Shaping Toronto: Union Station

Originally published on Torontoist on January 15, 2016.

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Union Station under construction, August 1, 1917. Photo by John Boyd Sr. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 14352.

Pierre Berton called it “the soul and heartbeat of Toronto.” Over its history, Union Station has welcomed new arrivals to Canada, bid farewell to soldiers going off to war, hosted nobility, and endured cranky commuters. The City’s government management committee’s approval earlier this month of a proposal to develop space under the Great Hall for a culinary market and cultural event space is the latest step in the long evolution of our main downtown transportation hub.

Toronto entered the railway age in 1853, when a train departed a shed on Front Street for Aurora. Five years later the first incarnation of Union Station (so named because it was used by multiple railways) opened on the south side of Station Street between Simcoe and York. A shed-like structure, it couldn’t cope with the rapid increase in rail traffic, which prompted railways to build new stations elsewhere.

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Canadian Illustrated News, August 2, 1873.

The Grand Trunk Railway decided a new main station was needed. Built on the site of the original station, the second Union Station debuted on July 1, 1873. The opening ceremony was a muted affair due to the untimely death two months earlier of contractor John Shedden, but the new station was nicely decorated with evergreens for the occasion. Designed by E.P. Hanneford, the new Union was a grand building inspired by English railway stations of the previous decade, and was graced with three towers. Facing the harbour, it helped shape the city’s mid-Victorian skyline.

Like its predecessor, Union #2 couldn’t cope with the demands of a booming city. Facility improvements, including an 1894 expansion which blocked the original façade from view, barely alleviated the station’s woes. “The general consensus of opinion,” Railway and Shipping World reported in 1899, “is that the Toronto Union is one of the most inconvenient stations in America, expensive to run and unsatisfactory in very many respects.”

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The second Union Station, June 15, 1927. City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 79, Item 236.

A catastrophe provided an opportunity to remedy the situation. The Great of Fire of 1904 wiped out nearly all of the buildings east of the station along Front Street, leaving room for a new facility amid the rubble. Within a year plans were underway for Union’s third incarnation, along with a railway viaduct to reduce the injuries and fatalities piling up at level crossings. While Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk formed Toronto Terminals Railway in 1906 to run the new station, two decades would pass before it opened for service.

Over that time, governments, property owners, and railways squabbled over everything, especially track placement. While construction began in fall 1914, the combination of quarrels and First World War material shortages delayed completion of much of the station until 1921. It stood empty for six years, part of the great Toronto tradition of stalled projects like the Bayview Ghost and the Spadina Ditch.

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Row of ticket offices at Union Station, during the period it was unused, June 13, 1923. City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 908.

The delays became such a joke that when the new station received a royal opening on August 6, 1927, the Globe joked that “it took Edward, Prince of Wales just eight and one-half minutes on Saturday morning to accomplish what all of Toronto has been trying to do for the last six years.” When regular service launched four days later, the press gushed about improved passenger amenities and safety. Among the modern conveniences were a lunch counter, large dining room, full telegraph and telephone facilties, barber shop, beauty parlours, and, as the Globe noted, “individual bathrooms containing the most sanitary appliances.” Lingering viaduct work delayed Union’s final completion until 1930.

Stylistically, the new Union benefitted from its Beaux Arts design, especially in illuminating the Great Hall. In their survey of the city’s architectural history Toronto Observed, William Dendy and William Kilbourn praised main architect John M. Lyle’s work with natural light, which “gives the Hall its special character as light floods in through windows set high above the cornice on the south and north sides, and especially through the four-storey-high windows framed by vaulted arches at the east and west ends.”

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The second incarnation of Union Station was also a major transfer spot for the military during the First World War. Here, the 48th Highlanders are returning from Europe in 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 823.

During the Second World War, Union was an important military transfer point. Morley Callaghan described for Maclean’s how a soldier on leave could enjoy Union’s creature comforts, especially while killing time before a hot date:

If someone important is waiting, not there in the station but up in the city, and the date is a few hours off, the soldier can wait there in the station and enjoy all the comforts of a hotel. He can go into the drug store and buy himself a bottle of eau de cologne, if he wants to smell like a rose, and then go downstairs and take a bath. Then he can come up to the barber shop and be freshly shaved. If he is hungry he can go to the main dining room, if he has the money, or he can go to the coffee shop or the soda fountain. He’s not just in a depot, he’s in a communal centre.

