Souvenir Views of Toronto, Canada

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 2, 2010. Because the original links to the postcards vanished from Torontoist following a site redesign, and because I don’t appear to have any related Word documents, I have no idea if any text other than subject identification appeared under these images, nor what order they were originally presented in. Comments written under the postcards were written in 2020.

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Usually when preparing Historicist, we dig through local archives and libraries to find the pieces of Toronto’s past that are brought to you every weekend. Sometimes the material finds us, as is the case with today’s gallery of postcards submitted by reader Todd J. Wiebe.

The postcards were among a large collection of items donated by the estate of fine art scholar Richard Wunder to the Van Wylen Library at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where Wiebe works as a librarian and assistant professor. “It is a very large collection,” says Wiebe, “and this past summer was the first we really got around to going through it.” As the materials were being processed and appraised, a worker in the library found the postcards and passed them on to Wiebe “because I’m from Southern Ontario.”

The set contains twenty-two postcards attached to each other accordion-style. They were produced by the Canadian branch of Scottish postcard maker Valentine & Sons. Based on the age of the landmarks depicted, we’re guessing that this package was produced in the mid-to-late 1920s due to the presence of Union Station (opened in 1927, though it had stood largely completed since 1920) and, given the presence of the city’s tallest buildings in the set, the lack of postcards for the Royal York Hotel (opened in 1929) and Commerce Court (opened in 1931).

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Streetcars carried commuters over the viaduct until the Bloor-Danforth subway line opened in 1966.

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That Casa Loma is referred to as Henry Pellatt’s residence makes me wonder if some or all of this series was produced in the early 1920s, as Pellatt was forced to leave the premises in 1923.

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Judging from this view, it appears Lippincott Street was open to traffic in front of Central Tech.

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All five of these churches remain active as of 2020, though the landscapes around them have changed radically.

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Opened in 1899, City Hall was the heart of Toronto’s municipal dramas until city council moved across Bay Street in 1965.

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Completed in 1913, the Canadian Pacific building is currently used for office space.

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North Toronto station closed in 1930. It became the Summerhill LCBO.

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Built in 1914, the building at the southwest corner of King and Yonge was the headquarters of the Dominion Bank until it merged with the Bank of Toronto in 1955. In 2020, it houses the One King West Hotel & Residence.

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Toronto General moved to College and University in 1913. As of 2020, portions of the building fronting College Street houses MaRS.

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Chorley Park, 1915-1961.

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Originally opened in 1903, the King Eddy gained its tower in 1922.

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Several of the buildings in this postcard series seen together.

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The Cayuga was one of several steamers owned by the Niagara Navigation Company. It was retired in 1957 and scrapped four years later.

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Located in St. James Square, the Toronto Normal School trained several generations. Its site served as an incubator for OCAD, the ROM, and Ryerson University. Most of the building was demolished by 1963.

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Not pictured: the iron gates. Or cows.

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Two premiers presided over the proceedings at Queen’s Park during the 1920s – E.C. Drury’s UFO (United Farmers of Ontario) government gave way to Howard Ferguson’s Conservatives in 1923.

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This appears to be an artistic interpretation of the Red Ensign, used as Canada’s flag through 1965.

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Opened in 1915, the Royal Bank Building still stands at 2 King Street East.

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Was the front of Union Station ever this serene during the day?

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“University College” would be a more appropriate description for this postcard. Major additions to the U of T campus during the 1920s included Trinity College and Varsity Arena.

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University Avenue was still a genteel, tree-lined street south of Queen’s Park when this postcard was produced. Laid out in 1829, it was originally conceived as a genteel park boulevard which would lead up to the intended site for the King’s College campus. It was closed to commercial traffic, and no streets were allowed to cross its path. The road was opened up for full use in 1859, and expanded south of Queen Street.

Bonus Features: “Stop the Slaughter of Innocents”

This post offers bonus material for a piece I wrote for TVO – you may want to check that out first

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Toronto World, November 12, 1919.

Toronto medical officer of health Dr. Charles Hastings understood his actions in implementing a mandatory vaccination program might not be popular, especially among those who objected on grounds of personal liberty. “Why all this interference with personal liberty and individual rights?” he asked in his November 1919 monthly report. “Because British justice, properly interpreted, means that when the liberty and rights of the individual are not in the interests of the welfare of the masses, the rights of the individual must yield.”

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The Globe, November 13, 1919.

