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culture

From Simpsons to the Bay to Saks

With the news that Saks will move into part of the Hudson Bay's flagship store, we look at the history of the landmark downtown site.

For years, the crosswalk between Simpsons and Eaton’s on Queen Street was nicknamed “the cattle crossing” because of the high volume of shoppers flowing between downtown Toronto’s rival department stores. By the end of next year, those pedestrians (along with those using the skywalk above) may be shuffling between Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.

Less than two weeks after Nordstrom announced it would replace Sears, Hudson’s Bay Company announced that it will be selling its landmark store at Queen and Yonge and the adjoining Simpson Tower to Toronto Eaton Centre owner Cadillac Fairview. Under the $650-million deal, HBC will continue to lease the site for the next 25 years.

Shoppers will notice a major change by fall 2015: a fifth of the 750,000 square foot store will become Canada’s first Saks Fifth Avenue location. HBC, whose corporate parent bought the high-end American department store last year, previously indicated that the Hudson Bay store at Bloor and Yonge would be converted into Saks. According to the Star, Cadillac Fairview CEO John Sullivan convinced HBC CEO Richard Baker that, with Nordstrom coming to the Eaton Centre, Saks would be a good fit for the mall.

The changes announced this morning mark the latest chapter in the site’s history as a department store. Robert Simpson launched a dry goods business on the west side of Yonge Street a few doors north of Queen in 1872, then moved a block south in 1881. Simpson’s new store quickly burst out of its confines, and for nearly a century, the company bought adjoining properties to allow for its continued expansion.

Robert Simpson Co. department store, aftermath of fire, March 1895. Toronto Public Library, E 9-242.

Unlike his rival, Timothy Eaton, Simpson was interested in boosting his store’s image through grand architecture. In the 1890s, he hired Edmund Burke to design a new store at the southwest corner of Queen and Yonge inspired by the wide-open interiors of American retailers like Marshall Field. Burke’s design produced what was one of the first commercial structural steel buildings in Canada when it opened for business in December 1894. Unfortunately, the building was not fireproofed, a flaw that led to its destruction during an early morning blaze on March 3, 1895. Only the ground floor piers, which had been encased in stone, were left standing. Simpson and fire officials suspected arson—a security guard reported hearing glass shatter before the blaze was called in. The noise from the collapsing walls was heard as far as College Street.

Simpson was devastated by the blaze. “The loss is the more felt because we were just beginning to settle down in our new building and getting everything into good running order,” he told the Globe. “Fire can’t kill this business. It was built by its own workers and it will be built again.” And it was: ten months after the blaze, the store reopened on January 18, 1896. Burke’s design was retained, although this time around, it featured added touches like terra cotta mouldings and critical fixes like proper fireproofing.

Just as rival Eaton’s expanded rapidly on the north side of Queen Street, Simpsons built numerous extensions that stretched the store west toward Bay Street. The poshest expansion was a nine-storey, art deco–inspired addition that opened in 1929. Its centrepiece was the Arcadian Court restaurant, which Simpsons officials added to retain the lunch trade the store feared losing to the recently opened Royal York Hotel and the Eaton’s store under construction at Yonge and College (now College Park).

Luigi von Kunits and orchestra at Arcadian Court, 1929. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 329, Series 1569, File 5.

Early ads for the Arcadian Court touted its architectural wonders:

Vaulted arches and lofty, Byzantine domes tell of a classic beauty that breathes of Grecian temples and far eastern mosques. Decorative columns and ornate friezes catch the dynamic spirit of Art Moderne. It’s framed in silver, brilliantly lacquered silver, the colour born of modernist art; with it, there is violet, wondrous deep-toned violet, the shade that has coloured a thousand romances.

It’s certainly possible that romances bloomed during the many events held at the Arcadian Court over the years—perhaps over servings of the restaurant’s signature chicken pot pie.

Simpsons finally acquired the entire block between Yonge and Bay in the 1960s and built the 33-storey Simpson Tower office complex at the west end of the site. Plans called for the entire store to be reclad in metal panels to match the tower’s base. Preservationists were relieved when officials in the late 1970s decided instead to restore the exterior, retaining its 19th-century appearance for future generations.

View of Simpson’s with holiday decorations, Yonge Street and Queen Street West, November 22, 1973. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 17, Item 1.

In December 1978, Hudson’s Bay Company purchased Simpsons. Attempts to make the Yonge and Queen store more upscale didn’t pan out, as suburban locations maintained a middlebrow merchandise mix. The greatest impression the store may have made during the 1980s was among young viewers of TVOntario’s Today’s Special, which used Simpsons as a backdrop. How many children wandering through the store wondered where Jeff the mannequin hid during the day?

After enduring for nearly 120 years, the Simpsons brand was retired in 1991. “It was a judgement call,” noted HBC owner Ken Thomson. “We decided it was better to join the momentum of the Bay and start with a clean slate.” Ideas for revitalizing the store came and went over the years—from a giant food court in the basement to a pharmacy whose product lines smacked of HBC’s discount Zellers chain. In recent years, the store has remade itself through renovations, farming its restaurants out to Oliver & Bonacini, and giving space to retailers ranging from Topshop to the Drake General Store. Where Saks will fit into the store remains to be seen.

Additional material from A Store of Memories by G. Allan Burton (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986), Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), The Simpsons Century (Toronto: Toronto Star, 1972), the March 4, 1895 and March 9, 1929 editions of the Globe, and the June 6, 1991 and August 22, 1991 editions of the Toronto Star.

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