The most famous feature of the Toronto skyline entered middle age this month. The CN Tower was first conceived as part of a mega redevelopment of the downtown core that would have added new residential, commercial, and office districts to a large swath of land south of Front Street. For Spacing, a look back at the circumstances that led to Toronto becoming home to the world's tallest freestanding structure.
While looking for information on arc lamps, a kind of high-intensity street lighting in use in Toronto and other cities in the early 20th century, I found a report in The Electrical Journal that detailed the strange case of the Toronto-Niagara yacht, the 'Cygnet.' In 1886, the vessel became lost in fair weather during its journey across Lake Ontario and arrived at Wilson, New York, a town about 30 kms east of his intended target.
From the Journal:
"The commander was greatly troubled. [The mistake] decidedly a reflection on his seamanship, and he was exceedingly annoyed. He regarded the compass suspiciously, carefully examined its surroundings, but could nothing that would account for any vagaries on its part. While he was standing gazing gloomily at the tremulous it gave a sudden start.
The commander looked up and that a stout member of the party had in the approached. As he passed the needle followed his movements, and finally when he stopped at the bow the needle straight at him. A series of experiments were then instituted, and it was found, when the stout gentleman was near, that pointer followed him. He admitted that for some weeks he had been indulging in the wild delights of an iron tonic, and he was afraid that his system had become permeated with the metal.
This explanation was accepted by all, and secretary was requested to communicate the facts to Philosophical Society."
James Wannerton tastes words. Due to an rare neurological condition he's had since birth, all spoken and written language is translated into phantom tastes and textures in his mouth. Many of them nice, plenty of them horrible.
Last year, Wannerton made a map of the London Underground, swapping out the names of stations for descriptions of the tastes that appeared in his mouth. That same year he rode the Toronto subway, too. This is what the TTC tastes like.
The daring story of how Canadian Pacific replaced a 23-metre high bridge over the Don Valley without cancelling a single train. The feat, completed in under six months, is a forgotten Toronto engineering marvel. Get the full story at Spacing.
The giant "NOEL" spelled out in the windows of the Imperial Oil building on St. Clair in December 1963 was a delightful feat of Christmas planning.
As the Toronto Star reported, 20 maintenance workers armed with 500 lightproof cards "zipped" through the building at sunset during the festive season, blocking out the light from office windows over six floors to make the 21-metre tall letters.
The company had been spelling out words with its windows since 1957, the year it moved in. Every year from Boxing Day to December 31, the message would be assembled at nightfall and taken down first thing in the morning.
Imperial Oil quit the tower, which was built to a rejected design for Toronto City Hall, in 2004. It will soon reopen as the Imperial Plaza condos, minus the merry messages.
The Ku Klux Klan, America's most notorious and abhorrent racist organization, has made significant inroads into Canada and Toronto on two occasions, most recently in the late 1970s and early 80s. The group had an office on Dundas St. E. in Riverdale and later on Springhurst Ave. in Parkdale. For Spacing, the story of local activists helped "kick out the Klan."
Organist Jimmy Holmstrom has tinkled the ivories at every Toronto Maple Leafs home game since 1988. From his perch in the rafters of the Air Canada Centre (and Maple Leaf Gardens before that,) Holmstrom pumps out rink organ classics like “Hava Nagila,” “The Bull,” “Zorba the Greek,” and “The Walk,” whipping the crowd into a frenzy when things are going well, and keeping them interested when everything's going wrong. Best of all, Holmstrom has the profound pleasure of pulling the deafening goal horn when the home team scores.
For Toronto Life, an annotated guide to Holmstrom's office.
Movie makers love to dress Toronto up like other places: Tokyo, Washington D.C., Paris, New York, anywhere it seems as long as it's not actually Toronto. Scarborough movie vehicle specialist Peter Cullingford has a parking lot full of New York taxis, police cars, buses, ambulances, and fire trucks. Combined with signage and street furniture from Jay Scanlon's prop house in Etobicoke, the two have the power to make downtown Toronto look like midtown Manhattan. Read more at Toronto Life.
Christie's Methodist Cemetery at Warden and Finch used to be nestled among farmer's fields, miles from the nearest major town. More than 160 years later, the burial ground is directly outside a Price Chopper supermarket. Find out how Sarah Jane Jackson and her neighbours wound up in the parking lot of a suburban mall, and why no-one's too upset about it, at Spacing.
When I misspell Toronto or even my own name (it's happened) I usually have a chance to go back and fix things before I look ridiculous. Unfortunately for Wilson Sporting Goods, the Toronto Blue Jays' uniform manufacturer, there was no going back once Joe Carter took the field against the Texas Rangers in July 1994 with "TOROTNO" printed on his chest.
It wasn't until the sixth inning that someone on the Jays team noticed the typo. Carter left the field and redressed in a uniform he had worn during the all-star game.
To top it off, the team was handed one of its biggest defeats of the season that night in Arlington, falling 7-3.
Post match, frustrated by the loss, Carter wasn't willing to discuss the goof.
"Go talk to somebody else about the uniform," he told a scrum that included Toronto Star sports writer Tim Harper. "We go out and play a game and you guys (reporters) want to hang around as ask about a #*@& uniform? ... Your job is to write about the game, not some #*@& uniform."
