Golden Mile Plaza

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on February 26, 2013.

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The Telegram, April 7, 1954.

Following World War II, Scarborough Township was in dire financial straits. “We didn’t have enough money to meet our weekly payroll,” reeve Oliver Crockford recalled years later. Crockford placed his hopes on a 255 acre parcel of federal land along Eglinton Avenue east of Pharmacy Avenue that the township purchased in 1949. Industrial development quickly ensued, with major companies like Frigidaire and Inglis opening along what was soon dubbed the “Golden Mile.”

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Toronto Star, October 16, 1952. Click on image for larger version.

Developers saw potential in turning nearby farms into commercial and residential properties. Among them was Robert McClintock, who purchased a 150-acre farm at the northeast corner of Eglinton and Victoria Park in 1950. After building apartments and homes, he realized he wasn’t equipped to handle a major commercial development, so he sold a chunk of land to Principal Investments in 1952.

The new owners proceeded to build one of the new “one-stop shopping” plazas that were starting to define suburban North America. Retail chains saw such developments as key to their future. “The rate at which Toronto is growing internally and on its fringes,” Fairweather treasurer Benjamin Fish told the Telegram, “makes it imperative that the merchants give it the room and facilities it deserves.”

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The Telegram, April 7, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

Fairweather was among the tenants who welcomed shoppers when the first phase of Golden Mile Plaza opened on April 8, 1954. Visitors who filled the 2,000 free parking spots were treated to a circus-like atmosphere complete with acrobats, clowns, high divers, and pipe bands. The largest Loblaws in Canada gave away 2,000 pounds of Pride of Arabia coffee. A draw offered a top prize of a 1954 Ford Skyliner, followed by appliances built on the Golden Mile by Frigidaire. By the time the plaza was fully opened in late 1954, its tenants included Bata, Hunt’s Bakery, Tamblyn Drugs, Woolworth’s, and Zellers.

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Toronto Star, June 27, 1959. Click on image for larger version.

The plaza reached its pinnacle on June 30, 1959. Following a tour of Sunnybrook Hospital, Queen Elizabeth II stopped by Golden Mile for a 10-minute visit. She surprised her RCMP handler and municipal officials by making a quick stop at Loblaws. It was not reported if she purchased any of the week’s specials.

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Toronto Star, September 22, 1983. Click on image for larger version.

Like the rest of the Golden Mile, the plaza lost its shine during the 1970s and 1980s. The factories that spurred the area’s development closed. New enclosed malls like Fairview and Scarborough Town Centre stole business. Plaza owners failed to properly maintain the property. A flea market became a major tenant. Scarborough officials viewed it as an eyesore and began dreaming of the property’s potential for mixed commercial, office, and residential use. Amid the calls for a classier redevelopment, pictures in newspaper articles depict stores that would fit the multi-ethnic plazas that are now part of the Scarborough landscape.

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Toronto Star, April 16, 1986. Click on image for larger version.

Reactions among Scarborough city councillors were mixed when Loblaws proposed one of its new Super Centre hypermarkets for the plaza site in 1986. While some were happy to see any replacement, others thought a giant supermarket was an inappropriate gateway to the city. “This may be what Scarborough has grown up on,” councillor Joyce Trimmer noted, “but it’s not good enough today. The first thing people will see on coming into Scarborough will be a big parking lot.” The development was approved. The plaza’s demolition was marred by a fire on December 15, 1986 that forced the closure of a few lingering stores which had hoped to remain open through Christmas Eve. The plaza would be memorialized via a photo gallery inside its replacement.

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Toronto Star, March 17, 1988.

For a time, the Super Centre revived old retail traditions like a fleet of floor employees equipped with roller skates to retrieve merchandise. When Loblaws phased out the Super Centre concept, they reduced the size of the store and converted it to a No Frills. A spokesperson told the Star in 1999 that Loblaws was happy with the site, as “the Golden Mile name has a certain cachet.” The remaining Super Centre space was initially a Zellers then further split into the present combination of a dollar store, discount gym, and Joe Fresh.

