It is a bit more than a mile (1700 meters) from Yonge and Dundas to the Harbour. This stretch of Yonge, perhaps because of its proximity to the Financial District in the Bay/King area, has fewer of the dilapidated and shabby buildings that still exist north of Dundas. We’ll begin our walk at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas.
Standing on the NW corner is a turn of the 20th Century building that first saw life as a bank. A series of clothing chains have filled the space in the past twenty years. I’m looking from its entrance across the intersection to Yonge-Dundas Square, created in the 1990’s with the removal of a ramshackle collection of two-storey buildings that filled the corner space. (It included my favourite roti shop, Coconut Grove!) As the satellite image above shows, it is not exactly a square! Dundas takes a funny turn northward just as it approaches Yonge. Perhaps to define the space, what looks like the remains of a highway off-ramp runs down the north side of the public space.
The square’s main feature is the water fountains – ten or so in all that, when working, create an oasis-like feel amid the concrete. Listening to the waterfall you can forget for a moment that you are at the busiest intersection not just in Toronto but in all of Canada. The development of the Ryerson campus in the immediate area over the past twenty years has only added to the number of people passing by.
One Sunday morning I went downtown to find that Yonge Street from Bloor to Queen had been turned into a pedestrian mall. In the square were a number of food carts and – finally acknowledging our city’s multicultural composition – they were offering more than the usual hot dogs and fries!
Above the square on the NE side is Milestones, a third-floor restaurant with a fabulous view of the streets below. The fact that it was 10 a.m. on a Sunday with no cars allowed on Yonge meant I got the neighbourhood at its quietest!
I continued my walk south on Yonge from Dundas. On the west side the Eaton Centre stretches all the way down to Queen Street. You would have figured that this massive development of one side of the street in the early 1970’s would have resulted in more of the same on the other side of the street. The image above shows the reality – a row of two-storey brick buildings from the 1880’s that have been “beautified” with fake fronts.
At the corner of Yonge and Shuter I had to turn in to see Massey Hall, Toronto’s historic music venue. From Procol Harum to Leonard Cohen to Ray Davies to Gordon Lightfoot to Sigur Ros – I too have my Massey Hall memories! Until Roy Thomson Hall was built for them it was also the home of the Toronto Symphony.
As you walk down Yonge along the outside of the Eaton Centre the two following buildings – Greco-Roman temples – come into view. They go back to the Victorian era when the Classical look was all the rage and the fronts of public buildings and banks all over town were adorned with all the right touches – from the ornate Corinthian columns of the building on the left to the more severe Ionic look of the other building. Behind these buildings a new tower is being constructed – glass is all the rage these days! But the temples will be incorporated into the new structure and from street level at least things will look the same.
All you have to do, though, is look up to see what is happening! At the corner of Yonge and Queen is another facade saved from the wrecker’s ball. (In Toronto over the decades that has meant Teperman Wrecking Inc.) Behind the facade is the glass tower of the Maritime Life Building, at 347′ high a mid-rise building which went up in the early 2000’s.
On the south side of Queen as you walk down Yonge is the old Simpson’s main store; it is now is owned by Cadillac Fairview and houses the downtown Bay store.
Now I’m down at Yonge and King, looking NE at a heritage 10-storey building on the corner. Across the street at One King W. is a condo hotel completed in 2006 when, as a Wikipedia article on the property notes, a tower was added to the heritage Dominion Bank Building (1914), itself an early 12-storey skyscraper.
Down another block to a quiet side street – Colborne Street – that reminded me of Florence and the swarms of scooters on that city’s streets and parked like this.
At Wellington I deked west from Yonge Street to get a shot of what must have been warehouses back in the day and are probably lofts or offices now.
In the photo below I am approaching Front Street. The distinctive shape of the L-Tower draws my eye; it is a Friday afternoon and the street is busy. Vehicles are heading down to the Gardiner and an escape from the downtown core.
