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Historicist: The Old Lady of Melinda Street

Every Saturday morning, beginning today, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
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Telegram Building, southeast corner of Bay and Melinda, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8908
Mention “Bay Street” and the usual image is the financial institutions that line its sidewalks. Many of those rushing to the office with a newspaper in hand may not realize how tied the history of their morning read is to Bay. For much of the 20th Century, the stretch between King and Wellington was home to a fierce rivalry between the city’s two main populist papers. Where First Canadian Place stands was once home to the Star, while at the southwest corner of a long-vanished intersection was the Telegram, aka “the Old Lady of Melinda Street.”


2008_04_19robertson.jpgThe Telegram was launched by John Ross Robertson in April 1876 using the presses of the defunct Liberal on Yonge Street. Robertson had started in the industry by hawking his own newspaper while a student at Upper Canada College, much to the consternation of school officials who looked down on attacks on their actions. Based on initial conversations with scholar Goldwin Smith, Robertson operated the Telegram as a conservative-leaning populist paper that did not toe a particular political party line (unlike the Liberal Globe or Conservative Mail). A community-minded type, even if his paper was geared towards those of British Protestant extraction, Robertson was a key figure in the development of the Hospital for Sick Children and the Ontario Hockey Association. His series of articles on the history of the city would be collected as Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto and continue to provide a valuable source of information in the electronic age.
The Telegram first moved to Bay in April 1879, setting up shop at the southwest corner of King. The site would prove inadequate for the paper’s rapid growth and Robertson purchased land a block south at Melinda Street, where publishing began in February 1900. It almost proved a short-lived location when a massive fire brushed up against the building four years later. In The Great Toronto Fire, Nancy Rawson and Richard Tatton described the battle against the blaze:

Employees of the Telegram fought the flames inch by inch. In spite of protective shutters on some of the windows, plate glass shattered from the heat. Wooden window frames caught and the building filled with smoke but the building’s sprinkler system was not activated. With wet towels over their heads and their eyes streaming, the employees manned fire hoses for more than two hours, playing water from every threatened window and from a hydrant on the roof.

With the building saved, Robertson offered substantial bonuses to those who fought the blaze. The fire did not spread further north on Bay, concentrating its fury along Wellington and Front.
The paper gradually expanded its presence in the neighbourhood, adding two floors and taking over several adjoining structures. The balcony over the main entrance served as a podium for campaigning politicians at all levels of government to address the public. On election nights, sheets were draped on Bay or Melinda to project the results, with the paper’s cartoonists drawing the fortunes of the main candidates as the numbers were tallied.
By the 1960s the labyrinthine structure was considered outdated for newspaper production and construction began on a new facility at 440 Front Street West. Among the items found during the move were a forgotten closet full of business records that pre-dated the building and a pair of unloaded revolvers purchased for security guards after World War II-era bomb threats.
The last edition from Bay and Melinda hit the streets on October 12, 1963 and was marked by the playing of “Last Post” on a battered trumpet by one of the engravers. The front page showed an hourglass with the old building sifting into the new one. The editorial noted that the most important part of the move would not be visible to the public:

The most important equipment of any newspaper is its integrity, its vigor, and its conviction that there is a continuing conflict between right and wrong, government and society-and that it must, to the best of its ability, support the right. This is the ideal that was built into the Telegram by its founders and by their successors just as solidly as were the brick and stones mortared ito the edifice which became known as the Old Lady of Melinda Street. It is not pleasant to leave the old house and its treasured memories. But we know that we take its most important contents with us.

Alas, the bricks and mortar, the Telegram, even the intersection of Bay and Melinda would not survive much longer. The newspaper closed in 1971, though the Sun can be viewed as its step-child. Its Front Street offices would remain in the newspaper business as the eventual home of the Globe and Mail. The intersection disappeared for good in 1972 with the opening of the new western and southern towers of Commerce Court.
Photo of John Ross Robertson from the Telegram, May 31, 1918.

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