Note: This article is the second piece in a two-part series. The first can be found here.
In the 1960s, Toronto had a big question to address: “What would replace the commercial section across The New City Hall?” What followed was action to remove the Queen Street shops between Bay and York Streets and replace them with a complementary project worthy of the new civic centre.
The Expropriation Question
As Toronto entered the 1960s, progress on the Queen Street question seemed slow. In October 1960, there were reports that demolition would begin in the autumn of 1961 or spring of 1962 on the “seedy” south side. The Planning Board was preparing an invitation to attract private developers to redo the site. However, in May 1962, this draft invitation was presented to city council for approval. City Council now had the estimate down to $6,250,000 to buy the properties, but the The Globe and Mail anticipated difficult negotiations with property owners, particularly with the Municipal Hotel and Casino Theatre, who where the largest land owners on the block. The city approved a motion to start expropriating properties, but it was unclear whether this was a path to be taken.
For the Municipal Hotel, owner Arthur Mintz was not going along with city plans to redevelop his property. He had his own project: a three million dollar, 14-storey office tower to replace the hotel. Mintz’ hotel was key in building an office tower at Queen and Bay, but the owner was not going to sell at even a reasonable price to a developer, instead opting to go at it alone. A by-law was passed indicating that whatever new development went through on Queen, the ends of the strip would have towers while the middle would be lower so not to “spoil the view” of the new city hall. The holdup? Owners of these central lots were unwilling to sell. The Daily Star’s editorial section and others advocated for expropriation.
On August 12, 1964, Toronto City Council voted 17-4 to expropriate most of the block bounded by Queen, Richmond, Bay, and York Streets. Mayor Phillip Givens, a pro-development politician, was a large proponent of the expropriation option and the redevelopment of Queen Street as a whole. It was the first time in Toronto history in which the city opted to expropriate land to sell to private interests rather than execute a public project. Development Commissioner Walter Manthorpe warned that renewal was still another 10 years away with steps needing to be taken to take seek Ontario Municipal Board approval for the expropriation, take possession of the properties, demolish them, sell to developers, and come up with a redevelopment plan for the province’s approval. Proposals started to come in which would the potential form the site and Queen Street in general would take, including an interesting plan which would see a tunnel under Queen and the surface turned into a pedestrian mall between Yonge and University.
Much like the civic centre on the north side of Queen, the city decided to hold a design competition for the block leftover by the soon-to-be expropriated and demolished shops. The eastern end of the block would not be part of the project. In November 1964, Mintz sold the Municipal Hotel to a private developer, Reuben Dennis. The other properties included the Victory Building on Richmond St., the Temple and Dominion Bank Buildings on Bay St., and the Hamilton Trust property on Queen Street, the latter of which suffered a fire in 1963 and which Dennis also bought.
On September 13, 1965, the new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square was revealed to Torontonians. The winning space-aged design by Finnish architect Viljo Revell consisted of two curved towers of differing heights, a central ‘oyster’ housing the council chamber, and a large open space with a wading pool, arches, public art, and a podium.
Across the street, there were some empty storefronts and vacant lots. For the shops that remained, there were ‘expropriation sale’ signs. By the next year, most of the block was razed to the ground and replaced by a level surface of sod and sidewalk.
In 1968, a mini-saga began in who would receive the rights to redevelop the property, which council was to rent out to the winning developer for 99 years. In April 1968, City Council approved a proposal which would see Third Generation Realty Limited build a $50-million hotel-convention centre on the three-and-a-half acre property. However, the Finance Commissioner determined Third Generation did not have the financial proof to back its proposal. In July, Council voted again, this time approving a $34-million scheme by Inn on the Park-Four Seasons, the other bidder in the April vote. During the event, an alderman was even accused of accepting a bribe, which he denied. In 1969, construction began on the 43-storey, 1,400-room hotel, which would become the Four Seasons-Sheraton Hotel. John B. Parkin Associates, who worked on City Hall, designed the complex.
Welcome to the Sheraton-Four Seasons Hotel
In 1972, the Sheraton-Four Seasons Hotel opened (the ‘Four Seasons’ would be dropped in 1976 as the hotel pulled out of the venture), the culmination of a 15-year saga to renew the Queen Street West strip across Toronto’s new municipal hub. Carrying the memorable street address ‘123 Queen West’, it was the second largest hotel in Toronto at the time of opening behind only the iconic Royal York Hotel (it was surpassed by the Chelsea Delta which opened only a few years later).
Conforming with the by-law from a decade earlier, the main hotel tower is situated off to the side of the city hall and square towards York Street, offering an unobstructed vista. The eastern side of the block saw the erection of a two-storey TD bank branch and the Queen-Bay Centre, consisting of the 25-storey Thomson Building and the Munich Re Centre, opening in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The latter building opened on the site of the demolished Temple Building, whose fragments are found at the Guild Inn Park.
In 2022, at fifty years old, the Sheraton Centre is a unique modernist, Brutalist construction. Its central area forms an atrium of waterfall gardens designed by J. Austin Floyd, the famed landscape architect who also left his footprint at the famed yet now lost Inn on the Park hotel at Leslie Street and Eglinton Avenue.
On the Queen Street mega-hotel, architect Michael McLelland wrote how “metropolitan structures like the Sheraton Centre are an integral part of the downtown morphology”. Its views of the complex across the street, which was the catalyst of its construction, are unparalleled in Toronto.
The Sheraton Centre and Toronto City Hall are fine examples of Toronto as a city made and re-made. They mark the ‘creative destruction’ of the post-war years. The south side of Queen Street between Bay and York was an interesting mix of establishments, many with varying stories and origins. The condemning of the strip as a ‘commercial slum’ and its subsequent replacement offers a complicated takeaway. On the one hand, the physical erasure has understandably hidden those histories from collective consciousness; on the other, the emergence of the Sheraton Centre has offered Toronto a marvel in itself. For better or worse, Toronto was growing up after World War II — in area, age, building heights, and architectural styles. The construction of the Sheraton Centre was in itself a microcosm of this period of transformation — and the representative of the expendability of centrally-located, culturally- and socially-colourful sectors like this one.
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