I spent election day at polling stations across the city asking voters how they voted. The results, published on Toronto Life's live blog alongside Giordano Ciampini's gorgeous portraits, were surprising: roughly equal parts Olivia Chow, Doug Ford, and John Tory. Oh well...
After months of searching and weeks of missed connections, I was finally able to sit down with Leslie Noel and his cat, McLovin', in Yonge-Dundas Square for Toronto Life. The pair are Internet (and subway) famous for all the reasons you would expect a clothed cat and its owner would be. The story isn't all miniature velcro ties, however. Noel found McLovin' at a time when he most needed a companion.
I'm excited and honoured to announce that my blogTO story about John H. Steiner's delightfully dangerous hydrogen balloon ride from New York to Toronto won an Award of Excellence at the Heritage Toronto Awards last night.
I highly recommend reading the web-based work of the other winners and nominees and seeking out those that aren't blessed with a web presence. Here are the stories available on the Internet:
- Seungwoo Baek — Joy Kogawa, on reconciling with Japan’s past (The Origami)
- Beatrice S. Paez — Toronto's Living Library (The Origami)
- Marites N. Sison — The culture-keeper (The Origami)
- David Wencer — Straitlaced Toronto (Torontoist)
- Jamie Bradburn — "We are Confident that Victory is in Sight" (Torontoist)
- Sandra Martin — Creating the Cult of Laura Secord (Fife and Drum)
- Mick Sweetman — The greatest swindle in Toronto’s history (The Dialog)
"Is there an unknown aviator in Toronto?" asked the Toronto Star on Sept. 21, 1909. Residents of Bathurst Street near Robinson spotted an unknown "airship maneuvering to the westward of the street last night," the paper reported on its front page.
"The news spread like fire and within a few minutes all the sheds in the vicinity were lined with spectators. From every window necks were strained and eyes bulging looking for the mysterious object."
Flying machines of any kind were a rarity in 1909. The first powered flight by the Wright Brothers had taken place just four years earlier, and hydrogen and gas balloons were still a rarity. Besides, what people claimed to have seen that day didn't fit the conventional description of an airship.
Eyewitnesses quoted in the Star said the flying object fluttered and dipped in the air like a kite, although there was reportedly not enough wind. People looking through binoculars saw wings on the "huge bird."
The airship repeatedly circled but always positioned itself facing west.
It was lost to view when the sun went down.
That should have been that, but the next day the Toronto Star carried a bizarre report claiming the paper knew who (or what) had been flying that day. The catch? They weren't going to tell.
"The machine is real and if all the stories told about it are true, it is the most successful aeroplane yet invented but the name of its inventor and its place of concealment are kept secret."
The plane, they said, was built by "a well-known Toronto engineer who would be about the last man to be suspected of experimenting with anything as chimerical as flying machines." He held "a responsible position with a very large institution" and his plane was supposedly capable of almost vertical take-off, not to mention the ability to hover like a helicopter.
No more was heard from the pilot or plane—it was sold that same month to persons unknown.
Did that mannequin move? If you walked past Rockwell Jeans Inc. on Yonge St. in 1987, it probably did. That summer, the store employed two Toronto teens as "living mannequins." They stood in the window six days a week, barely moving.
"Sometimes we sit down, but mostly we just stand there," 16-year-old Vanessa Paes told the Toronto Star. "I just stand there and close my eyes," her half sister, 17-year-old Barbara Chatarpaul, said.
Hoping to save for a trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica, the pair applied for regular summer jobs at the store opposite the Eaton Centre, but were instead offered the chance to model acid-washed jeans, shoes, and sunglasses for $4.50 an hour.
Six days a week, the pair, dubbed "the Rockwell twins" for their similar appearance, posed in a narrow 9 square metre window space where they endured bright sunshine, wasps, and the occasional taunts of passersby.
"They make fools of themselves trying to make us laugh," Paes said.
Despite the irritants and monotony, the girls said they enjoyed their work. "It's great, but we do get a little conceited ... sometimes we imagine we're famous," said Chatarpaul.
The store manager said Rockwell Jeans had employed live mannequins for the last three years. He said the display was more like a runway fashion show than a static clothing exhibit, and customers seemed to like it.
"They're really good," said Andrew Seales, a shopper from Brampton interviewed by the Star. "You can tell they're real because their shoes are worn. I saw one of their earrings wiggle, too."
This iron and glass canopy over Front Street could have been the crowning feature of the St. Lawrence Market, but it was torn down during neighbourhood revitalization efforts in the 1950s. 10 years later, the architectural twin of today's historic south market was similarly razed. Find out what happened in my latest post at Spacing Toronto.
Find out about the City of Toronto's first supercomputer, the Univac 1107, which controlled traffic lights and planned intersections from the lobby of city hall (and later an underground bunker at Yonge and Sheppard) for more than 20 years.
Also, the story of how NIMBYism, homophobia, and escalating costs killed Toronto's public toilets.
Last weekend I met with Lezlie Lowe, a Halifax-based author and reporter who's working on a book probing Canada's curious aversion to public washrooms. We were supposed to inspect one of the city's coin-operated facilities on Queens Quay, but, aptly, it was closed for construction. Lowe wrote a nice blog post about our meeting, which came about because of my Spacing story on the lost underground washrooms of Toronto. Apparently, this isn't the only Canadian city with a toilet shortage.