The L-Tower’s shape makes it recognizable even from my neighbourhood vantage point on Broadview Avenue by the Rooster Café some three kilometers away! It will probably soon be hidden from view by taller buildings that will sprout up around it. On the north side of the L-Tower with its main doors on Front Street is what is now called the Sony Centre For the Performing Arts. I have been around long enough to remember it as the O’Keefe Centre. I do remember being confused when it was renamed to the Hummingbird Centre in the 1980’s. It was the previous home of the Canadian Opera Company.
I still remember a soul-numbing performance of Death In Venice – a birthday gift from my wife! Listening to the mopey hero going on and on about his miserable fate in life I remember thinking – “Man, quit your moaning and groaning! Die already!” I actually left the performance and went out for a smoke or two and met back up with an annoyed Laila when the performance was over. We stopped going to opera after that. On a more positive note, the Elvis Costello concert we attended at the O’Keefe was fantastic!
On the NW corner of Yonge and Front is the old Bank of Montreal Building. Its ornate Beaux Arts style made quite the statement when it opened in the 1880’s. In the early 1990’s it was transformed from a bank into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In the image below you can see its east face.
Behind the Hockey Hall of Fame building, still standing after 130 years, massive changes have taken place. An entire block from Yonge over to Bay has been redeveloped and is now a complex of two towers, the dramatic Allan Lambert Galleria, as well as the Hall of Fame. This satellite image shows the development –
Across the street from the Hockey Hall of Fame I noticed this historical plaque. It notes the visit of the already-famous Charles Dickens in May of 1842. He spent two nights at the American Hotel which stood on the NE corner until the late 1880’s. What he would find now is an edifice twice-removed from the one he stayed in. The image below shows the current building – put up in the 1980’s – with its mirrored facade. Across the street sits the old Bank of Montreal building. The old reflected in the new – a tale of two cities!
At Front I looked back up Yonge Street I could make out the CIBC logo on the top of the building at Yonge and Bloor. It is 2.75 km (about 2 miles) away. The fact that I had exchanged my wide-angle zoom (15mm- 24mm) for my 55mm-210 mm Tele zoom lens explains the compression of space! I’d shoot a few more with that zoom set at 210mm before putting it away as a few of the pix below will show.
Forty years ago there was no reason to go south of Front Street; there was little there. The concrete of the Gardiner Expressway acted as a kind of wall – physical and psychological. This is also where the rails come through on their way to Union Station on the west side of Yonge on Front. By 2016 thanks to massive development projects – mixed commercial/ residential condos, hotels, the Harbourfront Centre – the lakeshore area has been transformed and more dramatic change is on the way in the next decade.
One of the stories that first drew me to revisiting Yonge Street was the one about the massive development planned for One Yonge Street. I knew it as the address of the Toronto Star Building but couldn’t really picture it. So off I went for a bike ride to The Star Building. it is visible in the satellite image below. While it will remain, around it a major complex of high-rises will fill the entire block that it sits on the corner of.
Queen’s Quay is the street where Yonge Street begins. Across from the Star Building is the Harbour Castle Westin- the place with the revolving restaurant. At least it did a full 360º spin around – and more than once! – the one time I had dinner there in the 1970’s thanks to my buddy Roy. His father was in town for the annual miners’ convention and decided to treat us young lads to a fancy meal! (According to this Wiki entry it stopped spinning in 2001.) Immediately below the hotel is the ferry terminal for rides over to the Toronto Islands.
My multi-day visit to Yonge Street was an attempt to capture Toronto’s “main drag” in the midst of the massive transformation it is currently undergoing. It provided a focus for my camera lenses and made for an enjoyable project that I am sure reflects my history-teacher approach to things. I can also see that my concern for a disappearing Yonge Street perhaps reflects the concerns of a 65-year old who is grappling with his own impermanence!
Doug Taylor, a fellow history teacher and fellow blogger, has a website Historic Toronto that is a goldmine of information on Toronto as it was. He has individual entries on all of the old buildings of Yonge Street – and a whole lot besides. You may start off with one building but a half hour later you’ll find yourself a few streets away, reading about another building you have always wondered about.
The website Urban Toronto is all about the Toronto that is being built of glass and steel. It has the latest news and a handy map that highlights all the current and proposed projects that are transforming our city. See here for the map.