when the soil conditions were tested. It turned out a developer was assembling a valuable land parcel surrounding the Lord Simcoe for a new office tower that was ultimately filled by Sun Life. Teperman hoarding went up in 1980 and the northeast corner of King and University remained a construction site until the east tower of what is now the Sun Life Centre opened in 1984.
Additional material from the May 15, 1957, and October 29, 1979, editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 18, 1960, May 30, 1960, February 24, 1962, July 11, 1963, June 29, 1979, February 28, 1980, and February 29, 1980, editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 15, 1957, edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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King Street West, looking west. Construction of the Lord Simcoe Hotel, is visible at northwest corner of York St & King St. W., Toronto, Ont. Photo by Ted Chirnside, 1956. Toronto Public Library, 2001-2-366.

A shot of the Lord Simcoe under construction. Note the old Globe and Mail building on the right.

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Globe and Mail, May 14, 1957.

To mark the hotel’s opening, the Globe and Mail published six pages of advertorials on May 15, 1957 highlighting the construction process, the companies involved in construction, decoration, and financing, and the artists who produced the decor. Hotel officials declared that the Lord Simcoe was “as Canadian as maple syrup.”

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Globe and Mail, May 15, 1957.

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Globe and Mail, May 15, 1957

Among the statistics noted in the Globe and Mail‘s preview:

  • Housekeeping tallied 4,664 pillows, 10,200 single bed sheets, 1,500 double bed sheets, 7,200 pillow slips, 2,650 blankets, 10,000 bath towels, and 3,000 bath mats
  • 5,000 tablecloths with the hotel crest were produced for the dining areas, which were also supplied with over 20,000 pieces of flatware and over 60,000 pieces of china
  • Artist Maxwell Moffett designed over 300 snowflakes for the a series of seven decorative panels
  • 850 bibles were handed over by the Gideon Society “in a simple but dedicated ceremony”

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“Mr. Ambassador for Metro’s Welcome a Visitor Week, Eddie James Grogan, doorman at the Lord Simcoe Hotel, is congratulated by James Auld, Ontario minister of tourism and information, who pinned a silver medal on his chest for the style he uses in making visitors feel right at home.” Photo by Jeff Goode, originally appeared in the June 16, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0127985f.

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Toronto Star, June 16, 1970.

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Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star, February 28, 1980.

What stands out in several of the post-mortems of the Lord Simcoe was its shoddy construction. “The trouble with the Lord Simcoe wasn’t that you could hear the people in the next room. It was that you could hear people five rooms away,” recalled Gordon Pimm, whose father-in-law was one of the hotel’s main financial backers. When demolition began in 1980, vibrations from the wrecking equipment caused chunks of stone to fall from the building. Special overhangs were erected to prevent stone from falling onto King Street.

Election Night Score Sheet, Get Yer Election Night Score Sheet

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Toronto Star, December 5, 1960.

I suspect there are devoted municipal election junkies who’d love a sheet like this at their fingertips this evening. Adjustments would be required for the present day: five minute increments on the chart would suit the rapid pace of the internet age (or two-and-a-half if your handwriting is as small as mine is). The suburban mayoral races of 1960 would be replaced with either key council battles or, for the truly dedicated, all 47…err…25 wards.

Voting rules had been adjusted so that most renters in the City of Toronto finally had the right to vote – the main qualifications were that you were 21 years old,  a “British subject,” and had resided in the city for a year. For some reason, 63,000 newly enfranchised tenant voters were unable to cast a ballot on the Sunday movie question (the results of which struck another blow to Toronto’s old Sunday blue laws).

In case you’re curious, here are the final results in the Toronto mayoral race from December 5, 1960:

Nathan Phillips: 81,699
Endorsed by the Telegram, the “Mayor of all the People” won his third straight term. His luck ran out in 1962.

Allan Lamport: 58,254
After half-a-decade as chair of the TTC, Lampy decided to reclaim the mayor’s office he held in the early 1950s. He was endorsed by the Star. He was defeated by Phil Givens in his final run for the top spot in 1964, but had a last hurrah as a reactionary councillor from 1966 to 1972.

