696 Yonge Street (Diamond Building, Brothers Restaurant, Some Organization I’d Prefer Not to Mention in the Title)

Originally published as a “Ghost City” column for The Grid on January 29, 2013.

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Toronto Star, September 12, 1957.

The Church of Scientology’s Toronto headquarters are in the midst of an “Ideal Org” makeover—signalled, last month, by boards nailed to the Yonge Street high-rise. While it remains to be seen whether the move will fracture the controversial faith’s local followers as similar, costly refurbishings have in other cities, the plans are less than modest, indicating a colourful new façade will be placed on the almost-60-year-old office building, along with a new bookstore, café, theatre, and “testing centre” inside.

Built around 1955 in the International style of architecture, 696 Yonge’s initial tenant roster included recognizable brands like Avon cosmetics and Robin Hood flour. They were joined by an array of accounting firms, coal and mining companies, and the Belgian consulate, along with a number of construction and property management companies run by Samuel Diamond, whose name later graced the building.

By the 1970s, The Diamond companies were among the few original tenants remaining. Movie studio MGM settled in for a long stay, while the Ontario Humane Society teetered on the verge of financial ruin during its tenancy. There was a temporary office for a federal committee on sealing, which released a 1972 report recommending a temporary moratorium on seal hunting while solutions were sought to halt a population decline. The building even enjoyed a brief taste of religious controversies to come when the Unification Church—a.k.a. the “Moonies”—briefly opened an office, prompting questions about indoctrinated converts, growing wealth, and cult-like practices mirroring those later asked about the Church of Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s religion, meanwhile, had shuffled around various sites in the city since the late 1950s, from meetings on Jarvis Street to a townhouse on Prince Arthur Avenue. The church’s reputation for defending itself grew as quickly as its membership—by the 1970s, official church statements were guaranteed to appear in the letters section within days of any faintly critical newspaper article. The Church of Scientology bought 696 Yonge in 1979.

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Toronto Star, March 3, 1983.

Around 2:30 p.m. on March 2, 1983, three chartered buses pulled up to the office tower. More than one hundred OPP officers, equipped with recording equipment, axes, sledgehammers, and a battering ram, rushed into Scientology’s offices. Acting on the findings of a secret two-year tax-fraud investigation of the church, they removed 900 boxes of material, among them illegally obtained confidential documents from government, medical, and police agencies. The church initially claimed the raid was spurred by attacks from the psychiatric community and believed it was entitled to Charter of Rights protection.

Hiring Clayton Ruby as its lawyer, Scientology pursued a decade-long fight against the raid and the charges that resulted from it. Some of its efforts were comical: in July 1988, the church offered to donate considerable sums to agencies working with drug addicts, the elderly, and the poor so long as theft charges were dropped. Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott rejected the offer, saying that “there’s no immunity that permits a church or anyone else to commit crimes in the country.” Ruby argued that the legal prosecution of a small religion like Scientology threatened the freedom of all faiths, and that while individual members may be guilty of offences, the whole church should not be held at fault.

The legal battle appeared over by 1992. When the seized boxes were returned that January, church members celebrated on Yonge Street. While a banner declaring “Scientology Wins after 9-year Battle” was draped across the building, a human chain passed the boxes back inside from a rented truck. Jubilation was short-lived: though acquitted of theft charges, the church and three of its members were found guilty of breach of trust. Related cases lingered for a few more years, including a libel case that earned crown attorney Casey Hill a then-record $1.6 million award from the church and one of its lawyers.

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Now, September 2, 1999. The main article on cheap eats featured on this page was for New York Subway on Queen Street.

Even in the midst of its legal battles, the church gradually expanded its presence in 696 Yonge, filling space as other tenants departed. One of the last to go was the Brothers Restaurant and Tavern, which filled a streetfront space with vinyl booths and formica from 1979 to 2000. Operated by two brothers whose last names differed because of the phonetic spelling a government official wrote for one when they moved to Canada, Angelo Sfyndilis and Peter Sfendeles catered to a diverse clientele who appreciated their generous portions of comfort food. As Toronto Life noted in its obituary, “wherever you come from, wherever you’re going, Brothers has been a second home, a sheltering piece of smalltown Canadiana on a big, harsh anonymous street, in the middle of a big, harsh, anonymous city.” The Star praised Brothers’ “honest chicken sandwich,” while Now included it in its student survival guides for meals like the Little Brother Platter, which contained “eight thick slices of pastrami, eight of roast beef, four slabs of Canadian cheddar, a mound of potato salad, a mess of oil-and vinegar-drowned iceberg lettuce, a quartered dill pickle, and rings of pickled peppers.” When the lease was not renewed in 2000, deli items were replaced with copies of Dianetics.

Sources: the January 25, 1972 edition of the Globe and Mail, the September 2, 1999 edition of Now, the May 2000 edition of Toronto Life, and the January 10, 1982, March 3, 1983, December 20, 1984, July 27, 1988, August 29, 1988, September 20, 1990, January 28, 1992, June 26, 1992, July 13, 2008, and January 24, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

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696 Yonge, July 28, 2020. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

As of July 2020 the building is rotting away, as various makeover plans by the Scientologists have not materialized. Over the years, the organization has battled the city over tax bills.

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696 Yonge, July 28, 2020. Photo by Jamie Bradburn.

You can trace the saga of 696 Yonge over recent years by checking out this thread on Urban Toronto.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I moved to Toronto around the time of the Now excerpt posted above. Always a fan of decent cheap eats, I checked out The Brothers. The paper wasn’t kidding when it said the portions were huge, providing plenty of fuel for long downtown strolls.

(Memory tells me it was frequently mentioned in Now, and may have run a few ads, but the current search function for their online archives is next-to-useless).

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National Post, January 15, 2000.

The Star published the Brothers’ rice pudding recipe twice: in 2000 after it closed, then in 2006 thanks to reader demand. “The food was bettered only by their dear personalities and quintessential charm,” one reader recalled. Food writer Amy Pataki noted that staff called the dish rizogalo, and that cook Tony Polyzotis called its preparation “easy.”