After the war, Union’s amenities were among the first tastes of Canada thousands of immigrants enjoyed.

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Toronto Calendar, December 1971.

As intercity train travel waned during the 1960s, and plans for the redevelopment of the railway lands emerged, it looked like a fourth incarnation of Union might emerge. The destruction of Pennsylvania Station in New York City in 1963 to make way for a new Madison Square Garden and a nondescript new train terminal was echoed when the Metro Centre proposal emerged in 1968. Had it proceeded, office towers would have replaced the Great Hall, while train service (including the recently launched GO) would have moved south into a primarily underground structure. Proponents argued that, as with its earlier incarnations, Union could not be expanded to handle projected passenger growth.

By the time local councils approved Metro Centre in 1970, the project faced public outcry over Union’s death sentence. Grassroots preservationist groups, having witnessed heritage demolitions galore over the previous decade, were buoyed by fights over the Spadina Expressway and Trefann Court, as well as the rescue of Old City Hall. “Union Station became a rallying point for those who might not have otherwise become involved in the issue of planning downtown,” John Sewell observed years later. “That planners and city council would be so cavalier about this structure was something that raised the ire of many—to such an extent that the Ontario Municipal Board refused to approve council’s decisions implementing the scheme.”

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Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, July 21, 1974.

With the election of David Crombie and a reform-minded council in 1972, Metro Centre’s days were numbered. Though elements like the CN Tower went ahead, the province killed any notion of demolishing Union when it announced expansion and renovation plans for the station in 1975. Work was carried on as the station’s function continued to evolve into primarily serving GTA commuters.

In recent years, Union has been a construction site, as years of squabbling over how to revamp the facility are finally showing results. GO’s new York Concourse opened in April 2015, while work on the Bay Concourse (last renovated in 1979) is scheduled to finish in 2017. The subway station gained another platform. An outdoor market proved popular this past summer. One can argue that the station will continue to be the city’s pulse for decades to come.

Additional material from The Open Gate: Toronto Union Station, Richard Bébout, editor (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1972); Toronto’s Railway Heritage by Derek Boles (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009); Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993); Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986); The Shape of the City by John Sewell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993); the July 2, 1873, August 8, 1927, and August 11, 1927 editions of the Globe; the March 15, 1943 edition of Maclean’s; and the May 28, 1975 edition of the Toronto Star.

Tourism Tips, 1867

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on June 11, 2011.

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How we imagine a tourist magazine cover might have looked in 1867.

In June 1867, Toronto was weeks away from becoming the capital city of the province of Ontario in the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Then, as now, the summer tourist season was underway, though the preferred methods of arrival were train or steamship. We recently thumbed through a travel guide published that year, The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, which provides both brief highlights for visitors to our fair city and criticizes the lack of natural wonders. Which got us thinking…what would tourist literature akin to modern publications like Where Toronto have looked like during the Confederation year?

Here’s our attempt.

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Normal School building, Gould Street, north-side east of Yonge, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 8.

Summer is upon us and there are few better times to take a day’s visit or a week’s excursion to Toronto. Pay no heed to the authors of a recent travel guide who contend that our city has too many brick buildings (due to the absence of local stone quarries) and utterly lacks beautiful scenery and scenic drives. A city like ours has many aspects to appeal to any traveller, with which we hope to enlighten you.

ATTRACTIONS

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St. James Cathedral, between 1885 and 1895. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 23.

Toronto treats piety with the utmost seriousness. If your visit coincides with the Lord’s Day, there are many handsome churches that will satisfy your spiritual needs. If you are of the Anglican persuasion, attend a service at St. James Cathedral at the corner of King and Church streets. If you are a devotee of the papacy (which we generally do not advise visitors to openly display on Toronto’s streets, especially those of Irish extraction, unless brawling is on your itinerary), then slip into a mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael. Though both of these buildings of high worship have yet to be completed, we are assured that once their spires are finished they will provide much to the city’s appearance from a distance.

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University of Toronto, 1859. Painted by Sir Edmund Walker. Wikimedia Commons.

The city’s institutes of higher learning provide more than space to train the nation’s future leaders—these are sites for tourists who wish a sense of Toronto’s philosophy, the city’s aesthetics. Deep thought has gone into their architecture and aesthetic surroundings which make them ideal locations to spend an afternoon. The University of Toronto offers a beautiful botanical garden on its grounds, along with a main Norman-styled building made of the finest white stone from Ohio. On Queen Street, Trinity College offers 20 acres of lush parkland that we are certain future generations will enjoy on days resplendent with sun. The Normal School at St. James Square is said to the largest building in America designed to train future educators.

