Historicist: The Rise and Fall of a Shopping Arcade
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Historicist: The Rise and Fall of a Shopping Arcade

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Interior View of the Yonge St. Arcade, circa 1885. Toronto Public Library (TRL): B 12-44b.

These days, the Arcade Building at Yonge and Temperance may be known for the neon light installation on its facade or recently-erected signs offering up “big retail for lease” in its emptied-out shopping concourse. The current structure replaced a similarly-named building that one might be tempted to call the city’s first indoor shopping centre, which housed a variety of offices and retailers under its glass roof for seventy years.

Advertisement, The Daily Mail, June 30, 1884.

Elegant glass-covered arcades had gained popularity in Europe during the nineteenth century, partly for the atmosphere they created, partly for the profitable use of dwindling space in the main commercial districts of cities. A strip of land running between Yonge and Victoria streets was chosen by the Ontario Industrial Loan and Investment Company as the site for Canada’s first arcade, for which construction tenders were offered during the summer of 1883. Architect Charles A. Walton’s plans called for a building with four-storey towers on Yonge and Victoria streets, connected by an half-storey shorter arcade with a peaked, iron-framed glass roof. The ground floor housed thirty-two retail spaces, the second floor twenty, the third a mix of offices and artist studios. Merchants could not duplicate what they sold, to ensure a wide variety of merchandise and services. It was felt that a mix of tenants would allow small businessmen to compete on an equal footing with the growing power of department stores like Eaton’s, Golden Lion, and Simpson’s.

Yonge Street, looking north from south of the Arcade building, between 1885 and 1895. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1478, Item 24.

The Toronto Arcade opened to the public in the summer of 1884, just in time for the city’s fiftieth anniversary festivities. A pamphlet was issued to commemorate the event, which included a list of tenants and a page of tips for conducting business (key points: contracts made by minors and lunatics were void). The Daily Mail was among those who praised the building:

The most notable addition to Toronto’s architecture in this the semi-centennial year is, without doubt, the Arcade. This form of building has become very popular in the Continental cities of Europe, furnishing as it generally does a delightful promenade, a glimpse into attractive stores and a shelter from rain or sun…The location is a desirable one, and it is anticipated that there will be a perfect rush of tenants.

Advertisement, The Globe and Mail, February 11, 1954.

By the early 1950s neglect from a series of landlords allowed the Arcade to fall into disrepair. The upper offices were regarded, in the words of the Star, as “dingy, dimly lit and hard to get at,” while street-level retailers had to pay for any improvements out of their own pocket. Two mysterious fires during the winter of 1953 caused extensive water and smoke damage and raised fears among fire officials about the Arcade’s structural stability. Business resumed shortly after the blazes and carried on until January 1954, when tenants were given notice to vacate the premises within a month. Though many quickly found new homes, there was a sense of sadness among the older retailers. Newspaper stories included memories of Harry Houdini buying his stage makeup while on tour and parents bringing their children along for Saturday morning shopping trips.

Yonge Street Arcade, part of Urban Development series, June 11, 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 381, File 308, Id1 2103-27.

Several proposals were made for the site. A Globe and Mail editorial pushed a plan that would have replaced the Arcade with a road linking Temperance Street with Lombard and Duchess streets to provide a new through route for traffic from Bay to Parliament. The paper felt the city must act on such a golden opportunity to lay down more concrete:

In comparison with many American cities, and even with South American cities, Toronto shows an undue regard for run down and worn out buildings. Street widening is put off again and again because of an ignorant theory that it would cost money to demolish so many buildings…Toronto civic legislators lack nerve and imagination. The time is coming soon when tinkering with traffic and street widening will have to give place to drastic, large-scale action.

This proposal was ignored, though Duchess Street was soon turned into the eastern leg of Richmond Street. The Arcade site was temporarily paved over and turned into that favourite occupant of recently demolished buildings, a parking lot. Plans to build a three-hundred-room hotel with a small shopping concourse looked promising but were scrapped after several attempts fell through. What would become the current Arcade Building was first announced in April 1956 as an eight-storey office building with a ground-floor shopping concourse. It opened four years later, with one of its first events being a “Career Girl Week” show sponsored by the same paper that wanted to run a road through the site.
Additional material from the June 30, 1884 edition of The Daily Mail, the April 21, 1953 edition of The Globe and Mail, and the January 18, 1954 edition of The Toronto Star.