Shaping Toronto: Centennial Projects

Originally published on Torontoist on February 24, 2016.

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A mark of the centennial at the fountain at Rosehill Reservoir.

From neighbourhood tree plantings to the international spectacle of Expo 67, Canada proudly celebrated its centennial. The stylized maple leaf logo graced everything from historical sites to reservoirs. Cities and towns applied for governments grants to spruce up parks, restore historical sites, and build attractions to last long after the centennial spirit faded.

Across Toronto, many legacies remain of, as Pierre Berton’s book on 1967 termed it, “the last good year.” There are the community centres and parks in the pre-amalgamation suburbs with “centennial” in their name. Celebratory murals lining school walls. Caribana and its successors celebrating Caribbean culture each year.

Many of these projects received funding from programs overseen by a federal commission, whose work sometimes felt like an Expo footnote. “They felt like poor cousins,” Centennial Commission PR director Peter Aykroyd (Dan’s father) observed. “Expo was so big, so appealing, so clearly headed for success that it discouraged those who were plodding away on the less focused, something-for-everyone program of the Commission.”

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North York Centennial Arena (later named in honour of Herb Carnegie), 1967. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 27, Item 7.

As is our habit, Toronto wanted spectacular major centennial projects. As is also our habit, they were mired in bureaucratic squabbles involving penny-pinching city councillors, politicians and pundits who swore delays embarrassed us in front of the rest of the country, and bad luck.

Discussions over marking the centennial began in earnest in September 1962 when the Toronto Planning Board proposed a $25 million cultural complex. With financial pruning, this evolved into a $9 million centennial program focused on the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, which included a repertory theatre, arts and culture facilities along Front Street, and a renovation of the decaying St. Lawrence Hall. Proponents also tossed in an expansion of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) and refreshing Massey Hall. Mayor Phil Givens supported the project wholeheartedly—during his re-election campaign in 1964, he said “I have never been so sincerely convinced in my life that something is right.”

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Sketch of a proposed theatre inside the St. Lawrence Centre, Globe and Mail, March 20, 1965.

A key opponent was councillor/former mayor Allan Lamport, who believed the city couldn’t afford the project, and was only willing to support the St. Lawrence Hall rehab. “He is barren of ideas concerning what the city might put in its place,” a Globe and Mail editorial criticized. “It is this sort of negative approach which could find Toronto celebrating the nation’s birthday with nothing more impressive and enduring than a pageant in the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand.”

The fate of the St. Lawrence Centre see-sawed over the next few years, as council battled over the budget. When it was clear the project wouldn’t be remotely ready for 1967, the city switched its focus to St. Lawrence Hall. When the 1960s started, the site was split among several owners, and there was at least one proposal to replace it with an office building and parking deck. Under the leadership of a committee of local architects and construction officials, the restoration of the hall appeared to be on track as 1967 dawned.

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“Searching for bodies; city firemen comb through the rubble of the east wing of St. Lawrence Hall which collapsed yesterday while being restored as a Centennial project. No one was injured and no bodies were found. Credit for this is given foreman Jack McGowan who cleared the building and sent men to stop traffic only minutes before the four-storey section crumbled in a cloud of dust.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0000233f.

On March 10, 1967, the northeast portion of the building collapsed. The press offered unanimous support to keep the project going, such as the following Star editorial:

The restoration of the old St. Lawrence Hall was one centennial project upon which everyone in Toronto was happily united. Today, when a section of the building lies in rubble, we can be sure the determination that it will live in its former glory is stronger than ever…it wasn’t until the report of the collapse that most of us realized how much the restoration of the historic old hall was coming to mean in this centennial year, troubled with apathy and dispute over other projects…Our appetite for history has been whetted and we need the completion of the St. Lawrence Hall to satisfy it. So light the torches and beat the drums, we’ve got a building to raise.

While the restoration endured further delays from a series of city-wide construction strikes (which prompted the city to sneak in concrete via the back entrance), the refurbished St. Lawrence Hall celebrated its rebirth when Governor-General Roland Michener officially re-opened it during a December 28, 1967 gala.

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Globe and Mail, April 28, 1965.

The St. Lawrence Centre finally opened in February 1970, several months after another delayed centennial project. When the province announced a science museum in 1964, it chose 180 acres of parkland at Don Mills and Eglinton. The city opposed the suburban location, preferring the CNE grounds, where Givens felt there were better connections to highways and transit. Unless the province provided compelling reasons regarding the CNE’s unsuitability, he threatened to hold up the transfer of the Don Valley site. The province wasn’t moved. Initially known as the Centennial Centre of Science and Technology, the project suffered numerous construction delays and bureaucratic bickering before opening as the Ontario Science Centre in September 1969.

Other local centennial projects had smoother rides, even if they occasionally ruffled egos. Leaside was the first to complete theirs, a community centre in Trace Manes Park which opened in September 1966, mere months before the town was absorbed into East York. The latter unveiled their major project, the restoration of Todmorden Mills, in May 1967. Mayor True Davidson scornfully called Leaside’s project “a change house for tennis players,” while touting Todmorden as “one of the most ambitious projects in Metro.”