Sources: the September 22, 1983, April 16, 1986, August 29. 1986, and July 12, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star, and the April 7, 1954 edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, April 20, 1953. Click on image for larger version.

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Toronto Star, April 20, 1953.

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The Telegram, April 7, 1954. Click on image for larger version.

A Pandemic Day’s Wanderings: My First Subway Ride in Three Months

The last time I took a subway ride was back in March, either returning from the airport or on one last set of downtown errands before COVID-19 shut down the city. Needing to shoot some photos for some personal projects and not feeling like driving downtown on a sunny Monday afternoon, I decided to reacquaint myself with the subway after a three-month separation.

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Greenwood station has one of the city’s new wayfinding pillars, which include maps and historical tidbits about the surrounding area. I had forgotten I contributed to several pillars that would be installed downtown – more about them in a future post.

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Once past the Presto barrier, hand sanitizer was available.

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This vision of mouth sores is not the most encouraging ad to see in the subway at the moment.

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On the train, many seats were blocked off to promote social distancing. Some of the signs looked worse for wear.

There were three other people in my car when I got on, none of whom were wearing masks. Who knows if they’ll comply if the TTC’s proposal to make wearing masks mandatory goes ahead. I felt a little uncomfortable until Pape, when nearly everyone who boarded was masked.

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Given the current protests about policing, and controversies around fare enforcement, I’m surprised this ad hadn’t been replaced by the TTC or ripped out by an angry rider.

Overall, the ride was fine. It was very quiet, and everyone observed the spacing suggestions. My comfort level grew, and I suspect I’ll use the system when convenient during the week.

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The Bloor platform was eerily quiet.

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Who wants to solve an online mattress company puzzle?

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Hopping off at Queen, I noticed that the Bay was open, but, in compliance with current COVID regulations, you couldn’t enter from subway level.

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Inside the store, sanitizing stations were set up on each floor by the escalators. Few people were walking around. Fewer appeared to be tempted by the merchandise, possibly from a combination of closed dressing rooms in the clothing sections and underwhelming discounts throughout. It was hard not to feel like I was walking through the ruins of a lost civilization, who had left their mannequins behind.

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That feeling hit even harder at Nathan Phillips Square, which should have been full of life at 3:30 on a sunny Monday in June. I was curious if any messages supporting the anti-racism protests had been scrawled in chalk. Unless they had been scrubbed or washed away, there weren’t any. The ground was a blank canvas waiting for something, anything, to liven it up.

There were people sitting on the benches lining the outside of the square, mostly eating food truck hot dog and fries, or adjusting their cameras.

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The shady sidewalk alongside Osgoode Hall was a good place to process my thoughts, letting the affects of pandemic on the city sink in.

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An amusing mural on Duncan Street by Camilla Teodoro celebrating the usual experience of walking through the city felt extra comforting.

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A message of love drawn on the plywood erected by the entrance of the Michaels at John and Richmond. Given the lack of other graffiti, I’m guessing this was installed to protect the store in case any protest-related problems arose.

They didn’t.

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Commercial plug department: the Spacing Store is open to pick up orders. Plenty of great stuff is displayed in their windows, including a few books I may have contributed to…

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Wandering up Spadina, a banner at Chinatown Centre encouraged silly walks. Nobody took up this offer…

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…least of all Sun Yat-Sen. Maybe his doppleganger in Chinatown East would be more enticed to join in.

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Commentary on the current discussion on race, found in Kensington Market.

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An existential question asked by a garage door on Croft Street. It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately about any number of things, from the value of my work to how the world functions. So much soul searching these days…

Did I mention this was a contemplative walk?

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Two of the brighter examples of the murals currently along Croft Street.

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An ode to Harbord Street…

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…and the city’s lost rivers, a little difficult to appreciate on garbage day.

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Up on Bloor Street, buckets of cheap fondant at Bulk Barn, ideal for anyone who had “learn cake decorating” on their pandemic to-do list.

