Historicist: The Collapse of the Union Carbide Building
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Historicist: The Collapse of the Union Carbide Building

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

Front page photos by Charles McGregor (left) and Jim Kennedy (right). The Telegram, September 8, 1958.

Last night’s wind storm may have caused power outages and scattered branches along city streets and yards, but it didn’t cause any major construction projects to tumble down. That wasn’t the case back in 1958, when blustery conditions during a late summer storm caused the steel frame of the Union Carbide building under construction on Eglinton Avenue to collapse. That the incident didn’t go down in the history books as a fatal disaster was due to timing and the skill of a bus driver.

Photo caption: “This picture, taken by amateur photographer E. Taylor only a day before the collapse, shows the building’s vast structure of steel beams.” The Telegram, September 8, 1958.

The building slated to occupy 123 Eglinton Avenue East was designed by the firm of Shore and Moffat (which evolved into Shore Tilbe Perkins+Will), who would receive a Massey Medal that year for designing a research centre for Imperial Oil in Mississauga. The Globe and Mail indicated that the structure would consist of “contemporary modular design featuring glass and stainless steel with impressive black columns on the facade.” To maximize interior space in the 180,000 square foot building, no interior columns were to be built. Management of Union Carbide’s Canadian operations and its subsidiaries, including Bakelite, would take up two-thirds of the space, while the rest was slated to be rented out.
Installation of the steel frame began in mid-June 1958. By September 5, nearly all of the welding was finished except for the top two floors. Temporary bracing was put in that Friday to hold the unfinished sections in place for the weekend, with all signs pointing to the welding being completed at the start of the new work week. But Mother Nature had other ideas. A severe thunderstorm hit Toronto on September 6, which brought along winds that local weather stations reported were gusting up to 90 km/h. Around 6:20 p.m., due to the wind and possibly a lightning strike, the frame of the building swayed, then collapsed in a scene that newspaper accounts compared to a falling house of sticks and a folding accordion. The roar of over 1,850 tons of falling steel was described in ways ranging from the sound of a jet squadron to a tornado.
Globe and Mail reporter Robert Gowe was at home a block east on Brownlow Avenue when his son Bob screamed “Dad! There’s a building falling!” Gowe quickly went to the front of the house to see what was happening:

At the top southwest corner it was already swaying downward. There was a noise like two freight trains colliding at full speed and the frame buckled and crashed to the ground with the shattering impact of a high explosive bomb. Sparks flew as steel crashed on steel in the sickening dive. People could be heard screaming from houses nearby and in a moment everybody seemed to be out on the street and hurrying to the scene…By the time neighbours reached places where they could see the spot…it was gone. It took minutes for many to realize that it could have really happened. And, after seeing it, I am not sure yet that I believe it.

Photo caption: “One steel beam that fell onto Eglinton Avenue shattered this car owned by Charles Boomer of Cottingham Street, who was in a restaurant with his wife and daughter. Several other cars were flattened like pancakes as the girders crashed on top of them.” The Telegram, September 8, 1958.

Owners of five vehicles crushed by the falling steel were quick to believe what had happened. Frank Fielding and his wife were dining on Eglinton when the lights inside the restaurant flickered. “I told my wife to wait while I went for the car,” he told the Globe and Mail. “When I got there I couldn’t even see it. The steel had buried it completely.” One home on Redpath Avenue was damaged by both a beam that fell by it and a maple tree that was forced into the kitchen.
If the evening had a hero, it was bus driver Joseph Kelly, whose prompt action saved the lives of forty-five passengers in his vehicle. Kelly was at the wheel of a westbound bus on Eglinton when he noticed two men running along the north side the road in a state of panic. “When I looked up and saw that steel swaying,” he told the Telegram, “my heart stopped.” Certain that the structure was going to slam down onto Eglinton, Kelly put his foot down on the gas pedal and swung north onto Redpath. “Just as I stopped, about 150 feet from the corner, there was a tremendous vibration. I looked back and saw that the building had fallen not on Eglinton, but on Redpath behind us.” Kelly’s quick turn north and the sight of the tilting structure caused his passengers to panic and throw themselves to the floor of the bus. Among the grateful riders (“he saved our lives”) was Mrs. Douglas Bolt, who gave her account to the Star:

The bus slowed up and I heard this terrible rumbling and looked up to see what looked like smoke coming from the first floor. Then the bus suddenly lurched and went around the corner as some debris was hitting the side of the bus…I was watching the top part of the falling building to see if it was going to land on us. I thought we were all going to be killed and might have been if it hadn’t been for the quick thinking of the bus driver. Some of the passengers were screaming and threw themselves on the floor, I saw a woman lying on her 10-year-old son. Other passengers were holding on to each other and screaming “let me off, let me off.” Some ran up and down the aisles on verge of panic.

Despite admitting that he had never been so scared in his life (he still shook three hours later), Kelly kept his cool and walked through the bus to check on the passengers.

Headline, the Globe and Mail, September 8, 1958.

When police detective David Williamson heard the sound as he cruised along Mount Pleasant Road, he quickly put in a call to “rush all utilities.” The site was quickly cordoned off as police, hydro workers, firefighters (who quickly put out a small blaze caused by a fallen gas can) and even a few priests rushed over. Final rites were not required that evening, as there were no fatalities—the only worker that had been on the site was a teenaged night watchman who luckily had been on a separate part of the grounds when the collapse occurred. Toronto chief building inspector John Payne felt it was a miracle that the incident happened on the weekend, as a normal day might have seen high fatalities among workmen and those stuck in traffic by the site.
Investigations into the collapse were carried out by the city, insurance companies, and consultants hired by Union Carbide. All agreed that the temporary bracing was insufficient to withstand the high winds. A report presented to Union Carbide determined that the architectural design was still sound, but to ensure another collapse didn’t happen it was recommended that deep horizontal trusses between the columns of each floor should be used for support.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, October 26, 1960.

Plans to rebuild went ahead. The first batch of office workers settled into their desks in July 1960, greeted by the stainless steel decor that dominated the building’s main floor. Union Carbide remained the main tenant of the International style complex until the early 1990s. Despite efforts to recognize the architectural significance of the building, it was razed in 1999 to make way for the condo that currently occupies the site.
Additional material from the June 21, 1958, September 8, 1958, and the July 14, 1960 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 8, 1958 edition of the Telegram; and the September 8, 1958 edition of the Toronto Star.