Historicist: Yorkdale Mall and the Aesthetics of Commerce
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Historicist: Yorkdale Mall and the Aesthetics of Commerce

Beloved by shoppers and blasted by critics, Yorkdale opened 48 years ago this week.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre, ca. 1965, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 197.

On February 26, 1964, shoppers dressed in their Sunday best walked through Yorkdale Shopping Centre for the first time. With over 1.2 million square feet of retail, restaurants, and services—although not all of them were yet leased on opening day—Yorkdale was briefly the largest indoor shopping mall in the world.

With three anchor stores—Simpsons at the west, Eaton’s at the east, and a Dominion at the south—Yorkdale was oriented in an L-shaped indoor shopping street. Shoppers could stroll in climate controlled comfort from one end to another, passing stores like Reitman’s, Collyer Shoes, Laura Secord, Toy World, and Eddie Black’s Camera Store along the way. There was a dual cinema, and Encore Noshery was the largest restaurant in a Canadian shopping centre. Until that point, many suburbanites had continued to conduct their shopping downtown. But Yorkdale represented a new feature of postwar life where the best-known stores of the core were installed on the periphery. “It’s Instant Downtown—even though it’s Uptown,” as one promotional article put it.

Not everyone was impressed, however. In the June 1964 issue of Canadian Architect, architect Ron Thom judged: “It is a gigantic compendium of follies, and it fails disastrously to answer up to the complex sociological conditions implicit in any such place, particularly one of this size.”

In 1953, about half of Metro Toronto’s 240 square miles had been urbanized, according to James T. Lemon’s Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985). By 1965, Metro had sprawled to cover three-quarters of that terrain, giving rise to an increased emphasis on automobile travel in urban planning. By the late 1950s, Metro’s official plan called for a series of expressways skirting the city’s core, including the long proposed extension of Spadina Road from south of St. Clair Avenue to the north side of the 401. (Photo at right: exterior of Eaton’s at Yorkdale Shopping Centre, 1965, from the Archives of Ontario (F 229-308-0-553).)

In the mid-1950s, the T. Eaton Company bought a 40 hectare grassy meadow on the southwest side of the 401-Dufferin Street interchange as the site for a massive suburban department store. With an apparently ideal crossroads location, the plan was for no mere small-scale shopping plaza. In 1958, Simpsons, the rival Yonge Street department store, was invited to join the project. Simpsons agreed—the first time the two venerable retailers would occupy space in a single shopping centre—and bought eight hectares adjacent to the Eaton’s site.

Catering to the suburban, car-oriented community for whom a shopping trip downtown—with the difficulties of congestion and parking—was impractical, malls quickly became a feature of the postwar city. Initially built as outdoor plazas and then as enclosed buildings with a single anchor, the number of shopping centres in Metro Toronto increased rapidly: from 5 in 1953 to 227 in 1966, according to Lemon. At first, malls catered to the immediate neighbourhood, like the strip mall at Eglinton and Bayview—the first in Toronto—or were purpose-built to be regional centres at the heart of a new residential community, like Don Mills. But Yorkdale represented something new in Toronto: a regional centre, isolated but connected by roadways, and meant to supplant the downtown. Market research indicated that, with the 401 and secondary highways, the venture would attract shoppers from within a 28-minute drive—as far away as Brampton and Whitby—in addition to Torontonians north of Bloor Street. It was a potential market of 796,000 shoppers.

The plan for a major regional shopping centre was announced in 1958; local ratepayers organizations and North York’s council were enthusiastic. And, as was common for the time, the developers were able to negotiate ad hoc zoning modifications and approvals from municipal authorities eager for new assessment revenues.

Eaton's at Yorkdale Shopping Centre , ca. 1965, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 199.

John Graham Consultants was retained as architect for the mall, and John B. Parkin Associates for the Simpsons store. John Graham Jr. of Seattle had pursued a career in retail management before returning to his father’s architecture practice, giving him particular insight into the retail and commercial architecture that would raise the firm’s national profile. In addition to office towers, the Yale-educated architect was a pioneer at designing large-scale indoor shopping centres like Seattle’s Northgate Mall (1950), Milwaukee’s Capitol Court (1957), Wellington Square (1960) in London, Ontario, and almost 70 other malls in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Graham’s Eaton’s store at Yorkdale featured “an unusual exterior in off-white brick with a three dimensional pattern adding a strong vertical element,” as Michael Hugo-Brunt put it in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (June 1964). The rest of the structure’s exterior, however, was unremarkable and, Hugo-Brunt added, seemed “conceived primarily to attract passers-by on 401.” In this, Yorkdale was much like Graham’s other works. “They were geared more to business than aesthetics,” architecture professor Meredith Clausen argues. “His primary concern was with speed and cost-effectiveness, not excellence in design.”

Yorkdale’s design emphasized innovative features, such as the underground truck tunnel for delivery of merchandise to the stores. And the enormous Dominion store, later dubbed a “jet-age supermarket” by journalists, featured an underground conveyor belt that carried a customer’s purchases to a pickup station in the south-west parking lot.