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Heading back to Bloor-Yonge station, there were long, snaking lines outside stores in Yorkville, primarily Artizia, Sephora, and Zara. Many mixed feelings about this, including the effects of fast fashion on people and the environment, the desire to return to anything resembling our individual senses of normalcy, and Toronto’s love for long lines under any circumstances.

Epitomizing that last point was a family I saw standing in the queue outside the Gap at Bay and Bloor. They were gorging on Chick Fil A, which I bet they also spent plenty of time waiting for.

Yorkville, Through Rochester-Coloured Glasses

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Some celebrity tourism in mid-1970s Yorkville. “The star of The Snoop Sisters does some snooping of her own. While character actress Helen Hayes was strolling down Yorkville Ave., she discovered a shop that specializes in Canadiana furnishings and spotted a china platter that she said she would like to add to her collection.” Photo by Doug Griffin, 1974. Toronto Star Archives, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0054027f.

By 1976, Yorkville had shed its image as a haven for music venues and wayward youth, as it gentrified into a high-end residential and shopping district. The neighbourhood’s new image made it ideal for newspaper profiles touting its charms for tourists.

Take this five-page piece, published in the April 18, 1976 edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle‘s Sunday magazine Upstate.

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“Scollard Street is where you’ll find most of Yorkville’s art galleries, including the Marianne Friedland and Evans galleries.”

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Ending with a Wizard of Oz reference? Sheesh.

Hazelton Lanes opened later that year. The writer wouldn’t have many more opportunities to criticize the Riverboat, as it closed in June 1978. The Yorkville branch of Hy’s lasted until 1982, while the Book Cellar remained a hive of literary activity until 1997. The Coffee Mill served its last goulash in 2014.

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This ad appeared on the last page of the article. Note that neither of the Metro Toronto HoJo locations listed here (Airport and Scarborough) for a bubbly-filled weekend were anywhere near Yorkville (though the chain eventually occupied the old Regency Towers Hotel on Avenue Road).

Making and Remaking Hazelton Lanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Toronto Life, December 1984.

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

 

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Rendering of south escalator area.

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

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

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Toronto Star, April 5, 1973.

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

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

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

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

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Globe and Mail, September 25, 1976.

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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Yorkville Village, January 27, 2020.

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

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Yorkville Village, January 27, 2020.

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

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Nearby advertising on Yorkville Avenue.

Christmas in Toronto, 1869

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Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1869.

Saturday being Christmas Day business was suspended in the city; that is to say, all places of business, except such as oyster depots, candy shops and saloons were closed. The streetcars ran as usual, and certainly did a paying business, as they were crowded with passengers nearly every trip. The weather was delightful, reminding one more of a day in spring than in winter; and, as a natural consequence, the streets were crowded with pedestrians, chiefly of the male sex, however. Divine service was held in several of the numerous places of religious worship in the city, and sermons appropriate to the occasion preached. – The Leader, December 27, 1869.

Torontonians gathering ingredients for their Christmas dinner 150 years ago had plenty of options from local butchers. “The St. Lawrence Market,” the Globe reported, “is peculiarly well adorned with meat of the most tempting character, while all over the city the butchers show that though they are not in the market they are quite prepared to meet the wants of the citizens, as respects Christmas cheer.”

The Leader was particularly taken with James Britton’s stall. “Mr. Jas. Britton, everybody in Toronto knows, and every Toronto epicure and gourmand blesses, or ought to, for he has certainly on this occasion pandered to their luxurious tastes most extensively and deserves for his splendid display of meats, to stand foremost on the list.”

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The Globe, December 23, 1869.

Among the advertisers that season was the Wesleyan Methodist Church, who invited the public to view the Christmas tree in the basement of their Richmond Street home. Visitors stopping in on December 23 could browse a “sale of useful and fancy articles” which raised funds for the congregation’s future home in McGill Square (the lot on the northwest side of Queen and Church). “Attendance was very fair during the afternoon,” the Telegraph reported, “swelling to a positive crowd in the evening.” The proceeds helped build the new church, which evolved into today’s Metropolitan United Church.

