past pieces of toronto: eaton's college street

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 May 27, 2012. 

Front cover of special number of The Eaton News showing Eaton’s College Street. City of Toronto Archives, Series 682, Subseries 1, File 34.
Once upon a time, a major retailing family decided that College and Carlton Streets would replace Queen Street as the city’s main east-west artery. They intended to erect one of the world’s largest retail/office complexes at the southwest corner of Yonge and College. Though reality intervened, the end result, the Eaton’s College Street store, was hardly a letdown.

Eaton’s began assembling land at Yonge and College prior to World War I. When construction began in 1928, Eaton’s envisioned a seven-storey base housing a store topped by an office tower rising 670 feet into the sky. While all of Eaton’s merchandise and offices were intended to move from its collection of buildings off Queen Street, company officials later admitted they lacked the resources to pull off the full transfer. Thanks to a combination of worsening economic conditions, problems with building over Taddle Creek and the vagueness of the tower plans (apparently the sketches made no provision for elevators or stairs), only the base was built.
Advertisement, the Telegram, October 28, 1930. Click on image for larger version.
With little ceremony apart from a key turning by Eaton’s heir apparent John David Eaton and a band whose rendition of “O Canada” was drowned out by the din of shoppers, Eaton’s College Street opened on October 30, 1930. During the first half hour of business the candy department completely sold out, resulting in a quick truck run down to Queen Street to restock. “The opening of the new store,” the Star observed, “was carried on, not on behalf of directors and distinguished citizens, but on behalf of the people of Toronto, who by many thousands were the invited guests of the company whether they came in high-powered limousines or in streetcars or afoot. It was a people’s affair.”

Most of the store was initially devoted to home furnishings displayed in elegant surroundings. Shoppers on the second floor enjoyed decorative touches, like a replica of Rodin’s Thinker and a Rembrandt painting whose authenticity was later questioned (it was determined to be the work of one of his students). The bedroom galleries on the fifth floor included a reproduction of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir at Versailles, décor whose extravagance was at odds with the deepening economic crisis.

The real showplaces of the store were unveiled to the public in March 1931, when a suite of public rooms opened on the seventh floor. Designed by MIT professor Jacques Carlu in the Art Moderne style, the Round Room dining area and the Eaton Auditorium hosted balls, concerts, and high society events. Carlu’s attention to detail extended to his supervision of the floor’s china, table linens, and usher uniforms. The Eaton Auditorium developed a reputation as one of the city’s finest concert halls, hosting acts ranging from Glenn Gould to Billie Holliday. Fancy was the word of the day at the Round Room, where women who lunched amid murals painted by Carlu’s wife Natacha were required to wear gloves.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, January 21, 1977. Cartoon of Toronto Mayor David Crombie by Duncan Macpherson, one of a series featuring local celebrities. Apparently it was the department store's decision to go ahead and depict Crombie without his full consent. Crombie's response, according to the January 25, 1977 edition of the G&M: "I don't have feelings one way or the other. They made fun of my height, but that's nothing new."
Time proved that Yonge and College would not become downtown’s major intersection. An attempt to lure Simpson’s northward failed. The lofty visions behind the store’s high-end offerings was out of touch with the times—as Eaton family chronicler Rod McQueen later wrote, “what was erected stood as a poignant reminder of the excesses of the Roaring Twenties in the depth of the Great Depression.” Ill-conceived renovations wrecked Carlu’s designs. The store’s days were numbered when the Eaton Centre went ahead—a final clearance sale ended on February 6, 1977, while the Eaton Auditorium lingered on for another month. According to Eaton’s PR officer Doug Laphen, customers went crazy on the final day. “People ran in yelling and even shrieking,” he told the Globe and Mail. “One woman had her eye on a wing-back chair from the day before. And when she got to it, it was already taken. She had wet eyes…One man sat on a couch and had a chair tipped over to him with his arm around it to make sure no one else got it.”

The building was sold and reopened two years later as College Park. Though initial plans called for the seventh floor to be renovated and continued to be used as auditorium and dining space, they remained shuttered until the Carlu event venue opened in 2003.

Additional material from The Eatons by Rod McQueen (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), the February 7, 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the October 30, 1930 edition of the Toronto Star.


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