If this inspires you to make this recipe from the July 26, 2006 Star, send it pictures and I’ll add them to this post.

Brothers Rice Pudding
Tempering the beaten egg with hot liquid prevents it from coagulating.

4 cups or more whole or 2 per cent milk
1 cup converted white rice, rinsed, drained
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp raisins (optional)
Ground cinnamon

In medium, heavy-bottomed pot, bring 4 cups milk to simmer over medium heat. Add rice and sugar. Cook, uncovered, at gentle boil, stirring frequently, until rice is almost cooked through but still a little chewy, about 30 minutes. (Rice will continue to soften as it cools.)

In heatproof cup, whisk egg with vanilla. Add 2 tablespoons hot cooking liquid. Whisk until smooth and pale yellow. Stir into rice mixture.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add raisins (if desired).

Cool pudding uncovered, stirring occasionally to break up skin as it forms on surface. (Pudding will thicken on standing; thin with more milk as desired.) Sprinkle generously with cinnamon before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Tip Top Man of the Class

Originally published on Torontoist on June 15, 2010.

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Goblin, January 1924.

While all of the other attendees resemble grotesques from the funny pages, the Tip Top customer is dripping with 1920s sophistication. With his pencil-thin moustache, slicked hair, stylish tuxedo, and elegant cigarette holder, this fellow could have stepped out of a Noël Coward play.

Cartoonist Lou Skuce (1886–1951) was one of Toronto’s busiest artists during the first half of the twentieth century. His work, often sports-related, graced the pages of many local newspapers and publications. Skuce also toured theatres with a contraption called the Cartoonagraph, which he used to project drawings as he worked on them. Among the achievements singled out in obituaries for Skuce was a series of murals he produced for the Toronto Men’s Press Club that humorously depicted the organization’s activities and the evolution of the printed word from the Stone Age onward.

Refined elegance had long departed 245 Yonge Street by the 1970s. The address gained infamy during the summer of 1977 when the body of Emanuel Jaques was found on the roof of the Charlie’s Angels “body rub parlour.” The gruesome murder of the twelve-year-old shoeshine boy led local officials to crack down on the adult businesses that occupied the storefronts once inhabited by more respectable retailers like Tip Top.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Goblin, March 1924.

Flipping through the pages of Goblin over the rest of 1924, Lou Skuce’s art appeared in a series of ads for General Motors.

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Goblin, April 1924.

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Goblin, May 1924.

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Goblin, June 1924.

A Pandemic Day’s Wanderings: An Afternoon Downtown

All photos in this post taken by and copyright Jamie Bradburn, 2020.

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Before setting out on my latest long walk, a quick stop on the way to the subway. The local Little Free Library was stocked with plays, including these titles. The boxes in my neighbourhood have been overstuffed lately, making me wonder if people have now moved into the book-culling phase of the pandemic. With traditional fundraising book sales being cancelled for this year, I’m expecting full boxes for awhile.

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On the front window of Greenwood station, a TTC-produced poster showing how to make simple face coverings. I’d say about half the riders were masked, perhaps enjoying their last moments of facial freedom before July 2, when masks become mandatory on the TTC.

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On the platform, social distancing is now marked with these stickers.

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At Yonge and Bloor, the TTC’s poster for COVID self-screening.

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Some mixed feelings shared on the window of the old Payless Shoe Source store at Yonge and Charles. It’s OK to share this during these times, as everyone sorts out their feelings.

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The old St. Charles Tavern clock tower, isolated for the moment.

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A message looking forward to the day we can enjoy theatre again, flashed outside the Ed Mirvish.

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I wandered into the Eaton Centre for the first time since winter. It was quiet, and most people looked more interested in walking around than checking out the open stores. Plenty of safety signage, starting with their self-assessment guide.

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Pedestrian traffic was directed similar to a divided highway, with northbound and southbound lanes.

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Too bad this wasn’t playing in the background…

Maybe Aerosmith and Run DMC should reunite to do a safety video on proper pandemic-era walking.

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The walkway over to Hudson Bay/Saks was also open, leading me towards my first trip into the PATH in months.

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There was a sense of being watched in the Bay-Adelaide Centre. This was one of the few sets of eyes I encountered, as the PATH was in its dead weekend mode.

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The first of many “returning to operations” plans posted through the PATH.

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A sense of how quiet Scotia Bank was around 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.

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Still no shoeshines for a while, though the note indicated they’d be back as soon as possible.

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Commerce Court.

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Something I had never noticed before in Commerce Court: this old school mailbox.

Something else I hadn’t noticed, and only took a blurry shot of: throughout the PATH, the buttons with the wheelchair logo used to open doors have been replaced with sensors activated by hand wipes.

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Like other museums around the city, the Hockey Hall of Fame is preparing to welcome visitors under pandemic conditions. The signage appears to be ready.

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Gordie Howe approves.

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Coming up the escalator in Brookfield Place, Santiago Calatrava’s Allen Lambert Galleria is still one of the most beautiful architectural sights in the city. It’s even more amazing when you have it almost all to yourself.

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Where the Movenpick/Richtree restaurant used to be, passers by could pretend they were walking through a European streetscape.

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No, thank you.

Though the quiet throughout the PATH was eerie in spots, by the time I exited I was feeling hopeful. Most of the few people out were taking health and sanitation suggestions seriously, and spaces were making decent preparations to welcome back the public. It felt like a corner was turning, and that while life still won’t be going back to the old normal anytime soon, it will feel more familiar. I felt a sense of possibility more than doom.

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Meridian Hall, the latest guise for the facility formerly known as the O’Keefe Centre, Hummingbird Centre, Sony Centre, and Fill-in-the-Blank Centre. Any bets on when it will change it name again?

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Umm…okay…

The latest in weird sandwich board sign messages along Front Street west of St. Lawrence Market.

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Traffic management sign, courtesy of Metrolinx, in Union Station.

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A reminder from GO Transit.

