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President’s Choice Memories of Bathurst and Lake Shore

It used to be an art-deco marvel, and now it's about to become condos. Here's a look back at the history of the Loblaw Groceterias building.

It’s easy to be skeptical of the latest proposal to remake the old Loblaw Groceterias warehouse property. Recent renderings depicting a mixture of condos, offices, and retail on the site follow several other attempts by Loblaws to transform the northeast corner of Bathurst Street and Lake Shore Boulevard. Earlier efforts to demolish most or all of the Art Deco structure failed after battles over its preservation. So far, the deteriorating building has had the last laugh.

Loblaws was rapidly growing when the complex opened in the spring of 1928. A decade after the chain launched in 1919, it operated 65 stores in Ontario and had spread into the United States. For its new headquarters, company officials consolidated offices, production, and warehousing under one roof. The complex would join nearby structures like the Crosse & Blackwell Building (now owned by Rogers Media) and Maple Leaf Stadium, all of which were built on infill that stretched the city southward into what had been Lake Ontario.

Source: Toronto Year Book 1928, compiled by A C  Curry (Toronto: Municipal Intelligence Bureau, 1928)

Source: Toronto Year Book 1928, compiled by A.C. Curry (Toronto: Municipal Intelligence Bureau, 1928)

Designed by the firm of Sparling, Martin and Forbes, whose CV included the Masonic Temple on Yonge Street, the building was divided into three sections and adorned with Art Deco detailing. Construction magazine praised the architects for solving the problem of making a low-lying building seem taller than five floors: “The designer accomplished this by breaking the wall surfaces up into a series of piers, emphasizing the vertical lines and reducing to a minimum any horizontal lines which would have a tendency, in the matter of appearance, to push the building into the ground.” The facilities included repair shops, curing rooms, and a railway siding. An addition to the rear in 1934 tacked on a garage and more warehouse space.

When the building opened, the Globe predicted it would “likely prove to be one of the showplaces in Toronto, in view of the fact that the management will make arrangements to allow the public to go through the warehouse at appointed hours.” Tours followed arrows through the production plant, allowing visitors to marvel at the wonders of modern food processing, like machines that cut, weighed, and wrapped butter. They saw employees dressed in white coats, who demonstrated packing food into cellophane. Bakers prepared fruit cakes. Dieticians offered the latest recipes from the corporate test kitchen. Visitors also glimpsed employee perks like billiard tables, bowling alleys, and a cafeteria equipped with a stage.

The building gradually fell into disuse after Loblaw’s administrative offices moved to the Weston Centre on St. Clair Avenue East in the mid-1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s the warehouse was offered rent-free to the Daily Bread Food Bank. Occasional events were held onsite after Daily Bread moved its operations to New Toronto. The building became a haven for urban explorers.

Wittington Properties, a development branch of the Weston-family empire, put forward redevelopment plans in 2001 that would have included a Loblaws store, some warehouse restoration, and a cluster of condos topping out at 38 storeys. That year, the City designated the building as a heritage property. An application for a demolition permit in December 2004 indicated that only the south and west facades would remain, should the proposed supermarket be built. “It’s in various states of repair,” Loblaws spokesperson Jeff Wilson told the National Post in 2005. “Currently in its present state it’s not useful to anyone. It’s a far cry from its original beauty.”

The demolition plan ran into opposition from city council, heritage activists, and nearby residents. Loblaws appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board in 2006, but no hearings were held—negotiations continued for a while, and then the grocer began to concentrate on other projects. An updated proposal released in December 2010 still included a partial knockdown. Hoarding went up without city approval.

Rendering of proposed development for Loblaw Groceterias site, as prepared by architectsAlliance

Rendering of proposed development for Loblaw Groceterias site. Image coutesy of architectsAlliance.

Which brings us to the current plan, which consists of an eight-storey retail and office complex built around the south and west facades and topped with a green roof, with two condo buildings (one 37 storeys, the other 41) in the rear. Despite efforts by the heritage community to convince Loblaw to preserve as much of the building as possible, consultants working for the grocer feel the structure is too far gone.

Still to come are a report for Toronto and East York Community Council and public consultations, both slated for the fall. It remains to be seen if Loblaw will offer nods to the building’s past as it has inside its Maple Leaf Gardens store.

Additional material from the June 1928 edition of Construction, the June 29, 1928 and August 9, 1934 editions of the Globe, the August 9, 2005, January 11, 2011, and August 9, 2013 editions of the National Post, and the January 27, 1928, March 22, 1928, April 26, 1934, and October 13, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.


  • Paul D.

    I can’t help but roll my eyes when people raise a hew and cry over a crumbling building that is about to be repurposed. I will be the first to agree that the proliferation of cheap, unimaginative condos in this city is a shame, but building a dense city is in our best interest. And look at what Loblaws has done with Maple Leaf Gardens (another empty neglected pile of bricks). I’d say we’ve lucked out with this development.