The Simpsons store’s primary designer at John B. Parkin Associates was John Andrews, a young, Harvard-educated Australian who’d joined the firm in 1958. Shortly after completing the Simpsons design, in 1962 Andrews struck out on his own and would gain acclaim as the architect of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus and the CN Tower, among other high profile projects. John C. Parkin (no relation) is also listed in Canadian Architect (June 1964) as having done design work on the project. (At left: Yorkdale Shopping Centre, ca. 1965, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 196.)

Noting the influence of New Formalism, Robert Moffatt described Andrews’ work on the three-storey Simpsons: “Pairs of arched columns line the perimeter of the building, curving upward into deep parapets that gently flare outward at the top. The precast concrete cladding, when new, was a pristine white and glittered with Georgian quartz aggregate. Inset panels were Simpson’s blue.” The 83 porcelain-enamel steel panels were reversible to provide the opportunity to change the design scheme’s accent colours. Although taken alone the store was better regarded, Hugo-Brunt complained that viewed from the north, the two department stores “contrast unhappily with each other.”

Perhaps more important than the work of the architect, Howard Lesser wrote in Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (June 1964), was the work of the Planning and Development Consultant. Lesser was the consultant who’d worked on the Yorkdale project; his role was determining the required square footage of selling area and storage for each category of merchandise, the number of shop units in each category, and their arrangement around the interior to ensure balanced competition at varying price levels across different retail categories.

Armed with market research and other information, the developers carefully selected which retailers would be invited to become tenants in order to appeal to a broad range of shoppers. While the department stores would carry some higher-end wares, a Kresge’s would cater to bargain shoppers. Similarly, in addition to a Birks, there would also be a Peoples Credit Jewellers. The King Street West men’s tailor, Beauchamp and Howe would be there, but so would Tip Top Tailors. Shop owners would pay rent of $5 per square foot while other plazas in Metro only charged $2.50 to $3.00. (By contrast, however, Yonge Street landlords commanded rents of $7 to $12.)

Such reliance on expertise at the conception and design stage of the project, however, would open Yorkdale to a common critique among its detractors: that the mall was more the product of market researchers, statisticians, and computer operators than of an architect. “I suspect,” Thom lamented, “that the final results are due as much as anything to the owners’ and developers’ decision to make the statisticians responsible for the architecture.”

Spadina Expressway at Lawrence Avenue West, 1963, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 169.

Even as the architectural design was being finalized, construction had yet to begin even in earnest. While the Spadina Expressway was included in Metro’s Official Plan of 1959, it had not yet been formally approved for construction. The Eaton’s family endorsed Metro Chairman Frederick Gardiner’s scheme of expressways into and around Toronto, according to Chris Wattie in the National Post (December 29, 2007), having been lured to this particular site by the potential of a nearby expressway linked to downtown. They used their project—and its popularity with North York politicians and locals—as leverage, refusing to break ground unless Metro hastened the expressway’s approval. Meanwhile, Gardiner used the project as justification of the necessity of the expressway, using “predictions of traffic flow to and from this private project to help sell his own expressway project to politicians and the public,” according to Timothy J. Colton’s Big Daddy: Frederick G. Gardiner and the Building of Metropolitan Toronto (University of Toronto Press, 1980).

The Spadina Expressway was approved by Metro Council in 1961 for a cost of $74 million. And, with controversy beginning to build over the roadway, a route was finalized in 1962 to see the first phase stretch from Lawrence Avenue West to Wilson Avenue. In practice, however, when the expressway opened in 1964 it terminated at Yorkdale because the province needed another two years to finish construction of a 90-acre cloverleaf at the 401—which was being expanded to 12 lanes.

Yorkdale was developed by Trizec Corp. Ltd., the real estate firm founded when New York mogul William Zeckendorf Sr.’s Webb and Knapp ran out of money building Place Ville Marie in Montreal and Zeckendorf’s British lenders were brought in as partners to avoid foreclosure. Based in Montreal in the 1960s, Trizec would become one of North America’s largest real estate firms. Yorkdale, along with the Halifax Shopping Centre, and Burnaby’s Brentwood Shopping Centre, was among its earliest projects.

The site was cleared in the spring of 1962, and construction began shortly afterward with Taylor Woodrow (Canada) Ltd. as general contractor for the Eaton’s and mall portion, and E.G.M. Cape Co. (1956) Ltd. for the Simpsons store. By the time construction was finished, 500,000 cubic yards of earth had been moved, and 62,000 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 6,000 tons of steel had been used, according to the Toronto Star (February 25, 1964). Employing 1,000 tradesmen and 100 subcontractors, the project took two years to complete.