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The Leader, December 24, 1869.

Browsing the ads for the city’s dry goods merchants, one new name had entered the holiday shopping sweepstakes. Earlier that month, Timothy Eaton opened his first Toronto store at 178 Yonge Street, which offered the radical merchandising method of selling goods for cash only (the store’s “goods satisfactory or money refunded” motto debuted the following year). The store was snug: measuring 24 feet across and 60 feet deep, it only employed four people. Popular items early on included buttons, gloves, and underwear.

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Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, circa 1867-1868. Photo by Octavius Thompson. Toronto Public Library, Z 3-7.

Among the Christmas Day festivities across the city was a dinner held at the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide for over 220 children living in charitable institutions such as the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Boys’ Home, and the Girls’ Home (along with, as the Globe dubbed them, “20 inmates of the News Boys’ Home). Organized annually by businessman John Hallam, it featured a hymn sing where the kids’ performances were praised community dignitaries. “The Christmas tree was then disburdened and each child having received from its branches a toy or picture book,” the Globe reported, “and also been handed a paper bag containing cakes, raisins, apples, and sweetmeats, the children started for their respective homes, four happy little bands, rendered so by the liberality of those who will be amply paid for their kindness to these poor little orphans when they shall have addressed to them the words ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

(Journalists in 1869 were a wordy bunch)

Years later, as a city councillor, Hallam’s support of free public libraries played a role in the transformation of the Mechanics’ Institute’s collection into the Toronto Public Library. Hallam Street is named in his honour.

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Christmas menu for guests of the Queen’s Hotel. The Telegraph, December 27, 1869.

Some of the city’s wealthier, politically-connected citizens gathered for a Christmas dinner at the Queen’s Hotel (the present site of the Royal York). Toasts were made to Queen Victoria, various branches of the military, and Americans. The Telegraph printed the extensive menu.

The Globe reported on Christmas Day at the Don Jail:

Even without the heavy walls of the prison the genial spirit of Christmas penetrated, and brought a thrill of pleasure and a softening influence to many a hardened heard among the 154 incarcerated there. No relaxation of the prison discipline was admitted, except to allow friends to visit the inmates and bring with them some of the Christmas cheer which prevailed without. In more than one cell, tears came to eyes unused to weep, at the thought of former Christmas Days—when innocence made it a happy anniversary. Many a heart that knew not the crucified Saviour had reason to feel thankful for the natal day of Him who pardoned the thief on the cross.

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Francis Henry Medcalf. Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the holidays saw the start of nominations for city council candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Putting his name back into the fray was former mayor Francis Henry Medcalf, who had resigned from council on November 1 to protest a proposal to extend the term of office from one to three years. He decided to switch wards, moving from St. Lawrence’s (which covered the area south of Queen Street east of Yonge) to St. John’s (later known simply as “The Ward”). At a Christmas Eve nomination meeting, Medcalf claimed that when he was asked to run, he did so because, the Leader reported, “he owed the people of that ward a deep debt of gratitude for the hearty way in which they had always supported them, and he hoped he would be able to pay that debt before he paid the debt of nature.” Medcalf would represent the ward for two years, then returned to the mayor’s chair for a final two-year run in 1874.

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Canadian Illustrated News, December 25, 1869.

We’ll end with the parting thoughts from the Globe’s Christmas day editorial:

Let us hope, in any case, that the event may be happy, and that we, like the rest of the world, may find that, after of dread of turbulence and conflict, we are, as we should be, in peace and good will with all men.

Sources: the December 23, 1869, December 25, 1869, and December 27, 1869 editions of the Globe; the December 25, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Leader; and the December 24, 1869 and December 27, 1869 editions of the Telegraph.

the short, aubergine-coloured, lower-cased life of eatons

Viewers tuning into CTV’s airing of Tomorrow Never Dies on October 22, 2000 might have scratched their heads during the commercial breaks. Of the 29 minutes of ad time during that evening’s Bond thriller, 24 were dedicated to promoting a shade of purple which shared the French name for eggplant. The longest spot, running four-and-a-half minutes, was a stylish ode to classic Hollywood musicals.