More from The Globe on the City Hall clinic: “It was positively sustaining, that odour of disinfectants, and as one of the City Hall staff remarked, one whiff of it was almost enough to safeguard a whole family against the threatened scourge.”

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Cartoon by George Shields, the Telegram, November 14, 1919.

Toronto should realize that Dr. Hastings is not a vaccinationist for the sake of vaccination. The question of compulsory vaccination will not arise if the citizens who are not anti-vaccinationists on principle give themselves, their families and their neighbours the benefit of the doubt and GET VACCINATED. – editorial, the Telegram, November 15, 1919

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The Globe, November 19, 1919. Dr. Hastings did not show up.

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The Telegram, November 20, 1919.

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Cartoon by George Shields, the Telegram, December 16, 1919.

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Toronto Star, January 22, 1920.

Ah, the irony. I admit it – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this story. The Globe‘s headline was even more blunt: “Anti-vaccination Champion Ald. Ryding, Has Smallpox.” Ryding, who had represented the Junction on city council since 1912, survived and continued to serve as an alderman into the early 1930s.

Toronto for Tourists, 1950

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on December 13, 2008.

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Looking north from the top of the Bank of Commerce Building, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1567, series 648, file 7.

The best way to get a comprehensive view of the city of Toronto as a whole is to go to the Canadian Bank of Commerce, at 25 King Street West, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and take the elevator to the 31st floor. Choose, if you can, a reasonably clear day. From the observation gallery, 426 feet above the street, you will have a superb view of the city and the surrounding country. On a bright day, when there is a north wind, the guide assures us that he can see the spray from the falls of Niagara, at the other side of the lake. When we were up there, there was a mist over everything, but it was beautiful. It seemed to us that we were looking down on the past, present and future of Toronto, almost as if we were pagan gods in a synthetic Olympus.

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The mid-century equivalent of a trip up the CN Tower is one of the many ideas for tourists that John and Marjorie Mackenzie provide in their 1950 guidebook to our province, Ontario In Your Car. For 26 of the book’s 291 pages, the Mackenzies provide visitors with descriptions of local landmarks, historical quotes, and a sneaking suspicion that they prefer exploring the northern wilderness.

Many of the tidbits of information are directed towards Americans, whether it is noting the monument to Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) in Exhibition Place or that “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford was born on University Avenue. Also clarified for southern visitors: what’s the deal with Avenue Road?

Avenue Road is a continuation of University Avenue, and that really is its name. It always seems to strike our American friends as being an utterly incongruous name, but if one remembers that it was far outside the town when Toronto first became a city, and that it was a mere trail which led to the Avenue, it does seem to make more sense. Try to remember this street and how to get to it, for it is probably the one you will take when you leave Toronto for the fishing camps and resorts of the north.

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The Old Mill Hotel, c. 1945. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 532.

The city’s nightlife rates favourably, with the Mackenzies shooting down the notion that evening amusement did not exist. The Old Mill ranked highly (“dancing every night in a quaint and delightful setting”), while the red and blue colour scheme of the Imperial Room in the Royal York Hotel was headache inducing. Late-night revellers were advised to grab a bite at the original location of the Lichee Garden on Elizabeth Street, which stayed open until 5 a.m. The fun did not extend into Sunday, when blue laws left tourists scratching their heads.

The Lord’s Day Alliance has left a strong indelible mark on the city, for better or worse, and many visitors arriving on the Sabbath, look in dismay at the closed theatres and deserted streets, and they ask: “Where is everybody? What do people do with themselves on Sunday?” The answer is “They are out playing golf.”

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Lou Turofsky at 1950 Grey Cup game, Varsity Stadium. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 9451.

Golf courses feature significantly in the guide’s breakdown of recreational activities by season. Autumn is regarded as the nicest time of the year, filled with colourful trees, society balls, Broadway try-outs, and the start of hockey season. Football at Varsity Stadium earns a nod, more for university action than professional play, even though Varsity was the site of the 1950 Grey Cup, a.k.a. “the mud bowl.” Winter earns less praise, though this has less to do with available activities than the authors’ preferences. “Not being too keen about skating and skiing, we rather tend to a lukewarm attitude on the virtues of Ontario as a winter resort, but there are many who love it, and who wait impatiently for the snow to fall so that they really begin to live.”

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Views of the construction on Yonge Street at King Street, March 16, 1950. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1128, series 381, file 31.