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Art project, or pedestrian signal hiding in the hoarding? (York Street)

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A mixture of protests at Nathan Phillips Square – a tent city calling for improved housing, and chalk/paint messages to defund or abolish the police. The next three photos speak for themselves.

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Back in the subway, my assistant Qwilly followed the seating spacing regulations.

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Some final reminders from the TTC on the way home.

Past Pieces of Toronto: The Odeon Hyland

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on December 30, 2011.

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Opening ad for the Odeon Hyland, Toronto Star, November 17, 1948.

It was a dicey proposition: testing out a brand new movie theatre, and the Shakespearian adaptation that was its opening attraction, by filling the first showing with high school students. It was especially dicey after rowdy teens had recently disrupted a recent festival honouring the Bard at the Eaton Auditorium (now the Carlu). But Odeon Theatres officials felt that filling the new Hyland theatre with students from Northern Vocational High School (now Northern Secondary) for the afternoon presentation of Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on November 22, 1948 was worth any potential mishaps.

According to the Star, the kids were alright:

The kids at the showing were well-behaved, far from rowdy, and occasionally spell-bound. But they also chose to laugh in the wrong places and spoiled, for some of us, the complete beauty of many performances…Incomplete understanding of the drama rather than any intended rudeness was undoubtedly responsible for these unfortunate outbursts.

We’re certain many other patrons laughed at the wrong time during the Hyland’s half-century of operation at 1501 Yonge Street. When the theatre closed in February 2001, the experience of moviegoing at Yonge and St. Clair vanished with it.

Opening the Hyland faced greater challenges than pleasing teenagers. During the fall of 1948, the city instituted daily blackouts due to power shortages. As opening day neared, power cuts increased to twice daily during the working week—one in the morning, and a 45-minute blackout starting at 7 p.m. These cuts affected the final stages of construction, including the installation of kitchen equipment and sales of advance tickets to Hamlet. With the front of the house not ready, ticket sales were moved to a nearby drug store which, as the Star reported, confused one customer:

A lady, who doesn’t believe in signs, joined a queue in front of the theatre, in hope of getting reservations for Sir Laurence Olivier’s screen masterpiece. Finally she got to the head of the line and was most provoked to learn that she’d wasted a half hour to be interviewed for a job as usherette.

Despite these problems, tickets for Hamlet sold quickly. By the beginning of December, the house was booked solid through Christmas.

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Toronto Star, April 12, 1950.

One of the Hyland’s greatest assets in its early years was manager Vic Nowe. His promotional skills drew people to see both the feature attraction and the award-winning tie-ins he devised. A lobby display of Victorian wallpaper designs during the run of Oliver Twist in 1949 was so popular that it toured other Odeon locations. To promote Tight Little Island the following year, Nowe saluted the film’s Scottish setting by covering the theatre’s entrance in plaid and offering performances in the lobby by highland dancers and bagpipers. When The Lavender Hill Mob ran in late 1951, the Hyland let the first 50 men wearing bowler hats a la star Alec Guinness in for free.

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Lobby of the Odeon Hyland. Archives of Ontario. 

As British cultural influences waned in Toronto, the near-exclusive programming of films from the mother country at the Hyland gave way to Hollywood blockbusters. When the theatre was split into two screens in the early 1970s, it followed a trend that affected several of the city’s remaining large single-auditorium cinemas.

By 1999, declining attendance led Cineplex Odeon to convert the Hyland into a showcase for art films. The theatre was still capable of drawing people—it grossed over $50,000 in three days in December 2000 as one of a trio of cinemas that carried the initial run of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but the move was seen as a sign its days were numbered. When Cineplex Odeon was granted interim bankruptcy protection two months later, the Hyland was closed immediately. Anyone who attempted to phone the theatre for the day’s bill on February 16, 2001 was greeted with a generic recorded message: “We are honoured to have had the opportunity of serving your community. Thank you for your patronage and support.” Those arriving at the theatre in person were advised to head to the Varsity.

Demolished in 2003, the site of the Hyland is now the entrance to a Green P lot and a walkway named after another former Yonge and St. Clair landmark, longtime CFRB morning show host Wally Crouter.

Sources: the November 19, 1948, November 23, 1948, and February 17, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, September 16, 1959.

During the late 1950s, the Hyland served as a venue for several local film societies, including the A-G-E Film Society of Toronto, the French Cine Club, and the Toronto Film Society. Until voters approved general Sunday screenings in 1961, the offerings of these societies were among the few legal ways to see a movie on the Sabbath.

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Boxoffice, October 16, 1972. 

Past Pieces of Toronto: Uptown Theatre

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the “Past Pieces of Toronto” column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was the debut installment of the series, originally published on November 4, 2011.

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Uptown Theatre, interior, Cinema 1, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett. City of Toronto Archives, series 881, file 169, item 2.

Equipped with the latest in sound technology in its later years, the main auditorium of the Uptown was a great place to see films in which things go boom. As the action unfolded on the screen each punch or explosion reverberated in your seat. Such experiences, and the grand architecture and decor, made the demise of Uptown Theatre so painful: its final corporate parent refused to pay for wheelchair accessibility upgrade.

Loew’s Uptown opened on September 20, 1920 as a 1,600 seat theatre showing pioneering director D.W. Griffith’s film The Love Flower. As the Globe‘s E.R. Parkhurst reported, “it would be difficult to conceive of a theatre more admirably designed for the comfort of its patrons or better adapted for the enjoyment of the very best that brains, equipment and talent can provide in motion picture entertainment.” The opening gala saw appearances from leading lady (and Griffith’s lover) Carol Dempster, movie star/former Upper Canada College student Bert Lytell, theatre owner Marcus Loew, and Toronto mayor Tommy Church. A live orchestra was present, as it would be through the silent era until the Uptown became one of the first theatres in Toronto wired for talkies.

