One of a series of projects that transformed the face of Bloor and Yonge during the 1970s.
“A kind of urban Rip Van Winkle” was how the Star assessed the state of Yonge and Bloor in 1970. “We let it fall asleep in the early decades of this century, then tiptoed all around it during the ensuing years building the modern face of Toronto. While glittering towers of glass and concrete and stainless steel shot up everywhere else, mid-town retained a sleepy two-storey profile.”
In terms of large-scale development, the neighbourhood was waking up. Headlines transitioned from the complaints about youth in Yorkville to announcements of new office towers and shopping complexes. By the end of 1970, over 200 storeys of new space were expected to be built within the next four years. While buildings like the Manulife Centre and 2 Bloor West materialized, other ideas, like a pedestrian walkway above Bloor Street into the Colonnade, remained on the drawing board.
Among the first projects announced was a reshaping of the northeast corner of Bloor and Yonge. Backed by affiliates of Swiss-owned developer Fidinam, Toronto architectural firm Crang and Boake revealed plans for the as-yet unnamed complex in June 1969. They called for an office tower, an apartment/hotel tower, two levels of shopping, and an 800-vehicle garage, among other features. Sitting atop a major commuter hub, the complex linked into a series of underground shopping centres stretching westward, whose foot traffic would allow landlords to charge hefty rents. The project soon secured interest from Famous Players cinemas and, vacating its old building on the corner, Royal Bank.
Two major tenants were announced in December 1971: the Workmen’s Compensation Board (WCB), which planned to rent up to 13 floors of office space, and Hudson’s Bay Company. The Bay was familiar with the neighbourhood, having operated a branch of its Morgan’s chain at the present site of Holt Renfrew. The new store would serve as the flagship for the Bay’s rapid expansion in Eastern Canada. It also lent its name to the project: the Hudson’s Bay Centre.
Political controversy soon arose at Queen’s Park. It emerged that Fidinam, which received a $15-million loan from the WCB toward construction, donated $50,000 to the ruling provincial Progressive Conservatives following the decision to move the WCB into the building. A probe by attorney-general Dalton Bales found no wrongdoing under existing laws.
Not everyone was happy with the changes the rising towers brought to the neighbourhood. “Due to the rapid expansion of Bloor from Spadina to Church in the past five years no one paid any attention to amenities, sunlight, wind current, the general environment and the general esthetics,” alderman Ying Hope lamented to the Globe and Mail. “As a result it is rapidly becoming just another canyon with little uniformity and ‘toothgaps’ everywhere. Without some control the whole environment could be killed.”
When The Bay opened on August 7, 1974, district general manager Al Guglielmin promised it would give Eaton’s and Simpsons “a good run for their money.” The 260,000-square-foot store was touted as the first major department store to open in the core since Eaton’s College Street (now College Park) welcomed its first customers in 1931. A fifth-floor exhibition hall showcased displays from community groups. Of its three restaurants, the highlight may have been “The Edibles,” a buffet-style restaurant with English cuisine (roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips) decorated with cartoons by Ronald Searle illustrating the company’s colorful history.
A parade on the Bay’s opening morning ran from Varsity Stadium to the store. A year later, on November 6, 1975, the rest of the complex officially opened. To celebrate, high-wire performer Jay Cochrane walked the 287 feet between the two towers at a height of 439 feet above ground, sans safety devices.
One of the Hudson Bay Centre’s persistent detractors has been Star architecture critic Christopher Hume. He has frequently noted its failings, especially the cold concrete face it displays at street level. In a 1987 article on the best and worst buildings in the city, Hume considered it a lowlight:
An object lesson in how to take one of the two most important intersections in Toronto—Bloor and Yonge—and wreck it. Without windows or doors to break up its solid concrete facade, this Crang & Boake monstrosity looks more like a bunker than a department store. The only way life has returned to the corner is through the itinerant vendors who set up their wares around the centre.
A decade later, Hume declared “it sums up everything that shouldn’t happen in a city.”
In recent years, the shopping complex underwent years of renovations. The Bay gradually lost its flagship status after Simpsons on Queen Street changed branding. It appeared the space would be transformed into the Canadian flagship for Saks Fifth Avenue, until Hudson’s Bay management decided to convert part of the Queen store. Height-wise, the complex looks tiny compared to new neighbours like One Bloor East. Amid the current developments in the neighbourhood, some might say the site feels like the Rip Van Winkles it displaced.
Additional material from the June 18, 1969, December 7, 1971, March 17, 1972, October 1, 1973, and November 7, 1975 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the November 14,1970, November 2, 1972, January 5, 1973, July 17, 1974, August 1, 1974, May 9, 1987, and September 19, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.