One major attraction not mentioned but that would have been noticed by tourists is the construction of the Yonge subway. Construction began in September 1949, with onlookers able to gaze down into open trenches from the sidewalk or temporary decks like the one shown above. Visitors had to wait four years before they had a chance to ride the line.

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Mayor Hiram E. McCallum and Ice Follies performers drink milk at civic reception, Old City Hall, between 1948 and 1951. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 6678.

The guide also neglects to mention that you could venture into City Hall and enjoy a glass of milk with mayor Hiram (Buck) McCallum.

The Mackenzies’ final verdict on our city?

Toronto may be the capital of Ontario and the centre of population, but it is by no means the whole Province. There are those among you, we are sure, who are looking forward with anticipation to the lakes and streams of the northland, where the bass and trout are waiting for you, where you can hunt wild life with a camera or a gun, and where Nature has not yet been moulded to suit the whims of man.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Statue which commemorated the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Way, beside Seaway Hotel

Queen Elizabeth Way, circa 1950. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 380, Item 64. More on the history of the QEW Monument

A few words about the QEW, from a chapter dedicated to the decade-old highway:

Some people are always in a hurry. It may be because of a restless temperament, or it may be because they have only a very limited time in which to cover everything they want to see. In either case, if time is the essence, the Queen Elizabeth Way is your road.

This is Ontario’s super highway. It is laid out in the modern manner, with divided roadways, clover leafs and circles for merging traffic, and cross-over bridges for the side roads. It is named to commemorate the visit to Canada and the United States of King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1939. The speed limit is 50 miles an hour.

As a rule, we don’t go in much for fast driving, but we have often travelled from Niagara Falls to Toronto, via the Elizabeth Way, in less than two hours.

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Park Plaza Hotel, looking north along Avenue Road, 1936. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1034, Item 173. 

We think the Park Plaza is one of Toronto’s best hotels. It has a small lobby, and practically no public rooms, but the well-furnished bedrooms are unusually comfortable. The cocktail lounges, and the small dining room on the top floor are among the best in town.

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Guild Inn, 1944. Photo by H. James. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0108031f.

There is another place which we like very much, especially for a golfing holiday. This is called the Guild Inn, and it is about five miles from the eastern city limits, south of Highway 2, at Scarborough overlooking Lake Ontario. It is a delightful inn of the luxury type, with beautifully furnished rooms and lovely grounds stretching for a mile along the famous Scarborough Bluffs. The management will introduce you, if you wish, at four Golf Clubs nearby, two of which are private championship courses. The Guild Inn is unique. It allows you to live in the country and still be near enough to Toronto to enjoy the theatres, the shops and the sights.

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Eaton’s College Street, 1950 (guessing on a Sunday, based on the curtained display windows). City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 16, Item 49357.

If you have any shopping to do, both Eaton’s and Simpson’s are well worth a visit, and if it should be lunch or tea time, we know you will enjoy the pleasant surroundings and good food in the “Georgian Room” at Eaton’s, or the “Arcadian Court” at Simpson’s. Eaton’s College Street store also has an excellent restaurant, the “Round Room,” if you should be in that part of town.

Other brief tidbits:

  • Casa Loma “has no history and no tradition, but it is enormous.”
  • Autumn is the nicest time of the year in Toronto.
  • Of (Old) City Hall, “we predict that, 50 years from now, it will be pointed out as a fine example of late Victorian architecture.”

The book appears to have been designed for golfers, as local courses are discussed in many of the entries, especially around suburban Toronto. Thornhill’s entry is almost entirely about golf, while a trip to the links was the main reason to stop in Aurora. A good chunk of Newmarket’s description is taken up by discussing the Briars Country Club at Jackson’s Point. And so on.

My hometown, Amherstburg, is briefly mentioned in the Windsor section. It focuses solely on Fort Malden and writer Anna Brownell Jameson’s unflattering description of the “wretched little useless fort” during the 1830s. Sadly, Amherstburg lacked a golf course, unlike Windsor, Kingsville, or Leamington (whose links were “flat, but attractive”).

Vintage Toronto Ads: D-Day

As the reprints of older Vintage Toronto Ads columns wind down, this is the first in a new, occasional series. 