Following a fire in 1960, the theatre underwent renovations that, when officially unveiled to the public in 1962, the Toronto Star saw as a barely a nod to the new post-television reality of movie-going as a social occasion. “In New York,” noted Star writer Wendy Michener, “many houses serve coffee and have a really comfortable sitting-meeting-talking lounge. In Toronto, the only move in that direction to date has been the installation of hot-dog machines.” Perhaps theatre management sensed that Torontonians of the future would be able to snack on frankfurters anywhere downtown.

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Uptown Theatre, 1970. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 111.

Shortly after the 20th Century theatre chain took over the Uptown in 1969, the cinema closed for four months as it was converted into a five-screen multiplex under the eye of architect Mandel Sprachman. Referring to his work on the Uptown and the Imperial Six further south on Yonge (now the Canon Theatre), Sprachman noted that “if I didn’t step in, those grand opulent cinema temples would be torn down and replaced with parking lots and high-rises. What I do is to give old cinemas a new lease on life. Architecturally speaking, I do my damnedest to help the old and new live together.” In the case of the Uptown, the result was a 1,000 seat main theatre for first-run spectaculars (starting with the musical version of Goodbye Mr. Chips), two other mainstream first-run screens, and the two “Backstage” theatres that specialized in art films. The complex was redesigned in eye-catching, playful pop-art influenced colours.

Over time, the Uptown became a key venue for the Toronto International Film Festival, especially as other Yorkville-area cinemas such as the Hollywood and Plaza closed their doors. When the Ontario Human Rights Commission ordered Famous Players to make the Backstage, Eglinton and Uptown wheelchair-accessible in 2001, the chain decided to close the historic theatres rather than incur the cost of required renovations. Famous Players cited a changing market and shifting demographics as the real reasons for the closures, but these were treated with skepticism in the press. The Backstage shut down immediately after the closures were announced in December 2001, and the rest of the Uptown lingered on until it took its final bow during the 2003 edition of TIFF. While the Eglinton survived as an event venue, the Uptown was sold to condo developers. Tragically, the theatre experienced a final burst of reverberating action during demolition work in December 2003 when a section collapsed onto the neighbouring Yorkville English Academy, killing student Augusto Cesar Mejia Solis.

Sources: the September 21, 1920 edition of the Globe and the August 16, 1962 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe, September 18, 1920.

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Globe, September 20, 1920.

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Toronto Star, September 20, 1920.

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Toronto World, September 20, 1920.

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Opening night coverage by E.R. Parkhurst, Globe, September 21, 1920.

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Toronto World, September 21, 1920. 

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

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Toronto Star, August 16, 1962.

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Toronto Star, July 31, 1969.

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Uptown Theatre, exterior, Balmuto Street, circa 1970. Photo by Roger Jowett, City of Toronto Archives, Series 881, File 169.

From an interview with Mandel  Sprachman published in the June 21, 1980 Globe and Mail:

What is the role of the architect in the world of split palaces and mini-multiplexes? “If the job involves a palace,” says Sprachman, “I respect the work of the architects before me. I know they’re going to chop away at it, I can feel all the vaudeville people who once performed there–it gets pretty schmaltzy. I don’t want to do it but better me than a parking lot or a standard high-rise apartment building. The trick is to try to make cuts as clean as possible and leave as much as possible of the original building.”

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Toronto Star, April 4, 1970.

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“Exuberant graphics decorate the Balmuto St. side of the revamped Uptown Theatre on Yonge St.; where the five theatres have been fitted in. The Backstage 1 and 2; entered from Balmuto; are the best part of the whole.” Photo by Dick Darrell, originally published in the April 4, 1970 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive.

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Toronto Star, December 12, 1970.

An excerpt from Doug Fetherling’s editorial page “Toronto Notebook.” “Marshall Delaney” was Robert Fulford’s film critic alias at Saturday Night magazine.

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Globe and Mail, March 6, 2001.

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Globe and Mail, March 14, 2001. 

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Globe and Mail, December 13, 2001.

According to the December 12, 2001 Star, other estimated costs to the Uptown complex included $225,000 for a new sprinkler system, and $75,000 for upgrades to the Backstage. A Famous Players official admitted the theatres affected by the OHRC’s ruling would have closed anyway, but the decision “accelerated the plan.” The OHRC ordered Famous Players to pay five complainants between $8,000 and $10,000 each “as damages for loss arising out of the infringement of their rights.” One of the complainants was to receive an addition $2,000 in damages for mental anguish.

From the September 19, 2003 Star, an excerpt from Geoff Pevere’s column on the final closing of the Uptown:

The Uptown was the kind of theatre–old, deep and dark–that made even going to bad movies a little less painful. Even if the movie sucked, the floor was sticky and the guy in front of you kept shifting so you couldn’t see past his mullet, it felt good to be there. When an old movie theatre disappears, as just about all of them now have or soon will, with it go your memories of the emotions you experienced when seeing a movie there. This is what gives its disappearance a sadness that most other victims of dubious urban development lack: These were the places where you remember experiencing things intensely. You went there to feel fear, desire, laugh, pine and momentarily forget what awaited you outside.

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Toronto Star, December 3, 2003.

As for the condo tower completed following the tragedy, Alex Bozikovic does not have kind words in Toronto Architecture: A City Guide, calling it “a tall neo-Deco mediocrity.”

5145 Yonge Street (First North York Municipal Building)

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on April 16, 2013.

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When North York split off from York Township in 1922, space was required to house the new municipality’s offices. Civic workers played musical buildings during the new township’s first year, for a time settling on two upper floor apartments on Yonge Street north of Sheppard Avenue in the village of Lansing. When a fire destroyed that office and its accompanying council records in February 1923, plans were initiated for a brand new structure at the southeast corner of Yonge and Empress Avenue.

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The Telegram, December 20, 1923.

Designed by Murray Brown, who also designed North York’s official seal, the two-storey structure at 1 Empress Avenue was officially opened on December 19, 1923. Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Henry Cockshutt presided over the ceremony, delivering a generic speech about Canada being a country of the future. “Owing to the large gathering which crowded the new hall,” the Telegram reported, “the Lieutenant-Governor was unable to open the door with the golden key, and just declared the hall opened” Local MP William Findlay Maclean used the occasion to stump for better federal representation for the growing municipality.