Aubergine: the colour and driving spirit of the new incarnation of Eaton’s. Or, as it would now be known, eatons.

The ad campaign, created by the Ammirati Puris agency and anchor by director Floria Sigismondi’s TV spot, created a lot of buzz. But the expectations it created among consumers, and the disappointment they experienced when faced with reality, led to the quick demise of the eatons experiment.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

In Fall 1999, Sears Canada picked up the remains of the T. Eaton Company for, depending on the source, either $50 million or $80 million. Of the 19 locations acquired, 12 were converted to Sears stores. The remaining seven—two in Toronto (Eaton Centre and Yorkdale), along with locations in Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and Winnipeg—would form a new, upscale chain. It would be a change of pace for Sears, whose base was mid-market suburbia.

Retaining the “circle e” logo Eaton’s had introduced during a last-ditch “Times Have Changed” revamp in 1997, the new branding was introduced in April 2000. Sears Canada executive VP of marketing Rick Sorby explained the decision to use a lower-case name:

The design of the name, which features a small “e” and no apostrophe before the “s,” reflects the evolution from a family name to a true brand name. The execution of the identification utilizes easy-to-read lower-case typography and a powerful icon—the circled e—to give us a branding device that works on all applications from TV commercials to store signing…The lower-case letters are more contemporary, cleaner and more reflective of the style of the new Internet age.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

During focus group sessions with upper middle-class female shoppers, Sorby envisioned a store they would shop in if they had only three hours to live. “It’s not going to be, it’s going to be sophisticated. But not to the point of scary.”

Initial plans called for reviving lines dumped by Eaton’s during its final years, including furniture and appliances. Also resurrected was the catalogue, whose discontinuation in 1976 had caused a national uproar. If all went well, the seven eatons stores would see $1 billion in annual sales by 2003.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

All promotional material dripped with aubergine, a colour executives hoped the public would associate with eatons as they did orange with Home Depot or green with TD. “Aubergine,” Ammirati Puris creative director Doug Robinson explained to Marketing Magazine, “has been associated with royalty. We simply struck on the ideas of taking that forward, of taking it into some sort of musical, very high-fashion, very entertaining positioning-without getting too sophisticated with it.”

The aubergine jokes began as soon as the first ads aired in October. “Don’t think purple, which only comes close to aubergine,” Peter Goddard observed in the Toronto Star. “Purple is for the suburbs. Aubergine is so very downtown, so very sophisto, so very the new eatons.” Eaton chronicler Rod McQueen wondered if the brand had found a new path to bankruptcy (“Aubergine? Doesn’t that rhyme with might have been?”).

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

Checking out the renovations to the Eaton Centre flagship for Saturday Night, writer Jennifer Wells smelled “the scent of fabulousness.”

Perforated metal drop-panel ceilings. Steel floor inlays under archways. Chrome yellow tile with flecks of faux Inca gold. Three sets of escalators have been opened so that shoppers on these floors will no longer feel they are being fed up and down cattle chutes. Shoppers on floor five (fine china, drapery, flooring) will be able to peer down to four, where visiting chefs in the Great Kitchen will be preparing something sensational. There will be restaurants in all the stores featuring a variety of food stations. Alas, they are self-serve and bear the un-hip name Cuisine Scene. And you won’t be able to take home a box of petits fours or those twee pinwheel tea sandwiches. (Does anyone else remember the divine Charlotte Russe?) Those days are forever dead. Still, Sorby likens the hoped-for consumer experience on these top floors to a sensory journey. All sights, sounds, smells.

The “Historical Rooms of Distinction,” wood-panelled rooms partly preserved from the College Street store closed in 1976, were installed. The wall along Yonge Street was replaced with fashion boutiques for Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Polo, Kenneth Cole, and BCBG Max Azria with doors open to outside foot traffic. Aisles were two feet wider than a standard Sears store. Greeters would be dressed in aubergine jackets. Granite and marble was used to create a sense that the new eatons was here for the long run.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 2000.