Jean Newman: 31,999
The first woman to run for Toronto’s mayoralty, Newman was backed by the Globe and Mail. A councillor since 1954, she served as the city’s first female budget chief after topping the citywide vote for the Board of Control. Following an unsuccessful run for a provincial seat in 1962, she retired from politics.

Ross Dowson: 1,643
A perennial candidate and Trotskyist, Dowson ran for mayor nine times between 1948 and 1964.

Harry Bradley: 1,511
Bradley was another perennial candidate whose attempts to hold public office stretched back to a council run in 1928. In 1968, the Globe and Mail declared him “the city’s most unsuccessful civic candidate,” having lost all 35 elections he ran in (Unfortunately his final campaign in 1969 proved to be loss #36). Described as a “former lathe operator, civic employee and consultant on civic affairs,” Bradley’s vote totals ranged from 548 in 1928 to over 20,000 in 1950. He once told a reporter “I’ll continue to run until the undertaker gets me.”

Bradley’s 15-point platform for his 1960 mayoral run included a subway running from Hamilton to Oshawa (which one could argue was accomplished above ground with GO) to be funded by taxing breweries, and persuading one of the major oil companies to fund the construction of the new City Hall

“The last thing Harry Bradley could be called is politically apathetic,” observed Globe and Mail writer Harry Bruce. “For him no day of the year has ever held the excitement and promise of municipal election day. That is the day he has always risen in the council chamber and delivered the five-minute speech which is his right as a candidate. And this year, as a mayoralty candidate, the pleasure will be tripled because he will be allowed a 15 minute speech. No one who has heard him doubts his ability to speak publicly for a quarter of an hour.”

Bruce’s article also reprinted a verse Bradley wrote which was published by one of the city’s papers circa 1944, which Bruce felt was more appropriate in 1960:

I am old, I am bent, I am cheated
Of all that youth urged me to win;
But name me not with the defeated
For tomorrow again I begin.

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Toronto Star, December 5, 1960. Top row features the Star’s team of Lee Belland (also on CFRB), Ray Timson (also on CFRB), Pierre Berton (also on CJBC), Ron Haggart (also on CJBC) and Mark Harrison (also on CBLT). Bottom row: Charles Templeton (moderating a panel on CJBC), Gordon Sinclair (CFRB), Jack Dennett (CFRB), Byng Whitteker (CJBC), and Don Sims (CJBC).

The score sheet appears to be a handy promotional tool for the Star‘s election night coverage, in conjunction with CFRB, CJBC (then part of CBC’s Dominion network, soon to became the local Radio-Canada outlet) and CBLT-TV. Combined, all four media outlets provided the all-star team of analysts and reporters pictured above. CJBC boasted that it offered seven remote locations for suburban politicians to be interviewed, to spare them the hassle of driving downtown (though candidates in East York and Leaside had to venture out to Scarborough to share their feelings about the evening).

Additional material from the November 18, 1960 and the September 12, 1968 editions of the Globe and Mail. Portions of this post originally appeared on JB’s Warehouse and Curio Emporium on October 17, 2014. Some references have been updated to reflect the political reality of 2018.

Shaping Toronto: The Old City Hall Cenotaph

Originally published on Torontoist on November 11, 2015.

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When this photo appeared in the November 12, 1925 edition of the Globe, the caption read: “The picture was taken by the Globe staff photographer shortly after the cenotaph had been unveiled by his Excellency, and before the hundreds of wreaths which now cover the base of the monument had been deposited in token of remembrance by the relatives and friends of the noble dead to whom the memorial is erected.” City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 6584.

Noon, November 11, 1925: Governor-General Lord Byng of Vimy removes a Union Jack flag to reveal the city’s permanent memorial to the soldiers sacrificed during the First World War. As he unveils the granite monument outside Old City Hall, he looks, according to the Star, “not into a sea of faces but a sea of poppies. Miraculously in a few hours the restricted area that does duty as Toronto’s place d’armes had been carpeted with the fragile scarlet blossoms that are more imperishable than brass and marble associated with the glory and tragedy of the greatest of world conflicts.”

