To the True End of Yonge Street III:
In the Shadow of Other Streets


Front to Dundas Square


Think of Yonge Street, and chances are that you think of the Yonge Street Strip, with its slightly down-at-its-heels shops, boutiques and strip clubs. The portion south of Dundas tends to get forgotten.

Yonge Street between Front and Dundas sits at the edge, rather than in the thick of, Toronto’s Financial District. It boasts two theatres (the Elgin/Wintergarden and the Pantages), but it finds itself overshadowed by the entertainment district on King Street. Its Hummingbird Centre (nee the O’Keefe Centre) used to house the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company, but these organizations upped sticks to the state-of-the-art Four Seasons Centre on University Avenue. This section of Yonge Street once served as the city’s premiere shopping centre, but it today finds itself overshadowed. But many wonderful things can still be found hidden in shadow.

Yonge Street through Toronto’s downtown is a curious mixture of old buildings and new towers. Perhaps the best example of this is at the northwest corner of Front and Yonge, where you will find the Hockey Hall of Fame. This museum, greatly updated since its relocation from the Canadian National Exhibition, is housed in a gorgeous late-Victorian bank building, that also used to serve as the headquarters for the Toronto Transit Commission. This three-storey tall stone structure is laden with carvings and oozes history. You also don’t enter it through the front door.


Instead, head north to the next building, also a turn-of-the-century structure, and enter via the spiffy new revolving doors. You enter a grand atrium, with white columns stretching up three stories to a glass ceiling. This is BCE Place, a gleaming office complex that takes up the whole block bounded by Front, Yonge, Wellington and Bay. The atrium’s effect is overpowering, but you haven’t seen anything yet.


Go past the entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame and continue forward and to your right. Passing beneath a portcullis, you’ll enter what I call the Temple to Mammon. White metal columns swing up to a swooping glass ceiling seven stories above the dwarfed, insignificant pedestrians. A restored stone bankers building is on your left, subservient to the metal and glass, enhancing the fantasyland effect.

This is the entrance to Toronto’s PATH, the Underground City, as I call it: corridors of shops and food courts which serve the thousands of workers of Toronto’s Financial District, when they’re not interested in coming up for air. You can smell the money in the air. The buildings hum with the footsteps of banker clerks, stockbrokers, insurance workers and those who serve them… and Yonge Street is its back door. It’s an odd effect.

Walking up Yonge Street, the jumble continues. At Wellington, a bankers building has been converted into an Irish pub. A computer store at the foot of a minor skyscraper is only open until 6 p.m.. King and Yonge, strangely one block east of the true heart of Toronto’s downtown, offers a hotel, a Starbucks, a Shoppers Drug Mart and a early 20th century office tower. As I near Temperance Street, I pass a 1970s arcade mall that used to house the Loblaws that stocked our refrigerator. And then, two blocks north, we come to the corner which used to affirm Yonge Street’s status as Toronto’s primary shopping street.

This is the entrance to “my” Yonge Street. Even though I lived on McCaul Street north of Dundas, we shopped here. We went to movies here. On Christmas Eve after going to services at St. James Cathedral, we tried to find something to eat, here. And if I needed new shoes or other clothing, my parents invariably hopped onto the subway and took me to Queen station, with its direct connections to the Simpson’s and Eaton’s department stores. If something wasn’t available from one, we’d cross to the other and, before the 1990s recession, thousands of Torontonians did the same.

The Simpsons and Eatons stores are bathed in history. The story of Timothy Eaton taking a 19th century dry goods store on Yonge Street and turning it into the largest department and catalogue store in Canada, and that store’s subsequent downfall, reads like the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Eaton’s Centre, built in the 1970s, weighs on Yonge Street like a sun. The Simpson’s store, on the other hand, maintains its original facade, and addresses the streets around it in much better fashion.

In the 1960s, the Eaton’s company proposed building an office and shopping complex within the block bounded by Yonge, Queen, Bay and Dundas. The initial design was a brutal modernist building that would have demolished two beautiful historic structures, Old City Hall and the Church of the Holy Trinity. The fight against Eaton’s stands alongside Toronto’s battle against the Spadina Expressway and Kitchener’s battle against Market Square (which also featured an Eaton’s store) and contributed to the election of a reform-minded city council that held back the expressways and preserved a number of historic buildings.