“From the outset,” Sears CEO Paul Walters told the Globe and Mail, “our objective has been to offer exceptional stores that meet all of the needs and wants of our primary customer—the time-pressed urban customer who enjoys shopping, wants the latest styles and trends, demands service expertise and wants an exciting entertaining environment to shop in.”

There were troubling signs. Grand openings originally projected for October 2000 were delayed a month partly due to construction strikes, missing up to $40 million in sales during the early part of the holiday shopping season. Renovations went over budget. Overall consumer confidence was sinking, with fears of a recession around the corner. Some of those who attended sneak previews felt too much space was given to brands available everywhere else.

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 2000.

As for the target market, did the brand itself retain any resonance? “Can it draw crowds who are prepared to spend?” McQueen observed in the National Post. “Maybe among the 60-year-old women who grew up going to the Georgian Room in Toronto or the Grill Room in Winnipeg. But the target market of tomorrow is not women of a certain age. Eatons badly needs the 18-to-49-year old who may find switching difficult because her buying habits are already well established elsewhere.”

“These days, mimicry is mediocrity.”

The competition barely flinched. “People talk about eatons reopening as if it was Eaton’s reopening,” HBC CEO George Heller told Maclean’s. “It’s not. We’re talking about a totally different animal here.”

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Toronto Star, November 25, 2000.

When the stores opened on November 25, reviews were positive about the look and customer service, mixed about the merchandise. “I love it,” shopper Theresa Macas told the Star. “They have very luxurious clothes and good lighting. I thought it was going to be like Sears, but it’s not.”

The wheels fell off quickly. After 13 straight quarters of record earnings, Sears Canada’s stock price fell and earnings dipped into the red. Customers expecting merchandise lining up with the adventurous advertising were disappointing. The 100-page catalogue delivered to 4.2 million homes was uninspiring. It didn’t help that it was sent via Sears’ traditional mailing list, which skewed older, lower-income, and in smaller communities than the audience eatons wanted to attract. It looked and felt nothing like the legendary Eaton’s catalogue of yore. Some industry observers also noted how much Canadians hated paying for shipping. The eatons website looked impressive, but was slow-loading and difficult to click on. Though aubergine was retained as a theme, a second television ad campaign featuring the mini-musical’s characters with a funky 1970s soundtrack failed to capture the public’s imagination. Retail consultants experienced déjà vu, seeing similar mistakes the old Eaton’s made in creating a new marketing image that wasn’t delivered in store.

Shorter version of the Floria Sigismondi aubergine ad.

“I think that we thought that these stores would open and be perfect,” Sears executive VP of marketing Bill Turner told the National Post. “In truth, it’s been a lot of work.”

By the end of January 2001 Walters, the architect of the eatons revival plan, was gone. Sears stock fell 16% over the following weeks. The catalogue and online sales were killed in early April. New CEO Mark Cohen spoke to the media in mid-June. He admitted that because of $175 million in tax write-offs acquired with Eaton’s, the new stores had to open within a year. He also admitted that “there aren’t enough truly upscale customers in Canada for half-a-million square feet of upscale goods.” Advertising would be reduced, as “it’s never going to make sense speaking to large levels of customers who geographically are never going to visit these seven stores.” Cohen expected that, as consumer spending dropped, it would be several years before Sears would pour significantly more money into eatons, and that it would take several seasons to settle on the contemporary style the chain stood for. Private labels shared by the two chains, such as Nevada men’s clothing, would be phased out of eatons.

Cohen dismissed speculation that the chain would be sold or converted into Sears stores. “I’m not going to give you a categoric no, but it’s highly unlikely that’s going to happen.”

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Globe and Mail, December 15, 2001.

Christmas 2001 stood in stark contrast to the previous year. No TV ads ran, while newspaper ads simply showcasing products with the trademarked tagline “eatons magic.” No pizazz, no excitement.