As the cenotaph marks its 90th anniversary this Remembrance Day, it’s worth reflecting on the role such monuments play, and, especially in light of current debates on appropriate memorials, what some people have considered to be desecrations.

When a city council special committee contemplated permanent sites for a monument in 1924, its members felt that erecting it in front of Old City Hall would render it inconspicuous due to space limitations and the height of surrounding buildings. While they preferred replacing an old bandstand in Queen’s Park, veterans felt it should remain at Old City Hall, where annual ceremonies had been held since 1920.

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Three of the potential designs for the cenotaph. Toronto Star, October 27, 1924.

A design competition attracted 50 entrants. The $2,500 prize went to architects/First World War veterans William Ferguson and Thomas Canfield Pomphrey (the latter would work on the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant). The cornerstone of the granite cenotaph was laid with a silver trowel by Field Marshal Earl Haig on July 24, 1925. As the unveiling neared, city council ordered a change to the front wording from “To those who served” to a phrase specifically geared to those who fell in battle, “To our glorious dead.”

When city officials arrived at the cenotaph at 6 a.m. on November 11, 1925, they found two memorial wreaths had been left overnight: an anonymous assembly of chrysanthemums and one in memory of Private William Bird from his children. During the ceremony, only wreaths presented by Haig (who, unable to attend, drafted Byng as his stand-in) and the city were allowed to rest on the monument. Dozens of others, representing everything from orphanages to Belgian soldiers in town for the Royal Winter Fair, were banked around Old City Hall’s steps.

“It is true that there is nothing we can do which will add to the honour in which their memory is held,” Mayor Thomas Foster observed during his speech. “But in performing the ceremony arranged for this occasion we follow immemorial usage, and we inaugurate a memorial to the lasting honour of the men of this city who left their homes and the pursuits of peace and gave up their lives for their country.”

One addition was made almost immediately. Members of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Officers’ Association were upset that none of the seven battle names inscribed on the sides involved the Navy. Their suggestion of Zeebrugge was added to the rear.

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Macedonian parade, scene at cenotaph, September 1, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 17805.

The cenotaph quickly became the site of memorials by numerous groups honouring their war dead. Mohawk singer Os-ke-non-ton laid a five foot long “arrow of memory” in December 1925 to commemorate First Nations soldiers. The monument was an official stop during the annual July 12 Orange Parade. Few days went by where there wasn’t a fresh wreath lain upon it.

By the late 1940s, as the dates to another world war were inscribed into the cenotaph, some quarters felt the public wasn’t respectful enough. Letters to newspapers complained about workers resting on it for lunch or smoke breaks, drunks sleeping on it, and the occasional dice game at its base. Police placed “keep off” signs on the cenotaph, while some city councillors wanted to erect spikes to prevent anyone from leaning too close. Some of these efforts to turn the monument into an untouchable shrine echo current arguments on how displaying Christmas decorations too early offends the sanctity of remembering dead soldiers, even if they fought for the freedom to do such things.

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Toronto Star, October 29, 1956.

There’s also the question of whether the cenotaph should just honour the dead from the two world wars, or victims of battle in general. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a group representing 16 ethnicities laid a wreath during a 5,000 person march on October 27, 1956 to honour those killed during the uprising. The wreath was declared a desecration by the Civic Employees’ War Veterans’ Association (CEWVA), whose officials were angered that it represented citizens of a country which was our enemy during the world wars. CEWVA president Al Watson brought a letter to the Board of Control urging the city adopt stricter rules for who could use the cenotaph, preferably for the exclusive honour of Canadian and Allied troops. He didn’t face a receptive audience—controller Ford Brand noted that regardless of Hungary’s past allegiances, its citizens were currently fighting for democratic principles, then asked Watson “how can you distinguish just because of race?” Befitting his nickname of “Mayor of all the People,” Nathan Phillips declared that “the city hall is the centre of the city, a place where all citizens should be able to go express their sorrows.”