The work on St. Lawrence Hall and Todmorden Mills demonstrated what Pierre Berton later called the true legacy of the centennial: recognizing the value of local heritage.

In 1967, the idea of preserving something of the past by restoring old buildings and preserving historic landscapes was a novel one at a time when local governments were still applauded for bulldozing entire neighbourhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” The Centennial marked the beginning of the end of that philosophy. “Heritage” had come into its own when Victorian mansions that had once seemed grotesquely ugly began to be viewed as monuments to a gilded age. Old railway stations, banks, even 1930s gas stations would be seen as living history lessons.

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Globe and Mail, May 20, 1967.

So far, the upcoming Canada 150 celebrations show little of the fervour associated with the centennial. An August 2014 city report recognized that the influx of legacy projects associated with the Pan/Parapan Am Games made it unlikely there would be similar scale construction to mark the country’s 150th birthday next year. A more recent report promotes marking the occasion through cultural festivals and community heritage programs. Unless an enduring celebration like Caribana/Caribbean Carnival emerges, it’s likely the reminders of 1967 will outlast those of 2017.

Additional material from 1967: The Last Good Year by Pierre Berton (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997); The Best Place To Be: Expo 67 and Its Time by John Lownsbrough (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2012); St. Lawrence Hall (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969); the December 27, 1963, September 2, 1964, June 17, 1965, and May 23, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the March 11, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star.

Exhibiting the Human Edge

Originally published on Torontoist on December 4, 2013.

As soon as you enter The AstraZeneca Human Edge at the Ontario Science Centre, you can predict which exhibit kids will run to: the climbing wall on the immediate left. A stand-in for mountaineering, the wall represents the limits of human endurance—the theme of many of the displays, which make their public debut on December 7.

The first new permanent exhibition hall to open at the Science Centre in seven years, The AstraZeneca Human Edge features 80 exhibits that explore the boundaries of our bodies as they develop from conception to death. The exhibits are grouped into five thematic areas, each of which focuses on a different kind of human limitation, such as aging or physical injury.

One of the first stops is a tall cone containing a free-diving simulation. Featuring narration from world-record-holder Mandy-Rae Cruickshank Krack, the chamber combines sound and watery lighting evocative of a deep dive. The effect is stunning—by the time Krack reaches the dark reaches of her 88-metre descent, the pressure of the depths gnaws at your head.

That pressure is relieved by a nearby case filled with oddities and artifacts from the weight-loss industry. You can test the effectiveness of rollers designed to glide away the pounds, listen to exercise records (with full orchestral accompaniment!) from the 1920s, gaze upon boxes of tragically named appetite-suppressant candies, and browse advertisements for slenderizing products parodied by Monty Python.

On a more serious historical note, the corner devoted to diabetes treatment includes a refurbished version of Frederick Banting and Charles Best’s University of Toronto lab. A series of phones offers users historical diagnoses of the disease from the Victorian era to the near future. Sadly, none are narrated by Wilford Brimley. If you were recently informed that you have diabetes, please don’t dial up Sir William Osler for a second opinion.

We tested the “aging machine,” which snaps your photo and projects your future appearance for every decade until you hit 70. The results are alternately amusing and terrifying, depending on how deeply lined your face becomes. You can then share the image of your aged visage on nearby screens, or type in a code that will allow you to download the photos at home.

Elsewhere in the hall, you’ll find the usual assortment of buttons, cross-sections, and dials intended to inform and amuse patrons. It’s likely staff will hear every sperm joke invented if they hang around long enough by the interactive display illustrating how many little swimmers will reach the final conception heats.

During her opening remarks at today’s media preview, Ontario Science Centre CEO Lesley Lewis warned that “it’s not quite finished.” If you’re planning a holiday visit, be warned that several major interactive displays won’t be ready for prime time until late January. Currently marked by tape outlines on the floor, the “Personal Limits” area will include a dance floor that converts your moves into electricity, rowing machines, and a running track that will videotape your gait for all to see. Until that section is functional, the hall can’t help but feel like a work in progress.

A Poor Crop of Hearts

Originally published on Torontoist on July 28, 2010.

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Left: Stuart Whitman and Sandy Dennis wander through the Ontario Science Centre. Don Mills Mirror, November 11, 1970. Right: poster for The Heart Farm.

Imagine you’re a movie producer in 1970 searching for a location in Toronto to shoot a thriller about organ transplants. The script calls for a semi-futuristic scientific complex. Your problem is solved quickly thanks to the recently opened Ontario Science Centre. Within its walls you shoot a film that you hope will impress viewers of ABC’s Movie of the Week and theatregoers in Canada.

Despite having two Oscar winners (Sandy Dennis and Burl Ives) in its cast and a budget twice that normally allocated to TV movies, The Heart Farm went into cardiac arrest after encountering local film critics. The plot: a millionaire (Ives, Cat on a Hot Tin RoofRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) establishes Science City (guess where!), a research centre where all of the experts just happen to have the same blood type as he does. Seems our benefactor has a bum ticker and figures he’s good for only one more heart attack. A researcher (Stuart Whitman, The ComancherosNight of the Lepus) is the lucky donor of a new heart…whether he likes it or not. Dr. Whitman falls in love with a blood specialist (Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Out of Towners), and both figure out what’s really happening. The film turns into a James Bond-esque ski chase through the Rockies as agents working for Ives attempt to secure his key to immortality.

