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.
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.
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.