But this openness didn’t last long. Following a spat between Croatian and Yugoslavian groups over wreaths that may have honoured soldiers who died while allied to Nazi Germany, the Board of Control ruled in May 1957 that only dead Canadian military personnel would be officially commemorated at the memorial.

Who was considered appropriate to lead a Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph service arose in 2013, when there were calls for Mayor Rob Ford to skip the ceremony a week after admitting to smoking crack cocaine. “That he thinks he has the moral authority to deliver a remembrance address,” observed the Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee, “is simply staggering.” Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly observed that it was important for the officeholder to show up regardless of their personal problems. Ford was booed as he took the stage.

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Cenotaph, City Hall, decorated with wreaths, Remembrance Day, view from southeast , November 11, 1925. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 549.

But booing figures like our former mayor should not be the point of attending a ceremony at the cenotaph. Standing in front of the site should rise above petty concerns like who can or can’t be honoured there. It provides an opportunity to think about military conflict in general, both in terms of the dead and the grey areas which are always present. Don’t restrict your moment of contemplative silence to November 11.

Additional material from the November 11, 1925 and November 16, 1925 editions of the Globe; the July 24, 1947, September 25, 1947, November 1, 1956, and November 11, 2013 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 27, 1924, October 27, 1924, November 3, 1925, November 11, 1925, November 16, 1925, December 4, 1925, October 29, 1956, Ocrober 30, 1956, and November 1, 1956 editions of the Toronto Star.

Opening City Hall

Originally published on Torontoist on September 8, 2015.

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The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

When the new City Hall opened on September 13, 1965, that afternoon’s Toronto Star editorial echoed many initial thoughts about our new $31 million landmark:

Suddenly today every Torontonian is ten feet high. For the new City Hall is his. He is part of its greatness and shares its beauty. There in its mass and grace is his visible assurance that he is a citizen of no mean city. The building in Nathan Phillips Square is more than an impressive and proud architectural statement of civic status. It gives the metropolis a focus. It is the heart of Toronto’s future. It is the symbol of the new Toronto and we can rejoice in what it means.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

Seven years after Viljo Revell’s design was chosen in an open competition, four years after ground had broken, the controversial structure buzzed with activity while preparing for its debut. Forty-two workmen moved furniture, including the mayor’s desk, across Bay Street via overnight dolly runs. Shelves were filled at the new library branch. Workmen scrambled to finish installing desks and rugs, catching up after an eight-week carpenters’ strike. Metro Toronto’s coat of arms for the council chamber arrived late. Officials decided that the first two floors of the podium, the council chamber, and the basement cafeteria were the only areas ready for public scrutiny.

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Cartoon by Sid Barron, Toronto Star, September 13, 1965.

A military band from Petawawa launched the festivities at 1:30 p.m., which drew a crowd of 15,000. The civic guard of honour escorted city councillors and suburban mayors and reeves from old City Hall to the platform in front of the new building. At 2:15, a 100-member honour guard drawn from five regiments marched into the square. Accompanied by the first of several RCAF flyovers, Governor-General Georges Vanier’s motorcade arrived on time. He was followed by the Finnish ambassador to Canada, Torstein Tikanvaara, Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and Ontario Premier John Robarts.

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Toronto Star, September 14, 1965.

In his opening speech, Mayor Phil Givens observed that many were responsible for new City Hall, “from an architectural genius in far-off Finland, to the humblest labourer in Canada, and, above all, the support and patience of the citizens of this city.” To Givens, the building symbolized both Toronto’s transformation into a world-class city, and the audacity to build so unconventional a structure in a city steeped in tradition.

Pearson praised City Hall’s modernity, while lamenting the likely fate of its predecessor, which “must become a sacrifice to progress” (plans released later that week for an early version of the Eaton Centre would have demolished all but the clock tower of old City Hall). He was followed by Robarts, three religious leaders, and the presentation of a ceremonial gavel by Hamilton Mayor Vic Copps.