On February 18, 2002, the axe fell. “We did not do well last year,” Cohen told the press. While partly blaming the recession and effects of 9/11, “at the end of the day, we lost a lot more money than we had originally planned when this investment was first made.” Except for the Winnipeg and Yorkdale locations, the stores would be converted to Sears. A few high-performing brands would be sold at a select number of Sears locations. Cadillac Fairview indicated that the Eaton Centre name would remain on its malls in Toronto and Victoria (though the latter has since been renamed).

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Globe and Mail, February 19, 2002.

Retail consultants were harsh in their final assessments of eatons, blaming its end on everything from too few stores spread too far apart to over-emphasis on the aubergine ad campaign to overall poor execution. Among the comments:

“Those eatons stores were like stores without a soul.” – Wendy Evans.

“I don’t think the strategy was wrong, I think just the execution was wrong…Instead of calling it aubergine, if they’d called it eggplant it would have been closer to the truth. You can’t call an eggplant aubergine.” – Richard Talbot.

“They just went back to the easiest, simplest tool to drive business, which is price. Everybody else is doing the same thing. In the end, what really made eatons different? – Sam Geist.

“Disappointment is too kind a work for when you got there.” – Gary Prouk.

“Those really are winner locations. It’s just amazing they managed to screw them up.” – John Williams.

Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick summed up the chain’s demise:

What put an end to eatons’ brief resurrection was the smell of shopping death….We’ve all noticed it: it’s actually an odour of embarrassment rather than expiry. It fills the main floor when you, the shopper, find yourself empathically alone with 400 red-white-and-blue thingies by Tommy Hilfiger, 12,000 bottles of unguents and six salespeople who try too hard because they have been trained to try too hard. You know it’s not working, they know it’s not working, but you both do the time. They greet, aid, chat and wrap in such a false un-Canadian manner that you are wrenched with sympathy and impatience.

Even members of the Eaton family were critical. “When Sears started up the ‘new Eatons’ with the ‘aubergine’ campaign, I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s the wrong way to open a store,’” observed Fredrik Eaton, who ran Eaton’s during the late 1970s and early 1980s, told Canadian Business in 2005. “I had always been advised by buyers to be careful when someone offered anything in aubergine.”

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Toronto Star, August 21, 2002.

The conversions were finished by summer. The Toronto Eaton Centre Sears operated until February 2014, and would be replaced by one of the chains eatons aspired to provide the same wow factor as, Nordstrom. A recent walk through the store revealed little aubergine.

Sources: the December 11, 2000 and June 20, 2005 editions of Canadian Business; the October 27, 2000, November 25, 2000, December 14, 2001, February 19, 2002, and February 23, 2002 editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 20, 2000 edition of Maclean’s; the November 6, 2000 edition of Marketing Magazine; the April 17, 2000, November 15, 2000, November 22, 2000, April 4, 2001, April 9, 2001, June 14, 2001, and February 19, 2002 editions of the National Post; the November 11, 2000 edition of Saturday Night; and the October 29, 2000, November 26, 2000, and June 14, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

From Simpsons to The Bay to Saks

Originally published on Torontoist on January 28, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mail and Empire, January 18, 1896.

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

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

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

Early ads for the Arcadian Court touted its architectural wonders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

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Mail and Empire, February 17, 1896.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teaser which accompanied this illustration:

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

gm 68-12-24 busiest crossing in city

Globe and Mail, December 24, 1968.

Opening the Eaton Centre

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

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Toronto Star, February 10, 1977.

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

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

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

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

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

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 1972.

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

tspa_0045241f_eaton brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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Globe and Mail, January 1, 1977.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper also provided a male perspective from Ken Becker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Globe and Mail, January 11, 1977.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zellers: Where the Lowest Price Was the Law

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

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

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

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

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Toronto Star, November 7, 1931.

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

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Toronto Star, November 11, 1931.

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

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Globe and Mail, March 8, 1950.

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

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Toronto Star, March 8, 1950.