The building’s main attraction was its second-floor council chamber. Besides serving as a battleground for municipal affairs, the room was rented to groups ranging from the Orange Lodge to the local horticultural society.

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Don Mills Mirror, August 30, 1978.

Though the building was bursting at the seams by the late 1930s, material shortages during World War II delayed expansion plans. An extension doubling the building’s size was completed in time for North York’s 25th anniversary in 1947, but the township’s post-war growth quickly made it inadequate. Rather than build another addition, North York erected a new municipal office to the south at 5000 Yonge Street, whose first phase opened in 1956.

Over the next 30 years the old offices, now addressed as 5145 Yonge Street, housed numerous public and private tenants. During the 1960s it was home to a courthouse handling construction safety cases and the local Emergency Measures Organization. The 1970s brought sitcom possibilities via North York’s parks and recreation department, as well as healthcare courtesy of the Victorian Order of Nurses. When the North York Public Library moved its audio/visual collection from its Fairview branch in 1982, the Star named only one of the over 2,000 titles carried on reels of 8mm and 16mm film: Bambi Meets Godzilla. For six dollars, users could rent projectors and screens for 24 hours to watch full-length film classics or half-hour condensations of recent blockbusters like The Muppet Movie and The Empire Strikes Back. A reading lab and youth theatre school rounded out the 1980s.

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The transformation of Lansing into downtown North York sealed the fate of the old municipal building. In November 1986, North York City Council approved a $10 million deal to sell the site, along with a neighbouring fire hall designed by Brown during World War II, to Menkes Developments. A condition of the sale was that Menkes would preserve the original front façade of the old building and the hose tower of the fire hall. Both buildings were disassembled in 1989 then waited as ever-changing plans, objections from local ratepayers, and mounting interest bills delayed construction of the project that became Empress Walk. Depending on the day, plans included a cinema, condos, office space, and shopping which were built, and a hotel/convention centre which wasn’t.

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Today, the remnant of the municipal building is attached to the mall’s back entrance, surrounded by glass.

Sources: Pioneering in North York by Patricia W. Hart (Don Mills: General Publishing, 1968), the August 30, 1978 edition of the Don Mills Mirror, the July 13, 1982, August 24, 1982, November 7, 1986, and December 16, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star, the December 20, 1923 edition of the Telegram, and the July 24, 1947 edition of the Weston Times and Guide.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, May 13, 1986.

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Don Mills Mirror, August 30, 1978.

The second North York municipal building. Its site is currently occupied by an office tower.

203 Yonge Street (Scholes Hotel/Colonial Tavern)

This story was originally published online as a “Ghost City” column by The Grid on May 21, 2013.

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Illustration of John Francis Scholes, as it appeared in the March 25, 1871 edition of the Canadian Illustrated News.

There were few sports John Francis Scholes tackled that he didn’t master. The Irish-born, Toronto-reared athlete racked up championship titles in boxing, rowing, and snowshoeing during the Victorian era. His first trophy, earned during a 220-yard hurdle race in 1869, was proudly displayed in the Yonge Street hotel that eventually bore his family’s name.

Scholes entered the hospitality business around 1880, opening a bar and hotel at 185 Yonge St. He moved his business a few doors north to 203 Yonge St. in the late 1890s, christening it the Athlete Hotel. Scholes used it as a base to mentor local athletes, including his sons John (who inherited his amateur boxing skills) and Lou (a champion rower). Scholes’ tough nature carried him through to his end—when doctors indicated a stomach ailment was terminal, he insisted on dying at the Athlete Hotel, where he entertained friends and former competitors.

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The Scholes Hotel, circa 1945. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 537.

Following Scholes’ death in March 1918, the hotel stayed in family hands and adopted their name. Ads for the Scholes’ Hotel offered typical hospitality promises—“good food, cleanliness, and efficient service.” Less impressed were provincial liquor officials, who suspended the hotel’s booze license in May 1946 for overcrowding and the heinous crime of permitting unaccompanied men to enter the women’s beverage room. (At this time, men and women legally drank in separate rooms.)

The business was sold around this time. The new ownership, Mike Lawrence, Goody Lichtenberg and Harvey Lichtenberg, renamed it the Colonial Tavern. They secured the second cocktail lounge licence along Yonge Street (after the Silver Rail) and began booking jazz acts. Their first performer showed their enlightened attitude: pianist Cy McLean, who had led the first all-black jazz band in Ontario.

Disaster struck on September 27, 1948. Around 8:10 p.m., a refrigerator explosion blew out a wall and sent four men to hospital. “I just remember reaching for my beer when I went sailing across the table top and toward the bar,” patron Douglas Wilson told the Star. “A seven-foot paneled door landed right beside me.” Refrigeration at the Colonial was cursed: Faulty wiring led to a fire on July 24, 1960 that required a year-long reconstruction effort.

Amid these disasters, the Colonial became one of Toronto’s finest jazz joints. Headliners spanned the jazz spectrum, including Chet Baker, Sidney Bechet, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus, and Sarah Vaughan. Not all patrons found the surroundings enticing. “Nobody ever called it an ideal place to hear music,” Robert Fulford grumbled in the Star in 1987. “The ceiling was low, the food bad, the waitresses surly, the patrons sometimes loudly drunk. The room was a tunnel-like hall with a square bulge in the middle. If you sat in front of the bandstand the musicians seemed too loud; if you sat to left or right of them you had the sense of over-hearing rather than hearing the music. There were no good tables at the Colonial, only less bad tables.” Yet Fulford admitted that because of the quality of the music, “none of this mattered.”

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The Colonial Tavern in the 1970s. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 123.

The Colonial benefitted from the Yonge Street Mall pedestrian-zone experiment of the early 1970s. Goody Lichtenberg was stunned at how packed his new patio was when Yonge was closed off in May 1971. “If I don’t look excited,” he told the Star, “it’s only because I’m dead beat.” Demand forced Lichtenberg to gather food from another restaurant. Within a week, he hired 20 part-time employees and found they weren’t enough.