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The living former mayors on hand for the ceremony (Allan Lamport refused to come, while Hiram McCallum was out of town on business). The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

But the man of the hour was Nathan Phillips, whose championing of the new civic square led to his name being bestowed upon it. Givens and Vanier presented him with the Civic Award of Merit gold medallion. Phillips slipped comfortably back into his “mayor of all the people” mode all day, joking with fellow dignitaries. When he examined Givens’ new office, Phillips grinned and said “I didn’t know I was building this for you, Phil.” Noticing the press later on, he assumed a serious tone to state how this was one of the most important events in his life, and how grateful he was for the honour of having served as mayor. He smiled as he switched back to his normal speaking voice. “How was that, eh?”

While Phillips was visibly moved by the reception he received, one of his predecessors was a party pooper. Allan Lamport had backed more conventional designs during his mayoralty in the early 1950s, and believed taxpayer money was wasted on the project. Having campaigned to review the project during his failed 1960 mayoral bid, his bitterness was still evident. Lamport spent the day at his insurance office. “I have to work for a living and I haven’t got the time for parties these other fellows have,” he declared. He had no desire “to cheer something that is wrong and impractical for the taxpayers.”

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Globe and Mail, September 13, 1965.

After the presentation to Phillips, Givens paid tribute to Revell, who had died less than a year earlier. Revell’s widow Maire sat in the front row next to the Finnish ambassador. The Toronto Finnish Male Choir sang “Finlandia” to honour Revell, whose work was commemorated with a plaque by the front entrance. Mrs. Revell was given a gold pendant depicting her husband’s work. Despite her stern bearing during the ceremony, she later signed souvenir programs and indicated she had enjoyed the day even if it was difficult to express her feelings about the realization of her husband’s work. She admitted in a Globe and Mail interview that initially it wasn’t one of her favourite designs. “But when I first saw the drawings for it, I knew that it was going to be for the best,” she said. “I was really shocked at the design—shocked in the sense of liking it.” One of her laments was that Revell had visualized a sculpture by Henry Moore as part of the square, an element which appeared only after a battle royale among city politicians the following year.

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Mayor Phil Givens’s office. Canadian Architect, October 1965.

Among those sitting on the green benches reserved for dignitaries was 90-year-old Alfred Stagg. He had ventured downtown that day to buy a hearing aid battery for his wife. Noticing the crowd in the square, he asked a police officer what was going on. Stagg then shared stories about his childhood adventures on the site. “We used to play on the vacant lot there,” he told the Telegram. “And there used to be circus wagons there sometimes…and snake charmers and medicine men. I had a tooth pulled out by one of them.” The officer took Stagg by the arm and walked him past the VIP barricade. Asked his opinion of the new building, Stagg replied “I used to call it Phillips’ Folly. But now I like it.”

The ceremony ended with the official ribbon cutting. Watched by Givens and Metro Toronto Chairman William Allen, Vanier used a giant pair of scissors to cut the 132 foot long ribbon. Fireworks went off.

Confusion ensued when the dignitaries went on a post-ceremony tour. Robarts was accidentally barred from the mayor’s office. The building’s circular shape led confused guests into places they didn’t expect—trips to the cafeteria turned into expeditions through the chauffeurs’ garage. Limited elevator service created long waits for overcrowded cars to reach the council chamber. Pearson and others vainly searched for a staircase, only to discover that they were closed because they also led to the freshly asphalted front podium roof (workers were afraid high heels would leave holes). The PM joined everyone else in line.

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Toronto Star, September 10, 1965.

Press reaction was positive, steeped in civic pride and confidence in Toronto’s future. That feeling carried over into the Star’s man-on-the-street interviews, such as one with civic worker Jack Boustead:

You can have memories, but you can’t live in the past. The old City Hall, and I knew it for 54 years, served its purpose. The new City Hall is a symbol of Toronto’s progress and outlook on life. The City Hall should lead in new architecture.