Interior sequences were mostly shot in Toronto during May and June 1970. When the Star interviewed Dennis (who had visited Kleinburg, Ontario several years earlier to shoot the controversial drama The Fox), the paper seemed more obsessed with her odd fashion sense than her acting talent. Clad in a beige turtleneck poncho, “she looked more like some fey wayward waif straight off Yorkville than your genuine 33-year-old, Oscar-award-winning star.” Apart from a reference to his toupee, the Star was gentler to Ives, even if it allowed him to admit that things might not have been going so well at a Yorkville soundstage. “I was skating on thin ice yesterday,” he told the paper. “Couldn’t remember my lines. It doesn’t roll yet. Not like Tennessee Williams does…But it will, it will. [stage whisper] After I rewrite it.” Producer Terry Dene was happy with the assistance he received from the Science Centre after awkward scheduling elsewhere. “They bent over backward to help us,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We screened our rushes in their film theatre, and late at night they’d even crank up the laser beam when we needed it for a shot.”

All involved could have used lasers and other advanced technology for personal protection after their masterpiece was unveiled. The first local review appeared in the November 11 edition of the Don Mills Mirror. Writer Kirk Brown was impressed with the Science Centre’s potential as a film set, but that was as far as his enthusiasm extended. He felt the film “abuses the Centre by depending on its futuristic design to set an atmosphere for a bad story and all too familiar plot… The actors have as much impression as a smudge of chocolate ice cream left by a scoop on a vanilla serving.” Especially unsatisfying was the romance between Dennis and Whitman, whose love scenes were “pathetically clumsy.”

But the critical knives were only beginning to sharpen…

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Toronto Star, November 20, 1970.

Outside of a showing at the Science Centre, the film ran briefly at the Yonge cinema downtown. The fleeting run was too long for the Star’s Urjo Kareda, whose review was merciless from the get-go:

Well, we’ve touched bottom now: The Heart Farm is the first out-and-out Canadian-made bomb, a movie beyond redemption…In a way, you can only bring yourself to believe in the existence of movies like The Heart Farm if you imagine them being thought up in the dim hours of the morning and somehow filmed in those couple of hours before the sunrise cleared everybody’s head.

Nobody involved in the hapless film escaped Kareda’s scorn, whether it was the stars (“Anyone who’d let the twitchy Miss Dennis play around with their corpuscles is beyond help”), the skiing sequences (“touchingly, the film has substituted lyrical scenes of downhill skiing for scenes of actual passion between the two”), or the misuse of the Science Centre (“photographed to look like a particularly unconvincing cardboard set”). Even Dolores Claman, composer of Canada’s other national anthem, was fingered for a score that resulted in “awful, signalling music” which left “no crudity unturned.”

As far as we can tell, The Heart Farm (which was also known as The Man Who Wanted to Live Forever) has never been released on video and hasn’t surfaced online. So much for its quest for immortality.

Additional material from the June 6, 1970 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the May 30, 1970; June 13, 1970; and November 23, 1970 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Gentlemanly Day on a Budget

Originally published on Torontoist on April 15, 2007.

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Source: Maclean’s, December 1972.

Is this how you or your parents spent a leisurely day around Toronto 35 years ago?
Except for the F.O.B. and possibly Sean, it would be easy to recreate this “gentlemanly” jaunt, though ferry fares to the Toronto Islands are cheap enough to make it worthwhile checking the schedule before leaving the house.

HBC remained in the booze business until the distillery division was sold to Seagram in 1987, though a licensed scotch is still available in the United States.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Compared to how the feature evolved, some of the early installments of Vintage Toronto Ads are ridiculously short, especially if the ad depicted had its own wordy storyline.

The source of this particular ad is a good time to bring up how the feature started. Collecting old ads began when I started going through my father’s boxes of Sports Illustrated a few years after he passed away. He had a subscription throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and had kept the back issues in our crawlspace (first house we lived in) or the backyard shed (second house we lived in). Rather than immediately put them out for recycling, I spent several visits home browsing through the collection. A tiny handful of issues I kept intact. For the rest, I clipped out catchy ads, or ones that left an impression on me as a kid.

I started posting these ads on my blog, which led to me seeking out cheap copies of other old magazines. One day on my walk home from work (which, at the time, was working in internal communications at Canadian Tire’s head office at Yonge and Eglinton), I noticed a box by the curb filled with issues of Maclean’s, The New Yorker, and Saturday Night from the 1970s.

Near the end of 2006, I saw a call for new contributors to Torontoist. I pitched a column based on the ads. Thanks to that curbside box, along with photocopies made from the first decade of Toronto Life I stumbled upon at the University of Guelph’s library, I had plenty of Toronto-centric material to use. The pitch worked and my writing career, which had been on hold since leaving the shenanigans surrounding working at Guelph’s student paper, was slowly revving up again.