Inside, the entertainment line-up changed through the 1970s. Jazz performers faded as the upstairs room gradually converted into a discotheque. A basement venue—whose names ranged from the unfortunate Meet Market to the Colonial Underground—aimed for a younger crowd through local acts like Rough Trade and the Viletones. Upstairs and downstairs didn’t always mix—when bluesman Long John Baldry sent staff downstairs to tell the Diodes to turn it down so that he could play an acoustic set, bouncers charged at the punks with pool cues.

After the Lichtenbergs sold the venue in the late 1970s, the Colonial descended into the general sleaziness of Yonge Street during that era. Ads for the “Bump and Grind Revue” in 1978 promised a combination of rock bands and “exotic Black Bottom serving maidens.” The venue’s strip-club phase ran into trouble when a dancer was convicted for public nudity. City regulations enforcing g-strings were blamed for chipping away at business. Several attempts were made to return to jazz programming, but none took.

In 1982, the City purchased the property. It intended to use it as a connecting link between Massey Hall and the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres to create a mini-Lincoln Center-style entertainment complex. Despite protests from the local jazz community, City Council approved plans to demolish the Colonial in 1987 and replace it with a parkette.

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Site of the Colonial Tavern, post-demolition, 1987. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 152.

The following year, the Star’s Christopher Hume laughed at the notion the tiny park would improve its stretch of Yonge Street, viewing it as a hole in the streetscape. “This is one of the few stretches of Yonge where there are significant numbers of historical buildings left,” Hume observed. “It doesn’t make sense to mess it up for the sake of creating an ‘open’ space hardly anyone will use.”

Bracketed by the ghosts of the old banks surrounding it, the former site of the Colonial awaits its next incarnation as part of the Massey Tower condo development.

Sources: Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk and Beyond 1977-1981 by Liz Worth (Montreal: Bongo Beat, 2010), the January 11, 1937, October 25, 1940, and July 13, 1978 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the March 5, 1918, May 6, 1946, September 28, 1948, July 25, 1960, June 10, 1961, May 31, 1971, February 20, 1979, April 3, 1987, May 9, 1987, and September 24, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star.

POSTSCRIPT

The following comment was left on the original post by Bonnie Lawrence Shear on May 30, 2013, in reference to the original piece, which did not mention her father’s role in the Colonial. I admit the first sentence is the kind that fuels my anxiety and perfectionist impulses–but none of the following information emerged over the course of my initial research. When under deadline pressure, you do your best, but the final piece won’t always be perfect in everyone’s eyes.

The authors lack of anything resembling the facts is staggering. My father, Mike Lawrence, bought Scholes Hotel around 1945. I was a small child then but I believe the latest was 1946. He later took in my uncles (the Lichtenbergs) as minority partners, Harvey at the beginning, and Goody a couple of years later. Neither was involved in the purchase.While Goody was in charge of booking the acts, and Harvey in charge of day to day operations, my father was the brains behind the Colonial’s success.My father came from an extremely poor family, graduated as an engineer, but because he was Jewish, could not work as an engineer and had to go into business for himself. He was brilliant and a real risk taker.He went on to many other business and other achievements.

Although it probably had a lot of the faults Fulford talks about, it also was a great success, supported 3 families, and was beloved by many.

The Eaton Centre, and my father’s many illnesses in the 70′s before he died did lead to it’s eventual demise. The building of The Eaton Centre meant that the main thoroughfare on Yonge Street was no longer the street, but pedestrian traffic was transferred to inside the mall, especially in Toronto’s harsh weather.The Colonial’s demise began with the building of the Eaton Centre.

Our family did not sell it to the city, but to an interim purchaser who reneged on the contract. The city eventually took over the property.

So many fond memories, and some sad and poignant ones too.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, November 21, 1877.

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The Globe, March 5, 1918.

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Toronto Star, March 5, 1918.

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Globe and Mail, October 25, 1940.

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Toronto Star, December 23, 1947.

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Toronto Star, September 29, 1948.

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Toronto Star, June 10, 1961.

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Globe and Mail, January 16, 1984. While working on updating this piece, Tyner’s death was announced

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Toronto Star, May 9, 1987.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Have a Honky-Tonkin’ Happy New Year

Originally published on Torontoist on December 31, 2014.

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Weston Times-Advertiser, December 22, 1964.

For many, music is a vital component of their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Hitting the dance floor, listening to a live act, or gathering around a piano to sing old favourites help glide the transition into another year.

In the 1960s, finding the nearest honky-tonk piano player or turn-of-the-century-inspired performer helped some Torontonians mark the calendar change. Across North America, genres like ragtime and barrelhouse piano music experienced a revival, sending bars like the New Toronto Hotel in search of the nearest musicians with striped shirts and 1890s-styled gowns. It was kitschy, but it allowed audiences to get into the spirit of things by encouraging them to drop their reserve and merrily sing along.

Pianist Charlie Young chalked up the revival to fatigue with a scary new musical style. “People just grew sick of rock ‘n’ roll,” he told the Star in 1962. “Rock had nothing for the older ones, or indeed anyone from 35 up. They turned to ragtime.”

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Globe and Mail, December 18, 1961.

Club 76, named after its location on 76 St. Clair Avenue West, claimed to have started the old-timey music trend in Toronto. Owner Bob Cook opened his establishment in August 1959 after listening to ragtime pianist Bob Darch perform while vacationing in the Bahamas. Cook booked Darch as his first headliner, who was soon followed by Young, whose act relied on a century-old piano he found filled with sand in a Colorado hotel. To enhance the nostalgic atmosphere, silent movies were run simultaneously.

Musicians who latched onto forms of old-time piano scrambled to find ways to stand out as bars and lounges joined the bandwagon. “Honky-tonk piany hasn’t even scratched the surface in Toronto,” observed Maxe Sherman during a tenancy at the Concord Tavern’s Gaslite Room in 1961. “But you still have to have a gimmick.” For Sherman, that involved becoming a one-man band whose act included foot-operated maracas and tap-dancing on his piano stool.