Not everyone was pleased. Roofer John Fridz felt it lacked dignity, charm, and a clock tower. “This new thing is cold, grey, and not worth the cost,” he observed. “If it impressed any one—it won’t be from beauty.” At least one letter writer to the Star preferring that the hoopla be directed to building the Bloor-Danforth line into Etobicoke and Scarborough, proving you can work complaints about subway service in the east into any Toronto political development of the past half-century.

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Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing in Nathan Phillips Square. November 14, 1965. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 329, Series 1569, File 2531.

Opening day ended with the first of a week-long entertainment series in Nathan Phillips Square, a salute to Canada’s military history. The next evening, around 30,000 watched a bill featuring the Canadian Opera Company, National Ballet of Canada, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The latter decided not to fire cannons during the 1812 Overture out of feat of shattering hard-to-replace glass—the replacement smudge pots proved a bust. “The entire event recalled something of a civilized ritual of a bygone era, the conversazione,” noted the Globe and Mail’s Ralph Hicklin. “There was music there—beautifully presented, well amplified—for those who wanted to hear it. There was room for the others, who had come to promenade, or to chat, or do a little courting. In Toronto, where we are reputed to take out pleasures sadly, it was wonderful to see so many people having a wonderful time, in surroundings as beautiful as any you could find in North America.”

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The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

Day two also saw the building open for public tours. Over 200,000 passed during the week, their enthusiasm keeping the tour guides perky. Some cranky visitors felt it was their right as taxpayers to visit private spaces. The most popular stops were the neighbouring offices of Allen and Givens.

Politicians testing the new facilities found flaws. The Board of Control found a committee room was too small to hold other officials and the press, while the Public Works committee met in the cafeteria. A policy to use the council chamber solely for full city and Metro council meetings was revisited. When Metro Council held its first full meeting on September 21, East York Reeve True Davidson, no fan of the building, insisted councillors didn’t need mics to be heard. She was later asked to remove her hand from her mic. After the session, she claimed she didn’t like how she sounded over the sound system.

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The Telegram, September 20, 1965.

The evening celebrations carried on, including events ranging from a multicultural night to square dancing. It climaxed on September 18 with “Toronto A Go Go,” a teen-centric concert featuring local rock acts and go-go dancers. Givens taped radio ads for the show, urging “all you cats and those who are young at heart” to come on down. The crowd of 60,000 whipped itself into a frenzy, causing officials to ask for calm several times. One of Givens’ requests turned into a duet featuring the mayor and Bobby Curtola singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Around 200 police officers were present in case the show went off the rails.

The climax came during the performance of the soul-influenced ensemble Jon and Lee and the Checkmates. During a cover of James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” singer Jon Finley’s gyrations “moved the girls in the front rows to new heights of endeavor,” reported the Globe and Mail, “as they screamed and tried to push through the police.” Givens and other officials had enough. According to Finley, the mayor tried to grab drummer Jeff Cutler’s cymbal, but was whacked across the knuckles as the band kept going. Finley was later helped off the stage, nearly unconscious—as another entertainer told the Star, “he doesn’t sing from his heart or that…he sings from his soul and it gets him emotionally.”

Givens ordered an early start to the evening’s fireworks.

Amid the mayhem, 19-year-old Brian Batt was stabbed, the result of an encounter with other youths described as wearing Beatles-style ensembles. The wound missed Batt’s coronary artery by a millimetre. Five men were later charged over the incident.

Despite the chaos, Givens was satisfied with how the go-go unfolded. “It was a great night and I’m glad we had it,” he told the Star. “There was a great spirit of enthusiasm, although I was worried a couple of times that someone might get hurt. But the police did a great job of controlling the crowds.”

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Cartoon by Al Beaton, the Telegram, September 13, 1965.

As politicians settled in and resumed their usual squabbling, the new City Hall remained a busy tourist attraction. To this day, the site retains its place as a symbol of our civic pride, and the heart of where we’d like Toronto’s future to unfold.

