Long before it became the city’s biggest LCBO, this site served as Toronto’s busiest railway hub.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was tired of arguing. Negotiations with government bodies over the development of a replacement for the existing Union Station were heading nowhere fast. Fatigued by squabbling, in 1912, the CPR moved several passenger routes from downtown to a line it controlled in the north end of the city. While a train station already existed on the west side of Yonge Street near Summerhill Avenue, it hardly matched CPR executives’ visions of grandeur.
Fresh off designing the railway’s office tower at King and Yonge, architects Frank Darling and John Pearson were assigned to create a new North Toronto station. The centrepiece of their plan was a 140-foot clock tower inspired by the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The clock would be synchronized via telegraph signals from the CPR’s Windsor Station in Montreal. Also included was a grand waiting room with a three-storey high ceiling and marble facing.
When Mayor Tommy Church laid the cornerstone on September 9, 1915, he praised the CPR for being “the first railway company to give Toronto proper recognition.” He hoped the station would be the first of a series of railway gateways to the city, improving inter-city commuting. When passenger service began on June 4, 1916, destinations included Lindsay, Owen Sound, and Ottawa. The most popular route was Montreal, which attracted wealthy businessmen who lived nearby.
Circa 1920. Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1748.
The station’s demise began when the new Union Station finally opened in 1927. Passengers found transfers easier downtown, while the streetcar ride between the two stations grew longer as vehicular traffic increased along Yonge Street. The final four passenger routes were scrapped in September 1930, though freight trains continued to use the facility. The station was pressed into service for the arrival of King George VI’s train during the May 1939 royal visit, and for unloading returning troops at the end of the World War II.
In the interim, the building’s long association with alcohol began. Brewers’ Retail opened a store on the north side of the station in 1931, while the LCBO settled into the south side in 1940. Not until late 1978 could liquor-store customers pick their own bottles instead of filling out forms fussed over by judgemental staff. “Often, a clerk would smugly inform you that the cheap sherry you wanted was O/S (out of stock),” Toronto Life recalled in 2003. “Another clerk might confide that the guy who just waited on you had been a teacher but had suffered ‘a nervous breakdown.’ You knew that every one of the staff had been voting Tory since before that Benedictine monk invented champagne.” Adding to the institutional feel was the lowering of the ceilings and covering up of many of the station’s grandiose touches.
Circa 1916. Photo: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 930.
Talk of site redevelopment went on for years. Proposals alternated between providing improved retail space and returning to its railway origins as a GO station. Developers who talked of building homes and apartment towers on land adjacent to the building ran into neighbourhood opposition. No plan stuck until the liquor store closed in December 2001 for extensive renovation work. False ceilings were removed and wood paneling was torn off to reveal the marble underneath. New blocks of limestone were produced by the Manitoba quarry that provided the originals. The tower clock resumed service after half-a-century. What was already the busiest LCBO store in the province expanded by a factor of eight to provide 21,000 square feet of shopping space for booze connoisseurs. During the grand reopening ceremony in February 2003, Ontario Consumer and Business Service Minister Tim Hudak tipped his hat to the building’s transportation origins, promising shoppers “a journey of discovery of the world of beverage alcohol.”
While stocking up for your long weekend drinking needs (or hoarding in case of an LCBO strike), take a moment to observe the station’s railway heritage. Look up to the ornate ceiling covering the domestic and Italian wine selections. See the ticket booths nestled among the Chilean wines. While walking through the western portion of the Vintages section, imagine strolling along a walkway to your train platform. Ponder if the bottles on the shelves of the “Vins de Table” section are fine beverages or deserve to be dumped down the toilets like those which graced this portion of the station.
Additional material from Toronto’s Railway Heritage by Derek Boles (Charleston: Arcadia, 2009), Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1986), the February 4, 2003 edition of the Canada News Wire, the September 10, 1915 edition of the Globe, the June 2003 edition of Toronto Life, and the June 3, 1916, November 26, 1978, and January 19, 2002 editions of the Toronto Star.