The summer of 1930. It was the beginning of a difficult decade for Toronto, along with much of the rest of the world. The Great Depression had just begun. But before the stock market crashed, the boom of the 1920s had fueled construction projects all over the city. Toronto was full of elegant new landmarks — many of them still familiar to Torontonians today: Union Station, The Royal York Hotel, Maple Leaf Gardens, The Palais Royale, The Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, The Princes' Gates... And on one July day, a photographer climbed to the top of a building on the north-east corner of University & Dundas, pointed a camera south, and took this photo of our city's new skyline. It's full of interesting details, so I thought I'd give a brief "tour" of some of the buildings you can see.But first, you’ll want to open the full version of the image so you can see the whole thing, which you can do by clicking it here:
Today, this is where you'll find Nathan Phillips Square. But in 1930, the same spot was home to Toronto's most notorious slum. What is now an open expanse of concrete was a warren of hovels back then, where slumlords crammed people into tiny, poorly-insulated shacks. The Ward had been home to one new wave of immigrants after another — stretching all the way back to the mid-1800s — and by the time this photo of the skyline was taken, it had become Toronto's first Chinatown. These were hard days for those new Canadians: anti-Asian racism was rampant; the federal government had recently banned all immigration from China. The Great Depression would make things even worse.
By the summer of 1930, the days of The Ward were already numbered. Developers had begun to buy up parts of the neighbourhood to build office towers and hotels. Finally, in the late-1950s, the City expropriated the land, forced all the residents out, and demolished the buildings to make way for our new City Hall. Chinatown was driven west along Dundas to Spadina, where it is today.
Back in 1930, Old City Hall was still known as just plain old City Hall. And Toronto's mayor was a newspaper reporter by the name of Bert Wemp. Just a few months earlier, he won the election by running against a plan to improve the downtown core. Huge swathes would have been rebuilt. There would have been grand boulevards slicing through the city centre, a majestic new square where Nathan Phillips Square is now, and a huge traffic circle near Union Station along with new Art Deco skyscrapers and public buildings. But after the stock market crashed, the public mood changed. And people in the suburbs had always felt the plan — which hoped to improve traffic congestion — did too much for downtown and too little for them. Wemp was elected. And in a referendum, the proposal was rejected by fewer than two thousand votes.
The Old City Hall building itself had already been around for thirty years by this point. It was designed by E.J. Lennox (the same architect responsible for Casa Loma, the King Edward Hotel and the west wing of Queen's Park). Until the Royal York Hotel was built in the very late 1920s, nothing in Toronto reached higher than the tip of this clock tower.
four enormous, bearded heads. It would remain the tallest building in Toronto for the next three decades, until Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built the sleek black modernist towers of the Toronto-Dominion Centre in 1967.
In 1930, The Ward was best known as Toronto's Chinatown. But thirty years earlier, it was most notably Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who called the neighbourhood home. It was back then — in the very early 1900s — that the local congregation opened this beautiful new synagogue on University Avenue (just a block to the north of the Armouries). Inspired by the design of England's Westminster Cathedral, this synagogue became the spiritual centre of Toronto's Jewish community. It stood on this spot for fifty years before it was demolished. By then, the community had moved west: the Goel Tzedec congregation merged with the worshipers of the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue on McCaul and opened the brand new Beth Tzedec Synagogue on Bathurst Street between St. Clair & Eglinton.
Today, the Canada Life Building — topped by its familiar weather beacon — is one of our best-loved landmarks. But in the summer of 1930, it was still being built. The Beaux-Arts skyscraper would serve as the headquarters for Canada's biggest and oldest insurance company: Canada Life. (They still own the building, though they were recently swallowed up by Great-West Life.) It was supposed to be just the first in a whole complex of buildings along University Avenue, but the Great Depression forced them to cancel those plans.
I've got another tour of Toronto in the 1930s here.
The photo the skyline comes via Wikimedia Commons here.
Wikipedia has stuff on the Eaton's Annex here. And an image of the entire complex here. And a history of Eaton's here.
Chris Bateman has a brief history of The Ward over on blogTO here. And he lists "10 lost Toronto buildings we wish we could bring back" here.
Jamie Bradburn writes about Mayor Bert Wemp — who led quite a fascinating life — for Torontoist here. Wikipedia gives a much briefer rundown here. And a very quick overview of the 1930 municipal election here.
The Toronto Historical Associated has a bit more about the Armouries here. And so does Heritage Toronto here.
Kevin Plummer writes about one of the cantors of the Goel Tzedec Synagogue in an edition of Torontoist's Historicist column here. Wikipedia has a "History of the Jews in Toronto" here.
I wrote about the chestnut trees of University Avenue here.
You'll find a neat photo of John Street and St. George The Martyr in 1909 on Google Books here. And an even older painting of it — as part of a history of the nearby St. Patrick's Market on Queen Street — thanks to Doug Taylor here. The church's own website shares a history of itself here. The full photo of the church after the fire is on the Toronto Public Library website here. blogTO calls it one of the best make-out spots in Toronto.