Additional material from Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997); the September 9, 1965, September 11, 1965, September 13, 1965, September 14, 1965, September 15, 1965, September 16, 1965, September 18, 1965, September 20, 1965, and September 22, 1965 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 4, 1965, September 13, 1965, September 14, 1965, September 16, 1965, September 20, 1965, and September 22, 1965 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 13, 1965, September 14, 1965, and September 20, 1965 editions of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

The final installment of  the second run of Vintage Toronto Ads, published on Torontoist on September 9, 2015, tied into this article.

When a major landmark opens, everyone (apart from skinflints complaining about cost) wants to join the party. It’s an opportunity to mark a major addition to your city, display optimism for the future, or find any means to hitch your wagon to the hoopla. Advertising in this vein ranges from simple congratulations to using the event as a springboard to brag about your latest milestone.

The opening of new City Hall in September 1965 was no different. The following ads mix historical perspectives, media coverage, building sketches, and corporations eager to embrace the future our new civic space symbolized.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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Toronto Star, September 8, 1965.

Bosley Real Estate’s ad highlights how the process to build City Hall went back nearly two decades, and tips its hat to previous occupants of the site.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

Shell Canada operated its head office at 505 University Avenue from 1958 until moving to Calgary in 1984. Design firm Mariani and Morris was among the contenders to build City Hall in the early 1950s.

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Globe and Mail, September 11, 1965.

The Revell-inspired sand castles resemble those built by Nathan Phillips in an editorial cartoon five years earlier.

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Globe and Mail, September 11, 1965.

John B. Parkin Associates’s Simpson Tower opened in 1968.

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Globe and Mail, September 10, 1965.

Given the firm’s work on City Hall, employees of John B. Parkin Associates earned a well-deserved day off.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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The Telegram, September 10, 1965.

The Telegram’s supplement was the largest of the newspaper sections honouring City Hall.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

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Toronto Star, September 11, 1965.

A Watch for Mr. Gould

Originally published on Torontoist on March 26, 2009.

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Pianist Glenn Gould receives watch from Mayor Nathan Phillips in the Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3071.

Pianist Glenn Gould’s career was riding high in early 1956. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was released in January and soon became the top-selling classical album in Columbia Records’ catalogue. A sold-out recital at Massey Hall on April 16 was a triumph, with critics and the audience applauding loudly. As the Telegram’s George Kidd noted in his review of the performance the following day, “It would seem that no longer is Mr. Gould a pianist with considerable promise. He is a mature genius in interpretation, technique, and musical excitement.”

As a salute to his talent, the city decided to present Gould with an engraved watch to honour the achievements of the twenty-three-year-old musician. Gould received his watch from Mayor Nathan Phillips during a Board of Control meeting two days after his performance.

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Pianist Glenn Gould receives watch from Mayor Nathan Phillips in the Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3069.

The Toronto Star, who took responsibility for inspiring city officials to honour Gould through an article in its Star Weekly magazine, paid tribute to the recipient’s eccentricities in an April 20 editorial:

Is man, the individual, on the way out? If you think he is and that his place is being taken by a dull automaton named “mass man” who is conditioned to absolute conformity, consider for a moment Glenn Gould, the 23-year-old Toronto pianist whom critics call a genius.

Even on the hottest day in the summer this young man may be seen wearing an overcoat, galoshes, a wool beret and two pairs of gloves. He swallows handfuls of vitamin tablets and other pills and bathes his hands in warm water before playing. At the piano he slumps over until his hair tangles with the keys. He sings and hums while playing the most intricate Bach and Beethoven compositions, or stamps his feet in time to the music.

In an age where even artists are supposed to be “normal” and as ordinary as the man on the street, Glenn Gould triumphantly affirms that man’s spirit remains free. Long may he flourish and may he never conform!

Conform he never did. The city later made a lasting tribute to Gould by naming a park at Avenue Road and St. Clair Avenue after him.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here’s half-an-hour of Glenn Gould discussing J.S. Bach.