ENTERTAINMENT

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Right wing of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, 1868. Photo by William Notman. McCord Museum, Item I-34480.1.

A recently published guidebook, The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, highlights one of the most enlightening experiences in which any visitor to Toronto can partake, one that reinforces the frailty of human existence:

The Provincial Lunatic Asylum, at the western extremity of the city, is well worthy of a visit by the curious in such matters. It is kept in admirable order; and though it is a painful sight at all times to be brought in contact with “humanity so fallen,” it is pleasing to see the degree of comfort many of the patients seem to enjoy. There is no difficulty in obtaining permission to view it.

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The Globe, June 12, 1867.

Were a carnival of “fallen humanity” not diversion enough, visitors in July will have the opportunity to enjoy one of America’s finest travelling circuses, operated by veteran showman L.B. Lent.

ESSENTIALS

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Union Station (1858-1871), waterfront, west of York St., Toronto, Ont. Water colour, pen & brown ink over pencil. William Armstrong, 1859. Toronto Public Library, JRR 291 Cab III.Union Station, circa 1860.

Travellers arriving from the north have a new train station to disembark from in the vicinity of City Hall and St. Lawrence Market. Operated by the Northern Railway, this wonderful new facility on the Esplanade west of Jarvis Street was recently described in one of the city’s finest newspapers, the Globe, as being “a much more ornamental and commodious structure than is generally imagined…It is in the Italian style, with heavy bracketed cornice, circular-headed windows and doors, glazed with ornamental ground glass.” No less a figure than John A. Macdonald (who we suspect will become leader of the new Dominion next month) was on hand for the opening ceremony to praise the future possibilities of extending the line beyond Barrie into Grey County and other points north.

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King Street East, south side looking west, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 1.

For the finest in dry goods and seasonal fashions, King Street east of Yonge offers high class shopping to rival that found in older cities. It is a district for the chattering class, as one writer has noted:

The buildings on King Street are greater and grander than their neighbours on Yonge; the shops are larger and dearer; and last but not least King Street is honoured by the daily presence of the aristocracy while Yonge Street is given over to the business man, the middle-class and the beggar. Amid the upper classes there is a performance that goes on daily that is known among the habitués as ‘doing King.’ It consists principally of marching up and down a certain part of the street at a certain hour, performing, as it were, ko-tou [sic] to the goddess of Fashion, and sacrificing to her sister divinity of Society.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the first stragglers appear on the scene, which extends perhaps a quarter of a mile. These consist primarily of young ladies, whose proper place should be at school, and young men attired in the height of fashion. By the time these ardent devotees have paraded a few times, the regular habitués make their appearance, and till six o’clock in the evening one side—for one side only is patronized—is crowded to excess.

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Advertisement spotlighting the Golden Lion, 1872. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1662, Item 14.

Among the finest of King Street’s merchants is the establishment of Robert Walker and Sons, colloquially known as the “Golden Lion” due to the jungle lord that gazes down upon patrons entering the store. Founded around 1836, the business has been in its present location for the past two decades. Current renovations to the handsome cast-iron building will make it the largest retailer in Canada West/Ontario. When finished, the store will consist of a four-storey frontage along King Street and a two-storey section stretching back to Colborne Street that will include a large dome to provide beautiful natural lighting to heighten customer appreciation of the goods for sale.

Additional information from The Canadian Handbook and Tourists Guide (Montreal: M. Longmoore & Co., 1867), Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978), Toronto by Bruce West (Toronto: Doubleday, 1967), and the June 11, 1867 edition of the Globe.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The cover of the Coles Canadiana Collection edition of The Canadian Handbook and Tourist’s Guide, published in 1971. Given its focus on modern-day Ontario and Quebec (then Canada West and Canada East), the book was likely prepared prior to Confederation.

From the introduction:

The nooks and corners of Canada, and more especially of the Lower Province, in addition to the interest they awaken as important sources of Commercial and Agricultural wealth, are invested with no ordinary attraction for the Naturalist, the Antiquary, the Historian, and the Tourist in quest of pleasure or of health. We have often wondered why more the venturesome spirits amongst our transatlantic friends do not tear themselves away, even for a few months, from London fogs, to visit our distant but more favoured clime. How is it that so few, comparatively speaking, come to enjoy the bracing air and bright summer skies of Canada?