One of the most popular venues was the Gay Nineties Room at the Brown Derby Tavern (now the site of 10 Dundas East). For seven years, singer Georgina Rogers and pianist Jimmy White led nightly honky-tonk and ragtime singalongs. The pair played in a Latin-themed band in a local hotel before launching their tenancy at the Brown Derby in 1960. Regular patrons were occasionally given the chance to warble a verse or two on their own. Among those joining in was opera star Teresa Stratas; the first time Rogers noticed Stratas, she went over to her table. “Say, you’ve got a nice voice,” Rogers joked. “You should take this up.”

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Toronto Sun, December 28, 1972.

Around 1967, Rogers and White moved north to the Trophy Lounge at the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel on Wilson Avenue. Globe and Mail critic Blaik Kirby felt the move was a mistake: the space lacked the atmosphere and intimacy they enjoyed downtown, and the suburban audience wasn’t keen on singing along. By the early 1970s, White played a regular gig to a more appreciative crowd at the Barmaids Arms at Yonge and Davisville.

Back at the New Toronto Hotel, while George Small won’t be on hand to play all your old-time favourites this New Year’s Eve, the joint may still be jumping via its current incarnation: the Jay Jay’s Inn swingers club.

Additional material from the March 9, 1967 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the August 29, 1960, July 19, 1961, May 4, 1962, and March 28, 1964 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

As of the end of 2018, the New Toronto Hotel operates as The Westlake.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Sun, March 30, 1979.

When Jimmy White died in 1979, Sun columnist Paul Rimstead wrote about one of his last performances.

Toronto Illustrated ’57

Originally published as a Historicist column on Torontoist on December 11, 2010.

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Toronto from Lake Front.

Toronto, “The Queen City,” has many attractions for its citizens as well as for the thousands of tourists and others who visit it each year. It occupies a fine site by the shores of Lake Ontario, has beautiful residential areas and public parks, many handsome financial and industrial buildings, a good transportation system and a wide range of high-class retail stores, equal to the best found anywhere. It has an abundant supply of cheap hydro-electric power and natural gas and a large airport with worldwide connections. It is also a centre of cultural life with its churches, University, colleges, museum, art gallery, Conservatory of Music and technical schools. Its social service organizations receive generous support of the citizens each year.

With those words, editor James Cowan introduced the 1957 edition of Toronto Illustrated, an annual guide for visiting businesspeople and tourists. Following greetings from Metropolitan Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner and Mayor Nathan Phillips, the guide provides a heavily illustrated selection of noteworthy events and sites around town.

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The cover features a northward view along University Avenue, with Richmond Street along the bottom.

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Pre-9/11, the United States Consulate on University Avenue seems bare without its concrete barriers and security precautions.

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Continuing north, the newest attraction at the Royal Ontario Museum was a presentation of the story of creation in the geology gallery (seen above on the right; the Ming Tomb is on the left). Access was far more affordable than now: free, except on Wednesdays and Fridays when it cost a quarter to get in.

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The lone map in the guide points out the locations of local attractions and landmarks, including many that have faded into history. Given special attention is the three-year-old subway line, which is described as “the world’s newest and most modern.”

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Break time! Care for shopping and entertainment along Yonge Street near Dundas Street? For those looking for modern touchstones, the Imperial is now the Ed Mirvish Theatre, while the southwest corner of Yonge-Dundas Square occupies the site of the Downtown.

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A view of the western harbour, featuring sites still around (the Tip Top factory, the Island airport) and long demolished (Maple Leaf Stadium). Absent, but not for much longer, is the Gardiner Expressway: the section between the Humber and Jameson Avenue opened the following year and was extended to York Street by 1962.

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Quick, name the first ongoing Shakespearian festival in Canada. Stratford? Nope. Try the yearly selections of the Bard’s works staged outdoors on the grounds of Trinity College, presented by Earle Grey and his wife Mary Godwin. Actor/director/producer Grey staged his first production (Twelfth Night) at what is now the north end of the quadrangle at Trinity in 1946. The festival officially began three years later and featured a mix of experienced British actors and rising local talent—among the Grey company’s alumni were Timothy Findley, Lorne Greene, Don Harron, and William Hutt. The magazine notes that “it is a joyous and unforgettable experience to pass an evening watching one of these great plays being performed under a starlit sky, while a sly moon peeps over tower or turret.” Grey’s slate for 1957 included The Tempest (whose opening night was marred by rain and faulty lighting in the backup venue), The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.

Despite the higher prestige of the Stratford Festival, Grey’s festival appeared to have a promising future. The following year, funding was secured via grants from the city, province, Canada Council, and the Atkinson Foundation, and a new three-level stage was constructed on the west side of the quad. The promise of productions to come didn’t last long—following the death of Trinity College rector and longtime supporter R.S.K. Seeley, his successor declined further use of the site for productions. After an unsuccessful search for a new site, Grey and Godwin returned to their native England.

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Also spotlighted was the new home of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind on Bayview Avenue. The site’s mix of libraries, offices, and residences had been officially opened by Governor-General Vincent Massey the preceding April. Tenants of the Clarkewood residence were relieved to have private bedrooms after having lived in dorms in the CNIB’s former residence on Sherbourne Street. Among the amenities was a ‘Garden of Fragrance” that included metal Braille plates to identify the flora in the flower beds. The new facilities were judged to be “a fine tribute to the noble cause which they represent.”

