I came across an old photo in the Toronto Public Library digital catalog. Taken from Old City Hall, the shot looks south on Bay Street and features its massive towers overlooking the street life below. The photographer is the great Boris Spremo. The source is Toronto Star Archives. The date is…unknown.
Unknown? It had to have been taken at some point in time. Thus, I began my efforts to date the photo.
I attempted a similar exercise to date an undated map also in the Toronto Public Library’s collection. With the input of Twitter users, some research, and dating landmarks within the map (the railways, streets, parks), I was able to narrow the image down to about 1885.
What about our view of Bay Street? The photo is black and white which means it is not quite recent, but it appears more modern than early looks up and down Bay Street. Mid-century sounds about right.
The landmarks within the shot and their years of completion offer a big help. Beyond telling us that a good portion of modern Bay Street dates to 1920s and 1930s, the photo had to have been taken later than the ‘youngest’ tower: the Bank of Nova Scotia of 1951.
All of these landmarks survive today except for one: The Temple Building. It was sadly lost in 1970. So, our picture range is set: 1951-1970.
To narrow it further one can look at the cars. I’ve seen this method to date photos before. I’m not an expert on automobile makes, but I guess these to be from the 1950s or 1960s as well.
Flying above Hudson’s Bay is the Canadian Red Ensign. Above the Bank of Nova Scotia are two Union Jacks. Why are these details significant? Canada was using these two flags as its national symbol until 1965. In that year, the Maple Leaf was adopted.
The photographer and his story offer the final clue. Boris Spremo began his photojournalism career in 1962 at the Globe & Mail. In 1966, he moved to the Toronto Star where he built his most famous body of work. Thus, the earliest he could have taken the photo of Bay Street was 1966.
A puzzler: If the Canadian National Flag came in 1965 and Spremo started at the Star in 1966, why the old flags still?
One thought is the flag debate was still fresh after 1965. I imagine people (and businesses) were still loyal to The Union Jack and Red Canadian Ensign (and Great Britain). The old flag in 1966 would not have been unheard of.
So when was the picture taken? I say somewhere between 1966 and 1970.
As a final note, Spremo actually returned to the tower of Old City Hall in 1976 to retake the shot. It is very similar to his photo from a decade earlier, save for the noticeable absence and replacement of the Temple Building.
Since writing this article, Twitter users Sean Marshall, Alex Bozikovic, and Donald Walker have brought one large clue to my attention. Hidden down at street level under all the towers I previously used to date the image was the old Bank of Toronto (later becoming the Toronto-Dominion Bank through mergers) on the southwest corner of King & Bay Streets. The trademark columns are not too visible but the sloped roof certainly is. The key here is demolition of the TD Bank to make way for the TD Centre began in the spring of 1966.
This would place the photo to 1965 or slightly earlier as the structure was still standing. This works better as a date when also considering the old flags. Either this was pre-February 15, 1965 and the switchover had not happened yet or it was during an ‘adjustment period’ right after the new Canadian Flag was introduced as I theorized.
As for Spremo starting at the Star in 1966? Perhaps I placed too much weight on this and he may just have had the photo already with him when he joined the newspaper!