The late 1920s and early 1930s were an important time in the building of Toronto. Many of the city's most beautiful landmarks opened in those few years: everything from Maple Leaf Gardens to Union Station to what was, at the time, the tallest skyscraper in the British Empire. Many of them were planned during the boom years of the 1920s, those carefree days of flappers and jazz, just before the Great Depression hit and priorities changed. As other major construction projects were cancelled or put on hold, the buildings built in this period would dominate Toronto's skyline for decades to come.You can see many of them in this aerial photograph. It was taken sometime in the early 1930s by William James, one of the city's most important and prolific early photographers. There are thousands of his photos in the Toronto Archives — they call him "the first press photographer in Canada." And since this particular photograph gives such an interesting overview of our city at a formative moment in its history, I thought I'd give a brief "tour" of a few of the landmarks it contains.
First, you'll probably want to open a bigger version of the image so you can see it in better detail. Click here.
02 Eaton's College Street
Just down the street from Queen's Park, the Canada Life Building was another brand new landmark at the time this photo was taken. It opened in 1931 and it's still there today — on the west side of University Avenue just north of Queen. It was built 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 the first in a series of buildings along University, but the Depression forced them to cancel those plans. Its coolest feature — the weather beacon at the top (lights run up or down according to the changing temperature, flash red or white for rain or snow, steady red for clouds and green for clear skies) — didn't get added until the '50s.
Just to the south of the building, you can see a brand new stretch of University Avenue. The road originally ended at Queen. But just before this photo was taken, the provincial government gave the municipal government the power to expropriate the land; they wanted to extend University down to Union Station in order to ease traffic congestion. It became the main issue in the 1929 Toronto election — and the supporter of the scheme, Mayor Sam McBride, won. His government then unveiled an elaborate plan, including a magnificent roundabout called Vimy Circle and grand avenues named after battles from the First World War. But there was another election the very next year — and by then the stock market had crashed. With the Great Depression now just beginning, voters rejected the ambitious plan and kicked McBride out of office. In the end, University got a simple extension straight down to Front, which is what you can see in this photo.
Just to the left of Old City Hall, you can see the neighbourhood that was called The Ward back then. It was Toronto's most infamous slum. Since the mid-1800s, it had been home to one wave of new immigrants after another, a place where slumlords crammed people into tiny, rundown, poorly insulated shacks. By the time this photo was taken, The Ward was home to the city's first Chinatown. Those were days of severe anti-Chinese racism; the federal government had just banned Chinese immigration. And the Great Depression meant things would get even worse. In the 1920s, developers had already started to buy up parts of the neighbourhood to build office towers and hotels. Finally, in the late-'50s, the City expropriated the land, forced all the residents to move, and demolished the buildings to make way for Nathan Phillips Square and our new City Hall.
The Bank of Commerce Building 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.
The hotel was designed by the firm of Ross & Macdonald with the help of Henry Sproatt, the same architect who designed the Canada Life Building and helped them with Eaton's College Street. In the late-1800s, he had also been partners with Darling & Pearson. Between them, those three firms were responsible for many of our city's most striking new landmarks in this period.
08 Union Station
To the right of Union Station, you can see the gleaming white Dominion Public Building. It was originally built by the government as a giant customs clearing house. It's still there today: the huge, imposing, columned building that curves along the south side of Front Street for an entire block between Bay and Yonge. In this photo, the construction was only half-finished: the whole western wing has yet to be built.
09 The Roundhouse
It was designed by Chapman & Oxley — the other big Toronto architectural firm building landmarks along the lake shore at this time. Most of their most famous buildings had recently opened to the west of this photo: Palais Royal, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, the Prince's Gates at the CNE, the Maple Leaf baseball stadium at Bathurst & Front. They'd also just finished the old Toronto Star Building, which was at the foot of Yonge, just off to the south-east of the Harbour Commission Building. Four of the downtown skyscrapers you can see in this photo were also Chapman & Oxley designs.
Maybe most amazing of all, though, is what was found in those white cliffs: a geological and fossil record stretching back tens of thousands of years. During the 1920s, A.P. Coleman, Toronto's most important early geologist, was using them to trace the advance and retreat of the last Ice Age. They were a new addition to our understanding of this place. They were a reminder of a time long before this city was built — before skyscrapers and train stations and sports stadiums, before even the villages of the First Nations, before the first human beings had ever set foot on this land — when Toronto was home to bison and deer, giant prehistoric beavers and enormous stag-moose, the days when mammoths and mastodons roamed this land.