Early Yorkdale ads and news articles emphasized how easy the mall was to reach by automobile from all directions. For its first few months of operation, however, drivers found the unfamiliar landscape and traffic flow of suburbia so confusing that Yorkdale hired 14 traffic wardens to help shoppers navigate the 6,500-space parking lot. (Map showing traffic routes to Yorkdale Shopping Centre from the Toronto Star (February 25, 1964). Note at right that the Spadina Expressway does not yet connect with the 401.)

Recalling a 1965 visit in The Short, Happy Walks of Max MacPherson (Macmillan of Canada, 1968), Harry Bruce likened the 54 acres of asphalt to a “wilderness” where traffic signs grew instead of trees—which, he noted ironically, could only be found inside the mall. In fact, the Star reported the lot featured 250 linden, elm, white birch, and maple trees as barriers to the roadways on the east and west sides. The northern side, bordering the 401, was left unprotected, resulting in a “vicious wind” as Bruce discovered. “The parking itself is laid out, one feels, more by a computer than by a planner concerned about people on foot and in cars,” Thom complained. Some said the intentional blandness of the landscaping was to more quickly hasten customers inside to shop.

The interior was airier and more spacious than malls of the time or since, with promenades 40 feet wide and 27 feet tall. Natural light funnelled in through glass panels above the storefronts. The novelty of an indoor mall required explanation by wide-eyed journalists. “Most store fronts are wide open,” one described. “There’s no door to open; you just move a step out of the main stream of the mall and you’re in a store.”

Each end of the mall and the elbow of the L were accented by broad courts with 40-foot ceilings. Overlooking the court outside Eaton’s, supported on mushroom-shaped columns, was a 300-seat restaurant with glass walls, flooding the courtyard with natural light and letting diners gaze out on a rooftop garden.

Yorkdale Shopping Centre, 1965, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 198.

Outside the Simpsons, a court of pale grey terrazzo marble measuring 100 by 150 feet featured a vaulted ceiling with light fixtures hanging from each of 110 stalactites. “It is extremely dramatic, perhaps too much so for serenity,” Hugo-Brunt judged. While noting that the “fanciful plaster ceiling…appears as just that, to one who knows the secrets of building,” Thom praised it “as a joyous thing to the public at large who just go through.” In addition to a fountain and reflecting pool, the Simpsons court featured a striking circular staircase leading to a restaurant overlooking the mall beyond.

Looking back, Yorkdale evokes what Shawn Micallef called “utopian modernism” in Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House Books, 2010). But at the time, architecture critics lambasted Yorkdale’s interior. “The shop frontages vary extensively,” Hugo-Brunt wrote, “and their elevational diversity reflects a lack of discipline or control.” Thom complained that the majority of the mall “resembles a group of separate parts, each designed by an angry individualist, determined not only to outdo, but to undo all the other parts around—a sort of architectural salad.” Although still critical, at least interior designer Allison Hymas acknowledged the limits of such critiques in the Journal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (June 1964): “The design critic must bear in mind that this is essentially real estate and not architecture; that return on financial investment is the aim of the developers and not a concern for the creation of well ordered buildings in which buying and selling take place.”

“One is only saddened,” Thom concluded, “that most of those involved in creating Yorkdale were not more responsible in seeing that this great complex added to the culture and the quality of North Toronto in particular, and of the country in general.” In Canadian Architect, critic Donovan Pinker took this critique a step further, arguing that Yorkdale should have been at the centre of a rational scheme of urban planning. He wrote:

What could have happened, and what should have happened around Yorkdale, is that instead of clusters of unrelated piecemeal development with a three-level, twelve-lane expressway interchange in the middle, wise planning would have laid down a joint public-private, multi-use complex built atop a Spadina transit terminal, with expressways providing an outer automobile circulation system.

In the 1970s, a subway was indeed built in the median of the controversial expressway, which itself became the focal point of municipal politics and would never be extended beyond Eglinton.

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In the fall of 1962, before the mall’s construction was even complete, there was already press speculation that Yorkdale would be expanded by 1970. Since its opening there have been plenty of renovations and remodellings as tenants have come and gone, and branded facades were erected on the exterior. Down-market stores like Kresge’s and the Dominion were replaced by higher-end stores like Holt Renfrew, as Micallef notes. Simpsons became the Bay; Eaton’s was replaced by Sears and, in 2005, entirely gutted and expanded for the arrival of Old Navy, Zara, and H&M.

Although the mall is no longer as bewilderingly novel, the centre remains popular with around 400,000 customers per week according to one estimate.

Yorkdale revolutionized shopping in Ontario,” and became the template of shopping malls and suburban commercial development across the Golden Horseshoe and beyond.

Additional sources consulted: Anne Crawford in the Calgary Herald (August 6, 1994); Veronica Madonna, “Yorkdale Shopping Centre,” in Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart, eds., Concrete Toronto (2007); James Rusk in the Globe and Mail (February 21, 2004); articles from the Globe and Mail (May 31 and November 24, 1962; February 26, 1964) and the Toronto Star (May 31 and November 24, 1962; February 25, 1964).

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