Thursday, February 28, 2013

past pieces of toronto: the telegram building

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on February 12, 2012.

Photo of the Telegram Building by Ellis Wiley, taken prior to 1966, City of Toronto Archives Fonds 124, File 1, Item 91.

British press baron Lord Northcliffe referred to it as “the finest newspaper office I have ever visited.” Most people called it “the old lady of Melinda Street.” For over 60 years, the rambling collection of buildings at the southeast corner of Bay and Melinda Streets was home to the Telegram, the voice of the city’s conservative Protestant working class.

By the late 1890s, the Telegram had outgrown its offices at King and Bay. While warned about staying on Bay Street, whose homes and businesses were regarded as being in seedy decline, publisher John Ross Robertson was drawn to the Crown Hotel a block south at Melinda Street. After the site was cleared, his wife Jessie laid the cornerstone on July 6, 1898. Less than two years later, at 7 a.m. on February 26, 1900, Robertson’s sons Cully and Irving pressed buttons that fired up the presses at the paper’s new home.
Telegram employees were pleased to discover the perks of their new home. In a time when most reporters worked from simple kitchen seats, the editorial offices of the Telegram Building were equipped with oak chairs and desks sitting atop a polished maple floor. Robertson maintained two offices: a Spartan room in the rear of the first floor which had space for a secretary, a desk and a spittoon, and a lavishly furnished spot on the second floor reserved for distinguished visitors. In either office, the publisher presided over meetings concerning his personal (amateur sports, freemasonry, local history) and philanthropic (the Hospital for Sick Children) interests.


The building’s life was nearly curtailed during the Great Toronto Fire of 1904. Despite being on the edge of the flames that smashed its windows and devastated everything to the south, the Telegram Building was saved by employees garbed in wet towels, who hosed the site for over two hours. Their efforts prevented the blaze from spreading further north along Bay Street. Robertson, who was vacationing in Egypt, was cabled with the news that the paper would publish the next day “as usual.” Those who saved the building received substantial bonuses.

As the paper grew, so did the Telegram Building. Between 1912 and 1925, neighbouring structures were annexed and a two-storey addition was place atop the original building. By the 1950s, the paper sprawled into seven sites along Bay, Melinda and Wellington, with corridors punched into walls; jokes were told about copy boys getting lost in the labyrinth and never heard from again. According to Telegram columnist Wessely Hicks, “the general belief among the happy toilers around here has been that the successive and repeated coats of glue-like enamel have been holding the building together in one piece. Without the paint, our considered opinion is that the building would break up like a pan of fudge dropped from a first-storey window.”

The balcony was a popular spot for Telegram-backed politicians to address Torontonians, even if in the early days nervous speakers were pushed outside by editor John “Black Jack” Robinson. On election nights, crowds watched results projected onto neighbouring buildings and live illustrated commentary provided by the paper’s cartoonists. Besides politics, the balcony also hosted a bugler playing “The Last Post” on Remembrance Day.

The same tune was played on a battered trumpet when the printing equipment was moved from the Telegram Building to the paper’s new home at 440 Front Street West in October 1963. The move prompted a housecleaning that unearthed half-a-century of clutter and odd finds like a pair of empty revolvers found in a safe that may have originated with false bomb threats during World War II. Among the last items hauled out was a heavy bronze bust of John Ross Robertson, which looked “a trifle displeased at being hustled from its pedestal overlooking the stairway at the old building.”

Neither the Telegram Building nor the paper it housed survived much longer. Both “the old lady” and its adjoining section of Melinda Street disappeared during construction of the extension of Commerce Court. After the Telegram folded in October 1971, its facility on Front Street was leased by its hated rival the Star then, as 444 Front Street West, became the new home of the Globe and Mail.

Additional material from The Paper Tyrant by Ron Poulton (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1971) and the October 12, 1963 and October 15, 1963 editions of Telegram.

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