Here is a Vintage Toronto Ads column about the Golden Lion department store, which was originally published on Torontoist on April 8, 2015.

 

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The Globe, September 7, 1858.

During the late 19th century, several downtown Toronto dry-goods merchants developed the potential to grow into major department stores. While Eaton’s and Simpsons evolved into national retailers, their competitors either couldn’t tackle the two giants or fell by the wayside for other reasons. One could-have-been-a-contender was Robert Walker and Sons, a.k.a. the Golden Lion, which was considered the largest retail business in Ontario in the late 1860s.

A native of Brampton, England, Robert Walker moved to Toronto in 1829, where he quickly entered the local clothing business. Around 1836, he formed a partnership with Thomas Hutchinson and operated a store on King Street east of Yonge. Around 1847, Walker opened up his wallet and spent a spectacular amount for the time period ($30,000) to build a stone structure at 33-37 King Street East to house his business. Two years later, the store adopted a golden lion as its symbol.

The intense competition between dry-goods sellers led to bloodthirsty ad copy. Take the following spot Walker prepared in January 1858:

NO HUMBUG
The remains
of the late stocks of
CLOTHING & DRY GOODS
to be
SLAUGHTERED!
at
FEARFUL REDUCTIONS
for cash

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The Globe, March 19, 1881.

The Golden Lion became a key component of one of the city’s most fashionable shopping blocks. Its success prompted a major expansion built in 1866-67 which utilized cast iron columns to free up floor space previously occupied by thick masonry. The new four-storey front on King Street included a 30-foot-high glass window, while a two-storey back section stretching to Colborne Street utilized a 12-foot-wide glass dome for improved natural lighting. Topping the store was a 12-foot-high stone lion. The result, the Globe declared, excelled “anything before seen in this city, or perhaps any other part of Canada.”

Walker was active in the community, serving as a firefighter and on the board of the Necropolis cemetery. He was a devout Methodist who acted as a Sunday school superintendent and donated the land to build the Parliament Street Methodist Church (later demolished to build the Regent Park housing project). Walker retired from the business in 1870; when he died in 1885, the Globe called him “an energetic and upright merchant, a Christian who lived up to his creed and was not afraid to be known as a Christian—Mr. Walker was one of whom Toronto was, and had a right to be, proud.”

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Toronto Star, September 25, 1895.

Though the store doubled in size again in 1892, by 1898 no one was left in the Walker family to run it. Unlike its competitor Simpsons, where founder Robert Simpson’s sudden death in December 1897 prompted his survivors to sell out, the Golden Lion closed its doors. Subsequent occupants included another short-lived department store and a Liberal campaign office during the 1900 federal election.

After the stone lion was removed on April 6, 1901, the store was demolished to make way for a prominent new development. “In Toronto,” the Hamilton Herald observed, “they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.” The store’s replacement has stood the test of time as a downtown landmark—the King Edward Hotel.

Additional material from Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978); the January 19, 1858, February 23, 1867, and October 6, 1885 editions of the Globe; and the April 12, 1901 edition of the Toronto Star.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Over the years of writing Historicist, I developed a bad habit of finishing columns while I was supposed to be on vacation. Entries were finished everywhere from cozy hotels in Montreal to large chain suites near LAX. This entry was written during the first part of a roadtrip to Boston – part of it was written in Syracuse, while the finished product emerged in Beantown.

I was running so far behind on this one that I brought along a Toronto Public Library bag filled with research items. This sparked the curiosity of the border guard who checked my trunk when I crossed at the Rainbow Bridge. I think she was convinced I was trying to sneak into an academic conference or was seeking work stateside. She pondered the contents for several moments, and repeatedly asked why I was bringing so many books with me.

Finally convinced of my true intentions, she let me go…but not before locking my keys in the trunk.

While she laughed, I gritted my teeth. At least I learned where the panic button was in that car. I may have yelled an obscenity once I was safely past security. After that, I made sure to always have the column wrapped up before crossing the border.

***

If you click on the original Torontoist link, you’ll notice the images are broken. During one of the site’s revamps, images published on posts I wrote during mid-2011 vaporized. Several were fixed, usually when I needed to link to them, while others remain broken. It didn’t help that my computer died during this period, before I was able to backup some files.