    • Functionalist

      It’s not being repurposed; Loblaws is demolishing the building except for two exterior facades. These two facades will be tacked onto a new building of a completely different scale and architectural style. That’s considerably less significant than taking a building like Maple Leaf Gardens, restoring it and changing the interior for new purposes in a respectful way to its past.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    That’s a pretty terrible rendering.

    • iamrobfordsaneurysm

      They’re ribbed, for your pleasure.

    • OgtheDim

      The cladding on the bit built over top of the old building looks like either its hiding a Toronto Hydro installation or university office space.

      • iSkyscraper

        I think it will look much glassier than the rendering. Not a good image.

        • OgtheDim

          Yes, because God knows, we need more glassier type things downtown.

          • Testu

            Yeah, I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for developers to match the style of the building they’re building upon. It’s like they tell their architects “we’re stuck with the facade, but stick something shiny on top”.

            The result is almost always a visually displeasing clash of styles.

          • iSkyscraper

            Really? I greatly prefer a sharp glass addition when dealing with an older building as it is nearly impossible to match the historic brickwork of earlier eras. Plus the older buildings tend to have details that don’t scale well. Tip Top Tailors, Radio City, One York in NYC – these all look pretty great in my opinion but would be a mess if they had added masonry on top of masonry.

          • Testu

            It doesn’t have to be masonry, just match the style. The Tip Top building did a fairly good job of this using massive amounts of glass and little else. The render above shows a completely different style to the towers and above-podium segment. There are ways to ape Art Deco with modern materials, but the developers aren’t even attempting that.

          • iSkyscraper

            Fair enough, point taken. I agree the architecture for the Loblaws warehouse is not top-notch based on the images to date, but one can hope it will improve as the project moves forward.

          • Testu

            I hope so too. I love the style of the existing building and a modern take on Art Deco with two large towers could be really impressive if done right.

          • Functionalist

            Glass, like stone looks good on buildings no matter how many such buildings you have in a city. Paris has so many grey stone buildings, but no one complains about that.

  • chastityfudge

    How dare they convert that old beaten up building into something new? Honestly.

    • Lloyd_Davis

      Viewed from another angle, why do we reward major corporations that allow their properties to deteriorate to that state?

  • Lloyd_Davis

    Is there another city that devotes so much energy to preserving facades of old buildings, rather than repurposing the actual buildings?

    • iSkyscraper

      It’s true that Toronto has a real facade-ism bent.

      Some of that may be:

      - the lack of true “landmarks” laws (facade-ism is not allowed in some places)
      - the fact that the city is doing so well that the proposed re-uses often are too intense for the original structure (this one is a case in point with the added floors. You wouldn’t have a market for new office space in many other cities)
      - that Toronto was built out as a small regional center, not a big city, and therefore has many smaller buildings that are hard to reuse in what is now the center of a major metropolis (this warehouse is far smaller than similar repurposed ones in New York, say)
      - the fact that saving only the facades is a long-accepted trend here (where other cities might just tear them down and never propose such a move).

      I personally don’t mind the facade gimmick, it’s certainly better than nothing and has worked well enough in many instances. I would like to see the creation of historic districts and a landmarks board similar to New York to better protect entire areas.

    • Johny Canuck

      Yes, All of Europe.

  • iSkyscraper

    Best blog post title ever.

    It’s going to be a great project, one any other city on the continent would kill for.

    Condos are saving this city from itself. Bravo.

  • dsmithhfx

    Hideous. Frightening. Sterile.

  • wklis

    What is new today, will become old and decrepit in 80 years.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      I look forward to seeing the first building required to keep the 1900s facade, and a portion of the 2000s makover, as the facade for a new construction.

      • Functionalist

        What kind of circa 2000 facade preservation requirement are we going to see in 2113? “You must use glass made to the specs of a 100 years ago. That is all.”

    • dsmithhfx

      By some accounts, a good deal sooner.

  • rich1299

    It would look nicer if they paid more respect to the original building and kept or re-used some of the interior details as well like was done with MLG, true this interior isn’t as well known by the public as MLG but even still reusing some of the better interior material in an entrance way or main stairwell or whatnot would go a long way to giving the new space a historical feel. While its a little different I quite liked how the ACC incorporated portions of the old mail building in its interior space.

    I don’t see the point of filling in the space between the spires on the top of the building with glass as it really diminishes the facade, if they want a patio area up there and need railings then that part at the very least should match the original building, an art deco-ish metal railing between the spires would look so much better.

  • zlotco

    FTA: “Despite efforts by the heritage community to convince Loblaw to preserve as much of the building as possible, consultants working for the grocer feel the structure is too far gone.”

    Otherwise known as “demolition by neglect.”

  • Chris gallow

    No surprise. Its the Toronto way, if its old knock it down and build a cheap ugly tower. The city skyline is destroyed already. Sad to see this beautiful building go.