The amended Eaton’s Centre amounts to little more than a suburban mall with a multi-level parking garage plunked in the middle of the downtown, violating many rules of good urban design. However, the mall was successful, and the model was repeated in the downtowns of many southern Ontario cities. Even though the Eaton Centre pulled pedestrians off of Yonge Street, people came and people shopped, and for a young kid growing up in the seventies and eighties, it just seemed normal to have an Eaton’s Centre in your downtown core.


197 and 205 Yonge Street, and the park between them. Vintage architecture in the process of being refurbished.


Of course, as suburban development sprawled outwards, and as the Walmarts and Power Centres started pulling shoppers away, neither Eatons nor Simpsons could keep up. Hudson’s Bay company bought out Simpsons and eventually did away with the name. Eaton’s closed its stores throughout Southern Ontario, collapsing the malls in the already depressed downtown cores of many small cities. The company was bought out by Sears which tried to reinvent Eaton’s in one of the most embarrassing advertising campaigns ever (the key to our successful revitalization is the colour aubergine?!), and eventually retired the name. The statue of Timothy Eaton, whose shoe had been rubbed shiny by so many people touching it for luck, was moved to the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Eaton’s Centre remains, however, with the flagship store rebranded for Sears. It continues to bring people downtown, especially young people. On weekends, you could hardly move through the collinaides without being reminded of a salmon swimming upstream, and it seems that some of that traffic is spilling back out onto Yonge Street. The east side of Yonge Street, opposite the Eaton’s Centre, shows some signs of the drop in foot traffic that affected it after the mall opened. While not rundown, many stores are still low end. Two buildings, 197 and 205 Yonge Street, are beautiful neo-classical structures complete with corinthian columns. They stand boarded up, in the process of being refurbished. The building between them, once the site of the Colonial Tavern has been long demolished, and replaced with an improvised park.

Yonge Street between Queen and Dundas is a section in transition. Functionality seen below Queen gives way to boutiques and jewellry stores. The office lunch crowds are replaced with squealing teenagers. The billboards are larger and gaudier. The whole street starts to take on an air that’s one part Tokyo and another part New York. This is the part where Yonge Street comes into its own.


(Johnny Depp is watching you)

Next Section: The Square and the Strip

Photo Gallery


The Hockey Hall of Fame building with BCE Place in behind.


The turn-of-the-century buildings north of the Hockey Hall of Fame, now incorporated into BCE Place.


The Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts.


A former bank building turned into the very push Irish Embassy Pub & Grill at Yonge and Wellington.


A vintage skyscrapers on Yonge Street approaching King.


The northwest corner of King and Yonge. Modernist skyscrapers compete with older stone buildings. There’s a hurly-burly of activity here, but people can take a time-out at the local Starbucks.


Yonge Street, looking north towards Adelaide. Hard to believe this once held a tannery, much less a farmer’s field.


The numbers are going up…


Yonge, looking north towards Richmond. The former Simpsons building can be seen up ahead, now rebranded for the Hudson Bay company.


Some of the many people strolling up Yonge Street.


This building at the northwest corner of Queen and Yonge clads a vintage structure with modern siding. I’m sure the heritage activists hate this. I remember the store when it was a Woolworth’s, and featured its own connection with the subway at Queen. My parents bought me a few pairs of shoes here. Today, they still could (albeit, at a considerable premium).


The Elgin/Wintergarden theatre, built in 1913, featured grand domed ceilings, stained glass and hand-painted art displays. George Burns played here. It was allowed to fall into disrepair from the thirties onward, and was bought out by the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1981. It got a great boost when it debuted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats in Toronto. It is still an active theatre, but it has since been overshadowed by the activity on King Street’s Entertainment District.


The Canon Theatre used to be known as the Pantages, which went through the same decay and restoration process as the Elgin/Wintergarden. It played Phantom of the Opera for years until the crowds had had enough. The theatre was bought out by Clear Channel Communications, which turned management of it over to the Mirvish family. It is currently playing Spamalot. Sadly, its renaming as the Canon is due to a contribution from the Canon company, to maintain its historical integrity in all but its name.

Further Reading

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