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

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

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

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Toronto Star, October 15, 1986.

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

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Toronto Star, February 24, 1987.

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

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

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

Facts of Interest to the People of Canada about Zellers

Maclean’s, June 1, 1944. 

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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

From a 1939 Financial Post profile of Walter Zeller:

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

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

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Globe and Mail, February 2, 1950.

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Canadian Champion, February 9, 1972.

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

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

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Minneapolis Journal, May 23, 1903.

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

“We don’t want to become a city of moles”

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” online column for The Grid was originally published on May 22, 2012.

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Toronto Star, December 18, 1971.

To some, it provided a welcome respite from braving the elements on their lunch break. For others, especially those working in its retail outlets, it made them feel like a mole. The three kilometres of underground shopping malls and tunnels that 175,000 office workers passed through daily in May 1980 formed the spine from which today’s PATH system grew.

Since the opening of the Toronto-Dominion Centre’s sub-surface shopping complex in 1967, planners and developers envisioned an underground network connecting the core’s major business, shopping, and transportation facilities. One of the first reports commissioned by the city was 1968’s “On Foot Downtown,” which concluded that downtown pedestrians required a space that wasn’t impeded by industrial pollution, noise, traffic congestion, or too many of their fellow human beings. “We had reached the point where sidewalks couldn’t handle all the people,” former Toronto planning commissioner Matthew Lawson told the Star in 1980. “At the same time, all our forecasts said such conditions would only worsen because of the growth of the downtown work force.”

It was hoped that a climate-controlled underground route would avert these problems and provide protection from Mother Nature—as Toronto development commissioner Graham Emslie told the Star in 1971, “let’s face it, there are a hell of a lot of days you’d just as soon not walk outside.” The first major connection in the primordial PATH, which linked Nathan Phillips Square to the Richmond-Adelaide Centre, opened in January 1973. By May 1980, apart from a gap at Adelaide Street that became a haven for jaywalkers, one could wander underground from City Hall to Union Station.

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Toronto Star, November 17, 1973. Click on image for larger version.

While many users extolled the network’s conveniences, some urban planners and consultants were alarmed by the potential effects on surface life. An adviser to a planned revitalization of Yonge Street found it “worrisome” that in the future, people would take the subway downtown, shop at the Eaton Centre and other underground shopping complexes, then head home without ever setting foot outdoors. “We don’t want to become a city of moles,” noted Toronto planning and development commissioner Steve McLaughlin. To mitigate such a fate, a recently written central plan for the city encouraged developers to place higher priority on street-level retail in future buildings. According to McLaughlin, “we don’t want the downtown streets to contain nothing more than block after block of office lobbies.”

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Toronto Star, May 3, 1980. Click on image for larger version.

Back underground, Downtown Business Council president David Arscott provided the Star with a shopping list of improvements. Filling the gap under Adelaide Street was critical, as was a proper orientation system to give users a sense of which surface landmarks they were wandering under. Complaints Arscott received that required addressing included narrow walkways, poor lighting, low ceilings, and boring street entrances. “We are still in a primitive stage of the art,” said Arscott. “We have a lot to learn from experience.”

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Downtown Toronto underground pedestrian mall system, 1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 408, Item 5.

Within the next decade, some of those issues were resolved. The Adelaide gap was fixed in 1984, while a tunnel opened under Bay Street in 1990 that properly connected the Eaton Centre and Simpsons (now The Bay) to the rest of the PATH. Signage would long remain a problem, one caught between city politicians who wanted clear wayfinding versus landlords who didn’t want to create the impression that the network was a truly public space.

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“People bound for jobs in the financial district pour out of Union station into the underground mall section of the Royal Bank Plaza. It’s been described as an ‘environmental vaccuum’ by some due to the poor artificial lighting and the mechanically recirculated stale air.” Photo by Erin Combs, 1985. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

While a few people may have mutated into moles over the years, the surface streets remain filled with those seeking a breath of unfiltered air during the workday.

Additional material from the December 18, 1971, January 11, 1973, and May 3, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.