After brief surveys of the city’s past and present, the editorial staff looked ahead to Toronto’s future:

At no former period in its history has Toronto witnessed such rapid development as at present. The central area is undergoing great changes, old office buildings are giving place to large modern structures, commercial buildings are moving out to the suburbs or are undergoing “face lifting”; family residences, with their lovely gardens, places of gracious living in Victorian days, are being replaced by apartment blocks of strange design—the city is changing with the times. Other developments planned include the following: the creation of a large civic square, adjacent to the present city hall, to be flanked with a large modern civic building, court house and other public buildings; an up-to-date civic auditorium at the corner of Yonge and Front Streets; completion of the Regent Park Housing development providing 1,289 units of modern sanitary housing; the extension of Eglinton Avenue East to connect with Scarboro Township; an extension of the present subway on the line of Bloor Street; an expressway across the southern part of the city near the lake front; diagonal highways to connect with the north-eastern and north-western areas of the city…in addition, the opening up of the St. Lawrence Seaway to permit the entrance of ocean-going ships to the upper lakes will greatly increase shipping and call for the enlargement of the Port of Toronto.

Additional material from the Summer 2005 edition of Trinity Magazine and the February 21, 1956 edition of the Toronto Star. All illustrations derived from Toronto Illustrated.

A Square Grows at Yonge and Dundas

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2013.

When Yonge-Dundas Square officially opened to the public a little over ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, there was plenty of head-scratching. Touted as the latest curative for an ailing Yonge Street, it appeared to be little more than a granite-covered space amidst construction hoarding and video displays. The collection of jean shops, burger joints, and surface parking lots it replaced might have been disreputable and tatty, but they had character.

Perhaps the problem was that the square was a puzzle piece in a jigsaw effort to create Toronto’s version of Times Square. The space wasn’t finished when Snow and Treble Charger graced the stage in front of 10,000 people on opening night on May 30, 2003; there were still light standards to install and a TTC entrance to complete. Circling the square were incomplete projects like Metropolis (which evolved into 10 Dundas East, sans proposed tenants like Virgin Megastore) the Torch building (which went from showcasing Olympians to housing CityTV), and renovations at the Eaton Centre.

Supporters of the square urged patience. Star architecture critic Christopher Hume admitted the unfinished state made it hard to appreciate the site’s possibilities as a gathering spot. His peers on the Star editorial page were harsh: “Does this flat black patch not look for all the world like a parking lot at a Scarborough strip mall?” they wondered. “It doesn’t help that one end is covered by what appears to be a missing off-ramp from the Gardiner Expressway.”

Yonge-Dundas Square owes its existence to a major transportation decision made during the first decade of the 20th century. To create a new crosstown route, side streets were stitched together to extend Dundas Street east of Ossington Avenue. The square emerged when a jog separating the former Agnes and Wilton streets was bypassed at Yonge Street. Until the late 1920s, the road along the south side was known as Wilton Square, a name that survived at least one petition to change it to its present moniker.

From 1948 through 1972, one of the square’s major landmarks was the Downtown theatre. Located on the northeast side of the intersection of Yonge Street and the Dundas Square roadway, the Downtown was noted for its 4,000-light marquee and one of the busiest concession stands in Canada. It complimented nearby cinemas along Yonge like the Biltmore, the Elgin, and the Imperial. Following its demolition, the Downtown’s site was home to businesses ranging from a Classic Bookshops discount outlet to a Lick’s.

The rest of the square housed restaurants and retailers, with a surface parking lot at the back. During Yonge Street’s sleazy era, proposals emerged to improve the streetscape around Dundas Square to increase safety and combat street vendors illegally hawking their wares from doorways. An idea that reached the city’s public works committee in 1977 would have turned the Dundas Square roadway into a cobblestone-lined pedestrian mall housing 30 licensed street vendors. Objections from neighbouring jewelers, who feared the impact of a street closure, killed the plan.

Between 1996 and 1998, City Council and other government bodies granted approvals aimed at transforming the square into an open area. The major proponent was Councillor Kyle Rae, who felt it would cleanse the neighbourhood. He wasn’t unhappy to see the existing streetscape—and its reputation for drug dealing—vanish when demolition began in 1999. “The city expropriated those buildings, which were at the extreme end of their life,” he told the Star in a 2003 interview. “They were basically a criminal landscape. There’s no other way of saying it.”

A design competition attracted over 65 hopefuls. The winner was Brown + Storey Architects. Working with the high volume of pedestrians and vehicles passing by the square, they kept intrusions to a minimum. As architect James Brown told the Star in 2002:

The square is porous. We’re moving water through it, people through it…it’s the new landscape, artificial, man-made, though the granite is real, natural. But we’re making it porous, connecting the underground systems, pedestrian linkages, lighting, electricity, water, subway, everything that serves the upper surface. We’re applying the same principles in any ecological system to the surface. That’s what’s interesting about the square. It’s also about cultural infrastructure.

Brown and partner Kim Storey earned a Progressive Architecture citation from Architecture magazine in 2000.

Crowds took advantage of the square soon after the hoarding came down in late 2002. Protests against the Iraqi War tested how the space would function for mass gatherings. The first year of official programming included concerts, tie-ins to Caribana, and a mayoral debate. (We weren’t able to find out when the first free samples of soda were handed out.)

By the end of the square’s first year, opinion remained mixed. The National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer admitted that the square’s minimal décor was starting to seem more appropriate as buildings rose around it. “It’s a crossroads,” he observed, “a place to take a breath between shopping and dining and movie-going and ersatz bobsledding. A respite from all the flash.” On the other hand, a new publication called Spacing was less entranced by the ad overload and rules meant to prevent users from chalking the surface. “It’s sanitized and militarized,” magazine co-founder Matthew Blackett told the Star. “It’s a public space, apparently, but it’s a mirror to the mall.”

Time has mellowed some early critics. Writing for Eye Weekly in 2003, Edward Keenan lamented the replacement of a streetscape that had grown organically with a square “that looks like an abandoned bus terminal.” On the cusp of tonight’s tenth-anniversary concert, he reflects that “it works because it doesn’t get in the way by trying to be the big attraction itself…it turns out to be a monument to people. To us. To Toronto.”

Additional material from the January 16, 2003 edition of Eye Weekly, the September 2, 1977 and October 6, 1998 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 4, 2004 edition of the National Post, and the May 8, 1926, September 2, 1977, March 18, 2002, May 29, 2003, June 1, 2003, and December 3, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star.