Monday, December 20, 2010

# 16 ~ The Yonge Street Arcade, Then and Now

All of my Christmas shopping is more or less done, but in years gone by, I was the sort of person who did everything on Christmas Eve.  On one memorable Christmas Eve, years ago, I managed to barrel through no less than three shopping malls to get everything I needed, and did it all in under four hours.  For those of you who are frantically trying to finish off your shopping in the next four days, I thought that you might like a bit of an historical respite, and to keep it to a theme, I thought I'd post on what was perhaps the first indoor shopping mall in Toronto.

In 1884, Toronto celebrated its first half century of incorporation as a city.  We'd come along way since 1834, when Toronto was little more than a colonial backwater.  In 1884, we were at the height of the Victorian Era, and thanks to a boom in building and business, we were becoming a very British Imperial City.  Soon, Toronto would be able to boast municipal splendours to compete with any cities in America, or perhaps even contend with European capitals like London and Paris.  In just a few short years, we would begin to build our first skyscrapers.  By the end of the 1890s, Toronto would be home to some of the tallest buildings in North America, soaring seven or eight storeys over the city.  In 1899, our new city hall would go up (now known as "Old City Hall"), and when it was constructed, it would be the tallest building in Toronto and the largest city hall building in North America.

An advance in architecture and good times all around were the order of the day in 1884, and that summer, a new indoor shopping centre opened up on Yonge Street between Richmond and Adelaide streets.  Glass covered "arcades" were all the rage in Europe, and we absolutely had to have one here in Toronto, to help put us on the map.  Commercial space in the downtown core was at a premium, and the ability to have dozens of stores in one building was seen as an excellent solution.  The concept of a glass ceiling provided natural light, and a bright open atmosphere, all of which seemed to attract shoppers and help to put them in the right mood for separating them from their money.  Modern 21st century malls still use the same trick; a bright, well lit mall will usually attract more clientele than something dark and dingy.

Before construction of the Yonge Street Arcade was even completed, a circular was distributed across the city to advertise both the opening of the arcade, and to try to attract tenant retailers.  It really was the first "shopping mall" in Toronto, and it was a huge success.

THEN : The circular advertising for tenants in the soon-to-be-completed Yonge Street Arcade.

Charles Walton was the architect who was chosen for the project.  He designed a building with four-storey towers, one on Yonge Street and one on Victoria Street, connected by a 3½-storey arcade, with an iron framed glass roof.  There were 32 retail spaces on the main floor, 20 on the second floor, and a jumble of offices and studios on the top floor.  The advantages to the small, independent store owner were the same then as they were today.  They got a small retail space that they could afford, in an established shopping community with other retails.  The big department stores like Eaton's and Simpson's were already doing a booming business nearby, and the Yonge Street Arcade could finally compete with them and draw in their customers.

THEN : The Yonge Street Arcade, as seen from Temperance Street, 1915.

THEN : Inside the Yonge Street Arcade, Toronto's first "shopping mall".

THEN : A view looking north up Yonge Street, about 1890.  The Yonge Street Arcade is on the right.

THEN : A view of the Yonge Street Arcade from the Temple Building, taken in 1912.  The spires of both the Gooderham (Flatiron) Building and the Cathedral Church of Saint James can be seen in the background.

THEN : Yonge Street and the Yonge Street Arcade in 1912.

THEN : Yonge Street and the Yonge Street Arcade in 1912.

The good times at the Yonge Street Arcade lasted for several decades, but by the 1950s, it had become pretty threadbare.  A number of different management companies had taken over the arcade over the years, and they had allowed it to fall into hard times.  Also, people were moving into the suburbs, and whole new communities in places like North York and Scarborough were built around new, clean, modern shopping malls.  People didn't want to live downtown anymore, and in the period after the Second World War, Yonge Street entered into a thirty year stretch of hard times.  Yonge Street became a gritty, seedy part of town and would remain so until the end of the 1970s, when urban revitalization finally kicked in and the cleanup started.  In January of 1954, the tenants in the Yonge Street Arcade were given notice that they were being kicked out in a matter of weeks.  The arcade was demolished that year, and in 1960, a ten-storey office tower was built on the site of the old Yonge Street Arcade.  This is the present day Arcade building, at 137 Yonge Street, and today it is perhaps best known for the vertical neon lights that have adorned its facade since 2008.

THEN : An advertisement, notifying Toronto's shoppers of the closing sales at the Yonge Street Arcade.

THEN : Demolition of the Yonge Street Arcade in progress, 1954.

NOW : The Arcade Building, built in 1960, on the site of the old Yonge Street Arcade.  The vertical neon lights were added to the exterior in 2008.

Hopefully, this small bit of Toronto's commercial history will fill you with the confidence and bravery to finish your commercial shopping.  Or perhaps you've already finished your seasonal shopping and are able to spend the next few days, before Christmas, winding down and enjoying the season.  In any case, please accept my best wishes for a very happy Christmas, or whatever other holiday you happen to celebrate, as well as my regards for a healthy and prosperous 2011!


Don't forget to keep an eye on the website :

Muddy York Walking Tours

I'm hoping to add some new tours in the Spring of 2011, including one on the history of Toronto's theatres and cinemas.  That tour will conclude with a history of the grittier side of Yonge Street's history.  If you have any questions about the tours, please feel free to contact me by e-mail at


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