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Front page, Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

As Canadians participated in the D-Day invasion, newspaper advertisers expressed their feelings, hopes, and prayers about its outcome. Here is a sampling of some of those ads, as published in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

Simpson’s department store suspended its normal sale ads for several days, starting on D-Day with a full-page prayer taken from Francis Drake’s attack against the Spanish at Cadiz in spring 1587.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

Near Simpson’s Queen Street flagship, the public gathered for a prayer meeting outside (Old) City Hall. Elsewhere in the city, schools held special assemblies, and all Anglican churches prepared for special services at 8 p.m. that evening. St. Michael’s Cathedral reported people streaming into the church as early as 7 a.m., many of whom were wives and children of soldiers serving in Europe. Special services were also scheduled at several war productions plants, including Massey Harris and, out in Malton, Victory Aircraft.

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Toronto Star, June 7, 1944.

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Globe and Mail, June 9, 1944.

Simpson’s followed up the prayer ad with two spotlighting leaders of the invasion. There was also an invasion-tinged full page spot marking King George VI’s official birthday celebration, even though his actual 49th birthday wasn’t until December.

By contrast, rival Eaton’s continued with their normal advertising, only adding an invitation published on June 6 from Mayor Frederick Conboy to attend a civic prayer service in front of City Hall two days later.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944.

For regular updates on the invasion, moviegoers could catch the latest at the Uptown and Loew’s (now the Elgin) theatres on Yonge Street.

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Toronto Star, June 7, 1944.

Radio listeners could follow CBC’s invasion coverage. CJBC, the flagship station of the CBC’s recently formed Dominion Network, swapped frequencies with CFRB in 1948 and moved to 860 AM.

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Globe and Mail, June 7, 1944.

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Globe and Mail, June 9, 1944.

Two examples of ads from the business community.

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Globe and Mail, June 7, 1944.

A listing of some of the Ontario residents who took part in the invasion.

Finally, a pair of editorials: one from the city, one from an outlying area.

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Toronto Star, June 6, 1944

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Orono Weekly Times, June 8, 1944.

The Death of Warren G. Harding

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Sample of an American front page noting the death of Warren G. Harding. Pittsburgh Press, August 3, 1923.

Warren G. Harding does not rank among the great American presidents. For years, he resided with the likes of James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Franklin Pierce at the bottom of scholarly rankings. Much of what soiled Harding’s reputation emerged after his death—corruption galore, the Teapot Dome scandal, mistresses, etc. At least he was aware of his weaknesses (“I am a man of limited talents”).

But the murkiness of his presidency was not widely known when he died in office on this date 95 years ago. None of it was present in the respectful coverage found in Toronto’s newspapers.

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The Globe, August 3, 1923.

Given what we now know about Harding’s extracurricular love life, I wonder if the headline above the picture of the president and his wife was sincere or a winking joke. The Globe’s coverage also included a passage which summed up Harding’s strong desire to be liked:

A trait that endeared President Harding to millions of his fellow countrymen was a certain quality of homeliness. This was the quality that made him liked by his fellow townsmen, Democrats as well as Republicans, and the President knew no politics where his personal relations and neighbours were concerned.

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Editorial, The Globe, August 3, 1923.

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Toronto Star, August 3, 1923.

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King issued an official statement.

Though Mr. Harding had been in office a little more than two years, during the course of which time the tragic memories of years immediately preceding continue to overshadow current events, he had come to be known to Canadian as a man essentially of goodwill and of unassuming, earnest and kindly purposes.

Flags were lowered to half mast at all federal buildings.

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Editorial, Toronto Star, August 3, 1923.

The province also sent its condolences:

The executive council on behalf of the government and people of the province of Ontario tender to the government and people of the United States of America a sincere expression of their sorrow and sympathy in the national loss that has befallen them through the death of their president whose wise and broad-minded attitude to other nations has done so much to promote international goodwill and co-operation.

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The Telegram, August 3, 1923.

The official reaction from mayor C.A. Maguire. Note the delay in lowering the flag in front of City Hall.

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Toronto Star, August 3, 1923.

Many Torontonians first learned about Harding’s death through the emerging medium of radio.

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The Telegram, August 3, 1923.

The Telegram was the only paper not to feature Harding’s death on its front page, as it was still locked into running classifieds and incomprehensible-without-deep-historical-knowledge editorial cartoons on page one. Readers had to flip to page 14 to find the details.

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Editorial, The Telegram, August 3, 1923.

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Cartoon by George Shields, The Telegram, August 10, 1923.

Not until a week after Harding died did the Tely move away from its cartoons on local political matters and note the president’s passing.

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.

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!).